Remembering the Bones by Frances Itani

I read this book around the time of its publication in 2007 but I recently came across a reference to it in something else I was reading and was inspired to reread it. It turned out to be a delightful and rewarding experience as rereads often do. It will join the growing list of fiction about aging that provide comfort and wisdom on my own journey.

It is the recounting of an experience of  eighty-year-old Georgina Danforth Witley who is setting out on a trip in response to an invitation she received:

The Master of the Household has received Her Majesty’s command to invite Mrs. Georgina Danforth Witley to a Lunch to mark the 80th Birthday of the Queen.

Georgie has spent considerable time pondering this trip and has planned carefully what she wants to see and do. There have been 99 men and women invited and all were born on the same day as the Queen. The actual invitationRemembering the Bones event is for the 19th of April and Georgie has planned her trip to include resting up when she arrives and also doing a bit of sightseeing. “She wants to walk the streets of the ancient city and visit places she has read about all her life.She wants to sit tall in a London cab and drive past sites she has known only from photographs and her imagination: Marble Arch, Piccadilly, Downing Street, Big Ben. She’ll walk through the Abbey and remember stories of kings and queens, explorers and poets. She’ll run her hands over the bones or memorials of Handel and Hardy, Browning and Chaucer, the Brontës and Shakespeare. Her footsteps will echo over old stone.. She’ll have tea at Fortnum & Mason’s and visit the Victoria and Albert Museum, the National Portrait Gallery, Dickens’ house and the Tate.She’ll buy a scarf of Liberty silk and she’ll try to get a ticket for a play, and she’ll run out of energy before she’ll run out of things to do.”

As she leaves the house she passes by the “mahogany cabinet with the glass doors where she has stored the memorabilia she has collected from the time Elizabeth was a young princess … programs, postcards, Maclean’s 1937 special Abdication issue – five cents a copy – which includes the “Message of Abdication” from King Edward VIII…maps of Royal visits, a Coronation matchbook stamped  Elizabeth R 1953 and The Princess Elizabeth Gift Book…It’s all there.”

She is driving herself to the airport, having turned down her daughter Case’s offer to drive her. “As she rounds the first curve, she checks her wrist to be certain she hasn’t forgotten her watch, the one with the wide gold strap. Because her attention is on her wrist, she allows the steering wheel to twist slightly to the right. In a split second, the right front wheel slips off the pavement. The moment the tire catches a depression in the shoulder, the entire car gives a jolt, and Georgie’s hands clamp back onto the steering wheel.

But the car, with a mind of its own now, refuses to continue the curve.”

“The car lands in the top branches of a large tree and then flips, and flips again, and brushes past another tree, and down and down.”

Georgie’s position at the bottom on Spinney’s Ravine will give her cause to remember, among many other things, the names of the bones in the body.

Concentrate. Think of the bones, she tells herself. Are there any broken bones?

The ones she can’t move.

Try the left leg.

It bends.

Try the right.

Pain, shooting through.”

She learned the bones of the body from Gray’s Anatomy, 1901, which she began examining when she was six years old and had let herself into her grandfather’s library. Her favourite diagram was the skeleton whom she named Hubley and, using her grandfather’s margin notes, told him that “Structure determines function” and he should “Be mindful ” of how he behaved.

Besides her grandfather through his books, another person who influenced Georgie was Miss Grinfeld who instructed all eight grades in the country school she attended. She learned the names of the Great Lakes by repeating “Every Man Has Socks On – Erie, Michigan, Huron, Superior, Ontario.” Also, because Miss Grinfeld revered prepositions, she wrote them on the blackboard alphabetically and had the class sing them to the tune of “The Farmer in the Dell”. Georgie could remember these and along with the bones of her body of which she was increasingly aware because of her fall she kept her mind busy reviewing them along with recalling the many stories of her mother, her grandmother and her daughter. In between she worries about dying of thirst and the sounds she hears and how long it might take her to drag herself to the car. She reviews as well her marriage to Harry and the loss of their baby son and the grief that consumed them.

Itani writes fully fleshed out characters: people the reader can recognize and become attached to very quickly. She does it through the use of details, most of them very small but very intimate. In her collection of stories, Leaning, Leaning Over Water, the first story, A Long Narrow Bungalow, contains an excellentLeaning Leaning over water example. The mother and busy wife, Maura, has arisen an hour before her children:

“This was her treasured time – before she took over the grip of household affairs, before she became what she must be.”

“Her first sip from her cup of tea was the best moment of all. She could stand at the window to drink. She could sit on a kitchen chair. She had choices. She could take a few moments to read – not poetry, as Jock liked to do, but thick books that took months to get through because she could give them only small portions of her time. She ran her fingers over the threading cover of Stories from Australia, a book she deliberately read slowly because it was about far away and she wanted it to last forever.”

What a delightful introduction to a character and how very revealing although it gives no personal details such as age, hair colour or style, height, etc. but rather some very specific details about her approach to personal time and what she does for pleasure.

In October 2014, I reviewed Itani’s Tell: you can find it here.  It has a post World War One setting in Deseronto, Ontario.

Have you read or do you have plans to read any of Itani’s books?