I come from a long line of women who worked as hard as they knew how to get themselves out of whatever misery they found themselves in. Grammy, my mother’s mother, was the keeper of these stories, narratives propelled by women. Nancy Cooper Slagle’s husband died in Libby Prison during the Civil War. She had just given birth to their seventh child. Poor and a Yankee in the Confederate South, she swaddled the baby to her chest and left Richmond, hiking with the children over the Alleghenies to the safety of her husband’s family in Ohio. Her son, Albert, eventually married a milliner from Cincinnati, Laura Ann Slagle, a little blip of a woman with a congenital hip defect. Her parents saw no marriage prospects for her, but her talents with feathers and beads, intricate hat designs saw her to a career and then to catching the eye of Albert.
Their daughter Glenna, my great grandmother, upon discovering her husband in bed with his lover, left Ohio for Montana in 1910 with her two daughters to create a new life of her own. Taking advantage of the Enlarged Homestead Act of 1909, understanding that the westward expansion would bring families and children and a need for teachers, she became an itinerant school teacher. It didn’t matter that she didn’t have a degree. She would leave her daughters alone for long stretches of time.
Grammy, the oldest of Glenna’s two girls, figured out how to raise herself and her sister. Impoverished, gunnysacks for shoes in those cold western winters, she learned to cook, take care of a home, do what needed to be done while making sure her sister went to school. Grammy didn’t go to high school, but that didn’t stop her. “If I don’t like something the way it is,” she would say, “I simply say it as I would like it to be.” She took her sister’s name and diploma, used it as her own to get herself into the nursing program at Brooklyn Hospital.
Grammy had a daughter Pryde, my mother, and when her marriage fell apart, four daughters under the age of ten, she didn’t know how to write a check. But she managed to figure out how to start her own business as a photographer in Princeton, NJ and for forty years she photographed weddings and portraits of families in the happiest moments of their lives, thereby providing for us, her daughters.
Mom’s basement is now filled with tens of thousands of negatives, proof of how hard she worked to get us from there to here. And here I am now, in her home, escaping the city during the pandemic, fretting and fearing for our world, my children, their futures, our futures as I learn to grow a garden and raise baby chicks. On the threshold of publishing a novel, inspired by Grammy and these formidable women, scheming and dreaming of ways to help the novel get into the world in these uncertain times, I feel the strength of these women behind me. They were not always lauded, often even vilified as can happen to strong, intrepid women—but they did what needed to be done. And I am one of them too.
“By hook or by crook,” my grandmother used to say—meaning that is how we go forward. When I was a girl and had gotten into some pretty serious trouble, Grammy drove down to New Jersey from her home in Maine, arriving in her black Lincoln Continental, that big boat of a car, to tell me that she loved me. “You can lie and cheat, you can kill even and I will always believe in you.” By hook or by crook, we will make it out of here.
Inspired, as always, by Jenny McPhee
3 thoughts on “Silver Linings: By Hook or By Crook”
What a lovely post. And a terrific picture of you and Tommy. That’s exactly how I remember her. So eager for your book about her. Good luck on getting it to the public.
Martha, I am having a great deal of trouble find your Book Silver Linings. The Picture of you and Tommy is lovely, just as I remember her. I stayed at the Brown’s home in Ridgewood, NJ during the 3 years I went to Nursing School at St. Lukes’ Hospital 1955-1958, I used to go when I had a long weekend off , taking the subway to the Bridge, Bus to Ridgewood and walk to Sherman Place. I spent many hours there with Tommy and Charles. I even went to Pryde and Johns wedding and also to their apt when they first lived in Brooklyn across from Manhattan when your eldest sister was a baby. That was many, many years ago. How is your mother. Pryde was away at BrynMawr when I visited their house. I used to play the baby grand in the living room. I would go grocery shopping with
Tommy and helped her with the washing machine in the basement. We had good visits. AM trying to get your book.
Barns and Noble has your other books and there are no other book stores around. Maybe you can help me.
I put it into Book Press and no results and onto the site Pat Newman (my 1st cousin) recommended.
Dear Kay, Thank you. I love the memories. The book is actually called An Elegant Woman. Thursday, Laura and I are doing a virtual event at The Harvard Bookstore. Here is the link and also a link for buying the book: https://www.harvard.com/event/virtual_event_martha_mcphee/
If that doesn’t easily link, on this site under events you will find it and also under books there are options for purchase. Thank you so much. I’d love to hear more stories. Best, Martha