Silver Linings: Letters, Man of Letters

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.

Silver Linings: Time To Celebrate

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.

Click image to RSVP, Click here for the recipe for “An Elegant Woman” cocktail.

Silver Linings: Coyotes, Maggots, Chrysanthemum Weeds–Day 52

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.

‘The Colosseum: View from the Farnese Gardens’, Rome, 1826. (Photo by Art Media/Print Collector/Getty Images)

Silver Linings: By Hook or By Crook

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

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

Silver Linings: Garden Update

Vegetable Garden

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.

emerging onions, if you can find them

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.

I miss New York City.

Inspired by Jenny McPhee

Silver Linings: On Keeping A Journal

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:

As always, Jenny McPhee whose most recent post, “Feathered Friends,” includes must watch tv, encourages me to find the silver linings.

Silver Linings: My Students

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.

A word is dead

When it is said,

Some say.

I say it just

Begins to live

That day.

Emily Dickinson

As always, inspired by Jenny McPhee … who may still be in bed

Silver Linings: baby chicks

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.

Inspired by Jenny McPhee

And, it turns out, I am not alone. This just in from the New York Times. In fact, the farmer who sells me the chicks is so distraught by demand for her chicks she can’t sleep, dreams of baby chicks hatching. Americans Stress-Bought All the Baby Chickens.


Silver Linings: Reading about gardening

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.

Inspired by Jenny McPhee