Being Grace Kelly

You may recall that I told you last month that one of the fruits of my internet and blogging sabbatical was that I wrote my first short story in over four years. With a bit of fear and trembling, I share it with you. If you have even half as much fun reading it as I had writing it, it will be worth it. :)



On her 18th birthday, when she was finally able to, Margaret Kelly, who had been called Daisy her entire life—to distinguish her from her mother who was also Margaret Kelly—went down to the Courthouse and legally changed her name to Grace.

She had been planning this event since she was 14 and saw her first Grace Kelly film, To Catch a Thief. She’d watched it because it starred her hero, Cary Grant. But in less than two hours, Grace Kelly eclipsed him. Daisy had always thought “Daisy Kelly” was a silly name, completely unsuited to her. It was a sunny name, vivacious and bright, and Daisy was quiet, contemplative, more like the moon than the sun. As a name, Grace Kelly was far more appropriate, regal and elegant and understated. When she grew up, Daisy decided, she was going to be Grace Kelly.

She watched every Grace Kelly movie she could get her hands on and studied the way she talked and walked and what she wore. She read Grace Kelly biographies. She started taking drama classes and auditioned for each school play. When she wasn’t cast (and sometimes when she was), she worked behind the scenes, mostly in the costume shop, where she learned to sew, and she loved it: she could make her own Grace Kelly-style clothes. Whenever she found herself in a situation and she didn’t know what to do, she asked herself, “What would Grace Kelly do?” and she’d do it…because, after all, she was Grace Kelly…or she soon would be.

On the morning of May 4, 1988, one month before high school graduation, she skipped her first two classes, went down to the courthouse, and changed her name. For 25 years, she never looked back.

She went to college and majored in Fashion and Theatre.  She never became one of the flamboyant drama types who populated the college theatre. She didn’t want to be one. She was warm and kind, but she preferred to remain a little apart from the whole thing, present but retaining part of herself for herself alone, quietly keeping most of her thoughts and feelings to herself. She slowly came to see those qualities as strengths she could draw on when she was acting. No one expected her to be able to play such a breadth of roles, or to play them so well. “Still waters run deep,” one of her directors once said. She smiled inwardly whenever she remembered those words.

Upon graduation, she stayed in town, working in local theatres, both onstage and in the costume shop. She acted in a few independent movies, too, shot by directors she knew from the theatre scene. A few of her college chums had gone to Hollywood; they emailed Grace, telling her she needed to come down, too. But she had no Hollywood ambitions. When she was still in high school, she’d read somewhere that the original Grace Kelly had said Hollywood was the saddest place she’d ever been. And from what Grace could see it was truer now than it had been when the first Grace Kelly said it. Alcoholism and drug abuse and broken relationships seemed part and parcel of that scene, and she wanted none of it. Her own parents had celebrated their 25th wedding anniversary during Grace’s sophomore year in college; she wanted that sort of stability and the happiness they shared for herself and her own someday children.

She was under no illusions that she’d marry an honest-to-God prince, but she’d been telling herself since she was 14 that she would marry a prince among men. The first time she saw her future husband she didn’t even really see him. He was just one in the line of actors she was measuring for their costumes. He probably talked to her. Knowing him, he would have, but she didn’t remember. Her mind was on her work. It wasn’t till later that she even noticed him. And then, only because he was different from the other actors she knew, most of whom, while delightful in many ways, were either wildly insecure or obnoxiously full of themselves. She understood that dichotomy herself; she lived it, but she lived it internally. Grace Kelly was always modulated and discreet. She didn’t let her insecurities show like so many open wounds, nor did she flaunt her abilities. She let them speak for themselves. And if no one noticed, neither would they see that it pained her. And, eventually, it stopped paining her. She received the praise and friendship of colleagues and directors who appreciated that she was a professional, and she learned not to care too much about the rest. And she had no desire to attach herself to anyone who could not do the same.

Ronald could, even though he was very different from her, more outgoing, more easygoing, but never flamboyant or outrageous. He conversed as easily with the directors and leading actors as he did with the stagehands and ushers, and with the same deference, as if he genuinely thought they were his equals, or even his betters, every last one of them. It was this that made Grace first notice him, his genuine amiableness. No one used words like amiable anymore, and it was, she thought, a pity, because it was the perfect word to describe him.

After she’d worked with him on three different shows over the course of a year, she was smitten. But she never let it show. She was Grace Kelly, and she did not wear her heart on her sleeve. When Ronald finally, as he put it later, “worked up the nerve” and asked her out, she smiled a perfectly serene smile and said she’d be pleased to have dinner with him. One dinner led to two, and by the end of the third dinner, Grace was as head over heels in love as any character she had ever played.

After six or seven or ten dinners, when it was clear that Ronald enjoyed her company as much as she enjoyed his, she decided it was time to tell him that Grace Kelly wasn’t the name she’d been given at birth. So she casually mentioned over their next dinner together that she used to be called Daisy.

He raised an eyebrow. “That’s surprising. It hardly suits you.”

She felt mildly triumphant. “Exactly. It never suited me, which is why I changed my name to Grace.”

He smiled. “Grace suits you perfectly.”

And that was all, until shortly after their engagement, after he’d met her brother and sister and her parents, who after ten years still insisted on calling her Daisy. He asked, over coffee at her apartment, “Why Grace? There are a lot of other names out there, and Grace Kelly was…”

“Already taken?”

“Yes, I guess that’s what I was getting at. Why Grace Kelly?”

She twisted her napkin in her lap. “Because when I was a teenager, I wanted to be her. Daisy Kelly seemed such a silly name. Even now, it seems to belong to a stranger, someone I never was. But I could be Grace Kelly. I don’t look like her, I know, but I act like her. I am like her. Taking her name was the first step toward becoming the person I knew I could be, the person I knew I already was, if only I could be shed of Daisy and the bright twinkliness of that name. I’m not bright and twinkly. I never have been. I never wanted to be. I wanted to be graceful and gracious.” She gave a small smile. “I wanted to be Grace.”

He reached across the sofa and squeezed her hand. “And you are, darling.” For a moment they were both silent and simply looked at each other. Then he said, “I suppose, once we’re married, you’re going to want to call me Rainier.”

She widened her eyes. “May I?”

At his horrified expression, she burst into merry laughter. His horror evaporated into relief, and he tackled her, tickling and kissing her at the same time. After several moments, the tickling subsided and only the kissing remained. And several moments after that, he whispered, “I love you, Grace.” She thought they might be the only words she would ever want to hear.

They married and had children and led the unconventional life of actors, sleeping by day and working by night, sheltering their children—two girls and a boy—in the circle of their love and zealously guarding the flame of their love for each other; neither of them wanted it to go out, and they knew, given the difficulty of the life they’d chosen, that keeping that flame alive would require work and sacrifice, and they undertook both with joy, choosing gratefulness that they had each other to love, and work they both loved, and children they both loved.

With so much to love, Grace wondered, how could she ever be unhappy? But she was, sometimes.

“Everyone is, sometimes,” Ronald reminded her.

“Even you?”

He cocked her a grin. “Yes, even I, happy heart that I have, am sometimes unhappy.”

But the unhappy times never lasted long. Work required attention. The children required attention. And attention to something else left little room for unhappiness. It withered, slowly, and suddenly Grace would realize she was content once more.

Days passed and weeks and months and years. The children grew. Her parents aged. And one day Grace got a call from her father. Her mother had been diagnosed with ALS. She drove home that day. Her mother was in better spirits than she expected, well enough, in fact, to hassle Grace about her name. Grace had long since given up trying to convince her parents to stop calling her Daisy. She was reconciled to the reality that they never would, but she did wish her mother would stop dropping hints about how much Grace’s name change bothered her. This day, with ALS hanging over them like an executioner’s axe, Grace asked, as gently as she knew how, “Why does it bother you, Mother?”

Margaret furrowed her brow. “It doesn’t bother me, dear. If you don’t like the name you were given at birth—” she shrugged.

“You say it doesn’t bother you, but it does, else you wouldn’t make needly comments like that.”

Margaret shook her head. “I don’t know what you mean, dear.”

Grace did not push back. She knew it would do no good. Her mother was a lady, in the Southernest sense of the word, even though she hadn’t lived in the South since her wedding. If she said it did not bother her, she wouldn’t admit even on her deathbed that it did. Grace, being Grace, smiled and changed the subject.

As she drove home that evening, the conversation with her mother rose up in her, along with the old aching wish that her mother would understand. It had been 25 years—well over half of Grace’s life—and still her mother did not even try to see it from Grace’s perspective. When Grace thought, not for the first time, of all the things she could have changed—her morality, her religion, her gender—and hadn’t, she thought her mother very small for continuing to mind her name change. But something about it rankled, clearly, and Grace wanted things to be right between them.

Margaret deteriorated rapidly, more rapidly than anyone expected, so rapidly that Grace had little time to think about how to make things right. She was too busy caring for her mother, comforting her father, protecting her children. Two months after her diagnosis, Margaret was put on hospice. Grace’s brother and sister, their spouses, and their children joined Grace at their parents’ home and held vigil together. Eight days later, Margaret fell asleep and never woke up.

Grace mourned quietly, privately. Ronald alone saw her grief, her regret. With her father and brother and sister and their families, she was calm and capable and competent as ever, arranging for the funeral, the burial, the obituary, all the many details that grieving people must endure to lay their loved ones to rest. If her voice cracked or her eyes grew teary, it was only to be expected, and only for a moment.

Two months after Margaret’s death, Grace made a trip to the courthouse. Then she made a trip to the cemetery. It was her 43rd birthday. She parked her old Mercedes, put on her coat, for it was chilly, and stepped into the brisk air. Sunlight glinted across the wet grass as she made her way to her mother’s plot. Standing above it, she felt too tall, so she squatted on her haunches. Grace never squatted—it was a most inelegant position—but the grass was too wet to kneel on, and she felt awkward standing almost six feet above her mother’s resting place.

So she squatted.

“Mother,” she said. “I have something to show you.” She rested her handbag on her knees and pulled out her wallet. She opened her wallet and pulled out a little piece of paper the size of a business card. “I wanted you to see this. I wanted to tell you I understand now. You thought I was rejecting you. But it was never Margaret that I minded. It was Daisy. So I put the Margaret back in. I even put it first, because it was the first name I ever had.”

She turned the card over so that it faced her mother’s headstone. “It says, ‘Margaret Grace Kelly’. But I’m not Margaret anymore, Mother. I never was. I’m Grace. I’ve worn that name for so long that it’s become me—or I’ve become it, I’m not sure which. But I wanted you to know that I hadn’t let go of you by becoming me.”

Grace squatted a moment longer, holding the card out so her mother could see. Then she turned it toward herself and read the name silently. She put the card in her wallet and her wallet in her handbag. Then she stood up. She looked down at her mother’s grave, and behind her sunglasses, she blinked away tears. “Good-bye, Mama,” she whispered. Then she turned and walked through the wet grass and the sunlight back to her waiting car.

Photo by the Archives de la Vile de Montreal, Creative Commons via Flickr.

Here’s another post inspired by Gaudy Night, which I read back in May on the train to Iowa with Susan. This one was published on Tweetspeak back in June, in honor of author Dorothy Sayers’s birthday on June 13.


A couple of years ago, when I was waxing loquacious on my blog about my favorite books, two of my friends—one of them in New Jersey, the other in New Zealand—separately informed me that Dorothy Sayers’ mystery novel Gaudy Night was on their Top Ten Favorite Books lists.

I had read Gaudy Night in college and remember liking it, and I had just seen a stage version of it. When I told my friends this, they (again separately) kindly informed me that no play could capture the delightful subtleties, nuance, and subtext of the novel. Having recently reread Gaudy Night, I can attest that they are right on all counts.

My friend in New Jersey, with whom I went to college, also mentioned in her response that Gaudy Night was the book that convinced her that she was not and never could be a writer. I didn’t have the temerity to ask why or how a mystery novel could convince her of this.

Now I know. Reading Gaudy Night, I believe, my friend understood that a writer does not use words for her own ends, utilitarian, altruistic, nefarious or otherwise. She understood that being a writer requires one to be both a master of words and mastered by them and to maintain that delicate balance between mastery and humility, service and skill.

Clearly, Gaudy Night is not only a mystery novel. It also has a fair amount to say about the writing life. Consider this:

To that still centre where the spinning world
Sleeps on its axis—

Had she made it or remembered it? It sounded familiar, but in her heart she knew certainly that it was her own, and seemed familiar only because it was inevitable and right.

She opened the notebook at another page and wrote the words down…Blank verse? …No… it was part of the octave of a sonnet…it had the feel of a sonnet. But what a rhyme sound! Curled? furled?…she fumbled over rhyme and metre, like an unpracticed musician fingering the keys of a disused instrument.

Then, with many false starts and blank feet, returning and filling and erasing painfully as she went, she began to write again, knowing with a deep and inner certainty that somehow, after a long and bitter wandering, she was once more in her own place.

Peppered throughout the book are questions of vocation, including protagonist Harriet’s as a writer of mystery stories. Her sonnet is the beginning—or the end of the beginning—of a return to the fullness of herself. She doesn’t finish the sonnet, only manages to write the octave, though its “lines swayed and lurched in her clumsy hands, uncontrollable.” But still, “such as it was, she had an octave.”

Later, she discovers that her long-time friend Peter, who wants to marry her, has found her octave and finished the sonnet. She finds his sestet printed in his tidy script beneath her sprawling octave. Upon reading it, she reflects:

So. So there was the turn she had vainly sought for the sestet! …damn him! How dared he pick up her word “sleep” and use it four times in as many lines, and each time in a different foot, as though juggling with the accent-shift were mere child’s play? And drag out the last half-line with those great, heavy, drugged, drowsy monosyllables, contradicting the sense so as to deny their own contradiction? It was not one of the world’s great sestets, but it was considerably better than her own octave: which was monstrous of it.

After the literary reflection come more personal reflections, which reveal Peter to her more clearly, and perhaps more tenderly, than she has ever seen him before. Harriet goes to bed that night “thinking more about another person than about herself.” (Which proves, Sayers quips, “that even minor poetry may have its practical uses.”)

What I appreciate so much about this passage is, first, Harriet’s ability to perceive that Peter’s sestet is superior to her octave and second, her willingness to admit it. This sort of humility in the face of one’s own creative work is difficult. It is also different from the codependent seeking of approval that I am just now beginning to overcome.

Harriet knows even before she reads Peter’s sestet that her octave is clumsy. She knows this because she has read great sonnets—lots of them—and understands how they work. She can recognize greatness when she reads it, and so she can see that her own words fall short.

I believe it is imperative that as writers we recognize good writing when we read it—not because someone else told us it was good, but because it is. Gaudy Night is a good book—it is good as a mystery novel, but it transcends its genre, dealing with issues of vocation, professional integrity, marriage, love, and disordered desire. In holding all these ideas together and grounding them in this mystery story and its characters lies its greatness.

I read it and come away awed by Sayers’ masterful work. I come away humbled by my own shoddy work. I come away knowing that I will never, can never write Gaudy Night or its 21st century equivalent (humbling, that). But I also come away inspired to work at my craft, to hone my skills so that I can become a better writer, so that eventually I will become the best writer I can be.


Photo by Sean McGrath, Creative Commons via Flickr.

Evensong, Heading East

Back in May, Susan and I took the train from Seattle to Iowa, her new home. En route, I read Gaudy Night by Dorothy Sayers and later wrote the following reflection. 



Somewhere in eastern Montana I finish reading Gaudy Night. With a sigh I close the book and stare out the train window, watching green and gold fields roll away from the tracks in undulating waves clear to the horizon. My eyes smart, and something in my chest aches.

The curve of the sky above the train and the fields seems taller than it does in Seattle, bluer, more three-dimensional. The clouds puff their tops into the dome of the sky, like snow-white pastries rising in a celestial oven. Holding the closed book between my two hands, I say in a jagged whisper that sounds loud in the silence of my sleeper car, “That book was so good I want to cry.” It’s partly that the book is over, and I’ve lived with these characters for almost 500 pages and come to love them, and I want to keep on living with them and loving them.

But it’s also something more. I watch the fields roll by. Small hills appear in the distance, dark blue against the brighter sky. I ponder the ache in my breast. To some extent, I know, it is envy. I will never, ever write a book like Gaudy Night, no matter how great a writer I become. I used to despair over this, feeling somehow shortchanged because my literary abilities are not on a level with Dorothy Sayers or Elizabeth Goudge or Jane Austen or George Eliot. I open Gaudy Night again, and find the page I want, where Harriet Vane says:

“I’m sure one should do one’s own job, however trivial, and not persuade one’s self to do somebody else’s job, however noble.”

She is exactly right, and I am less Salieri about the whole thing than I used to be. I can say with conviction that God gave me my gifts for a reason. I can even say, without rancor, that that reason is clearly not to become a literary superstar. And most of the time I don’t want to be a superstar. I just want to write better than I do, and that is entirely within my power.

The hills in the distance draw nearer, revealing their cloven sides and the sere golden brown of the stubble that covers them. This ache isn’t only envy. Excellent books almost always leave me feeling a bit bereft, as if I’ve lost a part of myself, left it in the pages of the book. (This is perhaps why I reread books religiously: maybe I subconsciously hope that I will find the part of myself that I left behind.) Or maybe it’s that a truly great book enlarges me, and when I finish there is a hole, an aching gap between who I was before I read it and who I am now that I’ve finished it. Maybe it’s both.

An outcrop of red rock rises incongruously between two sets of the wheat-colored hills. Envy. Loss. Both are true, as far as they go, but they don’t go far enough. I want to be Gaudy Night. Or at least be in it. Every spring, I have this same aching experience when I see a certain sort of cherry blossom—pale pink blooms drooping their delicate heads from slender stems, whole trees of them, and I want to eat them…but that’s too violent an image. I want to become the cherry blossoms, the cherry tree. I want to be the beauty that I see.

It’s the ache of longing for union and permanence, the ache of longing for my true Home. Watching the golden fields flow by outside my window, I recall my high school and college fancy that when I die, I will meet all the literary characters I’ve ever loved. Even now, I secretly suspect that they exist, fully alive and animate, in some sort of Christian version of Plato’s realm of forms. I imagine myself bantering and laughing with Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane, in a perfect place where they do not intimidate me and I can be wholly myself, wholly at home.

This image of laughing with Peter and Harriet, I realize with a stab of further longing, encapsulates the whole of this ache in my chest. And it transforms even my envy into something beautiful: my desire to have written Gaudy Night (or any of the books that awaken this longing) is, at its core, a desire to more intimately participate in them, to become part of them. It is the longing to lose myself in something—or Someone—other and greater than myself.

The hills march nearer, and I see cattle upon them. Black, brown, white-patched, they graze, serene and placid, a marked contrast to my own longing ache. Gaudy Night lies open on my lap, my hands resting on its pages, and the train trundles east. Its whistle blows, long and low, like the first note of evensong.
Photo by Loco Steve, Creative Commons via Flickr.

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