“LITTLE PIECES OF STRING TOO SMALL TO BE USED”
Granny’s label on a box in her attic. Four dozen cardboard boxes, filed alphabetically. And all tied with string. How Mom laughed about Granny, but when at bedtime I’d beg her to tell about her growing up in England, she’d brush my forehead with a quick, dry kiss, tuck the sheet around my shoulders, close my door.
Under the covers, with a flashlight, I read and reread the books Granny sent, about two West Berkshire kids in the ’30s. Was Mom’s childhood like theirs? The novels came in a parcel tied with knots so tight we had to use scissors, so by the time we’d unwrapped the box, bits of string littered the cement floor. I’d thank Granny on white blue-lined paper with my Parker fountain pen, and she’d answer on tissue-thin blue paper, stamps of Queen Elizabeth on the envelopes. I even wrote to Grace James, the books’ author, and she wrote back on paper just like Granny’s, telling me what happened to those children when they grew up, and explaining the stories behind the stories. I kept those pieces of thin blue paper, a tidy stack in my bedside drawer. But not wrapped with string.
Now in an old box, I’ve found a letter dated 1934, addressed to Mrs. Jacoby, Headmistress at Battle Abbey, Mom’s “public” school. My mother’s exam scores had been outstanding and could Mom’s parents let her enter Cambridge, where, the letter writer was confident, Mom would “go far.” But, as Mom told me once, no college for girls of her “class,” no “bluestockings” in their family, and she needed to be presented at court instead, a distinction naughty Mom rejected.
My first trip home from college my bedside drawer was empty, all those blue letters gone. Have to get rid of old things, Mom said, her toes flapping the soles of her sandals.
That was after my father hadn’t let me accept the scholarships I’d been offered from “good” colleges Back East. As a girl, I’d be a “bad investment” since I’d only be getting married anyway. I never kept the letters with those offers, not in a box or a drawer. Daddy did agree to pay for tuition and board at the nearby state school he’d always sneered at.
I don’t remember when I carried all my diaries, notebooks, and stories out to the galvanized can in the garage. Ripped the pages into bits, everything I’d ever written. Little pieces. Too small to be used. Tossed them in. No amount of string could have held them together. Or me, at the end of my rope.
This story has a hundred beginnings. The best old British tradition. No horses were frightened. There were no horses.
Four times in my life I saw her. And can’t forget the way, every afternoon, she’d sit upright on the sofa doing her “accounts.” Checking items off lists. Long lists, though she was a guest, no housework even to supervise, no shopping needed, no doctors’ appointments while away from England.
Both my sisters and I make lists—we’ll even add an item once a chore is completed, simply for the pleasure of crossing it off. Little checks, like sketches of birds in flight.
For years Granny would have had much to keep track of—the sprawling hilltop mansion in Hong Kong, another house in Shanghai, a country manor near Windsor, a London townhouse. Scores of servants to oversee. Laundry lists. With every move, the ivory, the china, and the silver had to be properly packed, accounted for in the next new place. Lists upon lists.
And a list of lessons for her daughter: The best way to thread a needle, how to mend a rip in a silk skirt. How to wear a veiled hat, arrange the feather so it cocked enticingly.
Were there lists under the lists? Items like like: “Write Cousin Stanley in Hong Kong, inquire whether we could send dear Pamela for a year or two.”
Was it she who encouraged her own child to do with Grandfather what she couldn’t bring herself to, so he’d leave her, his wife, alone? Or did she think a little girl should be trained in the arts of the bed, be prepared for what would follow? Or—was it that, as his wife, she knew her duty: to satisfy a husband’s desires.
And which one of them insisted Mom leave for Hong Kong when she turned seventeen?
When Granny used to faint during fancy dinners, Mom told me, guests thought she was just being dramatic. But when a list you can’t write down constricts your spine, how do you stay upright? Check marks like wings. But no feathers could carry such weight.
Turned into birds, those sisters: Procne, Philomela, a nightingale and a swallow. Oh swallow swallow, hovering as the dark drops, nesting in the rafters, hidden places. How Philomela’s threads told the story. Without a tongue.
My mother’s sewing, her foot clamped on that pedal, racing the Singer’s steel needle through the cloth. The skirts she made, heavy with braid, rows and rows of rick-rack, silver, copper, black. And her jewelry that clanked, metallic, like armor.
These stories no one speaks. How we’re silenced, mute. Procne unaware her husband raped her sister, till Philomela’s weaving told the tale.
Mom’s skirts, voluminous. Yards and yards of her own seaming. And necklaces that roped around her throat and chest, jangling. Even lying in the sun, slathered with lotion. All covered up one way or another. High-necked blouses, stiletto heels that clanked on the concrete floor.
Even smothered, a story won’t die. Centuries, characters shift, but not the plot. A sister’s husband, a mother’s father. How you know and you don’t know. Enough for now to say: two grown daughters of that mother, both skilled with colored threads, with embroidering their own patterns on cloth, and both harboring birds. No nightingales in their country, but oh, the swallows, nesting, safe among the wooden bones, timbers of an old, old house.
Wendy Barker’s sixth collection of poetry, One Blackbird at a Time, received the John Ciardi Prize for Poetry and was published by BkMk Press in 2015. Her fourth chapbook, From the Moon, Earth Is Blue, was also published in 2015, by Wings Press. Other books include a selection of poems with accompanying essays, Poems’ Progress (Absey & Co., 2002), and a selection of translations, Rabindranath Tagore: Final Poems (co-translated with Saranindranath Tagore, Braziller, 2001). Her poems have appeared in numerous journals (including The Southern Review, Poetry, The Gettysburg Review, Mid-American Review, Georgia Review, and The Southern Poetry Review) and in many anthologies, including The Best American Poetry 2013. Recipient of NEA and Rockefeller fellowships among other awards, she is Poet-in-Residence and the Pearl LeWinn Endowed Professor of Creative Writing at the University of Texas at San Antonio.