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: I know nothing about gardening, but am determined to learn

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.

Inspired by Jenny McPhee

Plowing Up Gold: Montana 1910


An ad in Polish showcasing the bounty of Montana’s land.  It was created by the Milwaukee Road which the year before had completed its transcontinental line and needed to populate the route.  The word of Montana’s riches was spread across the US and throughout Europe.  It worked, helped by the Enlarged Homestead Act of 1909 in which the government gave away some 4,000,000 acres of land for dryland farming — if it seems like an oxymoron, it (sort of) was.  Because of a few good years of rain and because of the effective ad campaign, Montana became known as the Treasure State when only a few years before it was characterized as desert in children’s text books.  I just read a wonderful piece by Jonathan Raban, The Unlamented West, published in the New Yorker — May 20, 1996.  It later became part of a book:


10,000 Acres Of Family History In Glendive, Montana

On the Svenvold farm

After 19 years together, my husband took me to his father’s childhood home on a farm outside of Glendive, Montana and I met more Svenvolds than I knew existed—cousins and second cousins and cousins once and twice removed.  I’m rich with in-laws I didn’t know I had.  Their grandfather, Rasmus, came from Norway at the end of the 19th century.  He bought a cattle brand at auction to discover there were some 2000 cattle.  In 1909, to take advantage of the Homestead Act he sold the cattle brand and became a rich man.  He didn’t need to farm, so he didn’t.  A gentleman farmer was he. With his cash, he built a state of the art farm house with electricity and running water, married a Norwegian girl from an adjacent farm. Her name was Sandra Waag and she came from Norway to take care of her brother, Ingvald.

The remains of Ingvald’s homestead

Sandra and Rasmus had four boys.  My husband’s father, Harold, was one of those boys.  Some years later, quite ill, a traveling preacher swindled Rasmus for everything but the farm.  Rasmus and his sons never went to church again.  His youngest son, Raleigh, started farming the land to make ends meet, planting high protein wheat as his other brothers went off to pursue their own lives and dreams.  Raleigh and his wife had six children, five boys and a girl.  All of those children were in Glendive this July to celebrate their mother’s 90th birthday.

Some of the Svenvold men

As it happened, my grandmother came to Glendive when she was 6 years old, in 1910.  She came with her little sister and my great grandmother, Glenna.

Glenna was fleeing her husband who had, as my grandmother liked to tell me, “a wandering eye for women.”  In Montana, she became an itinerant school teacher, traveling wherever need led.  There was a lot of need.  Rural one room school houses dotted the landscape and school teachers lasted only briefly. Glenna got schools up and running and then moved on to the next hardship post.

Upper Seven Mile School

What remains inside the Upper Seven Mile School

She left her young daughters in town to fend for themselves.  The landscape hasn’t much changed since Rasmus and Glenna were alive — ravines and gullies, mesas like towers all draped in green.  The Svenvold farm is on a table that sits high above the carved land, over fifteen square miles of wheat and cattle, spreading out like an ocean—one gorgeous farm house, 100 years old, in the middle of it all in which my husband’s father was raised.  I never knew him.  He died before I met his son.  Surrounded by Svenvold men, the highest concentration of them I have ever or ever will encounter, welcoming and warm and loving, I felt I met Mark’s Dad.  I feel I know him now.  Out there in the midst of all this it occurred to both my husband and me how once long ago in 1910 we were both there in our grandparents.  Our daughter said to us, “I have an idea.  Write a novel in which Rasmus and Glenna meet. It could have happened that way. They meet, you know,” and she winked.

She’s Not Afraid

There’s a bull in this picture.  Can you see it?

One bull for about 25 cows.  The bull here is just left of center, the biggest beast in the picture.  His job happens in the summer months.  He can tell a cow is fertile by smelling her pee, literally putting his nose to her.  In November the vet comes to do pregnancy checks.  If a cow isn’t pregnant she’s sent off to McDonald’s.  Ranchers do not eat veal and a child on a ranch learns everything she needs to know about the birds and the bees by the time she’s five or six.

Livia Svenvold McPhee on the Svenvold cattle ranch in Bloomfield outside of Glendive, Montana.  Summer 2011.