Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Why I'll Never Forget Frank McCourt

I've told this story to many friends and have always wanted to write about it, but never did. With Mr. McCourt's passing on Sunday, July 19, 2009, I've decided it is time, if not overdue.

In the mid to late '90's, I was a young mother and an aspiring writer living in the Boston suburbs. I was new to the area and had become close friends with another woman, close enough that when I told her I was anxious to read Angela's Ashes, she agreed to lend me the copy she'd been reading. This was quite an act of faith because it belonged to her mother and had been signed by Mr. McCourt. She gave it to me with the admonition, "Whatever you do, DON'T let anything happen to this book! My mother treasures it and would kill me!" I assured her that books were precious to me and that I always treated them with care. Her mother's signed copy would be safe in my possession.

I immediately began to read the book and became enthralled with it. I couldn't put it down, and I mean that literally. At the time, my older daughter was in kindergarten, but the younger one, a three year old, stayed home with me. If she needed me, I went to her with the book still in one hand, sneaking in sentences and paragraphs at every opportunity. At some point, though, I set the book on the kitchen table, opened to the page I was reading, to do a chore at the sink. I don't remember what pulled me away, exactly. Perhaps I was preparing my daughter's lunch, or maybe I was doing dishes. All I remember is my daughter's voice saying, "Mommy, look! I'm writing a book!" or some such exclamation of pride. I looked over and, to my horror, my little girl sat at the table in front of the signed copy of Angela's Ashes, black Sharpie in hand, drawing with abandon on page after page of the book. I'm pretty sure I screamed.

I agonized over what to do. How could I tell my friend what had happened? An idea started to form in my head: what if somehow I could manage to get another signed copy? The first one had not been personalized, so I figured when time came to return the book, I could give my friend the new one, and no one would ever know the difference. But Frank McCourt had become the literary equivalent of a Hollywood celebrity. How, I wondered, would I ever get my hands on another signed copy?

Being a writer, I did the only thing I could think to do: I wrote a letter. A long, honest letter in which I explained the story I've just explained above. Then I bought a new copy of Angela's Ashes and mailed it, along with my letter and a self-addressed stamped mailer large enough to hold the book, to Mr. McCourt's publisher. I asked the publisher to please forward my letter, the book and the mailer to Mr. McCourt. And then I crossed my fingers.

To be honest, I thought I'd never see that new book again. I thought I'd finally have to go to my friend, groveling, and ask for her and her mother's forgiveness. But Mr. McCourt proved me wrong.

One day not long after, a package showed up in my mailbox. At first I didn't register what it was, but one look at the return address and I knew. The return address wasn't the publisher's. No, right there on the package was Frank McCourt's name and the address for his apartment in New York City. I was stunned.

Inside I found another surprise. Yes, he signed the new book and returned it to me as requested, but even better, he sent back my original letter with a small Post-It stuck to the front. On the Post-It I found a personal note from Mr. McCourt – the man who had written one of the saddest books I'd ever read – and to this day, I still cherish the note and the irony behind it. He wrote, simply, "Who could resist such a sad tale?"

Now a published author myself, I have since had the privilege of meeting some big names in the business, but none will ever thrill me the way Frank McCourt thrilled me when he took the time to write that one, clever sentence. Thank you, Mr. McCourt, and may you rest in peace.