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.
I am living once again at my childhood home. Weird, yes. When I was a kid there were ten children, goats, donkeys, a horse, chickens, ducks, peacocks. We ate the lambs for Easter. My mother had a flourishing garden. There was chaos and much more. I left as soon as I could. Now I am home again, now with my daughter (20 and a college sophomore) and my son (a high school sophomore), and Mark, of course. For many years I have wanted a garden even if I have no idea what to do. Day 3 of self-isolation we have begun to feel our way forward. Long ago, when the kids were little, they liked to play a game: What would you bring to a Zombie Apocalypse. Seeds I would always say.
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 Jennyand 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.)
About once a week a stranger visits my site by googling “girls in patent leather boots.” I don’t want to know what he is hoping to find, but on his quest he stumbles upon my sister and me. As far as as I can remember I have never written a post about or used the term “patent leather boots.” So be it. Now I am. As a little girl I wanted white patent leather boots so badly I wrote it on my Christmas list for three years in a row. (My parents searched and searched, but could not find them in a child’s size.) Jenny had black patent leather boots, therefore I wanted white — the same but different, maybe even better. In this picture, I’m wearing white knee socks. From a distance, I hoped, they looked like leather. We’re standing on the wing of my mother’s divorce lawyer’s airplane. His name was Henry Hill and he used to fly over our house upside down just for fun. “Oh there’s Henry,” Mom would say, rushing out to the deck, looking up at the sky. And there he was, swooping all around, flirting with my mother even though both were involved with others. The plane would disappear, but before long he’d show up with a girl on his arm for a dip in the steamy indoor swimming pool, the water so hot it wrinkled your skin, underwater speakers playing Neil Young and Bob Dylan — the little kids (there were ten of us in all) told to stay out because it was “adult time” in the pool. In the summers, Henry would fly us up to Maine to dig clams for an afternoon. Here, in the picture, we’re near Prout’s Neck. I have no idea what we’re staring at, but I love our contrasting expressions: Jenny is a little skeptical, mouth pinched closed, hoping, though, to be disproven; I’m a little in awe, a bit afraid. I can feel the cool salt air, smell it mixed with pine. We don’t have pierced ears yet and last year’s dresses are more fashionable now because we’ve grown taller. Our mother has tied bows at the end of our braids. I’m clutching Juicy Fruit. Even so, with those boots and the desire for another pair, the adventures having already begun, jetting around with a divorce lawyer, we’re reaching forward toward the adult world.
And here we are. Almost 40 years have passed. The divorce lawyer has died. Jenny has stopped getting older. (Her birthdays ended when she turned 37. It’s a neat trick.) Skeptical, hopeful, in awe, a little bit afraid, many adventures, Jenny still by my side.
Jenny, my sister, is now reviewing for Bookslut, the brilliant book review site. She has a column called The Bombshell. Read it and enjoy. Also be aware: she’s about to launch her own site any day now: jennymcphee.com.
At the end of Lyndall Gordon’s Lives Like Loaded Guns: Emily Dickinson and Her Family’s Feuds, the biographer describes the source of the poet’s genius as: “…a hidden life like a ‘Bomb’ in her bosom. The poetry it fueled,” she advises, “must be seen in terms of New England individualism, the Emersonian ethos of self-reliance which in its fullest bloom eludes classification. It’s more radical and quirky than anything in Europe, more awkward and less loveable than English eccentricity; in fact, dangerous.”
It gives me enormous pleasure to inaugurate my Bookslut column, which I have entitled The Bombshell (bomb-shell: a shattering or devastating act, event, etc.; a fair-haired person, esp. a woman, of startling vitality or physique. -OED), with Gordon’s bombshell of a book about one of literature’s greatest bombshells, who also happened to be a flaming redhead.