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Childhood Memories of a Grandma With a Past

Books | Speedread

November 04, 1998|BETTIJANE LEVINE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

It is difficult to describe a happy childhood. Authors have written entire volumes in the attempt. But Robert Ward accomplishes the task in the first dozen pages of his new fictional memoir, "Grace" (Golden Books, $20). For anyone who was a child in the 1960s, those few pages may be worth the price of admission. But you needn't have lived in Baltimore (as Ward did), or been a Methodist (as he was), or even be the same age as Ward to relate. Neither time nor place alter the simple essentials and predictable, sustaining rhythms that make a child feel happy and secure.

Ward and his parents lived not far from his grandmother, Grace, who had a front porch where the entire family sat on summer nights, enjoying easy conversation and homemade lemonade. He remembers how good it felt when his grandma stroked his head; how good it smelled when the family arrived there for Sunday dinners. Sunday was his favorite day, in fact. He loved the ritual of going to church. He especially liked the social convention of the event: "I liked seeing my parents dress up, my father in his light blue Botany 500 sport coat, his red-striped rep tie, my mother in her two-piece, gray wool suit with a sprig of violets on the lapel. I thought them both handsome, and I remember sitting snugly in the back of our old green Studebaker, feeling warm from the car heater, safe and at peace. . . . We were a family."

There was something about Grace that everyone seemed to know, except Robert. She had "weird spells," they whispered, without ever explaining. The boy found out about it when he turned 15, his parents started having marital problems, and he moved in with his grandma (Grandpa was a seaman, frequently away).

The bulk of the book is an ode to, and an explanation of, this woman Grace. Her intelligence, gutsiness and compassion made her a leader in her neighborhood--a woman to whom people looked for guidance.

Grace, it turns out, had a checkered past. She'd eloped at 16 with the passionate sea captain who became Robert's grandpa. And somewhere along the way, she'd developed an apparently traumatic friendship with a young African American man, which spurred her activism in later years. She and her teenage grandson eventually took part in civil rights demonstrations and were once even sent to jail. It was this mysterious, long-past, interracial relationship that also caused Grace's recurring "weird spells."

Grace came into full flower during the era of the civil rights movement--and she made the tough choices that ethical and principled people made in those days, and at their own peril. This was especially true in the all-white, uptight, working-class Baltimore enclave where Grace lived (and, incidentally, held NAACP meetings in her home). The fact that her now-middle-aged grandson--a successful TV scriptwriter and author of six other books--continues to respect and remember her in writing is the kind of reward she would have cherished beyond anything else.

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Feast Your Eyes on This

For more reviews and book information, read Sunday's Book Review. This week:

* Richard Eder tackles Tom Wolfe's new novel, "A Man in Full."

* Eric Zencey digs into three recent books on nature.

* And Carolyn T. Hughes goes the distance with David Remnick's biography of Muhammad Ali.

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