Silver Linings: On The Occasion of Grammy’s Birthday

Today, April 11th, is my grandmother’s birthday. She would be 116 years old. She wanted to live to be 105 because she was competitive and wished to out live her great grandmother, Nancy Cooper Slagle who lived to be 104 and was the oldest in our line. Grammy didn’t make it, died at 91 in the hot August of 1995. Nancy, Grammy would tell us, her granddaughters, was the cousin of the great James Fenimore Cooper. We believed that for a very long time. It was not the truth, but she didn’t care. “If I don’t like something the way it is, I simply say it as I would prefer it to be.” She learned that concept growing up poor in Montana.

I’ve returned to my childhood home to care for my mother during the Virus. I’m sleeping in Grammy’s room, as we like to call it, left pretty much as it was when she died. Her beaver coat hangs in the closet along with her long fuchsia “opera” coat and a floor-length wool cape that fastens with silver buckles. On the walls are portraits of our ancestors, Grammy’s mother, sister, cousins, myself and my sisters as girls, my mother as a bride. It’s a room of many generations of women. I’m inside our family history and it is both compelling and terrifying as I am not a huge fan of time. Looking at the image of me as young girl, a pastel portrait commissioned by my grandmother because important people did this sort of thing, it is easy to feel that I am already an ancestor.

But I am not yet an ancestor. I am alive and trying to learn new things–gardening, chicks. I’ve written a fifth novel, An Elegant Woman, arriving on June 2, which uses my grandmother’s life and the stories she told (and others that she didn’t) to explore what it means to make a life and then to pass it down. Here, on her birthday, I am awed that this room has been left untouched since 1995, some twenty-five years (Lordy) not because she might come back to it, of course, but because the opera coats and the beaver fur and all the pictures are still telling their stories.

Beaver fur and the opera coats, hanging in Grammy’s closet

If you want to know how she got out of an impoverished childhood in Montana and into a Lincoln Continental in New Jersey, you can pre-order An Elegant Woman today–and I would be very grateful. These days, it is easy to forget that I have a novel forthcoming, and then this magically appears:

“In these difficult times, we do need a big, involved, warm-hearted family saga. This is a great distraction and a wonderful story of a family’s changes throughout the twentieth century. Through good times and very tough ones, these characters are always engrossing and usually entertaining. A lovely and much needed diversion.”—Anne Whalen, Brown University Bookstore


As always, inspired by Jenny McPhee

5 thoughts on “Silver Linings: On The Occasion of Grammy’s Birthday

  1. I hadn’t remembered Grammy’s birthday date. Such a lovely tribute to her. I love picturing you in that room, which I never saw, with those familiar garments. I remember most of the pictures as well. Have always wondered about some of the stories. Such as being a descendant of Jeb (?) Steward from the Civil War. My favorite is that she said the source of her lemon meringue pie recipe was Jeannette Rankin. As you say, it doesn’t really matter, but I’m curious anyway. I’ve ordered the book and eagerly await being able to see how you have textured the rich life of this very unique elegant lady. Best of luck.

    1. Thanks for this, Pat. Thanks for all of your support. I wish I had known about the Lemon Meringue pie recipe. I love that. It’s just like Grammy. And Jeb Stewart (?), I hadn’t heard that one before either, but it sounds like Grammy. We were connected to every important event in US history and then some across the pond too! Love to you.

      1. Sorry I never gave you those morsels. BTW: did you ever go with Tommy to the Metropolitan Opera in New York? A wonderful experience. She knew everything!!

  2. Each time your grandmother appeared here in Ohio, she never left without having a somewhat profound effect on me. She carried herself with an air of importance which sometimes made me feel as if I should bow, and, she would have loved it if I had. As a naive young boy she could have told me almost anything, and I would have believed her, and looking back, I think she often did. She had the uncanny ability to spin a yarn with such convincing authenticity that you simply had to believe it, even though you knew that it probably wasn’t true, Even the occasional flash of gold from her smile somehow added to her credibility.

    On one particular visit to our home, at dinner time, she insisted on teaching me how to set a table, and how to properly use silverware. Her ability to quote Emily Post and her tales of exotic places and important people sometimes annoyed me with envy of such experiences and knowledge, but without fail; she always captivated me even while anxiously awaiting my supper. She routinely sponsored the feeling that a member of royalty or Hollywood had somehow found their way to Bowling Green, and it would be foolish for me to miss such a opportunity to witness their presence regardless of how late it made our dinner.

    In my own book, I mentioned a memorable trip I took with her and two young grand-daughters in the summer of 1964 to a summer home in Ogunquit, Maine. Driving the black 1960 Lincoln Continental up the New Jersey Turnpike with three passengers in the back seat would have cast a believable image of three very important people on their way to someplace elegant and certainly exclusive. Before the trip, I was instructed to wear a dark jacket, and at her insistence, a chauffeur’s cap that she produced from her purse before leaving her house in Ridgewood. That in itself seemed more than pretentious, but when we stopped for lunch, I was relegated to a different table to eat. It made no difference to me, I was just as happy to play my role as she was to play hers.

    I can’t wait to add your latest book to the others you’ve written.

    1. Holy Moly, what a comment. She turned you into her chauffeur? made you eat at a separate table? Wow–that is astonishing which is very hard to achieve with all I know about Grammy. She lived inside stories. He whole life was a story and we, those in her orbit both past and present, were her characters, saving her imaginative goals. Thanks so much for writing. And thank you for helping me spread the word of my novel in these upsetting times.

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