Today I received a heavy box in the mail, and I wondered what my kids had ordered without asking. To my surprise, the box contained Advanced Reading Copies (ARCs) of An Elegant Woman—such a beautiful cover and so many copies. I hadn’t felt that thrilling sensation of seeing a work of mine so composed, so ready to be read, in years. Ten years to be exact. In January of 2010 I received a similar box containing Dear Money, my last novel. My daughter was ten and my son was six; I was younger, too. My mother didn’t yet have dementia. Dear Money was my third book in a decade. I didn’t yet have teenagers. I hold An Elegant Woman in my hand, and the past ten years come rushing in—the challenge to write the novel, the fight for time while taking care of teens and a sick mother, the slow pace of the words making their way from my brain to the page, the false start, the long revision, the clobbering self-doubt. I had a professor who described that kind of self-doubt as “your shit bird.” “Swat it away,” he’d say. Swat and swat and swat, but the little shit bird kept landing again on my shoulder, a little bop-bag doll. Finally, somewhere along the way, with the encouragement of a patient, trusting, and believing editor, the characters took over. The book has a lot to do with stories my grandmother used to tell me about her life, her childhood, our ancestors, the way she made it from poverty in Montana to a bourgeois life in New Jersey. Across the years, I’d scribbled notes, first while she was alive and then after she was dead. I followed those notes like bread crumbs, followed them from Ohio to Montana to New York, Maine, to New Jersey—her life against the backdrop of the American landscape and the 20th century. Word by word, I followed her lead, and now I have a book. That’s how it is done, bushwhacking, swatting away at the bird. But the view from here now is very beautiful.
This was a happy day. Four little girls running around with hundreds and hundreds of sheep, across the Scottish moors on the island of Colonsay. We were living there. I was three years old. All my father wanted was to catch and hold one of those little lambs. He succeed, clearly. My mother caught it with her camera, forty-five years ago.
How many birthday cakes does a 9 year old boy need?
One for the football party, 22 boys in the park in the snow playing the game.
One for Jasper’s class party at school to celebrate his birthday.
One for the family birthday at home with his aunts and nonna and because Almond Cake is his favorite.
And lastly, one because he is a Valentine, born February 14, 2004.
So the answer: four cakes for three parties. His sister, Ana Livia Svenvold McPhee, loves to bake and design cakes and she made them all. The last cake was actually donated to her class at school because, really, three cakes were enough.
Recently my daughter read Our Town with her 7th grade English class. From the pages of the book fell an email from my cousin, Charles McPhee, dated 10/08/2009 — one year and seven months, to the day, before he would die of ALS, the illness that had already ravaged him by this point. The email was written with a device attached to his forehead. With the help of that device, painstakingly, he had typed his own quite humorous farewell (“As all of you here today know, I never like to leave a party early ….”) to be read by my father at his funeral. And it was. He was 49 years old. In his 10/8/09 email, speaking of other things, he asked:
do you know the last section of ‘our town,’ where Emily has died and waits with the other dead in the cemetery above Grovers Corners. she decides to re-live a day … and when you get a moment re-read it. it is My favorite description of consciousness.
I read the play then and again today. My daughter has just read it. I had put the email in the book so it would fall out and come to me again, so that he would speak to me again and remind me again and the email goes back into the book now so that I can forget and be surprised and remember all over again — not Charles. I will never forget Charles. Rather the consciousness he speaks of and that he understood as a young man and as a healthy man and as a dying man, and that he still speaks of — one year and nine months, to the day, since he died.
I’ve been traveling since I was a toddler. My mother and father and sisters and I took an ocean liner from New York City to England because my parents were afraid to fly. Young as I was I still remember little things. I remember that two of my sisters got sea sick out in the middle of the Atlantic, the great boat bobbing about and my sisters throwing up into bags tied to the bed posts. My sisters were green. On the deck we wrapped in blankets and listened to the ocean. It was April and cold. In London we had tea at Brown’s, tiny, crustless sandwiches presented on a tiered, silver tray. And after I recall believing that my mother was going to drive the taxi because she got in that side of the car. Somewhere we picked up the red VW bus and drove it to Spain, then to France, then to Scotland, to the Island of Colonsay where the McPhees come from, farmers originally — the island’s poorer folk. We lived there for six months while my father did research and wrote The Crofter and the Laird and my sisters went to a one-room school house and made little Scottish friends. I remember sitting on my father’s shoulders and tapping him with my heels as if he were a horse and saying, “Run, Daddy, run.” And he would run, at the edge of the sea, across the moors, thrilled by my delight and adventure and curiosity, and I’d kick him just a little bit more if he dared to slow down. “Run, Daddy, run.” I was traveling. I remember nothing more of the trip, but have been traveling ever since.
Out of the blue, as I was writing the above, my father emailed me the following — brief notations, a scribbled itinerary:
1967, April through September. Six months in Europe with entire
family, researching “The Crofter and the Laird”, “Pieces of the Frame”,
“Josie’s Well”, “From Birnam Wood to Dunsinane”, “Twynam of Wimbledon”, and
“Templex” (these pieces were written over the next couple of years). To
Bath, April 25. To Colonsay, May 1. May 6, climb Kilchattan hills (“Run,
Daddy, run.”) May 11, Balaromin Mor. May 23, Donald Garvard. May 24,
Oronsay — Andrew Oronsay. May 25, the Ardskenish Peninsula. June 4, Martha
baptized in the Church of Scotland. June 6, leave island. June 12, Loch
Ness Phenomenon Investigation Bureau. June 13, Dame Flora McLeod of McLeod,
Station Hotel, Inverness. June 14, Captain Smith Grant, Glenlivet. Then
George C. Harbinson, Macallan, Cragellachie. June 15, Donald and Jean
Sinclair, Dunsinnan. Later Sir Ian Moncreiff of that Ilk, Easter Moncreiff.
June 19-26, London, Wimbledon, Robert Twynam. June 27, France. July 4, by
ship from Valencia to Mallorca. July 25, leave Mallorca. August 1-4,
Madrid. August 5, La Granja, Segovia, camped Avila. August 6, camped
Salamanca. August 9 to September 7, Suances. August 20, arrive New York.
My three-year-old’s memory was a little off – – Colonsay first, etc. So much for memory generally. Memory is fiction. My father, 36 at the time, makes a mistake even with the final dates. Details aside, of their daughters our parents made travelers.
Dragging ourselves away from the pool at Villa Zinna and from the abundance of music at the Ibla Festival, we decided we had to make a pilgrimage to Scicli to see Christ in a Skirt. Scicli hides in a gorge in the Val di Noto and you come upon it like a surprise. In one way or another the town has been hiding there, mirage-like, since 300 BCE. In 1693 an earthquake leveled the town, killing 3000. It was rebuilt by the ruling Spaniards in their Baroque style — a maze of palaces and churches with San Matteo looming above it all on a rocky outcropping.
Scicli (pronounced SHE KLEE) is lovely to drift through as Jenny and I and our families did.
At high noon no one but us was foolish enough to be on the streets. The town was empty, the temperature hovering around 100 degrees, but dry and cool in the shade. Too hot for a gelato even.
Above, Santa Maria La Nova in background.
The palaces and churches brim with gargoyles and decorative fancies and crazy faces.
Chiesa del Carmine
Cristo in gonnella: Christ in his skirt
(I’m not sure why he’s wearing a skirt, but it is very rare. There is one other in Burgos, Spain.)
Visit Jenny McPhee for more on Sisters in Sicily.