Of his fraternal grandmother, James McKean remembers, “she had little to say to me, an inquisitive and untidy boy, about her history besides, ‘It’s not for you to know.’ ”

It’s hard to imagine a remark more likely to pique the interest of the inquiring child, and all these years later McKean, a poet and essayist now of a grandparental age himself, has ably taken up the challenge.

From that grandmother’s stitchery, her tea towels and afghans, from photos and memories shared by cousins, McKean has pieced together a picture of a curious character who kept canaries and had a passion for wrestling and a history of striking out on her own — once, most notably, packing a derringer, from a mill town in Massachusetts for the rough-hewn Pacific Northwest at the turn of the 20th century.

Cora McKean is just one of the women portrayed in the pages of “Bound” as the author works out the histories and mysteries of the distaff side of his family.

These stories are as intimate as McKean’s first encounter with his future wife, Penny, a student in a class he teaches, their honeymoon in Europe and their daughter’s riding lessons; and as far removed as his Aunt Olive’s early 20th-century Olympic swimming or an abusive marriage endured and ended by Penny’s great-great-grandmother in Civil War-era Wisconsin.

Stitched as finely as the squares of his grandmother’s afghans, these stories reveal the pattern of care that binds McKean’s family, and essays, together.

 

Ellen Akins is a writer in Wisconsin.

Bound
By: James McKean.
Publisher: Truman State University Press, 165 pages, $16.95.