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Today I received a letter in the mail from my father, a letter addressed to me at my childhood home, his unmistakeable handwriting. My father lives ten miles away in the house I came home to from the hospital when I was born. When my parents divorced, he held onto that house and my mother moved to the farm I am in now—having returned here from NYC with my family because of the Virus. It has remained like this for nearly 50 years: Mom here, Dad there. I was not expecting a letter from my father, but opening the mailbox and seeing it lying there, I was transported to my childhood more directly than anything else has allowed during fifty some days of sheltering in place. I was five when my parents separated. Almost immediately, my father started writing letters to me. I have over one hundred letters and they span some forty years.
When I left New York City for NJ in March, I didn’t bring much, but I did bring the letters, neatly arranged in chronological order in red albums. When I was a child, my mother told me to save the letters. She said that some day they would mean something to me.
1975: My sweet special super Minx, dear Martha:
The letter you wrote to me was the greatest I ever got from anyone. It is full of fun and funny remarks—and I have not forgotten the $13…. Your letter was not only the best letter waiting for me from my four daughters and stepdaughters and stepsons, it was also the only letter from the whole lot. You are my total Minx and I am leaving all my pencils to you.
1980: Just a fast note to say hello on a summer afternoon when I am up in East Pyne and should be writing my present story, which is about bears. Jenny says, “Dad is in one of his writing snits.” What the hell does she think pays for her new glasses? Writing snits. Sixteen books and my kid calls it writing snits. There is no way to win when you are just a Dad.
1981: And speaking of history, there’s the story of your grades. I have computered them and I owe you $4. Here’s how it goes. I am giving 25 bucks for any kind of A, 12 for a B+, 10 for a B, 8 for a B-; and I am taking back 10 for any kind of C, 20 for any kind of D, and 30 for an F. Your grades were B+ from Parnes in the 4th quarter, D in Latin, B+ in English, C- in French , and B- in Horowitz’s course (I am not counting Driver Ed, in which you got a C- and the comment that you lack self discipline”). I am reckoning the money part on the 4th quarter grades because the 4th quarter is what followed the beginning of this new money game. So I owe you $4. Here’s five, with a big tip from Lefty. Your final exam grades were B+ Parnes, F Latin, B English, D- French, B Horowitz. Your final grades for the year were B Parnes, C- Latin, B English, C- French, B- Horowitz. If I were paying you for your final grades I would owe you $8 instead of $4. Tough. On the other hand, if we were doing this according to your final exam grades you would owe me $18, so you can think about that, too.
1982: Your letters are good, and not just because it’s from you to me and naturally I like to get letters from you, but because you write simply, easily, amusingly, and well. Don’t force writing. Just say the things in your mind. What comes out of you and onto paper is sometimes very, very good stuff. I know what I’m saying and I’m not kidding. But don’t let me make you self-conscious, I just want to tell you you’re good. It would help if you would learn how to spell Sisely. It is an Island with a volcano in it and it is written Sicily.
The letters are a time capsule, an almost obsolete form of composed thought. In these wicked days of 2020, I food shop for my stepmother and Dad, so that it is I in mask and gloves and not they. The letter in the mail this morning, it contained a check and a grocery list and some Dad math which always favors me.
Inspired, as always, by Jenny McPhee, my silver lining.
In a world where everything has changed, I find myself launching my fifth novel. The challenges and hardships that this pandemic has brought for so many people seem beyond measure, yet even so the world continues to turn.
So, of course, it’s time for a cocktail.
I worked on An Elegant Woman for ten years, and now I celebrate its publication with a virtual launch party at The Center for Fiction. The best news of all is that the brilliant, talented Julia Phillips will be there to discuss the book with me. Her acclaimed, bestselling novel, Disappearing Earth, is just now out in paperback. Please come on June 2 and raise a glasss with me–perhaps a glass of this dangerously delicious cocktail, with cucumber and basil which I’ve already tried out a few times. I would so love to celebrate with you.
Thank you Sally Howe and Scribner Books for making this possible.
Yesterday I found maggots devouring my cranberry bean seedlings. They weren’t thriving so I peeked beneath the dirt. The beautiful red bean was covered in squirming white thready maggots. I had planted about twenty, all of them perforated and infested. It took hours to correct the problem. I had to dig out each bean and put it in a doubled plastic garbage bag and then excavate around the plantings to be sure I caught as many strays as possible and then carefully dispose of the contaminated dirt. (I learned all of this from the internet. Google is my brain.) The other plants had to be checked, all the onions, the kale, spinach, lettuce, other beans. The remaining dirt in the cranberry bean patch had to be treated with an organic potion to kill any maggots I may have missed. I spent the rest of the day taking my frustration out on the chrysanthemum weeds with their nasty, sprawling roots which lurk beneath the garden, an intricate subterranean system. Their Latin name is Artemisia Vulgaris, also known as mugwort which actually has some herbal healing powers. In the wet spring dirt, well armed with a Japanese sickle (oh my word, this is my favorite gardening tool), it is easy to get them if you’re deliberate and patient. Pulling out the rhizomes, long and slithering and hairy with new tentacles, is extremely gratifying. I went to bed exhausted, but was woken around midnight by an almost full moon and heart-stopping howling of coy wolves, what seemed to be an enormous and very loud pack of the wolf/coyote hybrid that has been populating NJ recently. Our very excited and vocal dogs, kept them at a distance. Unable to sleep, I googled mugwort roots to learn that even a small piece of rhizome will regrow and, like the maggots, you’ve got to put them in garbage bags and get rid of them which is, alas, not what I had done. Even so …
I’ve been inspired to write these Silver Linings by Jenny McPhee a long time ago, back in March when I left the city. She does it daily on her blog and uncovers the best artifacts from now. Recently, she posted what is my favorite of all her posts, a short story she wrote, haunting, mesmerizingly beautiful, published in The New York Review of Books Daily.
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
Issue: May 15, 2020
*An Elegant Woman
By Martha McPhee
June 2020. 416p. Scribner, $27 (9781501179570)
A richly animated work, McPhee’s enthralling new novel glides through American history, from early-twentieth-century Billings, Montana, to a Prohibition-era Adirondacks lakeside retreat and beyond, alongside fabulous characters. Sorting through the family home in present-day New Jersey, Isadora, a novelist, tells her late Grammy’s story as she would have wished, mingling realistic happenings with embellished ancestral lore. As a stocky child standing with her pretty younger sister, Katherine, on an Ohio train platform in 1910, awaiting their long journey to Montana with their mother, Thelma “Tommy” Stewart seems unlikely to develop into an elegant East Coast matriarch, but circumstances drive her to become a mistress of self-invention. This quality she picks up from her mother, the fascinating Glenna (“cultivation and wilderness combined in her”), who takes charge of her own life, even depositing her daughters with kindly neighbors while away teaching in a tiny Western town. Later, Tommy raises Katherine alone; while her sister attends school, Tommy earns money by begging and selling coyote pelts. Both make choices that shift their paths in surprising ways. The frequent mentions of hereditary artifacts feel overdone at times. Overall, however, McPhee elevates the generational saga into a dazzling, artfully detailed presentation of self-determination, women’s responsibilities and freedoms, and how people craft family legacies.
— Sarah Johnson
Help a friend, help a bookstore — pre-order An Elegant Woman today. All buying options HERE. Thank you.
Two sisters: one beautiful, the other not. Little girls, five and three years old, they wore red velvet Christmas dresses and rabbit furs, waiting on the platform with their mother and her violin, for the train that would take them from Ohio to Billings—“Magic City,” as it was called, because it blossomed overnight.
From my novel, An Elegant Woman, coming, June 2. Help a friend, help a bookstore — pre-order today. Buying options HERE. Thank you.
On Last Morrow’s kitchen wall hung a family portrait that included that little girl, grown up and so old her faced looked like a dried-up apple. I was a little girl myself then, and it was impossible to imagine that I could ever be that old.
From my novel, An Elegant Woman, coming, June 2. Help a friend, help a bookstore — pre-order today. Buying options HERE. Thank you.
If Glenna were a constellation, you would see her in her white teacher’s smock, striding westward across the dew-wet grass of Montana, a rifle in one hand, Temple’s Notes to Shakespeare in the other. There wasn’t room in the sky for a husband with a wandering eye, but that was where stories came in, to fill out an evening, to ask about duplicity and betrayal, the steady march of self-compromise that led to whatever cul-de- sac of banality one found oneself in—and then to wonder about what a genuine hero would do about such things.
My novel, An Elegant Woman, coming, June 2. Help a friend, help a bookstore — pre-order today. Buying options HERE. Thank you.
She would pause in her stories, ask one of us girls to get her smelling salts. “I feel faint,” she would say. And from her vanity one of us would snatch the small silver container filled with ammonia so she’d keep telling her stories. With a sniff of it, she’d sit up straight again, the bulk of her with those green, green eyes, eyes that could hold a child, midbreath, between the future and the past. “I’m not long for this world,” she’d say, like a prophet. “You need to know from where you came and to whom you belong.”
That was the sound of history. This is the sound of history. Like the catalogue of ships in the Iliad, you are not expected to remember particular names, only the sound of the names rolling along as you listen to the poem. Every history is a song, and this is what ours sounds like.
My novel, An Elegant Woman, coming, June 2. Help a friend, help a bookstore — pre-order today. Buying options HERE.