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.
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.
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.
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
The day before yesterday marked three weeks that I have been in New Jersey. I have planted snow peas, sugar snaps, kale, spinach, cranberry beans, onions, broccoli rabe, parsley, basil–both red and green. I failed with the spinach, planting it too deep and covering it too tightly so replaced it with lettuce. I killed three baby chicks by overheating them–an accident, of course. And I weeded a patch of a flower bed too enthusiastically with a new favorite tool (a Japanese weeding sickle) and removed some dormant flower bulbs, killing them too. But I am learning and I enjoy learning something new. When I’m not teaching, overseeing school at home, or caring for my mother, I spend the free time watching YouTube videos about gardening. The kale I planted is sprouting in its long beautiful row.
My many onions are pushing up their green stems.
I replaced the dead chicks with six more, though it took a good ten days to get them since there has been a run on the local chick supply.
They are Purebred Ameraucanas which will have muffs, beards and a pea comb, and lay beautiful blue eggs. I also have Cream Legbars which look like chipmunks, are active and curious and are good foragers. (In fact, just today the legbars fought over a stink bug in their little coop.) They too will lay beautiful blue eggs.
Though published today in The Wirecutter in the New York Times, I wrote this piece last summer, long before Covid-19. Keeping a journal now however, observing, bearing witness, taking note of all this pandemic brings, is more important than ever. It’s urgent, actually. To quote from a writer I admire so tremendously, Valeria Luiselli, in an Associated Press article, “’I think it is my duty, and the duty of every writer, whether is a science-fiction writer, a journalist, a poet, each at their own pace and within their own capacities, to document this moment,’ she said.”
This is an “excerpt” from my journal, included in the above art. It’s a response to a Louise Bourgeois exhibit at MOMA from a few years ago. I had an apron from my grandmother that I had saved for years, but didn’t know what to do with. I cut it up and glued it to the page because Bourgeois used scraps of discarded clothe in her art. The Bourgeois work that inspired the response:
One week ago we returned from spring break — and some spring break it was — to the classroom, now on line through Zoom. I’ve been teaching Creative Writing for many years. I love being with my students in the classroom. I learn from them, we exchange ideas. This particular class is working on one story each across the semester, turning in their work in installments. Their themes are the usual: grief, love, identity, desire, adventure–navigated sometimes with humor, always with the aim of discovery. In all my years of teaching, I’ve never felt as grateful for what I do. We get to interrogate stories, use stories to write our way out of the present, to seek to understand the past, peer into the future.
As it happens, my desk in my childhood home where I’ve returned to care for my mother, is in my stepfather’s study. Here he saw “patients” when I was a kid. He is long dead, his patients even further removed by time, but I remember them. They came for therapy–a nun, a pair of Shik brothers who wore turbans, an old lady who wet her pants. We kids, ten of us, had to be quiet when the patients came. They lay on a red velvet chaise and spilled their woes. The library was filled with books on sex and sexuality because my stepfather was not actually a therapist. Rather, he was a philosopher writing the definitive treatise on love. Like Edward Casaubon from Middlemarch, writing the Key to all Mythologies, my stepfather’s treatise was his life’s work, incomplete at his death. His study terrified me for the strange books that seemed to fall from the shelves, the red couch upon which the patients lay. But I sit here now, preparing for today’s class and on the bookcase in front of me, my desk apparently angled in the right direction, I see: Shelley, Byron, Homer, Plath, Rich, Dickinson, Eliot, Pound, Graves, Frost, Poe, Milton, Stevens, Thomas, Kinnell, Hughes, Lawrence, maybe too many men, but stories all the same, poems to save our lives, all of these poets dead and yet alive.
With my students, this particular group of eighteen, we are on an unexpected and epic journey into the unknown. Among other things, we are learning to carry on, to put aside terror, one word at a time.
Coming home to my childhood wouldn’t be complete without baby chicks. When I was little, one of my jobs was to collect the eggs, which I did in the evenings after school. The coop was close to the woods and far from the house. I was terrified to go there and mad that my mother and stepfather made me do that, especially on those dark, fall evenings after the time change. Entering the hen house though was always calming, warm, bustling with the busy hens. I lugged water and food for them and then hunted for the eggs. Finding them was like finding Easter eggs, the good kind stuffed with cash–brown and warm. I always forgot a basket so made one by pulling my shirt away from stomach, a bowl to carry the bounty. As I learn about the garden, I’m also trying to learn about the chicks. For now, I love the names in my collection: California Whites, Black Australorps, Colombian Wyandotte’s, Barred Plymouth Rocks, Sapphire Olive Eggers, and one Turken (featherless neck, featured in the above photo, biggest of the lot). I am waiting for Americunas, Cream Legbars, and Marans to hatch so that I can add those as well. My criteria: good layers and beautiful, colored eggs. With these chicks I should have eggs that are white, all different shades of brown, pink, green and blue. First things first, beauty matters. Silver linings. My mother can sit for hours, tending the chicks. How’s it going being home again? As long as I am gardening and figuring out chickens, it is fine…so far.
We’ve planted kale, spinach, broccoli rabe, strawberries, snow peas, sugar snaps and all those onions. My garden so far:
In my part of New Jersey, there has been a lot of rain with time for reading. I am not alone, of course, planting a garden in these terrifying days. There is a long tradition of Victory Gardens. My grandmother planted one in Butte, Montana during the early days of the First World War. From yesterday’s New York Times: Food Supply Anxiety Brings Back Victory Gardens.
Friends across the internet have been sharing books for me to read. Today a friend from France recommended Le Guide Clause–a practical guide to gardening from a long time ago and that is still producing editions.
Another friend recommended Founding Gardeners by Andrea Wulf–a history of early US through the founding fathers’ obsession with botany.
And yet another friend recommended something more practical:
On I go: cranberry beans, lettuces. Reading Founding Gardeners, I may even move beyond the garden plant some trees.
Yesterday we planted kale, spinach, and broccoli rabe. Today we will plant onions, snow peas, and sugar snaps. Loads of onions. I love onions. In Italy, onions are known as the regina della cucina–queen of the kitchen. Snow peas and sugar snaps make me think of sweet peas which make me think of my grandmother who grew up impoverished in Montana. She wanted to write a novel, Sweet Peas and Rattlesnakes, but never did. Instead, she employed the oral tradition and told stories across her life. I spent the past thirty years understanding how to turn them into fiction. My mother loved to garden, but her memory is gone, so as I sort this out, my garden, I rely on friends, the internet, and the channeling of my grandmother’s determination as she made her way through childhood in a bleak Montana. As it happens, she survived the 1918 flu pandemic in that state — one of the hardest hit in the nation. I could quote some of the things she said, but they hit too close to home right now and I don’t want to scare myself–Silver Linings. She did mention that it was believed the Germans sent the virus in little envelopes. Sound familiar? Back to the garden and all that I need to learn…. For example, I had always thought that sweet peas were like sugar snaps, a delicious edible pea. Today I learned that they are poisonous, if fragrant, flowers. My grandmother’s title, Sweet Peas and Rattlesnakes, today takes a much darker turn. Gardening: Any tips? I love tips.