In today's story, Saying Grace, tensions rise over a Thanksgiving tradition
Today's prompt was inspired by the upcoming Thanksgiving holiday. Many families have complicated holiday gatherings, and sometimes a small detail can trigger big feelings.
More about Susan Quilty
Susan Quilty mainly writes novels, including two standalone novels and her current YA series: The Psychic Traveler Society. Susan's short stories for Freely Written are created during quick writing breaks and shared as a way to practice her narration skills before she dives into recording audio versions of her novels.
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Below is the transcript for Season 1, Episode 77 of Freely Written, a podcast by author Susan Quilty:
Welcome to Freely Written where a simple prompt leads to a little unplanned fiction.
[Light piano music]
Hi, friends! I’m Susan Quilty and today’s prompt is Saying Grace.
It’s nearly Thanksgiving in the US, which is kind of a strange holiday… or a complicated one. From a history standpoint, it’s certainly not as simple as the happy Pilgrims and Native Americans story I was taught as a kid. On the family gathering side, I know that can be complicated for a lot of people, too.
Personally, I enjoy the holiday as a chance to share a meal with family and friends. I also like to focus on the gratitude aspect of Thanksgiving. Which is what inspired today’s prompt.
As always, I didn’t have a plan for today’s story beyond choosing the prompt. I simply followed my usual process, where I sit down with a short prompt, write whatever comes to mind, with no planning and very little editing, and then share that story with you.
And here’s what came up today:
For as long as I can remember, I’ve heard the same words at every holiday dinner. The food is spread across the table, everyone takes a seat, and Mom says, “Now our little Gracie will lead us in saying grace.”
I guess it was cute when I was five or six, or whenever it started. I may have even kinda liked it until I was ten or so. But I don’t know why. Did I like the attention? The chance to have all the grownups’ eyes on me? Was it an oldest child thing?
When I was thirteen, I tried to pass it off to Mary. She was five then and getting all the baby-of-the-family attention anyway. But Mom wouldn’t hear of it. “But Gracie, you have to say grace. It’s tradition!”
I hated when she said that. It was because of my stupid name, obviously. Mom liked to say that Gracie would be saying grace. She thought it sounded clever, and the aunts and uncles seemed to agree. They’d all chuckle when she’d say it, as if they hadn’t heard it at every Thanksgiving, Christmas, and Easter for over a decade.
My cousins were not as impressed. They’d smirk at me and roll their eyes at each other. Saint Gracie, they’d started calling me when the grownups weren’t around. As if me leading a prayer before dinner meant I was a super pious goody-goody. As if I had any choice in it.
For a while, I tried to laugh with them, like I was in on the joke, until the teasing got so bad one year that Linda and I had a full-on fight in the backyard. Shoving and kicking until we slipped on the dry leaves and ruined our clothes in the dirt.
We were grounded the rest of the weekend, but even that didn’t stop the tradition. Because I was Gracie and that obviously meant saying grace at holiday dinners for the rest of eternity.
Not like I chose that name.
But I also didn’t have to keep it. Not anymore.
I’d thought about it during the whole drive home from school. A new name. A name I’d give myself. Legally. I could do that. I was eighteen and no one could stop me.
It would be a little strange, going back to school with a new name. But I had some time. I could come up with a new name and change it over winter break. Start the next semester with a new identity. Wasn’t that what college was for? In a way? Finding myself and all that?
Maybe my adult self wasn’t named Gracie. Maybe it would be a rite of passage. A coming of age. A clear sign that my mother couldn’t make me say grace anymore. That I was my own person, outside of being her precious daughter.
The more I thought about it, the more excited I felt. I pictured the moment I’d tell my mom, right there at the Thanksgiving table. She’d say, Now our little Gracie will lead us in saying grace. And I’d say, “Actually, Mom, I’m not going by Gracie anymore. I’m changing my name to…”
And there the daydream fell apart. What name would I say? I didn’t want to be called Gracie anymore, but what name felt like me? Darla? Simone? Kate? There were too many possibilities.
Names tumbled through my head for the rest of the drive and throughout the night. By Thanksgiving morning, I had narrowed it down to Ava or Eleanor… but neither really felt right.
The cousins and aunts and uncles began to arrive around noon. “Gracie!” the aunts and uncles cried out, like it was a surprise to see me. “How’s college life?”
“Are you a nun yet?” one of the cousins laughed, earning a smack on the shoulder from his scowling dad.
As everyone settled into the living room or hurried to help in the kitchen, I brought a cup of tea to my grandma.
“Such a sweet girl,” she said in thanks, and I didn’t mind her saying it. “Sit with me?” she asked, and I pulled over a chair to keep her company.
“It’s good to have you home,” she said. “Your mom has missed you so much.”
I brushed that off, not wanting to think how she’d feel when I made my announcement.
“You mean the world to her,” Grandma went on. “I mean it, you changed her life.”
“Yeah, I know.” It wasn’t something I liked to hear. How Mom had struggled after her parents died. How she’d had a rough life before meeting my dad and having me.
“Do you know why she named you Grace?”
The question caught me off guard, as if she was reading my mind. And I tried to make light of it.
“So she’d have someone to say grace at these shindigs?”
Grandma smiled softly but didn’t laugh.
“Do you know what grace means?” she asked with sharp eyes that made me squirm in my seat.
“Giving thanks…” I answered uncertainly, thinking she was going to start another talk about ignoring the way my cousins teased me and how my leading grace meant a lot to my mom.
“That, too,” she said instead. “But that’s not what it means to your mom.”
I heard her then, my mom. Laughing in the kitchen with Aunt Sheila and Uncle Don.
“When your dad brought your mom to meet us, she was so nervous she could barely speak. She had been on her own too long and the idea of family scared her. Those first years were so hard for her. The engagement, the wedding, joining in with our big, noisy family. I did my best to help her, but she was so hard on herself…”
I glanced toward the kitchen then, imagining my mom and dad cooking together, laughing comfortably with the other adults. It was hard to picture her any other way.
“And then she was pregnant with you, and so afraid of not being a good mother. The way we all are, but even more. I sat her down one day to really talk, to tell her she needed to extend herself some grace. Do you know what I mean by that?”
I could only shake my head, but Grandma waited until I guessed, “Forgiveness?”
“In a way,” she said gently. “But more than that. Grace is understanding that we all have inner struggles. Challenges. Things that make it hard to know what to do even when we have the best intentions. Grace means knowing we’re doing our best, even when we don’t always get it right.
“Your mom named you Grace hoping you’d love yourself more than she knew how to love herself.”
My breath stopped. I reached for her hand, feeling the sting of tears in the corner of my eyes.
But later, sitting around the huge dining room table, the old resentment came back as every eye turned to me. My cousins and sister smirking, my aunts and uncles grinning expectantly, my parents beaming.
“And now that Gracie’s home from college,” Mom said proudly, “she can lead us in saying grace.”
The air went out of the room as I remembered my three-hour drive home. The plotting to stand up for myself. To find my true name. To be myself, not the baby that had changed my mom’s life but my own adult self.
“Actually, Mom, I’m not going by Gracie anymore…” my voice cracked as I caught my grandma’s kind eyes. “I’m, uh, I’m going by Grace now.”
Our eyes met then, mom’s and mine, and hers were holding back tears. “Well, Grace,” she said carefully. “Would you like to say grace?”
“Yeah,” I nodded, suddenly wanting nothing more. “I’d love to.”
Thank you for joining me today. If you enjoy Freely Written, please leave a review wherever you listen to podcasts, and share your favorite stories with friends. Remember, all of these stories stand alone, so you can go back and listen to any you’ve missed in any order.
To learn about my novels and other projects, you can visit my website: SusanQuilty.com. Links are in the show notes.
Until next time, try a little free writing of your own. Let go of any planning and see where your imagination takes you.
[Light piano music]