I Felt Bad

Many writers were born in the month of May: Transcendentalists Margaret Fuller and Ralph Waldo Emerson, poet and novelist May Sarton, biologist and environmentalist Rachael Carson, essayist and novelist Jamaica Kincaid, poet Walt Whitman, and Sherlock Holmes creator Arthur Conan Doyle.

Nora Ephron was also born in May, and it is to her that my thoughts turn on this last day of the month. Why to her and not to the inspiration of ground-breaking Rachael Carson or to Conan Doyle, who provided me with life-long entertainment?

I’m not entirely sure. Ephron was a journalist first, and probably last, and in between she was many things, including a novelist, playwright, screenwriter, film director, feminist, wit and terrific cook, judging by her recipes. I enjoyed her I Feel Bad About My Neck: And Other Thoughts On Being A Woman and Heartburn and its recipes (and in a Noraesque turn, I’ll get to one recipe in the last paragraph), but I felt her loss very much when she died.

Nora Ephron had suffered from acute myeloid leukemia for six years when she died in 2012, but only her immediate family knew about it. Apparently, her closest friends didn’t know and must have been even more shocked than I was when her death was announced. I don’t go in for creepy fan imaginings, so it wasn’t that I thought I’d lost a friend. We’d all lost a woman who was brilliant and funny and could be relied upon to entertain and inform us with her writing. She was relatively young when she died, but far from young, and she’d had what is cloyingly referred to as a full life. So why did I feel bad, terrible, when I first heard of her death?

Looking back, I find her exit a class act: no appearing on talk shows discussing her illness, no raising millions for acute myeloid leukemia research in public, no last words for total strangers. Why she didn’t include her close friends in her last, closest circle I can’t say, and it certainly must have hurt them, since she let them know how close they were exactly.

Besides the work she left us, she left us some great recipes. If you haven’t read Heartburn, do. It’s an autobiographical novel that’s painful, hilarious and successful in seeking revenge. It also contains Nora’s “instructions” on how to make the perfect peach pie. As we swing into summer and an abundance of delicious peaches, plan to make it. I urge you to read her steps to the perfection of the pie in Heartburn, but if not, this link will take you there: http://www.food.com/recipe/nora-ephrons-peach-pie-440852.

I think that the passing of Nora Ephron felt like a loss for me because of the sum of her parts: the peach pie, her exquisite humor and gimlet eye, and this quote: “Above all, be the heroine of your own life, not the victim.”

Origins: hello sailor!

My umpteenth great-grandpa?

 Most of us are interested in our origins, whether we think we know a lot about our ancestors or not. Our abiding interest supports numerous genealogy search engines, professional genealogists and several versions of a TV show where the host reveals a celebrity’s ancestry on camera (the celebrity often cries in response, but it seems to be real emotion, not bathos).

I mine my love of origins for the fiction I write, and I have pursued my own origins as an amateur genealogist. I thought I knew my family’s origins well: my mother came from Northern Ireland and my father’s family were overwhelmingly English, traced on one side to the 16th century, with only one Polish or German great-grandmother known to me. Still, how could I resist the availability of DNA test kits for genealogical information? I didn’t even try.

I chose the National Geographic test kit, since the results become part of an international research project. While waiting for the results, I was certain that the matches would be completely English/Irish/Scottish, but I hoped for a big surprise: the telltale of a hidden coupling. The National Geographic’s testing also searches for matches with very old genes, back to the Neanderthals. I have long been somewhat obsessed with and heartbroken for the Neanderthals, the hominoid group that failed. I’m thrilled at the result of a higher than average percent Neanderthal match. Plus, it explains a lot.

The matches to my more modern genome sequence were in fact a bit of a surprise: only 56% to Northwestern European, which includes Ireland and the United Kingdom, but a whopping 25% match to Southwestern European (The Iberian Peninsula of Spain and Portugal, and Southwestern France), 11% Eastern European (the graphic of the match hovered over Poland) and 8% Northeastern European (where Russia meets Finland). This set of matches is very close to what the National Geographic labeled a French pattern.

The European-only result was not a surprise (but admittedly, a bit of a disappointment: no secret Native Americans, Africans, Asians, or Jewish Diaspora), unlike my greater match to the French pattern than to the British. Light dawned when I remembered the Norman Invasion of England and Ireland, bringing French blood, as had the mysterious Celts/Gauls much earlier, a migration wave that began in Central Europe and moved west.

As for the Iberian Peninsula match, the Spanish Armada brought Spanish and Portuguese blood to Ireland when the ships crashed on the western Irish coast in 1588, and while most of the crews were killed by Irish lords in cahoots with the English, those who made it to Ulster, not then under English control, were welcomed to stay or helped to safety in Scotland. Bingo. My maternal grandmother’s Scots-Ulster family were “Black Irish” because of their black hair and eyes, and olive complexions, rumored to have sprung from some lucky Spanish Armada sailor.

With my own results in hand, I did some research on Irish genetics and found a Hub post by Marie McKeown https://owlcation.com/stem/Irish-Blood-Genetic-Identity, in which she discusses recent research into Irish DNA, which reveals several waves of migration to Ireland over the millenia. According to the analysis, the early settlers of Ireland were not directly related to the Celts. In fact, analysis of a 5,200 year-old Irish farmer points to Spain and Sardinia, although the farmer had little relation to modern Irish people. Moving forward in time to 4,000 years ago, a heavy dose of Russia and Ukraine was found, and a much closer genetic link to the modern Irish, Scottish and Welsh than the old farmer’s. Analysis of modern Irish people also suggests a close relation with the people of northern Spain, particularly the Basque region.

Bingo again? Maybe. A common theory is that the “Black Irish” are descended from the survivors of the Spanish Armada, but it’s equally possible that the ancestors were Irish traders, sailing between Ireland and Spain, or Spaniards not of the Armada who resettled in Ireland.

I prefer to stay with my sailor, my umpteenth great-grandpa, that dark-haired, fortunate fellow, who found succor in Ulster or Scotland, and ended up in my genes, along with all of the others: pass the pierogies, por favor.


Help me say just the right thing about love


I’m looking for short, suitable poems or prose sections about committed love to read at our friends’ wedding in June. Our friends, who are two young women, have asked for poems and prose by women writers only, knocking Shakespeare right out of contention…or does it? I’ll get back to Shakespeare in the last paragraph.

We’ve agreed that the poem or prose to be read at the wedding should not be long, have explicit sexual content, describe pain or loss, and should gloss over who the lovers are with respect to gender, if not about two women. A lot to ask? Apparently. A few have been found so far (Mary Oliver, Maya Angelou, Moya Cannon, May Sarton), and there are many women poets and writers, thank goodness, so the search continues, but I need help: suggestions will be very welcome for the wedding reading.

The Mary Sidney Society http://www.marysidneysociety.org/ , John Hudson, a Shakespearian scholar, and The Dark Lady Players of New York https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Dark_Lady_Player are proponents of the theory that the works attributed to Shakespeare were written by a woman (but not the same woman). I haven’t read about these women, but I have read other theories about what Will actually wrote. Were the plays and sonnets credited to Shakespeare actually written by somebody else, whether Christopher Marlow or Mary Sidney or Amelia Bassano Lanier? Have you researched Shakespeare and the authorship question? What do you think?

Don’t miss the wonderful work of Irish poet Moya Cannon:  http://moyacannon.org/  https://wfupress.wfu.edu/poem-of-the-week/poem-week-viola-damore-moya-cannon/

Country Drama

A small fisher cat

Do you live in the country now? Did you grow up in a rural area? If so, you know that if all the world’s a stage, the country is high drama. I awoke early one morning last summer to hear what sounded like someone scraping a metal colander with a fork. A very unique smell accompanied the sound. My wife Sally’s usual early morning activities are making coffee, printing off newspaper crosswords, and putting the dinner dishes away. Colanders don’t feature, usually. Still, I clung to my bed.A voice penetrated my return to the Land of Nod. “Just so you are aware, I think we have a bat. It’s clicking. Arthur was sniffing under the stove with interest. We’re going out for his walk now. I was going to leave you a note, but I thought better of it.” Arthur, a terrier mix, turned on his heels and trotted after her.

Abandoned, I dressed with lightening speed, found the butterfly net we keep handy for such exigencies, and pulled a baseball cap on. I closed off the kitchen as securely as I could, all the while listening to the metallic clicking in the midst of the miasma (did bats smell? I hadn’t remembered that they did). I found the note (and kept it) and waited in another room. Once they returned, we three ventured into the kitchen and followed the sound and Arthur’s twitching nose to a little cabinet next to the washing machine. We pulled the cabinet out. Sally peered in and I held the butterfly net at the ready.

“Do bats have necks?”

Necks?” Did they? I’d never fainted, but I thought about it.

“It’s like a pencil. It’s shaped like a pencil.” Sally raised her index finger in demonstration.

Craning my neck around in order to see the critter, I saw its little face. “It’s a weasel, I think.” Consultation later with a nature book led us to conclude that she was an ermine wearing her brown summer outfit. We imagined her gender due to her delicacy.

At this point, it’s only fair to confess that we are both city born and bred (although I suspect that the real country people have guessed), only removed to the country life in maturity. I won’t pretend that we came up with a successful plan immediately, but eventually, Sally took Arthur into another room and I opened the back door in the hopes that the weasel would see her chance. Within seconds, the clicking stopped and the smell evaporated. I’d had my back to the door, pouring coffee (well, really, there’s only so much stress I can take first thing without coffee), and it must have zoomed outside to freedom.

Looking out our country kitchen window one morning last month, I saw a fisher cat, possibly rabid, running erratically and too close to the house. Sally and the dog had driven off in the car for the usual morning walk. While watching the cat run around, bucking like a bronco, I watched for her car to return, so  I could warn her. When she pulled in, I checked for the cat and finding its absence, ran to the car, dressed in pajamas, robe, and tall LL Bean rubber boots (ever the fashion plate, even in a crisis).

By the way, if you’re thinking “kitty cat,” in response to the phrase “fisher cat,” think again: at 30 inches and 9 pounds (although ours looked much, much bigger), the fisher cat is the largest weasel in the Northeastern U.S., one which has the ability to deftly flip porcupines to attack their spineless bellies. Death is never far away in the country, and the fisher cat, which can run, swim, and climb trees, is the memo that makes your spine shiver.

For another and wonderful take on things weasel, read Mary Bonina’s poem “Wild” at http://www.marybonina.com/poems-from-living-proof.html. Be sure to enjoy her other poems under “Excerpts” while there.