After you’ve finished writing a novel, there comes a moment when you decide to pack up the notebooks, index cards, and sticky notes you’ve scattered through your life for the past few years and bid them a fond farewell. It’s a bittersweet process to be sure, but it’s also a time of excitement, because (if you’re lucky) there’s a new idea sitting in the back of your head waiting to find its way to the page. Before I put it all away, there’s a story I’d like to share, a story about the importance of accepting what comes your way and then choosing to dig a bit deeper.
My journey to writing The Virgin Cure began with the simple, personal act of tracing my family history. Even as a child, I’d been curious about what was lurking between the roots of my family tree and would often beg my parents and grandparents to tell me everything they knew about my relatives, people I affectionately called “the dearly.”
The life of my great-great grandmother, Dr. Sarah Fonda Mackintosh had always been of interest to me and it was her story that led me visit dusty archives and search out census records in hopes of learning more about her past. There was no trace of her left in my family’s personal papers – no journals, no letters, no tin types – just a painting of her with her daughter and one document mentioning a scrapbook she’d kept (that I assume had been lost long ago.) I hoped that the historical record had kept better track of her than the dearly had.
One clue led to another and I soon uncovered an amazing tale. “Dr. Sadie” had studied with the famous Blackwell sisters, Elizabeth and Emily – both women doctors ahead of their time. After reading an article in the Journal of the Medical Society of New Jersey where she was featured, I contacted the author to see if she might be willing to share her notes with me. The article had been well-written, but it hadn’t given me what I’d been hoping for, the intimate details of Sadie’s daily life as a female physician in the Lower East Side of New York.
After a brief conversation, the medical historian agreed to send me what was left of the notes she’d taken for the article. She’d recently moved house and she guessed they were still in a box in her basement. “I’ll send them to you when I can, but I can’t promise there will be anything of interest.”
The envelope arrived about a month later with a copy of the article, a few notes regarding key dates in Sadie’s life, a photograph of her tombstone, and a smaller envelope from a photoshop. Somewhat disappointed in the contents of the package, I opened the second envelope to see what, if anything was inside it. There was a copy of an old photograph, a picture of a young woman in a dress from the late 1800′s. Sadly, I knew by the style of the dress and the age of the woman that it couldn’t be Sadie. I looked at the photoshop envelope again and found that it had a contact number on it, the area code 9-0-2 (Nova Scotia,) the prefix, Halifax. What did this photograph have to do with my family? I didn’t have any relatives in Halifax.
I called the number (of course.)
The woman who answered listened patiently while I told her the story of my search and what had led me to call her.
“I think there’s been a mix-up” she said.
“What sort of mix-up?” I asked.
She explained to me that the woman in the photograph was her relative, Florence, a great-great aunt who had attended the Women’s Medical College of the New York Infirmary for Indigent Women and Children a few years after Sadie had been there. The medical historian who had written the article about Sadie had also written about her relative as well.
“Oh,” I said, thinking that our conversation was probably over.
“I have a collection of her letters,” the woman said. “I’d say there are about a hundred of them, written during the time she was in medical school. Would you like to see them?”
I spent an entire afternoon poring over those letters, finally finding a window into my great-great grandmother’s past. I learned of the struggles these women went through to be accepted in the medical profession, the helplessness they felt when losing a patient, the heartbreak that came when a patient couldn’t take their medicine because the label read, “take with food” and they had no food to eat. Those thoughts, penned by a young woman’s hand so long ago were exactly what I needed to read. They let me know I was only at the beginning of a story I had to tell.
“Do find time to write to me soon, for hearing about you is not enough, I want to hear from you.
With much love, Florence”