When I was growing up, my grandmother, Elizabeth Duke, often would say, “When I write my book, I’m going to tell about . . .” and she would go on to relate a personal experience of hers. She didn’t have a big life, but having been born and raised in Florida and schooled in the mountains of North Carolina, she had more interesting stories to tell than most other grandmothers I knew in the town of Rocky Mount. I never thought much of it until years later when she was in her 70s and I was visiting her in North Carolina. One day she sighed and said, “I never wrote that book . . . and now it’s too late.” Without even thinking, I said, “No it’s not. I’ll help you write it!” And that was the beginning of a saga I never would have imagined at the time.
It was the 1980s, and I was a finance executive at the corporate headquarters of Avon Products in New York City. My grandmother and I hadn’t spent time together, just the two of us, since back in the days when I was a child and we would drive from Rocky Mount up to Richmond to go Christmas shopping at the big department stores, Thalhimer’s and Miller & Rhoads. (I experienced my first revolving doors there.) I remember shopping bags full of gifts, and exciting lunches in the fancy restaurant at Thalhimer’s, The Richmond Room. My grandmother loved nothing more than an outing, and I adored going with her.
I actually had no idea how to go about helping her write her book, but I knew the first step had to be getting her thoughts together in a first draft, so I arranged to meet with her—just us two—so I could interview her and audiotape our conversations. She was an easy subject. All I had to do was ask a leading question, and she would take off running. It would go something like this: “Where were you when you learned about the bombing of Pearl Harbor?” I would ask. “We were out in the back yard picking up pecans,” she would reply, and then I would hear the story of who went to war, how the town reacted, etc. Once, we were talking about the fact that I was living in New York. “The first time I went to New York, my mother and I took the Cunard Line from Tampa,” she recalled, “and when we rounded the Florida keys, we took on a load of sea turtles to eat on the way.” Later in the process, when I had transcribed the twelve hours or so of taped conversations, and organized them into a draft manuscript, we took out her scrapbooks and photo albums. And there we found a picture of my grandmother and her mother on the deck of a ship with “Cunard” in big letters high above their heads.
The time I spent with Grandma Duke, so many years after I had grown into an adult and she had grown old, were some of the most enjoyable hours I can remember. Organizing the book, and finding just the right pictures to bring the stories to life, was such fun for both of us. Of course, back in the ‘80s there were no options like desktop publishing or print-on-demand, but I found a printer who agreed to produce fifty copies with leather binding and gold foil stamping on the cover. We agreed on the title Sunday’s Child, in reference to the nursery rhyme Monday’s Child. When the books were ready, I took them down to Rocky Mount and my grandmother was overjoyed with them. She held a book signing, and gave copies to her church library, her sorority, and to friends and family. It was one of the most exciting experiences of her life, and she left the rest of us copies of her life story that we can read and reread to our hearts’ content.
When I decided to leave New York and the pressures of my wonderful but all-consuming corporate job in 1999, my husband and I moved to Chapel Hill, North Carolina, where I had attended college. The opportunity to acquire Chapel Hill Press presented itself, and the idea resonated with me because of the rich experience I had helping my grandmother publish her book. Now I have the pleasure of working every day with individuals who have written something—a memoir, a children’s book, maybe a novel—and need help turning their work into a beautiful, professionally published book. Thank you, Grandma Duke, for inspiring me to take on this wonderful second career!