Contrary to popular belief (trust me, I’ve polled it), I did not sit down one day and think, “Ah hah! I shall write an adventure novel of the Revolutionary War and my heroine shall be named Phinea Button!” The real story, if you choose to believe it, is that some years ago I decided to try something different for Christmas. Simply buying gifts and handing them out wrapped in plaid paper had grown too ordinary. That’s when I thought, “Ah hah! I shall build treasure chests and fill them with gifts and bury them!”
I swear to you that is the truth.
So I started building treasure chests in September of that year and as I finished them I did my gift shopping and filled one for each of the families of my siblings and parents (four in all). I even tracked down some nifty old handmade padlocks to lock them up with.
My parents live on a farm of some four or five acres and my plan was to bury each chest in a different spot on the farm and then draw a map that led to each one. The chest-building turned out to be the easy part of this diabolical plan. The hard part was drawing the maps. I hand drew each one with a calligraphy pen using all sorts of local landmarks, and folklore, and inside humor to make them unique and then in the corner of each map I reserved a spot for a small poem of sorts that would eventually lead to the buried treasure.
In October and November that year I snuck home four times with a chest in tow and carried it out into the woods to inter it. Each chest lay near a landmark that could only be identified by following the clues on the map. One was an odd copse of trees, one was a pair of trees with a rope tied around them, I forget what the third was but for the fourth, I decided to make the ‘landmark’ an old grave marker (a tribute to The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly).
Back in my woodshop, I hammered together a cross out of two crude boards and then sat back to consider what name I ought to carve into it. It had to sound antiquated and I wanted it to have a distinctly American quality. I considered names like Cletus, and Hank, and Buddy but my mind finally came to rest on Phineas Button. I set to work carving it out and when I finished sat back to admire my work.
That’s when I saw my mistake. Like a bad tattoo artist, I’d been concentrating so hard on the actual work that I hadn’t seen the misspelling right in front of me. I’d left the ‘S’ off of the end of Phineas. Thus was Phinea born.
At first I was angry with myself and irritated at the prospect of having to make a new marker. But the more I thought about it, the more I thought the name was an interesting one. The omission of the ‘S’ transformed it and made it feminine and I began to wonder why a woman would have such a name, and who she might have been, and why there was a treasure chest laid in her grave instead of a body.
The story grew from there. All the maps and clues to the buried Christmas chests eventually referred to the vague and long-dead persons of Peter LaMee and “Fin” Button.
That Christmas morning when all the presents had been handed out I stood up and admitted to my family that I’d been too poor to buy anyone gifts. Luckily though, I had discovered four strange maps, each accompanied by a strange old skeleton key and I offered them as gifts instead.
The treasure hunt that ensued is one of my favorite Christmas memories. But even after the holidays had come and gone and the world returned to the sedentary cycle of work and sleep, Phinea wouldn’t leave me alone. The characters and events of her life became more and more real to me until eventually a New Year’s resolution pact between my brother and I compelled me to set her story down in writing.
Though that all happened years ago, each time I visit my parent’s farm I still sneak out into the woods to stand by the old grave marker and smile. Little did I know at the time that the treasure chest filled with Christmas presents that we pulled out of her grave was the smallest of the gifts Phinea had to give.