On The Personal Essay by Kelsey Ronan

I come from a line of storytellers, and it was my grandfather’s version of our family history that I liked best. In my favorite story, my mother is being born. His audience didn’t need him to set the scene, but I should tell you this was Flint, Michigan, the birthplace of General Motors, and below the windows of the maternity ward muscle cars pumped doo-wop and Elvis down streets still flush with Arsenal of Democracy money.

My grandfather was Irish by way of Detroit, from a line of poets and philosophers moonlighting as autoworkers. He said the family line could be traced back to an Ireland before Cromwell, before Brian Boru, where each county was its own kingdom and our ancestor had reigned a king. Yes, he was an autoworker and my grandmother served biscuits and gravy at a diner, and yes, they were still teenagers, but my mother was a princess without a kingdom; a kind of Rust Belt Anastasia displaced among the smokestacks and coney islands.

My newborn mother was placed in his arms. “Daddy,” she said, umbilical cord just snipped. “Get me a copy of A Tale of Two Cities.”

 “You have to wait, honey,” my grandfather admonished. “You can’t even open your eyes yet.”

At this point in the story, my grandmother would interrupt, exasperated, and say, “What a bunch of bull.”

“I know, Martha, but you have to embellish,” he’d explain, his hand flourishing through the air in front of him. If you spent your life on the factory line, repeating the same movement, eyes fixed to the same rivet, a conveyor belt of identical pieces, each day a carbon copy of the day before, your mind had room to wander. And if you came home from the assembly lines to listen to music and read poetry and history, your mind was particularly conditioned.

In my grandfather’s stories, he had to reconcile the two: the facts and the lyricism of his rich inner life. When I started writing essays, I used this as a guiding principle, something we'll key in on in my upcoming workshop on the personal essay.

It was inevitable that I tell stories, too: by the time I was born, the maternity ward overlooked a Flint collapsing in on itself, the Chevrolet and Buick factories bulldozed, labor outsourced, houses empty and waiting for time and scrappers to pick them clean. My grandfather told me his stories while we drove around Flint on his ghost tours. Everything in Flint used to be something else, he’d point out; the social security offices downtown once an upscale department store, that abandoned shop front once a soda fountain, that one an ornate theater where the Friday night lines wrapped around the block. The deer reserve where tanks lined up before they were sent off to destroy the Third Reich.  

When my grandfather passed away, there was still so much of the city he had given me no stories for. Boarded-up houses, shuttered businesses, schools that closed, overgrown parks. Places that begged you to consider who had lived there and where they’d gone. Hollowed-out places that offered nothing but space to imagine.

In my essays, I return to my grandfather’s themes: Flint and Detroit, my family, love. When I left Flint to earn my MFA in fiction, I conjured these things as a means of keeping them close, to both explain these cities to people who thought of them only as crime statistics and bankruptcy headlines, and to celebrate them. I don’t have my grandfather’s gift for magical realism, but like him I want the historic and personal, humor and grief, fact and lyricism, to coexist on the page. In my own way I want to embellish.

Before I moved out of Flint, the high school where my grandparents met closed down. Before the city put metal shutters over the windows and padlocks on the doors, you could stand underneath and look up into the windows. The chairs were stacked on desks as if the students had just left for the day. An old globe on a windowsill waited for a finger to come spin it. The library shelves were still lined with books. Stories there—a silent abundance of them—waiting.