Sunday, April 18, 2010

Useful Girl

I rarely write about books on this blog because if I did, it would just turn into a running commentary on what I am reading today, tomorrow, or two days from now.

Despite that, my thoughts today are the direct result of a recently finished novel, Useful Girl by Marcus Spence. Useful Girl is set in Montana in the 1990s, with a story inside the story set in the 1870s. The modern story follows a young woman, Erin, who has to make some major life decisions; the secondary story follows a young Cheyenne girl, Moehae, who is caught in the turmoil and violence of the Indian wars in the region.

The title comes from an evocative scene towards the end of the novel. Moehae is dying of exposure and an infected gunshot wound. Her mother cradles the feverish girl and slips silver thimbles on each finger of her daughter's right hand. She tells Moehae the thimbles are so the Great Spirit would know she could sew and was therefore a "useful girl."

It is a haunting scene. It is a haunting thought.

Am I a useful girl? I think I am. I hope I am.

Yesterday was a full day, starting the night before when I baked four apple pies. In the morning. two pies went across the back yard to our friend Kris's house, as later that day she and her family and friends were gathering to celebrate the life of her husband Tom, who died suddenly last month. The other two pies went with me to the Community Impact Council (CIC) meeting for United Way. We were meeting to determine the allocation of our United Way campaign donations, which ended up totaling more than 2.1 million dollars.

Six hours later, our work done, I rushed home from CIC, hastily changed clothes, then headed to Mansfield with Warren for a rehearsal and concert. In the break tween the two, he and I sat in his truck in the parking lot and worked on the subscription brochure for the upcoming Symphony season. Warren had a rough draft of last year's copy with the word "engage" dropped in as a possible theme. I stared unhappily at it for about 20 minutes, muttering my discontent, before I felt the tiniest tug of inspiration. We talked about it, I made some notes, and this morning I wrote a new draft with a related yet different direction.

After the concert and the hour-plus drive back home, we unloaded the gear (being married to a percussionist means there is always something to unload after a concert) and then slipped out the back and across the lawn to Kris's house. We entered through the kitchen, where Emily, the younger daughter, was seated with her grandmother. After a hard hug, she pointed us towards the hallway, saying "the concert is that way - just follow the sound of guitars."

We came upon on full room, so full we stood out in the hallway until Kate, the older daughter, found us two chairs. We could hear someone playing guitar and singing-talking his way through stories about Tom. Kris was on the couch, leaning against someone else, both tears and smiles on her face. Others in the room were calling out additions to the story. Some were laughing, some were crying, some were doing both. Earlier, Kate told us, there had been spectacular fireworks (Tom's favorite way to celebrate) in the backyard. Earlier there had been many, many friends and family and neighbors eating and talking and crying and laughing. It was a moving, heartfelt celebration of the life of Tom Prengaman and, late and tired as we were, I'm glad we shared in it, if even for a little bit.

This morning, I told Warren how moved I was by the love and friendship I saw last night at Tom's celebration and how I wanted something like that after I die. He gently said "I knew you were thinking about that," and squeezed my hand. I then shared with him the above scene from Useful Girl, saying I found myself wondering, "am I a useful girl?" and, if I was, what items would show that?

A rolling pin? A pie pan? A pen?

They say "you can't take it with you," so I probably don't need a rolling pin slipped into my hands when I die. But I hope after my death that my friends and family gather together and celebrate my pies and my writing and my love of community. I hope there is music and laughter, good food and soft moments, as Warren and the rest share stories about this useful girl.


I am the working poor. said...

April, what a touching story! I will have to write about my dad soon. He knew he was leaving soon and his friends and family got together in the meeting room in his apartment building and had a celebration of life service for him while he was still there and able to attend. My sister said she didn't know what to call it so she referred to it as a religious roast. There was a brief service and then everyone took turns standing and telling a story about him or said how he had influenced their own life. My sister said he enjoyed it so much he stayed up very late talking about it.

April said...

WP: What a beautiful idea. I hope you can find some time to write about your dad; your journey has been on my mind.

Sharon said...

I agree, what a beautiful idea!

A friend of mine's son died suddenly a year ago. They were originally going to have a big "angel" party, but instead changed their minds and went to the beach to remember their son privately.

I'm thinking that's what I would want too.