These Words Matter: Alison McGhee

Oh, Francie Nolan. Where are you now? Are you now?

These Words Matter: Alison McGhee

By my rough calculations, if you’re still alive, you’re close to 100 years old. I wish I could talk to you and find out how your life turned out. When I last saw you, you were wearing a dove-gray shirt and skirt, and you had good friends at work. You and your brother Neely used to talk about the old times while you ironed his union shirts. You loved your boyfriend but you wished you were in love with him. You wanted that wildness, that intensity.

So did I. You were my kindred spirit growing up, even though you lived in crowded, dirty Brooklyn, and I grew up in the woods and wide-open farm fields in the foothills of the Adirondacks.

You couldn’t stand it when people were cruel, like when the teachers were mean to the poor kids, and neither could I. You were one of those poor kids, actually. Remember when the doctor at the free clinic talked about how dirty and smelly you were, as if you weren’t sitting right in front of him, and you said nothing? It was your brother Neely’s turn next, and you spoke up on his behalf. You told the doctor that your little brother already knew how smelly and dirty he was, so no need to remind him.

Damn, Francie. You were valiant. You loved your family fiercely and you were helpless, as a child, to keep them safe from the ravages of poverty and alcoholism. But you tried. I loved my family too, and even if my younger sisters, brother and parents didn’t need me to watch over them, I was always trying to keep them safe, calm and happy.

So many details of your life have stayed with me: the little tin bank that your mother nailed to the closet floor and fed pennies into, the ailanthus tree in your backyard that would not die even when it was chopped down, your aunt Sissy who brought so much laughter and generosity into your life.

I was nine or ten when I first read A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, the book whose pages you lived in. Knowing how I was back then, I probably read it in one fell swoop. Maybe in the treehouse I had built in the big maple at the end of the driveway. Maybe in my hay fort with a flashlight, or maybe at supper before I was told to put it away.

When I’m asked which books have been most meaningful to me, my head dips down and my arms cross my chest as if I’m cradling something invisible and precious, which I am. The something precious is the book. It’s hard to talk about the books that formed me, that live inside me, for the same reason that I don’t like mentioning the names of my children to strangers: because they are too important.

Like you, Francie. By the time I reached my forties I was afraid to re-read A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. How could it possibly stand up to my memory of it as the transformational book of my childhood. It was the book that—more than any other—was embedded in my heart. I did pull it off the shelf one day and read it again, however.

I cried and held it to my heart, because it, and you, were even more beautiful than I remembered. You were a lonely girl, even though you were loved, and so was I. You were unable not to feel the sadness of those around you, and so was I. Your love for the world and being alive in it was wild and intense, and so was mine. You were filled with longing and confusion, and so was I. You tried to make sense of this un-sense-making world, and so do I.

Did you ever figure out your place in the world, Francie? That one teacher—the one you adored—told you that in life you should tell the truth of the way things happened, but that in the stories you wrote, you could make up your own endings. You could write life the way it should be. You took that advice to heart, and so did I.

Francie, you showed me that writing was a way to translate and transcend the wrenching experience of living. I needed that. So much of the time, life felt and feels too hard. You reached out to the little girl I used to be through the pages of a book and you eased my loneliness. You made me think that someday, maybe, I too could do the same.

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Alison McGhee is a #1 New York Times Bestselling Author. Her Pulitzer Prize-nominated novel Shadow Baby was a Today Show Book Club pick. Her work has been translated into more than 20 languages and has won many fellowships and awards. She's taught creative writing at Metropolitan State University, Vermont College, and Hamline University’s MFA program. Alison's newest novel, What I Leave Behind, was published May 15, 2018.

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