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Notes on a scandal: How my shameless childhood tattling led me to pursue a career in journalism

September 20, 2011

I’m surprised the Smithsonian hasn’t called wanting these for its archives.

At age 5, I composed my earliest writings in the front seat of my grandpa’s car. I was literally driven to the field of journalism by my maternal grandparents, who both worked for the long-defunct Cleveland Press. I never made the connection between my childhood correspondence and my chosen career until I spent a few days with Poppa last month, and together we sifted through dozens of letters I’d written to Grandma.

“Do you know what these are, Little Dolly?” my 91-year-old Poppa asked as he shuffled toward me, his feet electrically charging the carpet in his senior-living apartment with each half-step. Handing me the 25-year-old crinkled notes, kept carefully tucked away in the top drawer of his antique bureau, he raised his eyebrows and grinned, flashing his dentures. “Your grandma used to read these and laugh until she cried.”

Although she’s been gone for more than 10 years, I still can hear her hearty howl. It rumbled from somewhere deep inside her robust belly and would shake the house almost as much as her snoring. Hunched over her disastrous kitchen table buried under an avalanche of TV Guides, bills and coupons in a scene that would make “Hoarders” seem like a show about neat freaks, she’d crack up, alone or with company, at the sarcastic letters penned by a kid too young to know what sarcasm was.

Grandma and Poppa, photographed with my first camera.

I wrote the notes when I was in kindergarten, and Poppa would pick me up every day after school and then I’d wait in his beige Buick at the corner of West St. James and Fairmount in Cleveland Heights, where he shepherded area kids as a crossing guard. In an era before Game Boy and PSP, when fetuses didn’t text in utero, Grandma left a pad of paper and a pencil for me on the front passenger seat to help pass the time. Whereas other 5-year-old girls probably would have used it for doodling or scribbling the names of boys, I decided its purpose would be to publish daily reports on Poppa’s behavior, generosity with car amenities and what I perceived to be his scandalous affair with a neighborhood jogger. It’s no wonder I grew up to work at a tabloid.

There were stories to scoop, and I needn’t look beyond the dashboard to find them.

If it wasn’t the climate of the car that had me rallying for revolution, then it was the sound of Poppa’s singing – an apparent affront to my young ears — as he chirped along to the older-than-oldies AM station. I even made sure to record the song titles, in case Grandma wanted to interrogate him later about his repertoire.

Poppa sometimes would join me in the car and we’d watch for stragglers. This presented him with a chance to shower me with affection. Like most goofy grandpas, his most favorite pastime was playfully stealing kisses and tickles; unlike most grandchildren, I tallied his every touch, seizing any and all opportunities to tattle.

I may have been prone to hyperbole from a young age.

As Grandma’s self-appointed spy, I saw it as my responsibility to keep close tabs on Poppa’s every move. Constantly on my radar was a local female jogger who just happened to zip by every day on his watch. He referred to her as the “Lady Friend.” Which at the time I was pretty sure was code for “man-stealing harpy bimbo.”

My novice nose for news could smell a scandal. Poppa’s schnoz, meanwhile, was hot on the scent of something else.

The Lady Friend became the sole focus of a continuing investigative series. Staking out her turf undercover-style in the front seat of Poppa’s car — the only things missing from my sting were jelly doughnuts, coffee and my gingerly uttering cop cliches such as “I’m too old for this shit” — I’d meticulously keep track of each time she waved and smiled at him. Get a room. He only made matters worse for himself by commenting on her comeliness.

Oh no he didn’t.

Poppa must have sensed I was getting too close to discovering his secret because, every so often, he’d conveniently “misplace” my pad of paper or “forget” to pass along my notes to Grandma. I’d catch him red-handed when he’d pick me up the next day and yesterday’s notes were still sitting on the car cushions, spurring me to launch a fierce letter-writing campaign to protect my First Amendment rights to free speech and press.

He *so* messed with the wrong kindergartner.

Even veteran reporters, however, come up short for stories sometimes. A source clams up. Or a lead doesn’t pan out. Or you suffer insomnia during nap time at school and you’re sleepy. I was no exception, but I soldiered on and still made deadline.

Among  nearly one hundred notes, I could find only one praising Poppa.

I suspect my generous mood mostly had to do with my decoder magic marker.

When we finished flipping through the numerous notes, Poppa queried: “Do you want to take these home with you, Little Dolly?” He has asked before, but I always decline. They’ll be mine someday, but for now, I like that they’re there keeping him company. I’d prefer that he also had a cat, but I can’t win them all. When he’s missing Grandma, he needn’t look farther than his top dresser drawer to share in her joy. She passed away when I was a freshman in college, a few years before I landed my first newspaper job, but I’d like to think she knew I was destined for journalism, considering the way I effortlessly blew the lid off of Lady Friend-gate. For the encouragement and keeping me well stocked with writing supplies in my youth, and so much more, I wish I could thank her — 7,000 times.

************************************************************************************

One of my posts about Jesus, “Sex and the City” and leg-shavingyou know me, always writing about weighty issues like world peace and whatever — is going to be performed by actors in a show called “Are You There, God? It’s Me, Blogologues” at Under St. Marks theater in New York City on Monday, Sept. 26 at 7 and 9 p.m. I’ll be at the later show. If you live nearby and love me enough to hire a catsitter for the night, please join us.

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39 Comments leave one →
  1. September 20, 2011 7:02 AM

    so when i threatened that boy who was going to rat me out for The Spitball Incident on the playground, i was simply intimidating a whistleblower?

    great tales… i love Grandma and Poppa… and the little stool pigeon who honed her investigative skills in the front seat of a buick.

  2. September 20, 2011 7:12 AM

    love the story – wish like hell I could be in NYC for your gig xx

  3. September 20, 2011 7:50 AM

    Congrats on the show! And we all knew we’d end up as media nerds… just check Dear Sweet Mama’s back issues of my childhood “newspaper.”.. which was quickly replaced by my “detective agency”… which was then replaced by a life of crime. Hey, if you can’t FIND the headlines, MAKE, ’em!

  4. Jessica permalink
    September 20, 2011 8:11 AM

    Lump.in.throat. It must be a Jessica thing, because seeing your name there at the bottom made it feel like they were my memories, and to a lonely little girl of about that age whose Father had just died, whose grandma meant everything to her, and who had no Poppa, I am glad a girl as sweet as you did. You remind me of Eloise at the Plaza, playing house detective 🙂

    Also, did you see this? http://gofugyourself.com/evan-rachel-fugd-or-fabd-09-2011

    If not, you are welcome.

    • September 28, 2011 1:53 AM

      I *am* welcome. I am very, very welcome. Evan Rachel Wood is totally the new Julie Andrews.

  5. September 20, 2011 9:09 AM

    Such a sweet post! And I wish I lived in New York to see your blog performed on stage! What a hoot!

  6. September 20, 2011 9:22 AM

    I love this for so many reasons. I shall list them thusly:

    1. Your happy memories of your grandparents make my bitter heart happy
    2. The pictures of your grandparents are FANTASTIC. You really captured them (I assume) because they just beam with loveliness from the photos.
    3. Your muckraking. Fantastic.
    4. The excessive swirls in the “J” on one note
    5. The decoder marker
    6. Your grandpa calls you “Little Dolly”
    7. You call your grandpa “Poppa”
    8. All the time you got to spend with your grandparents (I’m jealous).

    Congrats on the show!

  7. September 20, 2011 11:14 AM

    OMG I am DYING at how fabulous this was! I was just roaring with laughter!!!!!

    Did you know that I used to work at The Plain Dealer for 21 and a half years and my Dad was the former Editorial Cartoonist there? (Ray Osrin)

    xoxoxo

  8. September 20, 2011 12:52 PM

    This is FABULOUS! I can’t stop laughing!!! And crying. Because how super sweet these treasures have been kept for so long and that they’re still there to keep Poppa company. “He sniffed me.” DYING HERE!!!!

  9. September 20, 2011 1:02 PM

    I never wrote stuff down in case it was found and held against me later. Yeah, I was pretty much raised by wolverines.

  10. September 20, 2011 1:23 PM

    These are hilarious! You should have become a P.I. specializing in lady-friend cases 🙂

    Sending lots of good thoughts to you for the 26th. I wish I could attend but sadly it’s a bit of a hike from Victoria, BC to New York.

  11. September 20, 2011 2:58 PM

    Congrats on your blog post being in a show! I wish I could make it. Congrats!

    I can’t believe your Poppa sang you showtunes. That’s awesome.

  12. September 20, 2011 3:13 PM

    I absolutely adored this. For a five-year-old, you had an amazingly keen grasp on how to engage in muckraking journalism. Congrats on the show. That is extra awesome.

  13. Claire permalink
    September 20, 2011 3:58 PM

    As someone whose Grandfather also picked her up in kindergarten in his Buick, listened to (what he terms) golden oldies, and was allowed to sit in the front seat, I feel like an underachiever for not translating that into a career. Unless misunderstanding the lyrics to ‘Sweet Caroline’ is somehow a job.

  14. September 20, 2011 4:15 PM

    Hahaha brilliant! Am sure a career as a PI would be very suitable as well.

    Big congratulations on the show as well!

  15. September 20, 2011 5:28 PM

    There’s a thin line between “budding journalist” and “budding stalker”.

    Congrats on the show! If I were anywhere near New York, I’d definitely be there.

  16. September 20, 2011 8:03 PM

    you’re my favorite. don’t tell the others.

  17. September 20, 2011 9:17 PM

    This is great. I cherish my memories with my grandparents so much. I’ve been making an effort to go visit them more. They have my newspaper clippings still hanging on their fridge from when I was in high school. Laminated, natch.
    I wanted to be a journalist SO BAD when I was in 8th grade. I wrote a paper about it. I wish I still had it, so I could laugh at my notion of what newspapers were like. If only I knew then what I know now.

  18. September 21, 2011 3:27 AM

    I’ve had a kind of gay diva crush on, uh, “Teva & Isabel’s great-grandmother” ever since I first saw a framed photo of her taken in what might be referred to as “her day.” It’s a formal portrait, clearly professionally lit and shot, and in it she looks for all the world like a glamorous silent movie-era Russian film star. Whenever I’m in the room where it’s displayed, I can’t help glancing at it every so often, it’s that captivating to me. This was clearly quite some lady, and Poppa must’ve been a lucky fella. Jogger, eat your heart out!

  19. September 21, 2011 3:31 AM

    Fantastic to the power of Poppa. Are you there Alonewithcats, it’s me adoring reader!

  20. September 21, 2011 7:11 PM

    First of all congrats on your post being staged!!! That is HUGE!!!! Awesome! Is it possible to post say maybe 1 min video of the production??!! Just hoping and begging here…

    This post is making me smile genuinely from ear to ear, the kind that is giving me permanent crowds feet. Love the notes. And you had wonderful penmanships at age of 5!

  21. September 21, 2011 9:11 PM

    Oh. my. lord. I LOVE YOU AND YOUR FAMILY AND YOUR EXCELLENT PENMANSHIP AND YOUR MAD INVESTIGATIVE REPORTING SKILLS.

    Every time you post, I love you more. Seriously.

    I’m pissed I won’t be in NY to see your show but am THRILLED that you’re going to be a playwrite. THRILLED [and only a tiny bit jealous].

  22. September 22, 2011 12:30 AM

    a) this is one of the awesomest posts ever.
    b) i love that you signed each and every note.
    c) there was once a time when you didn’t know what sarcasm was? when YOU didn’t know what SARCASM was?!

  23. September 22, 2011 7:49 PM

    This is truly a wonderful post. I’m glad I caught it.

  24. September 23, 2011 5:27 PM

    This is all time classic fantasic! How marvelous that your grandparents saved them- allowing you to look back at the beginnings of what has turned out to be an illustrious career in investigative journalism.

  25. Diane Schnall permalink
    September 24, 2011 7:20 AM

    Grandma just told us last night about your blog and your production on Monday. How exciting! I just read your most recent blog about your poppa and loved it, can’t wait to read more. Good Luck! -Aunt Diane

  26. Jared S. permalink
    September 24, 2011 12:00 PM

    Jessica,

    Congrats. I really enjoyed reading the blog. Made me think about what the 4 of us siblings missed as kids since our grandparents were in NYC and we were in Cleveland.

    We had the occasional visits and then each Grampa lived with us in their last year or so.

    You are really fortunate to have such a strong, long and healthy relationship with “poppa.”

    Take care

    Uncle Jared

  27. September 25, 2011 5:43 PM

    That was hilarious!

  28. Carolspy permalink
    September 26, 2011 12:05 AM

    Love your post! Reminds me of when young Carol found a candy bar wrapper in the trash can, which became obvious proof that my older brother and parents were having candy parties without me. Gotta keep an eye on those around you!

  29. September 27, 2011 10:58 AM

    So, I have the biggest blog crush on you. Like, ever.

    Awesome post and congrats on the show!

  30. September 27, 2011 7:20 PM

    I can hardly type from laughing so hard. This might actually be my favorite post in the history of blogs. Don’t get me wrong, the thought of your Grandma finding out that her husband a) was having an affair, and b) thought she was ugly, must have been devastating for her.

    But the rest? Comedy gold.

    • September 27, 2011 8:50 PM

      It must have been so traumatic for Grandma to find out about Poppa’s waving and smiling at another woman, but I’m glad she heard it from me.

  31. September 28, 2011 12:29 AM

    Oh my gosh those pictures are fantastic! I can just see the mischievious look on your grandpas face as he handed those letters over.

    I laughed so much at this post that The Boy came in to see what I was watching on TV.

  32. September 30, 2011 9:29 AM

    le sigh. I left the newspaper business this week.

  33. tonyavernooy@gmail.com permalink
    September 30, 2011 9:56 AM

    You were most certainly a hard core reporter in the making! Very impressive. I think I was still eating glue. Also, I went to a school where if you tattled you had to wear a tail and stand in the corner: Snitches Get Stitches. So now if I have something to report I just break our in hives and down a bottle of wine.

    Congrats on Blogologue!!!!!! How did it go??? I’m sure it was amazing!!!

  34. September 30, 2011 11:02 AM

    Is it sappy that I’m on the verge of crying? Yes? Okay then, let’s pretend I never wrote this.

  35. October 3, 2011 4:13 AM

    i’ve had this up for a week now, and I keep checking back on it every day to see the picture of your grandparents. They are adorable. I cannot even stand that your poppa calls you Little Dolly! SO CUTE! And amazing penmanship. I love love love this story!
    I’m also never telling you any secrets.

  36. October 25, 2011 4:52 AM

    I love that you signed each and every letter (including one, “sincerely, Jessica”).

    My brother sent a valentines card to my mum when he was in playschool (kindergarten) which read “Dear Mummy, Happy Valentines Day, From Guess Who ???????”

  37. May 25, 2012 3:14 PM

    Love love love this post. Perfect in every way 🙂

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