An Elegant Woman by Martha McPhee

An Elegant Woman

An Elegant Woman by Martha McPhee
English | 2020 | General Fiction/Classics | ePUB | 2.5 MB

Drawn from the author’s own family history, An Elegant Woman is a story of discovery and reinvention, following four generations of women in one American family. As Isadora, a novelist, and two of her sisters sift through the artifacts of their forebears’ lives, trying to decide what to salvage and what to toss, the narrative shifts to a winter day in 1910 at a train station in Ohio. Two girls wait in the winter cold with their mother—the mercurial Glenna Stewart—to depart for a new life in the West. As Glenna campaigns in Montana for women’s suffrage and teaches in one-room schoolhouses, Tommy takes care of her little sister, Katherine: trapping animals, begging, keeping house, cooking, while Katherine goes to school. When Katherine graduates, Tommy makes a decision that will change the course of both of their lives.

For as long as I could remember, my grandmother was dying and telling stories. “I’m just a candle in the wind,” she would say, and clutch her heart, sighing audibly. “I’m just an old, threadbare mule going round and round the katydid.” She grew up in Montana, but a long road had deposited her in Ogunquit, Maine, and into a yellow Victorian she had christened, after my grandfather died and in a moment of virtuosic melodrama, Last Morrow.

My grandmother had snow-white hair that she wore like a crown. Her exacting eyes were a startling emerald. Her large, sturdy frame seemed a fitting home for her strong opinions. She dressed impeccably in tailored suits, wore motoring gloves, netted hats, diamonds from Tiffany’s. Her snakeskin pocketbook fastened with a golden clasp, and when opened, the cinnamon scent of Dentyne wafted from within. On the dashboard of her black Lincoln Continental was a golden nameplate that read: Mrs. Charles Mitchell Brown—another name in a long line of borrowed names. She was Tommy; she was Katherine; she was Mother; she was Mrs. Brown; she was Aunt Thelma; she was Grammy. She wanted to live forever, or at least outlive Nancy Cooper Slagle, her great-grandmother, who lived to be 104 years old.

In the scheme of things, Grammy almost made it. She lived and lived and lived, despite all the clutching of her chest, the rolling back of her eyes, the repetition of that candle in the wind. Her own imminent demise became another yarn to spin. But she lived on and on. My sister Scarlett, deadpan but admiring just the same, called her a blowtorch in the wind.

To protect against oblivion the methods of two ancient Greek historians compete: Thucydides, the dominant example, tracked people down and interviewed them, took notes, recorded facts; and Herodotus, the long discredited fabulist, whose allegiance was to a good yarn, sometimes involving gods walking among the place, giving a nudge to events. The thing about Herodotus is that you don’t need paper; you just need to keep talking, and on the backs of a multitude of voices the narrative is carried, like the soft shirt-rustle of an afternoon breeze across eternity.

When my three older sisters and I would visit, Grammy would take us on tours of Last Morrow, showing us “the melodeon that had been around the horn twice,” a china bowl belonging to Nancy Cooper Slagle, cousin of James Fenimore Cooper, she would say, telling us how Nancy had carried the bowl over the Allegheny Mountains as she fled the Confederate South during the Civil War. Her husband had died in Libby Prison, leaving her penniless, a Yankee widow with seven children. She carried the bowl—given to her as a wedding present—from Richmond to the safety of her husband’s family in Ohio. Grammy wanted us to hear these things. She would pause in her stories, ask one of us girls to get her smelling salts. “I feel faint,” she would say. And from her vanity one of us would snatch the small silver container filled with ammonia so she’d keep telling her stories. With a sniff of it, she’d sit up straight again, the bulk of her with those green, green eyes, eyes that could hold a child, midbreath, between the future and the past. “I’m not long for this world,” she’d say, like a prophet. “You need to know from where you came and to whom you belong.”

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