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ROBERT GILLIS,AUTHOR OF “NANA MY GRANDMOTHER ANNE GILLIS” RADIO INTERVIEW
TALK OF THE TOWN
WDIS AM 1170 NORFOLK MASSACHUSETTS
HOST: DAN COLLIER
GUEST: ROBERT GILLIS
TAPED: JUNE 12, 2006
SHOW LENGTH: 10 MINUTES
COLLIER: Robert Gillis spent many years of his life caring for his grandmother, and he recounts what he gained from his experiences with this remarkable lady in his new memoir, Nana: My Grandmother, Anne Gillis. My Gillis is a local fellow; in fact, he writes an opinion column. It appears in the Foxboro Reporter and has done so since 1996. And we’ll say good morning now to Robert Gillis. Good morning, Mr. Gillis.
GILLIS: Good morning, Dan. How’re you doing?
COLLIER: Good. What led you to write the book?
GILLIS: I had taken care of my grandmother since I was about five years old. I used to stop in, we lived very close together in Dorchester, and I used to stop in every day just to bring her the paper, sort of keep an eye on her. And as I got older, I realized that the responsibilities were deepening a bit. I was starting to do little things around the house, I was shopping for her. And when her only son, my dad, passed away at 47 from cancer, it was my mother and I that kind of kept Nana going, and I was doing the house repairs at Nana’s house, making long visits, taking her places to visit, and so on. So it sort of became a lifelong responsibility. And after she died, it was a very, very difficult grieving process and I started writing about her, and a couple of years later, the notes and the stories I had written about her had sort of turned into a book.
COLLIER: Now, your grandmother passed away, I believe it was in 1993.
GILLIS: That’s right.
COLLIER: She had an interesting life. Tell us a little bit about it.
GILLIS: She was pretty remarkable, actually. She was born in Glendale, in Inverness County, Nova Scotia, on Cape Breton Island, and it’s a beautiful village. I haven’t been there, but I’ve corresponded with the folks there. A farming community, very, very proud Celtic heritage. And there’s no work there, though, so most of the families, and they were fairly large, would come to the United States for work. And Nana came to this country with her sister Mary when she was only 17 years old, and Mary was only 21. And they went to boarding houses and they started working, cooking and cleaning for families, doing secretary work, and sending money back home. Now about 20 years had passed and she found she really loved life in America; she became an American citizen and she wanted very much to open a business. So, she studied nursing and she opened up a business on Trull Street in Dorchester called the Uphams Corner Rest Home, in an absolutely beautiful 12-room mansion that she bought. And she ran that for about 20 years. And had a pretty remarkable life. She dealt with a lot of, interesting characters and such, and once she retired around 1965 or so, sort of settled down, rented the place to tenants, and I came along in ’64 and started visiting her every day probably around 1970 or so, and just really spend a lot of time listening to her talk about her life.
COLLIER: Tell us about some of the things you learned from your Nana.
GILLIS: I’ll tell you, Dan, I learned — I think the first thing I learned, and I learned it at a very early stage, was that you need to never take your family for granted. Never take your loved ones for granted, because you never know when they might go. I have — she had been exposed to so much death and dying at the rest home over 20 years, I mean, the elderly patients would grow older and died and such, and she really passed on to me the notion that you have to cherish your life now. I have a buddy who, when he was very young, he lost a brother from a car accident at 21, and tragically, ten years later, another brother about 21, 22 years old. And it really stuck with me all during Nana’s life that you need to cherish what you have. One time she broke her hip and she was in her 80s at her time, and we thought we were going to lose her. And when she came home three weeks later, all full of gusto and just ready to get back into her life, it really dawned on me, I almost lost her and I really learned from her just not to take the people around you for granted. To tell them you love them, to visit them and just tell them that they mean a lot to you. I also learned from her a very strong work ethic. I’m 41 now and I’ve wanted to work since I was about nine years old. I started selling papers when I was 13 for the Globe because it was the only job I could get at such a young age. She and my mother and father both really taught me the value of a work ethic and working hard because certainly Nana’s life was always about wanting something and working very hard for it, nothing was ever handed to her. So, certainly learned those things from her.
COLLIER: Now, you work in the computer field, but apparently you have an interest, a love of writing. You write a column for the Foxboro Reporter, you’ve been doing that for ten years, now you have a book. What attracted you to writing?
GILLIS: It’s funny, then. I’ve been writing all my life. I got into computers when I was in high school and at first it was just to, programming little games and such, but my friends and I, we just really enjoyed writing. And what would happen is, rather than — and this is long before e-mail or anything, but we would just start writing little stories. And my mother always teases me. She has this story I wrote, I think it was probably in second grade, about this super-powered doorknob or something and every time I talk about my writing she says, “You know, I still have that doorknob story.” So I think it’s sort of blackmail material for later, you know. But I’ve always loved to write, and I just kept writing, all my life I’ve been writing about different things. And when I moved to Foxboro in 1991 from Dorchester, I started submitting letters to the editor just about anything that might be going on in town, my thoughts on anything. And I approached the editor, Jeff Peterson, in 1996 and I said, “I’d really like to write for your paper regularly.” And he said, “By all means. Let’s see three of your pieces.” So I submitted three and he said, “Keep going.” And that was ten years ago and I love it. It’s a wonderful creative outlet, it gives me an opportunity to speak about current events or things going on, or just add a little humor to people’s day every now and then. It’s kind of my own little therapy. So when Nana died, I just started writing. I never intended to write a book about Nana, I just sat down and I just started writing. I wanted to remember those stories that she told me, the family history. And after a year or two, it was really forming into a book so I started, going in that direction to make it like a book and really that’s how that all came about. I just, I love to write, I always have.
COLLIER: Do you think you have any more books in you?
GILLIS: It’s funny, people have asked that. It’s almost like when you get married it’s like, “When are you guys having kids?” type of thing. I know that I do. I don’t know what that’s going to be about, though. One of the best writing instructors I ever had at U/Mass told me if you write what you know it’ll always be good. Write what you know, and certainly I knew Nana very well and my life with her, so I like the story very much. I think that, yeah, the next book might be sort of a collection of different things I’ve written over the years. For example, my wife and I visited ground zero about a week after the [September 11, 2001] attacks and I stayed up in the hotel room writing the column on Post-it notes until about four in the morning. Ran home, wrote it, got it to the editor that Monday, and I ran in. And he’s a man of — he’s very quiet, he doesn’t give out a lot of compliments, and I ran and I said, “Did you get it, did you get it?” And he said, “Bob, it’s the best thing you’ve ever written. We’re putting it on the front page,” experiences at ground zero. So I was overwhelmed by that. But I think that happens a lot with me. There’s absolutely a second book coming, Dan, I’m sure. I don’t know what about yet because when things like that happen, I have to write about that. When 9/11 happened, I was like, “I have to write about this.” You know, different event, when my nephew was born, “I have to write about this.”
COLLIER: Do you have any interest in writing fiction someday?
GILLIS: Well, I’ve written with some high school friends, we’ve written a lot of sort of like quasi-science fiction, silly stories putting us in a Star Trek universe or whatever. My friend David, when he moved to New Jersey to get married, we kept in touch by going back and forth writing this sort of science fiction story that ended up being about 130 pages long that we worked on for about five years. And we really can’t publish it because it was too many in jokes, and obviously Star Trek doesn’t belong to me, but it was a nice creative writing exercise. So, yeah, I think I’d like to try fiction sometime. I’m not quite sure what the subject would be, I think it would still certainly take place in what I know. It would take place, probably where I grew up in Dorchester or it might take place in Foxboro. Certainly in Massachusetts. I’d write what I know. But I find that very intriguing, the idea of writing fiction.
COLLIER: Mm-hmm. Now where can people get your book?
GILLIS: They can get it in a couple places. It’s not available in a lot of the bookstores themselves yet; I’m working on that, because it’s only been out for a few months. But it’s available all over the Internet. You can go to Amazon.com, you can go to BarnesandNoble.com [bn.com] or any online bookstore you know of, you can go to and you can buy it there. The book also has a website, it’s www.NanaGillisBook.com, and there’s pictures of Nana there, there’s a lot of things that aren’t in the book, a lot of background information about why I wrote the book, pictures of her, a tribute to my father, and you can also buy the book there as well, directly from the publisher or from Amazon or Barnes and Noble. And again that’s www.NanaGillisBook.com.
COLLIER: Well, I’m afraid we’re just about out of time. I want to thank you very much for coming on the air with us.
GILLIS: Oh, it was a pleasure. Thank you, Dan.
COLLIER: And the best of luck with the book, and actually these days it’s more important to be on the web than it is to be in stores.
GILLIS: I’m reading that, I’m finding that out. Because I am selling a lot through the web and it’s very nice.
COLLIER: And I expect to see another book from you sometime soon, and best of luck with that and continued good luck with your column in the Foxboro Reporter.
GILLIS: Dan, thank you very much, it was a pleasure to talk to you.
GILLIS: Have a good day.
COLLIER: You too.
GILLIS: OK, bye.
COLLIER: We have been speaking with Robert Gillis, he’s a resident of Foxboro. He writes an opinion column for the Foxboro Reporter. He also has a book out, Nana: My grandmother, Anne Gillis. It’s the story of his caring for his grandmother and her experiences. She was born in Canada, came to the US, became a nurse, and purchased a mansion in Dorchester that she turned into a rest home where she could care for people. And so thanks to Mr. Gillis for taking the time to come on the air with us. You are tuned to 1170 AM, WDIS this is The Talk of the Town.
[End of interview]