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Yingjie Wang / Staff Illustrator

This semester, while I’m working toward my English degree, my grandmother will be working toward hers too.

It’s been about two years since Mom-Mom—as I have affectionately called her since childhood—became a part-time student at our local community college, taking advantage of a discount (naturally; Mom-Mom is a lifelong smart shopper) offered by the college to senior citizens. “I’m getting a pretty good deal on it,” I can remember her once saying of her higher education, back when she first started taking classes, in the same words I’ve heard her use to describe a BOGO on family-sized boxes of frozen chicken cutlets at Costco. Despite any nonchalance, though, Mom-Mom is a diligent student: she takes one class at a time so she can give it all of her attention, and up until this past fall, when she was in and out of the hospital being treated for atrial fibrillation, she had straight A’s. Sometimes she would spend all day at her computer revising a paper to get her sought-after 100 percent. (And if she didn’t get that 100 percent, she would channel her rhetorical skills into a persuasive email to the professor demanding why the hell not.)

Though she’s less and less dependent on me these days, I became Mom-Mom’s designated one-woman copy board soon after she started taking classes. At dinner on the weekends or on our way to some family function, she would raise her eyebrows at me and whip out a five-page paper on a Kate Chopin short story from her purse. (She rotates her purses, but they’re always formidable things, usually not very large but consistently, weirdly heavy—probably capable of taking a man out.) “I’ve got a paper for you!” she would say, and I would plop down with my grandmother’s essay and the red marker I used for edits.

I never minded helping with her papers; in fact, I enjoyed it. Ever since my essays had started eliciting heaps of praise from my teachers in elementary school, I’d been christened the capital-W Writer in the family, a role I sometimes liked to flex. When Mom-Mom started coming to me for feedback on her papers, I’d long since begun to take writing, and the opportunities it could offer me, very seriously. When I wasn’t writing for my local paper, I was publishing fiction and poetry on a somewhat regular basis; I had some high-profile awards under my belt; I was eyeing a spot in the Ivy League. Friends—and my sisters, a few times, before they decided I was too mean of an editor—used to come to me to get their papers slashed through with red ink, my vicious notes in the margins. “This is clichéd,” I would write, and draw an arrow to a metaphor, or I would scribble “Redundant” and circle an entire paragraph.

For Mom-Mom, though, I was always gentle with the red marker, limiting myself to small grammatical fixes and soft critiques, even though Mom-Mom, sitting across the table while I made my edits, encouraged me to fill the page with ink. I had the sense that something delicate was at stake in the pages my grandmother handed me, their faces crammed with earnest Times New Roman and more than a few typos—something on which I had to tread lightly, or risk sending it up in a blaze of red ink.

Mom-Mom dropped out of high school in the ’50s, and after she married my grandpa (Pop-Pop, for consistency) at the age that I am now, most of her time was spent on her children—my mom and her siblings—and her sisters’ children. In conversations, her stories tend to brush over anything before she got married and had children. Maybe it was an authorial choice to omit a tumultuous childhood in Philly that included six siblings, an alcoholic father, and the aftermath of the Great Depression. Or maybe my grandmother has always seen herself as an accumulation of relationships, a selfhood steeped in the roles she has played, what she has meant to each member of our family: wife, mother, grandmother.

And maybe, once she started defining herself this way, there was not a lot of room for the kind of inward nurturing that reading and writing can give; maybe this is why it wasn’t until the ’80s, when all but one of her children had graduated high school, that she went back to get her own high school diploma, and why it wasn’t until after Pop-Pop died, and then my uncle, that she started reading and writing with any regularity.

Mom-Mom has always regretted dropping out of high school. I know this not because we talk about it, but because she has written about it more than once in the papers she has handed me, where she explains that she dropped out only after moving in with an older sister in Chicago. She would have needed to repeat a year after a transcript didn’t get mailed—something there was no time or money for. In a paper for an introductory writing class, she wonders if she could have graduated high school back then if she’d just worked harder. The paper is filled with this kind of self-directed anger and shame, as if she doesn’t recognize how much stood outside of her control—a big family, a lack of money, a pressure to marry young.

When I read the papers, I think about saying something like this to her, but doing so would be to cross some invisible boundary in my appointed role as copy editor, so instead, I add conjunctions, circle missing punctuation, re-write the correct versions of homonyms, and when I am finished, I look at my words next to hers and picture all our verbiage as fragile ink branches, straining toward something that is always outside the page.

Parents excluded, Mom-Mom has always been the biggest champion of my education. She likes to brag to friends and neighbors in her condominium about what I do in school, sometimes overinflating my accomplishments—not that I would ever correct her. (She has always been disposed to think everything I do is great. My mom likes to joke that from the time I was a baby all I had to do was burp and my grandmother would clap her hands. Once, she unironically wrote “Yay, Megan!” on my cast when I broke my ankle in the seventh grade.) When I first learned, from reading one of her papers, that she had dropped out of high school, I assumed that her enthusiasm for my schoolwork, in some small part, had to do with this—a wish for academic fulfillment, carried out vicariously through a grandchild. I prided myself in thinking that maybe my own academic success had something to do with her desire to start taking classes again, to be an English major.

These days, my understanding of my education, and Mom-Mom’s, is a little less self-centered. Perhaps it’s the other way around: that she’s the one who made me want to be a good student. Would I really have thrown myself into schoolwork and writing so hard if I didn’t want to see the reaction it would elicit from my grandmother? I picture her face at class day awards in high school, so concentrated as I walked across the stage. There’s so much of that expression in the way she composes her essays now, lips pressed close together, eyebrows raised above the rim of her glasses. Watching her face as she writes is almost the same as reading her work: I can sense in each the struggle to assert an inner self sacrificed to so many years of family life, to regain a little of what she lost when she was young. Sitting at her computer, she types one key at a time; computers weren’t around the last time she was a student, and she has never fully adjusted to typing essays on a keyboard. Each stroke is loud, deliberate, like she worries that her words won’t obey her if she isn’t firm enough. Maybe there is a current of language in her that I did not recognize, that starts in her veins and ends in mine.

Last month, Mom-Mom had an ablation performed on her heart to stop its arrhythmic beating, which worked until it didn’t. Two weeks ago, she was cardioverted for the second time since the start of her—and my—academic year. She is still enrolled part-time at the community college. This semester, she’s giving short fiction a second try, after being alarmed by all the swearing and nonlinear plots in her last short fiction class—but she has to be reminded to take it easy, to rest often.

My mom got her a new device that lets her take an electrocardiogram with her fingers and upload the results to an app on her phone. At dinner, Mom-Mom passed her phone around and told us to add ourselves to her account, so that we’ll get her EKGs over email. I get a new EKG in my inbox a few times a week now. When her A-fib made a reappearance, I printed out one of the earlier graphs that shows her heart doing its job perfectly, beating in steady succession, and taped it to the wall above my desk, where I do all of my schoolwork these days, and where Mom-Mom sometimes leaves papers when she stays over.

There’s an old cliché among writers about exposing your heart on paper, so an EKG is a good metaphor, but the reason I like looking at it—other than as a reminder that my grandmother’s heart is still holding up—is because there’s something so intimate about seeing the way the heart of someone you love moves hidden from view. Sometimes, when I’m in the middle of class or while I’m cranking out my own essays, my eyes will get caught and hover over that graph, and I’ll think about how all language beckons us to return to that—the line that soars and dips and evens out again, keeping time with the thing inside our chests that throbs.

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