When I was young I filled notebooks with my writing. Sometimes I jotted down special thoughts, bits of description, verses, and short stories.
The number of greeting cards I designed, with personalized verses inside, would have shaken the marketing department heads of Hallmark. Every member of my family received my illustrated poems on holidays, birthdays, other special occasions, and sometimes just-for-fun days. It made my relatives and friends feel special, and I suppose it also saved me money at the greeting card store.
When I was ten, I mailed one of my poems to a children's magazine to which I subscribed. I can't remember the name of the magazine, but it had a page devoted to children's writing and art.
My poem was titled "Springtime," and I remember that one line was "and children play outdoors because they're glad it's spring." There must have been some literary license involved because in Los Angeles children played outdoors all year round.
In April 1938, just two months after my eleventh birthday, I opened the just-arrived issue of the magazine. There on the children's page was my printed poem, with the byline Joan Lowery, age 10.
My name! My byline! In a magazine that people all over the United States would read!
I can still visualize my name in print under the words I had written. This was what it was like to be a published writer. In print! With a byline! Delirious with success, I knew I was on my way.
When I was a baby, my parents and my mother's parents, Mathias (Matt) and Harriet (Hattie) Meyer, whom we called Nanny and Pa, bought a white stucco duplex on the corner of 73rd Street and Gramercy in Los Angeles. They added a large, square room that connected the two sides of the house through my parents' and grandparents' dining rooms. Since my mother had been a kindergarten teacher, the room was outfitted like her former classroom with an upright piano, sturdy work table and chairs, easels and poster paints, a school-sized blackboard, a ceramic pot that held damp clay, a dollhouse, and a roomy space for toys. Everyone called it the playroom.
My parents' side of the house was arranged in a square, and my grandparents' side of the house was shaped like an upside-down L. After my sister Pat was born, when I was five, she and my other younger sister, Marilyn, shared the second bedroom in our parents' side of the house. My bedroom was on my grandparents' side of the house, at the far end of the upside-down L.
The two sides of the house were quite different, although both had chairs and sofas upholstered in the stiff, prickly plush fabric that was in fashion then. I can't remember what color they were because they were all covered in homemade slipcovers of printed fabric that didn't match but had been purchased at a "good bargain." The object was to protect the furniture underneath. The slipcovers were removed only for special guests and parties at which there would be no children.
I can see now that the slipcovers cut out a lot of the stress to which children are subjected. With the furniture well protected, no one cared if we climbed onto the sofa with our shoes on to color the designs in our coloring books, or sat there munching on saltine crackers.
The gas stove in my mother's kitchen was fairly new. It looked like a table on white enameled iron legs with the oven on top, next to the four burners. Nanny had an old, heavy iron stove whose oven was like a dark cavern underneath the burners. Mother had an electric refrigerator, but Nanny had a wooden icebox out on the service porch.
Two times a week the iceman arrived in his truck, picked up a huge block of ice with tongs, and carried it on his back to replace the melted ice in the icebox. There was a pan underneath into which the melting ice could drip, and Pa had to empty this heavy pan at least once a day.
The children in the neighborhood loved to jump into the open back of the ice truck, grab slivers of ice, and run before the iceman returned. If he came back too soon, this good-natured man would pretend to scowl. He'd shout, "Who's taking my ice?" and then take a few steps toward us as we ran away squealing.
Nanny loved to cook and to bake, so both sides of the house were rich with the fragrances of pot roast and onions, cinnamon-sugar cookies, rich chocolate puddings, and comforting chicken soups.
Our grandparents and their activities played a big part in our lives.
Each spring Nanny and Pa bottled their own root beer. We all loved root beer, especially in black cows, sodas made of vanilla ice cream and root beer. Nanny cooked the root beer mixture and scalded the bottles, and after the brew had been poured into the bottles, Pa would cap them with a small metal bottle-capping tool that could be operated only by exerting great physical strength.
The bottles would be stored on the service porch, and after a certain period had passed in which the carbonation did its work, the root beer would be ready to drink.
It was delicious, and to add to the fun and excitement of each summer, every now and then a bottle on the service porch would explode with a noise we could hear all over the house.
It was best when I was young and could scream at the explosions. When I grew a little older I often had to help clean up the sticky mess.
I watched Nanny make fudge, which, at an exact time in its cooling, Pa, with his strong arm, beat into a creamy texture. Nanny taught me how to darn socks and took me with her when she visited her circle of friends in the neighborhood. Mrs. Christiana offered me cookies. Mrs. Ritemeyer, who subscribed to the Los Angeles Times's rival newspaper, the Examiner, always saved her Sunday comics for me.
Nanny and Pa were wonderful companions and the best of baby-sitters. Tall, quiet Pa and chatty Nanny, who barely reached five feet tall, were infinitely patient and spent hours playing Chinese checkers, whist, and poker with us, as we graduated from our early years of fish and slapjack. With both parents and grandparents close at hand, my sisters and I were tucked into a snug, secure environment.
In some of my earliest memories I see myself running to my grandfather and saying, "Pa, will you read to me?"
Excerpted from The Making of a Writer by Joan Lowery Nixon. Copyright © 2002 by Joan Lowery Nixon. Excerpted by permission of Delacorte Books for Young Readers, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.