Frank McCourt remembered -- Lisa Schwarzbaum recalls a memorable summer with the late ''Angela's Ashes'' writer

By Lisa Schwarzbaum
Updated July 24, 2009 at 04:00 AM EDT

Frank McCourt’s telephone answering-machine message always promised that he would return all calls ”with alacrity.” Of course, he could have said ”as soon as possible.” But why waste such a beautiful word? The Pulitzer Prize-winning writer, who died July 19 in Manhattan at age 78 after a battle with melanoma, loved words the way others love chocolate. And he told stories the way others brush their teeth — regularly. Thousands of former students know this from classroom experience, since Frank was proud of his long career as a teacher in the New York City public schools. Millions of fortunate readers know this from his spellbinding memoirs Angela’s Ashes, ‘Tis, and Teacher Man. I know this because for a few enchanted summers, I shared a summer house with Frank and his wife, Ellen, on the banks of the Delaware River in Pennsylvania. And in that house, Angela’s Ashes was born. I am blessed among godmothers.

Ellen was a work colleague who had become a great friend; Frank was the retired English teacher who had won Ellen’s heart one night in a Greenwich Village pub. And when Frank came into Ellen’s life, he was the luckiest of men not only because he had found a vivacious mate, but also because he had a whole new audience to dazzle — Ellen’s friends. He was the first Irishman I ever met whose eyes actually rather than metaphorically twinkled as he spun stories. Frank would paint bright portraits of individual students, teachers, and pub crawlers he had known, all the while cooking with Ellen in the cramped kitchen they shared before fame knocked and money flowed.

When Frank and Ellen and I rented our idyllic river bungalow, Frank had been talking about writing down some of the stories he loved to tell. These were stories of Frank’s ”miserable childhood” in Limerick, Ireland, his boyhood, his Pa and his Ma, his own school days, poverty and hardship and mischief, and occasional moments of balm.

Oh, do it, do it, yes, yes, I said, yes.

So Frank began to write, in a sunny back room, on summer afternoons scented with honeysuckle. Ellen and I would swim in the river, or paddle our canoe, or cook flamboyantly intricate menus. Frank would later join us in the river, or we’d sit out on the porch drinking wine and watching the bats at dusk. The next afternoon he’d be writing again. And then one day Frank said to me, ”Well, I’ve begun something. You’re a writer, would you take a look?” He handed me a small stack of typed pages, maybe 40 in all. It was the beginnings of Angela’s Ashes. It was all there! His stories danced off the page with the same charm and lilt readers all around the world would come to cherish; the writing brimmed with compassion and honesty, tenderness and rue. Frank’s voice was sure and true.

Ellen told me that the day before Angela’s Ashes was published, Frank woke up and announced, with faux grandeur, ”This is my last day as an ordinary man!” Knowing Frank, he was joking at his own expense. The laugh deepens, of course, because that might indeed have been his last day as an ordinary man. Despite his fame, he stayed a regular guy — but he loved words with the gifts of an extraordinary artist.