After the woman left, Gran, staring out back at the Zebra Forest, said to me, "I'm a liar, I'll admit. But I pride myself on being a real good liar. That's part of my educational philosophy, too, Annie B. Mark that down. Lesson one: If you're going to do something, make sure you do it with excellence."
Gran's name for me, Annie B., was short for what she liked to call me: Annie Beautiful. Since I already told you I'm not one jot beautiful, that was one of Gran's lies, too. But it was one of her excellent ones. She said it so well, I sometimes believed it.
After that, Adele Parks came by most months to check in. As soon as I had learned to write, mainly by watching Gran do it and studying old Life magazines, I had dutifully filled out the homeschool forms she sent Gran. Of course, this only made Adele Parks a more frequent visitor, since a six-year-old filling out forms didn't inspire much confidence in the homeschooling system Gran had told her about. And so I told her lots of lies, taking my cue from Gran, but eventually she sent me, and then Rew, to the local public school.
I began in second grade, which is how I heard about Mrs. Roberts's essay one year later than the other kids. But I found I liked school well enough, especially when I sat next to Beth Mayfield.
While I was sitting hunched in my chair that first day, Beth leaned over and told me she liked the way I wrote my name. Beth is a girl who is not afraid to ask questions, and that day, she wanted to know everything about me. I quickly found out I didn't know much about myself. Not enough to satisfy Beth, anyway.
"Where'd you move from?" she wanted to know.
"I don't know," I said, feeling foolish. "The city. I'm not sure which one."
"Well, you've got to know where you're from," Beth told me. "Ask your mother."
"I have a gran" was all I said to that.
"Ask her, then."
And so I did ask Gran. On good days, Gran would tell me plenty, but none of it answered Beth's questions. She told me about her growing up in crowded apartments where someone was always cooking, about having lots of cousins and playing marbles in the street.
Gran didn't talk like anyone else. Maybe in Chicago, where she came from, everyone sounded like her, but no one else in Sunshine could pull their words out flat, the way she did. No one else had the gravelly sound she had, even in her singing voice. "The whole family lived in a three flat," she told Rew and me once. "That's three apartments stacked one on top of the next. And I mean uncles and aunts and grand-parents and cousinseverybody. Downstairs we all worked in the family grocery. We took turns behind the counter and delivering round the neighborhood. We went where we pleased, my cousins and me. They had no playgrounds in those days. We just had the streets. The streets were ours."
"What about school?" Rew wanted to know. "Didn't you go?"
"Up till the eighth grade I did," Gran said. "Then I had to work. Everyone worked then, if they were lucky enough to have a place to."
"Weren't there truant ladies then?" I asked her.
"Oh, not then, not when I was old as that. People overestimate the amount of schooling a person needs to get by, I'd say. Look at my motherlook how she did!"
Gran's mother had run the familyall three flats of it. Gran said she was a bear of a womanGran called her "substantial"and she took no lip from anyone.
Privately, Rew said "substantial" only meant fat, and that anyone who could barely read couldn't have been much of a success, but I didn't agree. In my mind's eye, Gran's mother was like Gran, only more solid. Her face was the same: eyes the color of sunny water; white, white hair; pointed nose. Wider, though. Definitely wider. Gran herself was thin, a bird of a woman, who had once been quick but who now, as the bad days grew more frequent, stayed in her chair by the window, sunk beneath her old newspapers, or upstairs, behind her closed door.
Excerpted from Zebra Forest by Adina Rishe Gewirtz. Copyright © 2013 by Adina Rishe Gewirtz. Excerpted by permission of Candlewick Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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From NYT bestselling author Ann Leary
The captivating story of an unconventional New England family.
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