Nov. 13, 2009


by Ted McMahon

My grandfather got up early to section grapefruit.
I know because I got up quietly to watch.
He was tall. His hairless shins stuck out
below his bathrobe, down to leather slippers.
The house was quiet, sun just up, ticking of
the grandfather clock tall in the corner.

The grapefruit were always sectioned just so,
nestled in clear nubbled bowls used
for nothing else, with half a maraschino
centered bleeding slowly into
soft pale triangles of fruit.
It was special grapefruit, Indian River,
not to be had back home.

Doves cooed outside and the last night-breeze
rustled the palms against the eaves.
He turned to see me, pale light flashing
off his glasses
and smiled.

I remember as I work my knife along the
membrane separating sections.
It's dawn. The doves and palms are far away.
I don't use cherries anymore.
The clock is digital
and no one is watching.

"Grapefruit" by Ted McMahon, from The Uses of Imperfection. © Cat n' Dog Production, 2003. Reprinted with permission.

It's the birthday of the man who wrote the first memoir in Western literature: St. Augustine, (books by this author) born in 354 in Thagaste, which is now in Algeria. He is best known for his Confessions, a 13-book autobiography of his life and conversion.

He wrote, "Wisdom and folly both are like meats that are wholesome and unwholesome, and courtly or simple words are like town-made or rustic vessels — both kinds of food may be served in either kind of dish."

It was on this day in 1789 that Benjamin Franklin (books by this author) wrote a letter to his friend Jean-Baptiste Le Roy and observed: "In this world, nothing can be said to be certain except death and taxes."

It's the birthday of novelist Lady Caroline Lamb, (books by this author) most famous as one of Lord Byron's lovers, born in London in 1785. She was tall and very skinny, with short blonde hair, and she liked to dress like a boy. At first, Lord Byron thought she was unattractive and wanted nothing to do with her. But she was confident and witty, she wrote poems and fiction, and she was one of the first women he had ever met who would actually argue with him about intellectual ideas. She was married, but she and Lord Byron became lovers and had an open, scandalous affair. It was Lady Caroline who coined what became a famous description of Lord Byron: "Mad, bad, and dangerous to know."

Their affair fell apart, each of them humiliating the other in public. A few years later, she published a Gothic novel called Glenarvon (1816). It was set during the Irish Rebellion of 1798, but all the characters were modeled after the Lady Caroline's acquaintances, including the main character, Ruthven Glenarvon, an unflattering and obvious portrait of Byron. Caroline even used his love letters in the novel, and it became a huge sensation because people in London knew exactly who it was about.

It's the birthday of Robert Louis Stevenson, (books by this author) born in Edinburgh, Scotland (1850). He was an only child, sickly, brought up in a very religious household by parents and a nanny who were strict believers in a gloomy brand of Scottish Calvinism. But his nanny was also a storyteller. She told young Robert gruesome stories about Scottish martyrs, and also tales of ghosts and fairies, and read him adventure stories.

His father and his grandfather were well-known lighthouse builders, and it was expected that young Robert would follow in their footsteps, but he had no interest in engineering. He just wanted to write. Finally, his father agreed that he could become a lawyer instead, a compromise that didn't make anyone very happy, and after he passed the bar, he never practiced law. What he did do was move to an artists' colony in the Fontainebleau Forest in northern France, and fall in love with a woman there, Fanny Van de Grift Osbourne. She was 10 years older than him, recently separated, raising children.

They got married, moved around a lot in Europe and the United States. And he found himself with two young stepchildren. His health was bad, and so physically there wasn't much he could do, but he liked to play indoors with the children. To entertain his stepson, he created an elaborate game, and as part of it, he drew a treasure map and told a story about the island he had drawn, which his stepson named "Treasure Island." And he couldn't get that story out of his head, so he wrote Treasure Island(1883), and his story of pirates and adventure became hugely popular. The prime minister of England stayed up all night reading it, and Henry James said that Treasure Islandwas "all as perfect as a well-played boy's game." Much as Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol (1843) shaped our ideas about Christmas, Treasure Islandprovided many of the details we now associate with pirates — from the Black Spot to the ditty "Fifteen men on the dead man's chest/ Yo-ho-ho, and a bottle of rum!"

Within the next few years, Stevenson published all the books for which he is remembered today: A Child's Garden of Verses (1885), Kidnapped (1886), and The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1886). He died at age 44.

Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®




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