She Is Still Burning 17-18

The following remembrance and celebration of Mary Meigs’ life and friendships was also the final instalment of She Is Still Burning, a fitting ending to a project that I’d begun simply because Michèle Causse sent me an e-mail saying, “Harriet, do something.” I don’t always rush to comply with the wishes of friends, but in this case, because it was Michèle issuing the order, I swung into action, and am glad of it. Thank you, Michèle. Thank you, Mary. And thank you to everyone who contributed to the brief fiery life of She Is Still Burning.

SHE IS STILL BURNING
An Expanding Reader To Encourage Life Lovers
Installment #17-18
21 June 2003

Now a thought trickles in like water giving life to dry clay. It is– “that bush over there is quite beautiful, it has been transformed by snow in less than half an hour. Once it was the flame tree, the vision that sang in October. Now it is a snow-blossoming March bush—and I croak my toad’s song under its roots.” (Mary Meigs, 21 March 2002)

Dear Friends,

This installment is a dual tribute: to Mary Meigs and to the powers of friendship. In it, you will hear her voice in the last year of her life, accompanied by the voices of friends grieving the loss of her and conjuring her presence back among us through their words.

There are many ways to know someone, even when it’s too late to phone her, send her a fax, mail her a letter or land on her doorstep. I hope you will enjoy coming to know Mary through these words and images, or coming to know aspects of her that you might not have known before.

Bon courage (and happy reading),
Harriet Ellenberger
Saint John, New Brunswick, Canada

note: Painter and writer Mary Meigs (1917–2002) was born in Philadelphia, but lived the latter part of her life in Montreal. Talon Books in Vancouver published all five of her books: Lily Briscoe: A Self-Portrait (1981), The Medusa Head (1983), The Box Closet (1987), In the Company of Strangers (1991) and The Time Being (1997).

Those who never had the chance to meet her in person can still see her on film, playing herself at age 70—the witty, compassionate, outspoken lesbian artist who is the driving force in Cynthia Scott’s film In the Company of Strangers (NFB, 1990). The film is available on DVD or video as part of the “Modern Day Classics” series, under the title Strangers in Good Company.

“Who She Was,” a charming comic-strip story by Eve Corbel about her friendship with Mary, appears in the Winter 2002 issue of Geist magazine (Vancouver).


IN THIS INSTALLMENT

1) Betsy Warland: “A Remembering of Mary Meigs”
2) Suniti Namjoshi: “Mary’s Dream” and an extract from “The Good Witch Sycorax”
3) Claire Saint Aubin: “À bientôt Mary”
4) Sylvie Sainte-Marie: “Elle est apparue dans ma vie” and “Soledad”
5) Verena Stefan: “Agitation on a Brick Wall”
6) Cynthia Rich: “Seeing Mary”
7) Lise Weil: “Freewriting with Mary”
8) “Feathers”: correspondence between Mary Meigs and Harriet Ellenberger
9) Mary Meigs, “Dead Flicker 1985”


A REMEMBERING OF MARY MEIGS

by Betsy Warland

(based on a talk given at the Memorial Service for Mary Meigs, December 7th, 2002, Montreal)

The night Mary died she “visited” me. As we have been hearing here today at this memorial service, Mary has been visiting a number of us since she died. And, happily, she seems to be fine indeed.

The evening she died, I was utterly preoccupied with preparations for a dinner party celebrating my partner Susan’s birthday. I had been working all day on the meal and had just begun to set the table when a voice spoke to me: “Put Mary’s bird on the table.” It seemed a bit strange but I have learned to listen to such voices over the years.

I went to my writing study where the bird sits on my writing table. Mary had sent it to me almost two years ago when I was in the midst of a life-threatening illness. She had carved it. It has a natural wood finish and an early American, Brancusi look and feel. I picked it up. Held it to my chest as I always do. Mary felt very close and I smiled. Then I realized it didn’t make sense to put it on an already crowded dinner party table and that my holding it was likely what was really meant to happen. I placed it back on my writing table and continued on with the evening’s preparations.

A day and a half later, my friend Lise Weil phoned to tell me that Mary had died. As we spoke it dawned on me that it was just around the time of Mary’s death that I had heard the voice telling me to go to her wooden bird. It was of deep comfort to know that the feeling I had had when holding her bird that night was so very gentle and calm.

Mary has been an inspiration and a precious writing companion to me. She has also been a very dear friend—a friend who fully engaged with me and who was remarkably loyal. I will always be grateful for our friendship. It is through Mary’s devotion to friendship that I am beginning to understand that it is friendship that is at the core of every kind of vibrant relationship: lover, parent and child, professional relationships, relatives, care givers and those who need their help, animals and those who love them. The forms of relationship vary but what comprises the core does not. It is the quality of friendship that makes it a nourishing or disappointing relationship.

I would like to read the final poem from a suite entitled “sight unseen” [from What Holds Us Here, 1998, BuschekBooks, Ottawa]. This suite interacts with a number of Vincent van Gogh paintings. I had “sketched” these poems out while staying in Amsterdam prior to the International Feminist Book Fair held in Amsterdam in 1992. During the Book Fair, Mary and I spent an elating afternoon encountering the major collection of van Gogh paintings in the Vincent van Gogh museum. Afterwards, Mary continued to follow the poems in this suite through my endless revisions and then later in a review she wrote of the book in which they were published.

I had trained as a visual artist in my early writing years but then shifted my focus to writing: Mary and I had this wonderfully charged and sometimes perplexing relationship between writing and visual art in common. No doubt you will recognize this well-known van Gogh painting. Vincent van Gogh and Mary Meigs both understood the power of friendship: van Gogh suffered from a lack of friends; Mary thrived in an array of them.

Boats on the Beach

Colour    memory
Memory    colour

The simple happiness
Of those four boats

No human figures; no destinations,
Just their boatness

While the four off-shore recede
Into a wave into a cloud

Foreground, center,
A yellow box
Washed up on shore
Robin’s-egg-sky arching land and sea
There are two words,

Is this your note?

On one boat, “Amitié”
On the box, “Vincent”

– Betsy Warland

 


MARY’S DREAM and extract from “THE GOOD WITCH SYCORAX”

by Suniti Namjoshi

(To be read at Mary’s Memorial Service 7 Dec. 2002 for her friends)

Mary’s Dream

From a fax from Mary dated 14 Feb. 2002: I dreamt last night that an elephant running freely with a group of young people up from a beach started angrily pursuing me. I said, “O mighty elephant!” and he stopped with a funny little drawing up of his lip.

You were one step ahead or two or three,
like an older sister, who being born first,
is first – that’s how it is. And as though
we were children on a grand adventure
you would whisper to me, “Shhh, I’ll go first
and tell you what happens; then you’ll know
and needn’t be worried.”
That always made me smile.
I never was worried. What you talked about
was being alive. Your blue sky
was an accurate blue. And when a leaf fell,
it turned and turned even while falling
in just the way you said it did.
You spoke sometimes
of what you had dreamed:
that elephant on the beach
who played with the young.
When he charged at you,
you knew who he was and had sense enough
to be polite.
“O mighty elephant!”
The elephant stopped – sneered? sniggered? – turned
away and strolled down the beach.
That’s the one thing
you’ve told me about, that elephant’s expression,
that I’ve never been able to see clearly.

– Suniti Namjoshi

 

from “The Good Witch Sycorax”

Like anyone else old women metamorphose
at night. They drift like owls not knowing what
dreams they might light upon, nor whom they might
meet. Sometimes they sleep like kingfishers
on the charmèd wave and wake so refreshed
that when they look about them, they truly believe
that they have the power to control themselves
and the sea. Or they slip like seals through black
water from island to island and choose their dreams:
they’re rich and powerful, or, sometimes, merely happy.
Old Women do not desire desire. Behind
their eyes the sky burns a ferocious blue
and their skulls are lit by the sun’s energy.

– Suniti Namjoshi

note from Suniti: “The Good Witch Sycorax” is a work in progress. I had wanted to finish this section of the long poem in time to show Mary, but couldn’t.


À BIENTÔT, MARY

Claire Saint Aubin

La bourrasque est passée, l’humidité est tombée sur les arbres. La jungle fourmille d’insectes très affairés, les girafes, les hyènes, les zèbres, les lions, les papillons.

Une éléphante enroule sa trompe autour d’une branche et en arrache les feuilles. Ses soeurs vont partager le repas qu’elles ne pouvaient atteindre. Plus tôt, au lever du jour, elles ont recouvert de branches et de terre le corps de l’une des leur qui est morte dans la nuit. A l’étang, tout le monde s’amusera d’un frôlement de trompe sur la peau. Après avoir aspiré de l’eau, elles la font gicler de leurs bouches, se couchent dans la boue et en mettent partout. En plein soleil.

Un peu plus loin dans la grande plaine découverte où l’herbe est plus courte, de nombreuses gazelles paissent ensemble. Il y a aussi les autriches, les babouins, les zèbres et les rhinocéros.

Soudain plane une girafe comme au ralenti. C’est une illusion, elle est si grande et elle court sans toucher le sol.

La plaine est brûlante. En fin de journée, toute la bande se mettra en route vers des collines inconnues, lointaines, chercher de nouveaux territoires pour se nourrir. Hyènes, lions, léopards et antilopes.

La bourrasque est passée et nous sommes là, perdues tout à coup. J’aime imaginer que tu joues dan la boue Mary, que tu planes comme une girafe au dessus de la terre aride.

Rejoins mes déesses Mary. Un jour, je ferai le voyage aussi. Et tu la reconnaîtras, elle qui vociférait dans la nuit des villes comme une louve assoiffée. Celle qui souffrait encore de lucidité aigüe et qui pourtant était toujours la première à entamer la danse.

Au bal des animales, ta voix la calmera. Elle saura vivre autrement. Elle s’y applique déjà. Très fort. Très doucement. A superposer ses images sur le réel.

A bientôt Mary …

16 décembre 02


ELLE EST APPARUE DANS MA VIE

Sylvie Sainte-Marie

Elle est apparue dans ma vie. Regard bleu, halo de cheveux blancs, sourire inespéré. Nous avons parlé. D’art, de jardins, de livres, d’animaux, de relations amoureuses, de musique, de solitude. Et de ce monde à moitié détruit qui l’attristait tant. Nous avons ri aussi. Parfois timidement, parfois aux éclats. Son rire m’enchantait, m’enveloppait d’une joie qui m’étonnait. J’oubliais le temps, tout ce temps qui nous séparait. Un lien étincelant m’attachait à elle. Je posais ma main sur son épaule, je ne voulais plus jamais la quitter. J’étais un petit être atterri par hasard sur la fin de sa vie, un petit être amoureux et entêté qui avait décidé que la vie n’avait pas de fin.

Maintenant je marche dans la campagne avec acharnement, implorant les montagnes, le ciel, les nuages de m’arracher cette douleur. Mary, chère, chère, querida Mary, mon ange si fatiguée, je vous aime et je sais que vous me voyez pleurer.

Je voulais lui offrir un oiseau, une pierre, un arbre, quelque chose d’essentiel et de radieux qu’elle aurait contemplé avec une tendresse attentive.

Tout est devenu obscur, hostile brusquement. L’absence vertigineuse. Les gestes, les paroles, les pensées en suspens. La joie emportée. Loin. N’importe où. Nulle part.

Je ferme les yeux.

Je la vois s’avancer doucement vers moi. Je la vois penchée sur un livre. Je la vois écrire, calme, concentrée. Je la vois parler, manger, rire. Je la vois regarder par la fenêtre, pensive, redoutant l’hiver, espérant déjà le printemps, le jardin qui revit, les nouvelles fleurs que nous allons planter. Tout ce qui n’aura pas lieu. Matières fragiles et précieuses qui tournoient dans ma tête, ne savent où se poser.

Chère, chère Mary.

 

Soledad
“Soledad,” artwork by Sylvie Sainte-Marie, photograph by Maric Boudreau

 


AGITATION ON A BRICK WALL
(in memory of Mary Meigs)

by Verena Stefan

It is such a relief, she confesses when I visit her the first time after the stroke. It finally happened. Her face looks relaxed, different from the previous weeks when she was haunted by pre-stroke symptoms which she observed adamantly: high blood pressure, extreme pallor, shattered vision with fragmented patterns all of a sudden moving through the room.

She had been waiting for it, preparing for it, anxious and tense for weeks during that summer. How would the stroke hit her? As it had her mother and one of her brothers? From them she knew how a person looks after a left-brain stroke, how speech and language skills might be affected as well as the right hand, walking, balance. She was prepared for all of it, and she was lucky. Hers was a right-brain stroke that didn’t touch the language centre nor her writing and drawing hand. …

II

She would be sitting at the far end of her dining room table when the helper of the day arrived at eleven o’clock in the morning, inevitably interrupting her writing hours—her precious alone time for which she fought ferociously after each of her numerous falls and the hip replacement surgery and the pacemaker surgery. At times we would all hover over her, driving her mad with worries about her next fall and even more with the threat to shrink her alone time, expanding the helper’s presence instead.

I heard her raise her voice only once: So what if I fall! she exclaimed. If I fall, I fall. Either I’ll fall on a seat or on the floor. Either I’ll break something or I won’t. It is just there, worst-case scenarios included.

She fought for writing hours like a wild animal who has to go back into the cage for the rest of the day.

All day long now there would be somebody working in her rooms, crossing to and fro in front of her table, talking, maybe laughing loudly, singing loudly, turning the radio on, destroying the arrangement of her kitchen, removing items from places they had kept for decades and establishing an order of her own. She could do nothing but watch.

How is it? I asked once. It was very hard at the beginning, she said. I always thought I knew the perfect way of housekeeping and felt the urge to teach everybody. She looked at me. I got used to it, she said. After all, I depend on helpers now.

My mind is seeping out, she said. I dream of prisons and confinement. I am confined, that’s a fact.

The helpers walked in the door, each one of us, always hoping that everything would be fine, that Mary would sit near the window and write. And there she was. She was always there. She had to be there. This was her bitter pill, to be confined to the house, to observe her mobility shrink to smaller and smaller loops, even indoors.

Not to go out anymore to concerts, art shows, book launches, to the movies. Not to drive. And shopping. How I miss shopping! she said. And birds. She always wanted to know what birds there were, when I came back from a trip to the country. Mary, I saw a cardinal, I would say. A cardinal! she would exclaim, clutching her heart. Doesn’t it have the loveliest song in the whole world!

What other birds were there? She fixed me with her eyes, and I squirmed, trapped between unfamiliar French and English names for birds and a scarce bird-knowledge to begin with.

Cut off from her studio in the country from one day to the next, from whole summers in the country. Cut off from her luminous writing office upstairs in her Westmount home too, and from her small drawing room. The inspiration is in the upstairs rooms, she said.

She lived downstairs now, in the semi-light behind milky curtains. …

During the last year of her life, she was in the company of artists and friends who would stay with her eight hours a day. Intense ephemeral states of co-habitation. The helpers were witnesses of her changing states of being, high soaring moments and what she called her collapsed state of mind. Since she could not go out anymore, the world and cultural life had to come to her house. Colleagues, friends, writers, artists, editors, with their buzzing lives and busy daybooks, kept streaming in, all of them with little time, though some of them would stay beyond Mary’s point of exhaustion.

We are not used to somebody staying at home all the time. To find a friend at the same place at every hour of the day, day after day, month after month, even in July and August. To be guaranteed that she will be there whenever we show up at the doorstep. It is a feeling we may know from our childhood if there was a mother, a father or a grandparent who stayed home. Other than that, it is an odd thing that is related to temporary or chronic illness, or to very old age. …

III

“Illness is the night-side of life, a more onerous citizenship,” writes Susan Sontag at the beginning of her essay “Illness as Metaphor,” and she continues: “Everyone who is born holds dual citizenship, in the kingdom of the well and in the kingdom of the sick. Although we all prefer to use only the good passport, sooner or later each of us is obliged, at least for a spell, to identify ourselves as citizens of that other place.”

Mary adds another aspect to the image: “In old age we are forced to speak another language,” she has written in her last notebook. “We are people who are forbidden to speak our mother tongue. The process of deterioration is made easy for us by memory loss, the accidental breaking of bones, the dimming eyes; each body selects its own way of inflicting damage willy-nilly … ”

The mother tongue of colour remained the salient one in her life. Whenever I came to visit her in yet another hospital room I found depressingly ugly, she would make a comment on the play of light and shadow on a wall outside the window, sunlight that hit a tin decoration on a roof, the hourly changes in the leaves of a tree, the setup of a therapy room. “The whole place a visual joy,” she writes. “Yesterday saw something purple and yellow juxtaposed.”

There was a brick wall behind the neighbour’s garden at Grosvenor Avenue that served her as a screen until the end of her life. “The shadows of branches and a few blowing maple leaves on the brick wall today,” says one of her notebook entries, or “Agitation of shadows on the wall—a squirrel has run along a thin branch.” Those sentences are scattered on the pages of her notebooks like the small agitations she caught from the angle of her eye behind the window where she would write. She perceived life entirely with a painter’s eye, and being an avid searcher for colour and shape she found them everywhere.


SEEING MARY

by Cynthia Rich

I met Mary Meigs just once, last August, and I knew then it was the only time. For many years my partner—Barbara Macdonald—and I hoped to meet her, and we corresponded from time to time. As she said in one letter, writers feel we know each other from our writing. The Time Being showed the possible hazards of that presumption; still, in short order, sitting on her balcony, we were exploring illness and shame and aging. (Barbara had died of Alzheimer’s two years earlier.)

Mary’s writing amazes me by the ease with which it moves between lush, romantic, voracious love of beauty and uncompromising, unsentimental honesty. On that day in August I could feast for the first time on exactly such dazzling movement in the rich variety of paintings on her walls and the sketchbook of watercolors she shared with me.

I fell in love with three of the watercolors. One was a huge bouquet of spring flowers, exuberant in its joyous sensuality. Another—a series really—was her painting of her cats, profoundly loving yet entirely unsentimental, because the kind of love that does not project its own needs but can truly see the spirit within.

Mary told me I could choose one painting. The one I decided on was very different from the other two I loved—a self-portrait of Mary painting.

At first she disapproved my choice, she thought it ugly, until Marie Claire said, “But that’s just how you look when you’re working!”

In the painting, she holds her brush down, in a kind of firm discipline, not indulging that hand until she sees what is really there. Her eyes are fiercely determined to find out that truth, whether or not it is what she hoped for.

I feel lucky to see Mary every day, draw energy from her. Those eyes, looking down at my desk unsparingly, make demands on me. They insist that, if I can’t recreate the world’s beauty as Mary did, I can at least—or at most—celebrate her by working to tell the truth.

December 2002


FREEWRITING WITH MARY

by Lise Weil (with freewritings by Mary Meigs)

About two years ago, I talked Mary into freewriting with me. The cardinal rule of freewriting is that you keep your pen moving–you don’t stop to edit or correct. Mary had never tried writing this way before–which considering she’d written five books and tried her hand at every other kind of writing was mind-boggling to me–but once she got started she was hooked. We freewrote regularly together after that. We’d start with a line from a book of poetry and then just go . . . for five minutes.

If the samples of Mary’s freewriting that follow seem brief for five-minute exercises, it’s not because I’ve edited them down. Mary—anyone who knew her knew this about her—was not one to go on. Mary was dry, she was pithy, she was minimalist. In this respect her freewriting was like Mary herself. Indeed, it must be confessed that sometimes in the middle of a freewrite I would look over and see that Mary’s pen had stopped moving, that she’d lifted it from the page. Looking up I would find her deep in thought, evidently contemplating her next line. I scolded her for cheating but it never made any difference. What issued from Mary’s pen when it did contact the page was always so fresh and bracing that I finally stopped calling her on it at all.

March 21, 2002 (prompts drawn from M.S. Merwin’s The Lice):

Encouragement meant nothing. How I’ve struggled to feel joy but lo and behold I’m in a joyless state. Warm encouragement strikes like a dead pancake. This is called a negative state, it is called ingratitude or tepid indifference. It’s another form of hopelessness which is the eleventh deadly sin, for I know people who are saving the world. They have signed a peace pact with salmon, they have set them all free.

Do not come down. I’m living an incoherent day because I came down, obeyed gravity and hit my head. Now a thought trickles in like water giving life to dry clay. It is– “that bush over there is quite beautiful, it has been transformed by snow in less than half an hour. Once it was the flame tree, the vision that sang in October. Now it is a snow-blossoming March bush—and I croak my toad’s song under its roots.”

The following samples were written two days before Mary’s death. She’d just gotten back from the hospital and was not getting around very well. I came over to visit, expecting to find her in bed. But as soon as I entered the house I heard her calling from the dining room–“Leeza”?– and walked in to see her sitting up and waiting for me at her very cluttered writing table. “Mary!” I said “There you are!” “Here I am,” she said, with that irony, that pithiness, that never deserted her. With that slightly open “a” that betrayed her mainline origins. “Mary, do you think you’re well enough to write today?” “Well my brain feels a little foggy, but I want to try,” she said. And write we did. Since I hadn’t brought any poems to write to we chose lines from the book I happened to have in my bag, Helen Cixous’ Book of Promethea (in translation).

November 13, 2002:

I realize that this is an impure desire of mine. The question is what makes it impure. Is there an alchemy in each of us that works at refining desire or do dreams alter desires by changing their images? Last night I dreamt that twelve pairs of coal-black horses passed me, drawing a small carriage (black) along a railroad track.

Our history has a bumpy geography. We are reduced to translating time into landscape. But perhaps rocks are more eloquent than cries of pain. In a hospital sound speaks volumes but I would rather be on a beach, a dictionary of pain. Today I found a polished grey pebble that said ouch.


FEATHERS

Excerpts from correspondence between Mary Meigs and Harriet Ellenberger

28 July 2002

Dear Mary,

Suzanne Boisvert and Verena Stefan have given me news of you, so I feel as if I am a little bit in touch still. And then, a few months ago I started rereading back issues of Trivia and found the piece you wrote for issue #13, “Memories of Age.” I loved that essay when it was first printed, and it feels even more resonant now than it did then. I would like to ask your permission to reprint it in the Internet magazine I publish, She Is Still Burning.

Last nite we watched again a public-library video copy of “The Company of Strangers.” It was astonishing to see you on the small television screen, moving and speaking exactly as I’d remembered you. That film is like nothing else …

I remember that years ago you gave me the excellent advice to join the Canadian Writers’ Union, which I still haven’t done. But it’s on my list of things I ought to do. I keep on writing and not publishing; this is a weird form of writer’s block. But at least She Is Still Burning forces me to put something of my own out on the cyberwaves, and it gives me pleasure to publish and republish friends’ writings too.

Bert, my partner who spent 30 years in the Canadian military and is a big fan of “The Company of Strangers,” says to tell you that the old flyboy sends you his greetings.

And I send mine!

Most affectionately,
Harriet

****

02 August 2002

Dear Harriet,

It was wonderful to get your letter today and of course I give my permission to reprint “Memories of Age” and it makes me happy. I’m probably one of the few people in North America who doesn’t have a computer or failed to learn how to use one. By the way, there’s a lovely French translation of In the Company of Strangers by Marie-Josée Thériault. She’s the daughter of my first translator, Michelle Thériault, who did Lily Briscoe, which is a nice coincidence. The French editor is Anne-Marie Alonzo, whom I’m sure you know … The French title is Femmes dans un Paysage.

Thank you for the exquisite feather. Do you know what it is? I used to collect feathers, I had a wild turkey feather or a great black backed gull and lots of partridge striped like the one you sent but not so yellowish or soft. Then I realized that they were being devoured by moths, the scourge of this house, so had to throw them away. I’ve been thinking with piercing nostalgia about the birds in Wellfleet …

Give my greetings, too, to “the old flyboy” —

and love and thanks to you,
Mary

***

02 October 2002

Dear Mary,

I think the feather I sent you before was a breast feather from a wild turkey. In 1986, I was living on Ann Stokes’ land in New Hampshire & she came to tell me one morning that a fox had caught a wild turkey — I’ve been carrying the feathers around with me ever since.

In this letter is a wing feather and breast feathers from the yellow-shafted flicker. (They have little hearts on their breast feathers & Native Americans say they bring joyfulness.)
Also enclosed a printed copy of SISB 15, which will go up on the website this week. …

Sending love to you along with the feathers,
Harriet

***

10 October 2002

Dear Harriet,

Thanks so much for sending me a copy of your website paper, with mine. SISB is like a voice in the wilderness and I’m so proud of being in it (or on it) and having some relevance now.

The flicker feathers are in front of me all the time. The little hearts are beautifully visible on the breast feathers; I’m sending you a very inaccurate watercolor I did of a dead bird I found — the little hearts aren’t there and the wings are much too short — but at least I give some idea of the astounding gold that blazes from it. I was glad to read that the sexes are identical. I think that little thing sticking out of its mouth turned out to be a tongue. I miss terribly seeing birds in this quartier; we’re going to do some serious luring next spring. Too many cats!

I get news of SISB from Lise Weil and it sounds as if there’s lots of interest in it —

Love,
Mary

***

note: An hour after I put the following letter in the mailbox, I received an e-mail from Lise Weil, saying that Mary Meigs had died three days earlier. The unopened envelope was returned to me a week later with a sticker placed over the address that read “moved / unknown / démenagé / inconnu.” Mary may have moved, but she is definitely not unknown. Therefore, I re-post the letter in cyberspace, in the hope that somehow she’ll receive it. Or that somehow I’ll feel less forlorn.

19 November 2002

Dear Mary,

Going to start calling myself “Turtle Girl” because it takes me so long to carry out my intentions. Ann Stokes once told me that I’d slow down after 50, but I had no idea she meant “slow down to a crawl.”

I was so excited to receive the watercolour of the flicker that you made, and I don’t think it’s inaccurate because it looks just like the flicker whose feathers I sent you. This was a bird who’d been hit by a car on the highway, and Ann brought me its body because she knew I was collecting feathers for some mysterious purpose. I plucked the bird and buried its body beneath a pine tree and sang a made-up song to console its spirit (this last inspired by guilt and by having read an account of a woman shaman in Manitoba, who always sang to the spirit of a deer that she had hunted for food). Anyway, maybe their wings sort of contract when they die. For sure, I know that you can only see that the black splotches on the breast feathers are heart-shaped if you hold a feather in your hand. On the bird, the splotches just look like splotches.

I seem to be going into too much detail here, but it truly did seem a magical event to me, that you sent that watercolour. It brought back a whole afternoon to me, sitting in sun-dappled woods with the flicker …

Last week, I finished rereading your first book — it was new all over again to me. This writing lasts; it is always relevant. I don’t know why exactly — but it feels as if you’re completely present in your voice. To me, it is like the voice of birds, and always makes me glad, no matter what you’re writing about at the moment.

Received very enthusiastic response to reprinting your piece on the website — Michèle Causse, among others, wrote an e-mail saying it was beautiful and timely.

The flicker is in a frame and under glass now, in the hallway. It looks quite wonderful, I think.

The enclosed feather this time is an “urban feather” — I found it on a sidestreet running parallel to St-Denis, in the early 90s sometime. I liked it, but can’t figure out its source. It looks like something that fell off a lady’s hat, circa 1930. Maybe it time-travelled.

Love from Harriet


Dead Flicker 1985
Mary Meigs, “Dead Flicker 1985”

NOTES ON CONTRIBUTORS

Betsy Warland was born in Fort Dodge, Iowa, in 1946, and immigrated to Canada in 1973. A writer, editor and teacher, she has published nine books of poetry and prose, the most recent being Bloodroot: Tracing the Untelling of Motherloss (Sumach/Second Story Press, 2000).

Suniti Namjoshi was born in Bombay in 1941, later taught in Canada and now lives in England. Among her many books of poetry and prose are The Bedside Book of Nightmares, Feminist Fables, Flesh and Paper (with Gillian Hanscombe), Conversations with Cow, and Goja: An Autobiographical Myth. Building Babel, her most recent book published by Spinifex, is a novel with an electronic chapter to which readers can add.

Claire Saint Aubin is one of the group of women who took care of Mary Meigs in the last year of her life. Thanks to Lise Weil for persuading Claire to send in this tribute to Mary.

Sylvie Sainte-Marie is a visual artist. She was taking care of Mary Meigs the day that Mary died.

Verena Stefan, poet and prose writer, translator and creative-writing teacher, was born in Bern, Switzerland, in 1947. Her first book, Haütungen (Shedding), was published in Germany in 1975, and later translated into eight languages. Since the year 2000, she has lived in Montreal, and now writes in both German and English. Her most recent publication, “Learning Winter,” appears in Geist (Winter 2002).

Cynthia Rich is an activist and writer living in California. Her book Desert Years: Undreaming the American Dream was published in 1989 by Spinsters Ink. With Barbara Macdonald, she co-authored Look Me in the Eye: Old Women, Aging and Ageism (reprinted by Spinsters Ink in 1991).

Lise Weil lives in Montreal and teaches at Goddard College in Vermont. From 1982 through 1991, she edited the radical feminist journal Trivia: A Journal of Ideas. Her essays and reviews, as well as her translations of French and German writers, have appeared in several feminist journals.

 

 

 

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She Is Still Burning 14

It’s easy to introduce this 2002 instalment: everything in it is still perfectly relevant.

SHE IS STILL BURNING
An Expanding Reader To Encourage Life Lovers
Installment #14
12 July 2002

“‘From death to life’ I seem to hear my crows say as they fly high above me and perch in the towering white pines, and I believe them.”   –Sara Wright

Dear Friends,

This installment has been delayed, owing to a recently developed addiction: reading through mountains of web-site news and analysis in an attempt to discern, through the fog of disinformation, what is being decided in Washington. They run the world, or try to; I want to know what they’re planning to hit us with next. A simple-enough desire, but you need your own intelligence agency to satisfy it …

In short, I have been ruining my eyesight in the pursuit of phantoms. I don’t know who they’re going to bomb next, and I’m not even clear who “they” are. The only certainty is that “they”—whoever the rotating cast of “they” is at the moment—will do whatever it takes to retain supremacy.

They may, however, have already bitten off more than they can chew. The U.S. currently has military personnel in 177 countries, and Bush is financing his “titanic war on terror” by signing IOUs and printing money. This is like using a credit card to pay the interest due on your other credit-card accounts. Not a sustainable maneuver.

I keep thinking about the fantasies of those in power and how fantasies lead to imperial over-reach and how over-reach can end in sudden collapse. More specifically, I think about how quickly the Soviet Union came apart when its economic machine could no longer support its military machine. One day the Soviet empire was a geopolitical fact, and the next day …

The U.S. government’s war machine may be a high-flying force straight out of science fiction, but it still sucks up resources like a giant vacuum cleaner. What happens when the American economy can no longer sustain the American military?

Nobody knows but the old black crows, she said mysteriously. (For more on crows, see below, an installment of SISB published in honour of black birds, the growing number of Women in Black with their peace vigils, and other perceptive and prescient beings.)

Bon courage and happy reading,
Harriet Ellenberger
Saint John, New Brunswick, Canada


IN THIS INSTALLMENT

•”Crowmothers, Come Home” by Sara Wright
•”The Crowmother Thread” by Sara Wright
•”Crossing Over” by Harriet Ellenberger
•”Crow” by Lynn Martin
• letter and “A Conversation with Fear” by ilit rosenblum


Crowmothers, Come Home

Quorking,
Steel black crows
Hop sideways
Dancing blue light.
Quorking,
Swirling shadows
Arching dipped wings
Feathered to bow.
Quorking,
Beady eyes shift with ease
Peruse rough bark and twig
Circle smooth stones.
Quorking,
Old Woman keening at the well
I listen with fierce attention
Thirsting for threefold vision
Of black winged women
Poised in flight.
Mend the silken silvery thread
Broken so long ago,
Ancient Mothers, rise up —
Shapeshifters! You —
Sing new flesh onto white bone
Craft sharpened beaks out of fish hooks from the deep
Carve all seeing sight
Out of the still nights
Of my imagining
Crow Mothers, please come home.

– Sara Wright


THE CROWMOTHER THREAD

by Sara Wright

Every morning I put out chunks of dry dog food and bits of dried bread for my crows, and then sit with coffee and a pair of binoculars, watching the wily corvids commune with each other, display crow antics and engage in elaborate courtship rituals. A couple of days ago I was rewarded by seeing one crow strip the bark off a half-dead oak branch and fly back over the knoll to its chosen nest site in the woods. Later this same bird, or perhaps the mate, gathered so much deer hair in its beak that the crow looked as if it had grown whiskers! These birds fascinate me. When I found a dead squirrel, I placed it where I leave the other food and noticed that it was two days before any of the crows would get near the carcass. When the first one did, s/he hopped sideways, approaching the dead body from four directions before pecking at it. When I focus on their bead-like eyes, I am astonished. Is it an optical illusion that they seem to peer in all directions almost simultaneously? It feels good that these crows have befriended me. Usually they maintain a healthy distance from humans—with good reason, for they are much maligned.

Often as I watch crows, I think about how they expose the underlying bones of things, not just because they eat carrion, but because they uncover what’s normally hidden in the forest by creating, for example, a frenzy in the air as they circle an intruder, voicing their displeasure with loud raucous cries. Sometimes they mob a tired owl, and I follow their screeching to find the harassed day-sleeping raptor perched precariously on a limb and blinking its eyes in distress. More frequently, I see owls soaring low on silent wings through the trees to escape the crow taunting.

Although my grandmother died in 1974, I can still see her with a pea-green scarf wrapped around her head, walking out to the field with a pailful of scraps as a raucous black cloud hovered above her. Here she comes, the crows would screech with enthusiasm. I have no doubt that my grandmother’s crows were the best-fed corvids around. Although she was often teased about her fondness for crows, she fed them until she died, and I suspect there was more to that relationship than she ever let on.

Whenever I see crows, I also think about my mother because now she feeds her crows as my grandmother did before her. Sadly, my mother has a life history of keeping herself physically and emotionally distanced from me, which has left me filled with a peculiar longing. Perhaps that’s why I think of our crow connection as a kind of cosmic link—one that stretches across time, space, and my mother’s real need to remain separate from her daughter.

When I was in my thirties and early forties, my mother would sometimes refuse to talk to me because of an imagined slight or because I displeased her in some way. When she finally broke her silence, I would discover to my amazement that we had been growing exactly the same herbs or tomatoes or flowers, or that we had both discovered clay as a medium, in the two years since we had last had a conversation. I never spoke to anyone about this bizarre twist to our unstable relationship, but I always wondered what it meant.

Three years ago last winter, I developed a pain in my right breast, and I dreamed that my distressed and tearful mother came to me, and then refused to tell me what was wrong. I remember most from this period the baffling, mindless grief that washed over me repeatedly like an incoming tide. One night during a body meditation, I distinctly heard a French lullaby that my mother loved, being sung somewhere in the air around me. Soon afterwards my son called to tell me that my mother had been diagnosed and operated on for breast cancer during my three-month depression. I experienced her tight-lipped silence as a crushing betrayal. Breast cancer, as I told her later in a letter, is a woman’s disease. I was only vaguely aware at the time that my body had somehow known about the cancer, and had been carrying the burden of my mother’s grief and probably my own. The day my son called with the news, my birdfeeders were suddenly flooded with crows. Both Nature and my body (itself part of Nature) seem able to channel information in unusual ways.

My personal experience supports the ecofeminist idea that women and Nature are inextricably bound together. It also supports my own idea that Nature carries a kind of consciousness enabling living things to communicate with one another across species. All warm-blooded creatures share patterns of instinctual behavior, of course, and this instinctual connection between species is, I believe, the pathway that links us—bird to woman.

Although the crows themselves initiated the possibility of dialogue with me by appearing here last spring to munch on cracked corn that I had left for the wild turkeys, I was the one who encouraged them to stay. They did stay for a while and then drifted off after my brief absence. Now, though, they are taking up housekeeping in the lowland woods behind the house. Each morning when I feed them, I do so with a consciousness of the invisible but genuine connection between this daughter and her mother, a link the crows may be mediating. My intention this time is to keep the lines open and see what happens. I am trusting that the crows know something I don’t because they approached me first. I’ve also learned that it’s useless to turn my back on a Nature connection. Regardless of my personal views on the creature in question, if any animal attempts to enter into some kind of relationship with me, I know something is up!

I also believe that a live crow can be an incarnation of the archetype of the Great Mother in her crone aspect. If I’m right and crows can be Nature’s choice to express the archetypal reality of the venerable crone, then it makes perfect sense to me that crows can help keep the psychic lines open between my mother and me, because, like my mother, I too have become a crone. But what are these winsome corvids trying to tell me?

I believe that on one level my crows are reminding me of the ancient relationship between women and crows, one that has recently been hidden behind the veil of patriarchy. I think that if we develop our connection to them, the crows can help us reclaim our lost woman ground. Barbara Walker confirms this intuition when she says that crows represent the third form of the Triple Goddess (Great Mother), her death aspect. But why the death aspect? I think the answer can be found in crow behavior. This third aspect of the Triple Goddess is about seeing what’s hidden, and getting down to the bones of things, literally picking the bones clean, and preparing for new life. Crows have remarkable sight—a ground way of seeing; they peer beyond the obvious, just as old crones see what others miss. Crows ingest decaying matter and, by doing so, create space for the new; crones not only prepare for death, but assist others during the transition from death to new life. Crones have knowledge of the future, and crows prophesy. Both crows and crones inhabit the edge places: crows hang out at the edge of forests, and crones live on the boundaries of the known and unknown. Perhaps mediating this crow connection can help us as women to reweave the original powers of the Great Goddess, especially the powers of death, back into our Woman Psyche once and for all. To reclaim death is to reclaim the crone in ourselves and to reclaim our own woman ground. Can’t you almost see those three old women who not only spin and weave, but know when it is time to cut the threads?

On a more personal level, I believe that my crows may be trying to mend the broken link between my mother and me. Perhaps the crows are letting me know that underneath the apparent physical separation and emotional distance between this mother and her daughter, there exists an unbroken and ancient connection … and that by listening to my crows, I am able to reach through the veil to pick up that lost thread. My mother sent me a crow feather for my last birthday—maybe her crows have been talking to her too.

Crows are also said to be messengers of the gods, and this oracular or prophetic quality is another of my personal associations with the crow. In fact, I was wary of crows for years because it often happened that crows (or other black birds) appeared during times of painful transition, as they did the day I was told about my mother’s cancer. It doesn’t surprise me that the first stage in alchemical transformation—the nigredo—is often represented by the crow, since one of the bird’s trickster/creator-like characteristics is shapeshifting, and this nigredo is the first stage of change. “From death to life” I seem to hear my crows say as they fly high above me and perch in the towering white pines, and I believe them.

For the Pacific Coast Tlingit Indians, Crow is a central divinity figure, and in other Native American traditions Crow is a sky god associated with the winds (of change?). Jamie Sams, who created the Animal Medicine Cards, sees the crow as the shadow side of reality. For me, Crow embodies both light and dark, life and death aspects of the crone/Nature. In fact, it seems to me that Nature displays genius when she personifies herself in crow form to spin and mend the threads, to prophesy, or to expose the bones of things! Crows are also seen as soul guides, and my favorite crone, the Greek goddess Hecate, is sometimes depicted with a crow. Thinking of Hecate returns me to wondering about the hidden meaning of my own personal crow connection, which I suspect has a lot to do with learning surrender to the wisdom of the archetypal crone and her instinctual ways of knowing.

Today I continue feeding my crows to participate in the wonder that is Nature. I feed them because I feel psychically and physically linked through crows to my mother and to my grandmother, and because something about this woman connection goes beyond the veil that separates life and death. When I feed my crows, I am consciously putting my life in Her hands. It’s at this point that I let go, enter the “Great Mysteries,” pick the bones clean, create new beginnings, and cackle with those wily Crowmothers who are older than time.


CROSSING OVER

When I was little,
my mother bought me a Golden Book,
and each night we read the story
that repeated the words,
“Nobody knows
but the old black crows.”

Crows know everything
because they eat everything.

Crows bring good luck,
especially in travel.

I ask it be a world-wise crow
who calls me
to the other way.

– Harriet Ellenberger


CROW

carries on her back
all we don’t know.

Heavy winged
she cleaves the sky
into rough edged nuggets
even our blind palms can read.

Have you noticed
she feeds by the side of roads
in between arriving and departure,
her tongue harsh
as if the message she carries
has traveled from one soul to another?

Despite the infinite winds
of separation
she is our third eye
of connection.

She insists
on calling
until we look up
and listen.

– Lynn Martin


LETTER FROM ILIT ROSENBLUM, 9 MARCH 2002, NEW YORK CITY

Dear Harriet,

I found your letter and package of writing as I returned from a trip to Jerusalem & India in mid February. Finally I attempt to send a response.

I am completely mortified at the events storming around. Mostly I feel a stunned silence inside me. Fear.

I hear the news today and bow to my guardian angel. I was sitting in that same café in Jerusalem many times during my visits there. Just a few steps from where I stay. A contested square in Jerusalem by the Prime Minister’s walled residence. Where many hundreds of right-wing demonstrators arrive weekly by busloads to urge the minister to escalate his already unrestrained violence. And where several dozen women in black stand vigil every Friday afternoon, after which we would go to that same café and hang out.

How am I to conduct my life as these storm clouds are gathering? I think about us in the ’80s, knowing of the storm coming. Now here it is. I see Talibans everywhere. I saw them crash-land in New York, I saw news of them in India, and I see them all over Jerusalem. Always violently demanding more violence. Always cloaked in God and righteousness. Always welcomed!

Aside of this, I have my life here, a pretty monastic life. I teach yoga in my small apartment to about a dozen people, up to four persons at a time. I study and practice and go out dancing.

In Jerusalem my mother is slipping rapidly, and whenever I can, I go there to sit with her & witness the gradual dismantling of her life.

There is so much more, of course. Maybe we’ll get to meet and catch up.

Thank you for “She Is Still Burning.” I’ll send you something I wrote for my students during the months after 9/11 …

A CONVERSATION WITH FEAR

by ilit rosenblum

Then the young warrior said, “How can I defeat you?”
Fear replied, “My weapons are that I talk fast, and I get very close to your face, then you get completely unnerved, and you do whatever I say. If you don’t do what I tell you, I have no power. You can listen to me, and you can have respect for me. You can even be convinced by me, but if you don’t do what I say, I have no power.”
– Pema Chödrön

Today we are all challenged by fear. Instead of escalating fear with speculations about the next strikes, we can stop and take a deep look at what is. How we feel. What we do. Our assumptions about our own safety in a world overrun with aggression and injustice. Looking into our collusion with this world-order by our actions and inaction.

As I look inside myself, I see my own response to fear. I see how I make a grab for some ground. I give in to old patterns that feel good only by their virtue of being old, familiar and unsuccessful. Even in that same old defeat I feel comforted that something does endure—old habits endure!

As these patterns operate inside me, I see around me the same debilitating cycle of fear and habitual responses. Nations are flexing their muscles, inflicting greater violence in response to violence, heaping suffering upon suffering. Everywhere aggression is raised a notch, fanning fires of hate, aggression and violence.

To soothe my spirit I take myself out to the beach. Even there fear follows me. On the horizon battleships and overhead planes landing and taking off every few minutes. Each time I see a plane overhead I fear it will fall out of the sky. And right away I think of those for whom the roar overhead brings inevitable explosions, fires, death and suffering, daily for weeks on end. Our suffering will not end by bringing suffering to others.

Fear stops me in my tracks, again, and I plummet, and the ground is shifting.

The good news is delivered by Pema Chödrön in her book When Things Fall Apart (Shambahala 1997). “The only time we ever know what’s really going on is when the rug’s been pulled out and we can’t find anywhere to land” (p. 8). “Consider it a remarkable stroke of luck. We have no ground to stand on and at the same time it could soften us and inspire us. Finally, after all these years, we could truly grow up” (p. 117).

To have the rug pulled out from under our feet is a classic Buddhist call to mindfullness, to be present and to look deeply into what is. Where we encounter fear is where courage is found. The trick, says Pema Chödrön, “is to keep exploring and not bail out” (p. 5). This is a crucial and fruitful time when we can choose “to open up further to whatever we feel … rather than to shut down more” (p. 84).

Pema Chödrön’s advice is clear and practical: “the very instant of groundlessness … is the seed of taking care of those who need our care and of discovering our goodness” (p. 9). We do not set out to save the world; we set out to wonder how other people are doing and to reflect on how our actions affect other people’s hearts.

“What truly heals is gratitude and tenderness” (p. 100).

I thank my teachers and their teachers and my students and their students.

Editor’s note: Ilit Rosenblum is an artist/writer with a background in environmental research and community work. She has been teaching yoga since 1997. After receiving her letter, I reread an essay she’d written on Rosa Luxemburg’s life and writings (I. Rose, “A Passion for Revolution: Rosa Luxemburg, 1871–1919,” Trivia: A Journal of Ideas 10, Spring 1987) and discovered that, in it, she had been as prophetic as the woman she was writing about.

 

 

War Babies

War babies are babies
who make war
without knowing what war is.

War babies make war
on nature,
on drugs,
on anyone who crosses them,
on each other.

War babies have guns
that are big and mean.
War babies have money
that won’t buy them more time.

War babies hit a telephone pole
at 100 miles an hour,
and expect to walk away.

War babies stay babies
because they don’t learn.

Oh look, they’re doing it again.

 

–Harriet Ann Ellenberger, 11 February 2016

 

In a Time of Storms

el-reno-oklahoma-may-31-2013_camille-seaman-for-mago-poem
El Reno, Oklahoma, 13 May 2013, photograph by Camille Seaman

 

IN A TIME OF STORMS

Purple clouds mass along the horizon.
Sheet lightning crackles.
Black winds cut,
keen as an obsidian knife.

Out of the dark west she rides.
From the yellowing east she comes.
Her white flags fly to the north.
In the south her red fires are lit.

She speaks.
The rock peaks split.

She speaks
and the past is laid open.

She speaks.
A light rain falls.

She speaks
and the future rises,
vapor on her breath.

She speaks.
Death is real.

She speaks again
and death is not an end.

– Harriet Ann Ellenberger


Note: I wrote this poem in 1989, and it was eventually published under the title “Thunder, Perfect Mind,” a phrase I’d stolen from a translation of the Gnostic Gospels. I loved those three words put together, but felt bad about being a thief—also, the poem had nothing to do with gospels, gnostic or otherwise.

When the poem was to appear in Trivia: Voices of Feminism, I came up with a new title, “Return of Earth.” Only problem was, the earth didn’t go away so how could she return? I ignored the illogic of that because I was desperate.

Years later, climate change so extreme that everyone noticed it gave me the good title, and “In a Time of Storms” appeared in Return to Mago on 24 July 2013.

The moral of this tale of titles may be that if you live long enough, you’re no longer a voice of Cassandra, you’re simply reporting the evening news.

 

Crossing Over

photograph by Elizabeth Barakah Hodges
photograph by Elizabeth Barakah Hodges

When I was little,
my mother bought me a Golden Book,
and each night we read the story
that repeated the words,
“Nobody knows
but the old black crows.”

Crows know everything
because they eat everything.

Crows bring good luck,
especially in travel.

I ask it be a world-wise crow
who calls me
to the other way.

– Harriet Ann Ellenberger, 1992

Farewell For Now to a Beautiful Mother

Kathryn

On 19 May 2013, my mother died, four days after her hundredth birthday.

She’d been living for weeks on ice chips and low-dose morphine, regularly leaving her body to walk and talk with my father, then returning to report to my brother at her bedside and to me via long-distance phone. No one knew when she would leave and not return, but everyone believed that her departure was imminent.

Five days before her centennial, however, she suddenly said to my brother, “It’s only a week away; maybe I can make it.” And she revived, sending the nursing-home staff into a frenzy of last-minute party planning. When the morning of her birthday dawned sunny and warm, they came to dress her for a convertible ride around the small town of Reinbeck, Iowa, and she said, “Hallelujah, I thought I’d never get out of this place alive.”

The convertible was a bright yellow muscle car with the top down, and the route had been planned so that town residents could come out on the curb to sing “happy birthday” to her at various stops along the way. It all worked like a charm, and she made the driver stop three times in addition, to listen to the birds singing and to watch squirrels run up and down the tree trunks. After a half-hour ride, they returned to her room, which had been transformed into a festival of balloons and cakes and flowers and visitors with cameras.

The next morning, she slipped into a coma and was gone three days later. And the morning following her death, I woke with the realization that there was no one left but me who knew the stories of her early life. In a rush to send something to my brother before her grandchildren and great-grandchildren gathered for her funeral, I wrote the following:

Some Things You May Not Know About the Young Kathryn Louise Truitt Ellenberger

When she was four years old, the family doctor told her parents that she would not live to grow up and all they could do was make sure that her childhood was happy. After that, her father stopped drowning the barn cats’ new litters, and soon she had over thirty kitten playmates.

She rode her own pony to school, trying to keep up with her older brother Keith’s horse.

When she was eight, her father died and their farm was sold, and her mother’s parents built a second story on their house in town to make room for their daughter and her children. The house was full of books, and there were large flowerbeds, a vegetable garden, and fruit trees.

She was an avid tennis player. When she was thirteen, her mother became alarmed at the amount of time she was spending with older boys on the town’s tennis court, and sent her to work for the summer as a hired girl on a relative’s farm. Kathryn did not like working in the kitchen from dawn until the supper dishes were washed, followed by a pile of mending until 10 p.m.

Kathryn thought she might like to be an interior decorator, but everyone assumed she would become a country schoolteacher, following in the footsteps of her older sisters Mabel and Lucile. She did not do this. After high school graduation, Lucile gave her the money to go to business school in Des Moines.

When she graduated from business school, she was offered a job in the Des Moines Public Library system. She worked in the downtown library and lived in the Brown Hotel with several roommates.

One of her roommates, Bunny, wanted to take the civil-service exam and asked Kathryn to take it at the same time, as moral support. Within a few days, Kathryn received a telegram offering her a job in the Navy Building in Washington, DC. She immediately sent a telegram back, accepting the job. Only then did she tell family and friends, and soon she was boarding a train for the East Coast.

Her boyfriend Carl Ellenberger was classified 4-F because he had lost the thumb on his right hand in a corncob-crusher accident. Kathryn’s boss, an admiral, waived a few bureaucratic rules and soon Carl was in Naval Intelligence.

When Kathryn delivered certain materials to other government departments in DC, she was driven in a chauffeured limousine and carried a revolver in her purse.

Kathryn was well-dressed in wartime Washington because she cut out magazine photos of the clothes she wanted to wear, and mailed them to her mother in Iowa. Her mother designed the pattern, found the fabric, sewed the outfit, and mailed it back to her.

Carl Ellenberger had first asked Kathryn to marry him when they were both seventeen. In 1942, when they were both twenty-nine, he told her it was the last time he’d ask and she believed him. She said yes.

The specifics of what Carl and Kathryn were doing for the Navy during World War II are known only to them. Kathryn and my partner had a tacit telephone understanding: she knew that he knew that she knew that … But I remain clue-less.

Postscript, October 2013

Despite over sixty years of conversation with my mother, it’s not only her wartime activities I’m in the dark about. We had a meeting of the minds on two things: the allure of good food and the beauty of Chopin’s waltz in C# minor, op. 64, no. 2, which she liked me to play for her. With most everything else — politics, religion, the nature of reality — we tended to be stationed on opposite sides of the barricades.

I couldn’t fathom what drove my mother, and she had the same difficulty with me. But we kept on talking. And — judging by the evidence of my dreams — the conversation, in some mysterious way, continues.

note: This essay was published first in Return to Mago on 28 October 2013.