Ed note: "Beachcombers," by Porch community member Morgan Florsheim, is our first solicited piece of flash creative nonfiction. It speaks beautifully to the way that sharing works of writing can strengthen relationships and imbue lives with meaning and depth. We're so thankful to share this piece with you.
Called upon by my fifth-grade teacher, I wrote down a memory: My grandfather and I on vacation, the two of us early risers wandering the beach before rooms packed with siblings and parents and cousins began to rustle. Our walks were habit turned sacred ritual, one I looked forward to for many weeks before we embarked. My grandfather and I shared a room on these trips, so each day as soon as his heavy snores subsided I would grab his freckled hand and we’d stroll into the morning. For those fragments of time, I had him all to myself.
I was eleven, all tangled hair and striped pajama pants, when my class was assigned to write a piece on a grandparent or elderly friend. These would be submitted to a statewide contest run out of a local senior center. I chose to write about one walk on which my grandfather and I found a perfect sand dollar among scattered shells. I’d been so excited about our discovery I rushed clumsily back up the dock to show it to my mother, and the sand dollar fell, shattering into a thousand pieces on the rough wood. I was devastated. Later, I looked back upon the moment with a wisdom and faith only a bookish fifth grader could possess: It might be that no one before had seen that sand dollar, and no one will now, I wrote. It’s something that just Grandpa and I shared. Maybe the sea and the sand saw our connection and wanted to share that small thing with us. Just Grandpa and me.
I won the contest, delivered a shaky reading at the senior center, and decided that I would become a writer. I daydreamed of great novels bearing my name, stories of fantastical travels and epic conflict, but I grew up, collected many interests, and graduated with a degree in Environmental Science. Writing became not a job but an escape, and I found myself content to pen creative nonfiction on the weekends, shared mainly with a small writing group on Tuesday evenings. What remained the same: the joy of a successful revision, the high of a new idea, and the storied companionship of my favorite writer friend—my grandfather.
In March of 2020, the first year of the pandemic, I got an email from him. Subject: Some Thoughts. At first, I thought it was one of the many email chains from extended family I received more than daily—song of the day, discussions of news, sharing of videos. This, I realized as I scanned the email, was different. My grandfather wrote that he was inspired by my creative writing and wanted to share his thoughts on the current moment, how it was like waking up in a parallel universe—a world unlike anything he’d seen in his 86 years. Everything was collapsing around us, and my grandfather had reached out to me and me alone to share his writing for the first time. I was honored.
I’d never thought of my grandfather as a writer, though he and my grandmother self-published several children’s books. Over the coming months we would send many snippets of our writing to each other, small grains of experience from two lives unfolding decades and hundreds of miles apart, as together we experienced the strangest of firsts: the only global pandemic to span both of our lifetimes.
I wove together pieces of my grandfather from these email exchanges. I learned of the kindness and generosity of his father—he who loaned a tuba to the town drunk, whose love of music set the soundtrack to my grandfather’s childhood. I learned about his mother, who grew up the oldest of seven children in a Mennonite family in Ohio. I found out that despite my grandfather's musical talents, two years in a row he lost the street fair talent show, once to a bearded man playing a musical saw and once to a singing pig. Through his stories, I got to know my grandmother, who passed away when I was two. I joined the pair of them on a night drive through the empty roads of small-town Ohio in the black 1937 Chevrolet he paid $250 for, adding red spray paint to the dash and interior window frames as an accent. I read about how, that night, he had a gut feeling to pull off the road; how a moment later, two cars came up over the hill, racing side by side towards them; how afterwards he and my grandmother held hands and marveled at the fact that they did not die. It is time with her I never imagined I’d have.
My grandfather lives in Fort Collins, Colorado; I live in Somerville, Massachusetts. He grew up in the tiny town of Loudonville, Ohio; I grew up in the suburbs of Milwaukee. These snippets add detail to the ever-expanding portrait of this person I love, a person who had a whole life before I was here. I am grateful for each one, and for the effort my grandfather has put into gathering moments, folding them neatly and passing them along. His writing sounds like him, and what a gift it was to hear his voice ring clear through the fog the pandemic brought upon us. In his notes were stories within stories, like nesting dolls. Or watersheds. What I mean is: countless lives collected in one body, for safekeeping.
We continue to write, and I still look forward to these walks through the years, each email a souvenir from a life well lived. It is like I am eleven again, on the beach, sifting through the sand with my grandfather. Waiting for him to show me the things worth holding onto, even if only for a fleeting moment, before they are gone.
Morgan Florsheim is a writer, urban planning graduate student, and reformed hardo. Originally from Milwaukee, Wisconsin, she is always scheming to find a good body of water. Her literary writing has been published in Bending Genres, The Baltimore Review, Entropy, Autofocus, and elsewhere. You can find her on twitter @morganflorsheim.