Dear Bess —
I was wondering if I knew the story of a woman with a secret power when I called an astrologer named Blair and gave her your birth date. I did it because it was winter and I suddenly lived alone. I did it because there is a woman in me who reminds me of you.
This woman swallows the bulb of sadness that rises in my throat. After love ends, after leaving cottages deep in forests I’ll never return to, when snow turns violent, when I have changed without my permission, the bulb breaks into root. Like a tough-earth woman, she melts down the choking feeling. She staves what could bloom into an all-day depression because, beneath her pillowy skin, she is hardened to shale.
Like women I’ve known.
Like women whose stories are often about men.
The first thing Blair told me is that your moon was in Aquarius. Combined with a sun in Aries, no one could tell you what to do.
You were born unafraid of the following: pregnancy, sermons that continue even when the power goes out, being touched on the shoulder in the dark, going to college, driving cars, changing your name, wearing your hair short, putting on a wedding dress, marrying young.
Like any animal, you were born holding yourself fiercely. You were the type who felt suffocated upon awakening to a closed window. You knew about strength in numbers—something that took me over twenty years to understand. In lieu of loneliness, you threw card parties. With your pack of friends, you were as given to the church as a Baptist woman could be. That is, with your cotton-skirted body and the skinny memory of what frightened you in the dark at age five. You kept a clean, cold sink at home. None of your grandchildren would forget it. Nearby, cattle hoofed the soil in search of salt.
You were my great-grandfather Bill’s first wife. His story is about brick laying, cement, and marriages to a couple other women. Photos of you two in your wedding garb are somewhere safe and dark. The story of how you met has long since been forgotten.
My own last love ended on a red couch just before snow. And after, my body has cried unconsciously, letting go of years that revolved around a man who used threats of self-harm to keep me in orbit. His needs consumed my life so much that, with it now over, I do not know who has been left over to take my place. This person sleeps in my bed but I can give no name to what she wants or how to care for her.
There is a photo of you—women in my family never show anyone. When I was a child, they described it to me but didn’t unpack it. The picture was taken by a journalist shortly after the moment you died. It headlined the local newspaper. A T-boned chassis, your limp body inside.
My mom told me it hurts to be able to picture the scene of the car wreck, the reality of how you died. It was decades before I was born, back in 1962. A drunk driver hit the car taking you to a church event and time froze. Then time began again. The bent car and your broken bones shaped a part of my mythology. After, your limbs were lifted and put in a bag. The car was pushed from the road.
Every day, I thank the frost for suffocating my bedroom window. It looks delicate, like white-gloved hands pressing in, blocking out the sharp silver of morning, slowing time. I let the woman who reminds me of you tell me to get dressed, to wash a dish, to check the mail. Life goes on, she says once a day, even though the frost and the drifts remaining say otherwise.
Perhaps I was meant to be proven wrong. Recently, in the mail, it appeared mixed up in a manila envelope of old correspondence, clippings, and birth/death charts from my mom. A copy of the photo I was never allowed to see, tucked under a matching white gravy boat and sugar dish that belonged to you.
The story of how you felt about dusting and children and friendships and newspapers has always occurred to me. I struggle to explain this necessity to you, our family’s matriarch, alive or dead. Our family didn’t start with you but my knowledge of our history does. I’ve been learning to be alone again and it wilds me, needing to know how your heart lived inside your chest. Was it like mine: a spot of dark soil? Plank after plank nailed over the mouth of a tunnel? A campfire finally snuffed by moonlight, one defiant smoke curl rising?
You were born in 1897, last name Stone. You arrived a nervous thing. A time capsule of your mother’s history. Either in a house or in a tiny hospital along an unpaved road—a blip in the lion’s mane of Nebraska. On March 27, the St. Paul Phonograph predicted barley arriving on the next train.
There were no horoscopes in the paper. This is because newspaper horoscopes wouldn’t happen until 1930. They were intended to be a last gasp of public interest in the birth of another prince, the continuation of support for the falling European monarchies.
Moon in Aquarius conjunct Venus in Taurus gave you a quiver in your voice. You had thin lips, trust issues, and dust bowl curls unwinding like awakening fiddlehead ferns.
There are no real stories about you. At least, none that anyone can agree upon except that you were very religious, you coddled children to the point that you had to get stern with them, and you died in a crash. If one person shares a memory, another person will say it’s not true. Sometimes contradictions create avenues of choice. Other times, they eat away at who we are more than time.
For example, no one can even agree on the shape of your body. Which makes you a perfect ghost. We are so unsure of ourselves when speaking of you. The world, like a husband, will never really know how you felt about winter and sugar, hoofprints and sadness. No one can speak to it. No one remembers. When I think of you, I will have to assume you ate your tears when you cried because I have lived long enough to do the same. Tears that taste like onion skins. Like boiled chicken necks, delicately salted.
Blair said a sadness crosses your chart in many places. I thought it might look like a shadow clinging to the back of your neck. A scarf, chiffon weight.
Growing up, my mom told me everything she had heard about you. Mostly, you came up when she talked to teenaged me about the paper bags you breathed into. She never said what stopped your breath. These conversations always felt like a way of telling me I might have depression or anxiety without having to seek diagnosis. She told me the story of how you sat with your head between your knees to reduce panic—something I started to do too. I pictured you curled, felt your heart calming in the backseat of a large car.
I called my grandma, who knew and loved you. The breathing into paper bags never happened. You never had anxiety though you wore your sadness like an oversized coat. She told me about the baby you miscarried, how she thought you might have changed into a quieter person after that. A distaste for housework grew. Given to thinking of that baby, saying his name, you dug a little hole in your throat. Being around children became difficult, even among your surviving son and daughter.
Moon opposite Chiron, Blair noted while tracing her finger over the circle crossed with lines in her lap, that’s the sign of the wounded healer. A wounded healer is someone who transforms her pain into action. She had to learn first. Then tries to help others never experience the same.
I called your daughter Alice, who lives in a rest home now. Her voice sounds exactly the same as it did last time we talked while I was sunset jogging on the high school track. She and I were both surprised to realize that was twenty years ago. Over the phone, she said you loved to read but you dropped out of high school to take care of your siblings. Your life was work from then on. Eventually, you managed to earn a six-month teaching certificate at Peru State College, where your mother went.
I pictured you swimming in your own drafts of stories or poems, even if they only lived in your skin’s memory like wasp stings. Blair said Neptune and Pluto were close together when you were born. Your transformations were frequent, happening in your imagination. You had the qualities of a young adult novel writer but manifested fictions through rigid religious devotion.
At this point in the reading, I remember asking Blair: What happens to a writer who doesn’t write?
From your chart, it seems one answer is that a writer throws herself into helping people—a type of mothering.
Alice said you had to teach your own husband to read. My dad disagrees that Bill was illiterate but it’s not surprising considering there were only 9,000 schools for 1,000,000 people living in Nebraska by the time your children were born. People in those years still wondered if rain really did follow the railroad. It took a long time to forget the belief that storms could be jostled from clouds by shooting cannons into the sky. The school year up until nearly mid-twentieth century was only three months long due to planting and harvesting. Most boys didn’t attend past third grade. Most girls didn’t go past eighth. Teachers were usually teen girls who were required to quit if they married.
I imagine you teaching him after work, while the plants curled their leaves and the dirt road between your house and town settled, the dishes dried and stacked. A very tall man, a very short woman clasped in a lemon light. He was an atheist and would not read the Bible. I heard this from my grandma, who is disappointed I am an atheist too. Maybe you got a newspaper, pointing to the lists of deliveries arriving on the rail: barley, cattle, crop seeds.
The newspaper would have offered a lot of very 1920 words such as union strike and suffrage and prohibition. Maybe you both were preparing for very 1930s words like stocks and Nazis and propaganda and election. Maybe neither of you had ever imagined planes and troops, dams, princes crying, herds of people, more trains. You taught him to read without the prop of fiction. You taught him to imagine an oncoming reality. Maybe you knew something I know: reading teaches us to keep speaking no matter what happens.
Another thing Blair said is that you were born when Mars was in its downfall. That’s what she called it: a downfall. She said it’s the depression of a body that does not like its surroundings in space. The window was always whispering. Your dreams were often vivid, full of blue and shadows.
Mars in its downfall is also called wild. It is Mars that fuels your internal voice and, when it is wild, it is itching to leave, abandoning cars full of barley. Maybe your wild manifested from the things in life that came as a matter of course though they were never what made your heart beat. Like marriage in lieu of teaching. Like scrubbing diaper cloths, minding the cash register, the rhythm method, or babysitting. Tasks your chart says you resented.
A fall is like being born while everyone in the room is looking away.
It is the long grass, strong thistle, and fifty varieties of weeds springing up in the distance between them and you. From suffering the fact that your face looks like so many other women’s faces even though you want different things.
Your Mars reminds me that wildness is my downfall, guided by other gravities than those that pulled you.
When the women in my family ask me why I’m always breaking up or when I will be ready to let myself be loved, I know they mean I need to settle down. This is another way of hinting that being single and childless makes me a potential burden because, their whole lives, the news and political rhetoric have said this is what single women are.
Questions about what I have survived—what has made me this way—float up between us like soapy little bubbles, then pop. Embracing the truth will always look a little feral to other people.
Here is another thing I have learned: What a woman endures to be ready to accept love could undo anyone.
Blair said Saturn was transiting over Aquarius on the day you died. This transit indicated a painful release of your past, having to do with your mother. There is something about mothering and mothers that resembles our relationship to the self. It is constant shedding, as snakes do to skin, as rivers do to waters, as any animal will do to its own tracks. To realize your mother cannot carry you any longer. To realize the mother you carry. How she is tough and just a person growing older. To realize there was a point long ago when she could not care for you the way you need. That living might boil down to answering questions or abandoning them for other inquiries.
In your scattered planets and stars, I am aware of all these ways women live, what plot I currently hold. To be alone with a story, even fiction, is solitude. Alone with. With something. With yourself as a memory, older blood. The weathered rib of a woman to embrace.
I decided to use your gravy boat to water houseplants, help them along. The light purple bellflower and pink evening primrose are so delicately painted on. No one ever taught me to keep a sugar dish but I cup your old white ceramic, carefully lifting and lowering its little lid and think, Are our fingerprints mingling? Was salt kept in it instead? Did she ever throw sugar over her shoulder just to break a myth?
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