Flesh and Blood – A Memorable Memoir

A year or so back, a friend gave me a copy of a beautifully crafted memoir entitled “Of Flesh and Blood: A History of My Family in Seven Sicknesses.” It is written by Dr. Turner, from “Call the Midwife,” or more accurately, it was written by Stephen McGann, the actor who portrays Dr. Turner. He has chosen a fresh and clever architecture for this book. He uses illness as the load-bearing walls to support the textures and patterns, the shape of his family over time.

Like all good memoirists, he begins with a question. How did the McGanns go from a family of extreme poverty in Ireland to a flock of successful and siblings, actors whose names glittered on marquees, the brothers sharing real estate on theatrical posters, grinning out at us with those larger-than-life and  handsome faces?

How did this occur in a relatively short time, a span of a 150 years or so, especially when so many of the McGanns “failed to thrive” in infancy, died of starvation, in fact, during the potato famine? How was it his branch of the McGanns found their way to Liverpool, still poor, still vulnerable to diseases from overcrowding and poverty, but with hope for a different outcome?

McGann sets out to answer these questions, delving into family birth, marriage and death records, researching illnesses and sussing out secrets, until he comes to the page like a builder might, unfurling his technical drawings, tracing with a finger the medical and historical context of one illness after another, this backward-looking blueprint of how he has come to be, and from whom, and why.

The result is a sophisticated piece of writing, elegant in its use of language, but the real strength of the book lies in the rich and engaging way he tells us about his people. McGann’s work is clear-headed and clear-eyed, honest, deeply personal but never sentimental. You can trust this one, you think, and you are happy to sit with him and hear his stories for as long as he wants to tell them.

As fascinating as “Flesh and Blood” is as a memoir, I was equally fascinated by this.

Stephen McGann became interested in genealogy and he began collecting and researching his family history at a young age—as an adolescent, a high school student—a kid.

I think of genealogy as the great endeavor of the geriatric, the retiree, at the very least the middle-aged.

I am gratified and oddly reassured by his youthful enthusiasm, and I like to imagine him, this young lad with his hair flopping in his eyes, bending over dusty family Bibles, and dustier family records and photos in boxes in attics or basements. Perhaps he shared table space with an octogenarian in a courthouse records room somewhere, as they asked each other, Can you read this—“Is it a T or F?” or “ What is that date? Does that look like a 3 to you?”

In the past week I have talked to my cousin as we have worked to make sense of some new information she has uncovered. She, herself, is recently retired, and a genealogist, and right now she is working on our side of the family.

She can list the names and birth order of my grandmother and her siblings. I can never remember if there were six children or seven. They were born in Indian Territory, 120, 130 years ago.

Granny told us stories of her childhood when we were young. I loved the stories, of course, but when I was the perfect age to start paying real attention—in adolescence, in my twenties—I couldn’t be bothered to ask questions, to write things down.

And now there is no one to ask.

And there is a family mystery.

But there is also a new cousin out there, one we didn’t know about, a granddaughter of one of my grandmother’s sisters, living in Illinois, I think.

With this mystery and this new relative, I am beginning to see the appeal of all this family history business. That genealogy isn’t just a remedy for boredom, like working jigsaw puzzles, something easily done sitting down. There is the hunt, the discovery. There is the unexplainable something —call it resonance, connection—that comes with knowing your people. Knowing their stories. Making sense of those stories, making sense of yourself.

Stephen McGann’s book, “Of Flesh and Blood” sneaked up on me, helped me think of family genealogy in a new way. That the search for family history begins as all good mysteries, as all good memoirs do, with a question, and then another one, and another.

New Year’s Eve –Almost

And what to do with the pittance that remains of 2018? In my misspent youth I would be arranging and rearranging my outfit for New Year’s Eve right about now, would burn up the phone lines with plans and agendas and shopping lists and logistics for the Night of Nights.

Oh, there was high drama, almost certainly, as plans changed, members of my partying posse dropped off the list, or new people had to be accommodated. And what to wear, what to wear? This was the question that kept us up at night, staring at the ceiling, kept us in the mall, kept us perusing the cosmetic counters in search of the perfect shade of blush, lipstick, that hideous blue eye shadow.

We wanted snow and frosted windows to go with our wools of winter white, our sparkly sweaters. Our fellas would appear, dashing in new leather jackets, but shivering like delicate flowers or stray puppies, because, anyone will tell you, leather is cold.

Too often the evening ended, if not in disaster, then disappointment, because no matter the attention to detail, New Year’s in reality would never be mistaken for a snowy and romantic Manhattan soiree, with twinkling lights, and lavish apartments and guests as glittery as the ball in Times Square.

We always knew we were not in New York City, but Owensboro, Lexington, or Louisville, the places I was most apt to ring in the New Year. I I think in those days we just tried too hard, frantically working to have fun, for anything less than a legendary evening was just a total waste of time.

My current outfit for New Year’s now is one of my favorites, something soft and well-worn, and like the sign I saw once advertising an upscale car wash—it delivers the promise of “nuthin’ touchin’ “ I may be with friends and family, and some years I am home before darkness falls. On occasion I am home in time to celebrate the turning of the calendar with Great Britain. 
 One New Year’s Eve I celebrated with the Marshall Islands as I drank my morning coffee, just to get it over with.

I appreciate these quiet New Year’s, and I prepare them, too, but with less fervor and fever, and with more gratitude and warm regards for the year. I am grateful for the year just done—if it was a good one, then thank you very much.

If it was a bad one, or a challenging one, or a sad one, then, I am grateful for its going. And I look to the new year for some relief or a change of perspective and patience.
I buy new notebooks, calendars, journals, and pens. I admire my penmanship on those first few entries, letters lined up like neat little soldiers marching across the page. By February I am back to writing on the backs of envelopes, my letters slanting, illegible—sometimes I can’t decipher what I have just written, and it doesn’t matter anyway.

I will lie awake and reorder my plans as I stare at the ceiling, too lazy to turn on a lamp and write it down, committing it all to memory, awaking with no recall whatsoever. I have given up on some of my organizational interventions and embraced others. I still think the perfect calendar will save me, but I only think of it in the same way I think unicorns might have once been real, or the way I envision a parallel universe—it’s interesting and I am open to the possibilities but it has no relevance in my day to day life.

I enter into this new year a lot calmer than I have in years past. I spent 2018 getting rid of things—objects, activities and obligations that no longer bring joy to my life.
In a recent interview the British actress, Hermione Norris, said that one way she keeps depression at bay is to be mindful of the company she keeps. I read that, then I read it again. It resonated with me. I cast about and took a serious look at who was rubbing off on me in good ways and bad, who causes me pain, who enriches me.

I made some adjustments.

This too, is a kind of uncluttering.

So, come ahead on, 2019.

I will be well-rested and relaxed when you peek over the horizon on a cold Kentucky morning. I will have be lighter and less encumbered. I will be the one drinking coffee and looking east, patiently waiting for you, and a new day, to begin.

2019 – Not Resolutions, exactly, but…

Here are some things I wish to improve in the new year. Not resolutions, because I don’t make those, but just some things to think about and work toward. Things that, in my rich fantasy life, will make me 5’10” tall, thin and blonde.

I had little expectation of enjoying France this fall, beyond seeing my pals, Beth and Kris, and maybe eating some great cheese. I didn’t plan on falling in love with Bordeaux, the vineyards, the lifestyle, and the great service.

That’s right. You heard me.

Great service.

I attribute this, in part, to the crash course in shopping protocol that Beth hissed in my ear before I entered my first shop. The French greet you before the bell stops tinkling, and the custom is to offer a pleasant bonjour in return. And not just any bonjour, but one offered in a sing-song lift, an octave higher than normal.

I excelled at it.

The inflection is almost exactly the same one Czechs use in their greeting and I have years of practice with that. So now I think I have an ear for languages, and am toying with the idea of taking French lessons, because I clearly have a gift, and it is just how I see myself. All five feet, ten inches of me.

Some of my pals met up with some of their pals in London, and when they came home they talked about their admiration for the way their British friends live. Let’s start with the fact that they are just lovely people, down-to-earth and creative, and accomplished in interesting ways. But more than that, my friends were graciously treated, and they both made mention of it.

I wanted to know more about that, so they told me. It is about being invited to their friends’ home and all the attention to detail that surrounds their lives. The food was delicious, well and lovingly prepared. Abundant Everything at table, just, well, right.

The guest room wasn’t large and fussy, but the linens were luxurious. Falling asleep and waking up were events cradled in comfort and ease. Indoor living and outdoor living were seamless, pleasant and easy. Striped sling chairs in the garden, a little table for the lemonade. Flowers well attended.

I have friends who create the same kind of graciousness right here at home. They build fires and read by them, on rainy afternoons or snowy mornings, with coffee and warm socks. Friends who would rather cook for you than meet at a restaurant—because their food is better. Which is true, but it is also true that the act of feeding people, and doing it well, has at the heart of it the gift of time, attention, care.

Graciousness.

Over the holidays a pal and I were talking about our lives, our hopes for the coming year. We were discussing, as always, clutter. I have too much of it, she doesn’t have enough. Naturally neat, she purges and curates her belongings to the point of austerity, and then she feels untethered, impermanent. At which point she goes and gets more stuff, and the winnowing begins anew.

We decided that the idea of gracious living might guide us both. So, I am working on that, one comforter, one bedside lamp at a time.

I ain’t getting any younger and the time has come, is long overdue, for paying attention to my health. Blessed with my father’s prairie stock genes and my mother’s hardy constitution— she could eat anything, could our Gretchen—I am rarely ill and surprisingly fit for someone as out of shape as I am.

I am paying more attention to what I eat, and when, and I find myself committing to memory articles I read about how to tell when a calorie isn’t a calorie, and why we must debunk the myth of metabolism, followed in a few days by new articles on how to fire said metabolism up.

You won’t find me eating kale, or chia seeds. Chia seeds, come on. I tried them once and the gelatinous mess they made in my teeth gave me nightmares for a week. I figure, if chia seeds are a superfood in their native Central and South America, then it is only sporting that a similar, but alternative, superfood must grow around here.

My father would have voted for the pinto bean.

So, I am dedicating myself to healthier eating in the coming year, and working on my house—adding gracious elements, removing clutter. I may download Babble for a laugh. If I can speak French, do I need to be blonde?