Scheherazade – XI — The Aquarian
A remembrance of my mother and her family letters.
The family letters weren’t stored with the rest of our things. They weren’t kept with the pictures in the attic. Our family’s words and letters were the only thing more precious to my mother than our photographs. They were stored, hidden really, under linens and old clothes, in the bottom shelves of a dresser in my mother’s bedroom, some of them bound together in ribbons and bows, sorted in batches or rubber-banded by the year they were written or by theme – like “Bergamo” or “Engagement Letters from Barry.”
There were boxes of them, letters, notes, printed emails, birthday cards, anything written in the slightest degree of heightened feeling. There were stacks of diaries, full diaries, partial diaries, diaries from her childhood, from her college years, from her final vagabond push.
And then there were her children’s diaries and letters, both to and from her, winding into early adulthood, minor epistles that she gathered up behind us, tidying and tucking them away together with her children’s drawings of smiling horses and suns and flowers, knowing we’d want them or might want them, someday, for our children possibly, saving them just in case, on a mother’s instinct. As lovingly preserved, were the thick stacks of blue airmail letters written by my father the year that I was seven and my parents separated and my mother moved us halfway across the world.
Sails hoisted aloft by a masterful tug on a tiny heartstring left exposed, the delicate rigging unfurling in our glass hearts like butterfly wings.
There were birthday cards. A thick bundle for my brother. A thick bundle for me. Her birthday wishes weren’t the “Happy Birthday! Love, Mom” over and out variety. They were carefully composed and lengthy, nearly benedictions in tone. They drew a clean line around the past and completed each year as surely as they launched the next, partitioning our lives as reliably as the rings on a tree. They were essays-in-miniature, ships in a bottle, their sails hoisted aloft by the masterful tug on a tiny heartstring left exposed, the delicate rigging unfurling in our glass hearts like butterfly wings.
She filled those cards with her wishes for her children, her appreciation, encouragement and love spilling onto every patch of writable surface, the card edges roadmarked with (over) and (top) and (more). (More, more, more.) We opened them first or we reserved them for last, but we did not open them in-between. We took our time reading them, often aloud for the others present, slowly and with respect, and then we hugged and kissed her for that extra second until we were sure she could feel it. The precious soul balm of the child’s extra second hug.
Her letters were often drafted in advance on other pieces of scrap paper, brown grocery bags, the corner of maps, anything you could put a pencil to. These drafts were saved as well, and I found them tucked together with the rest. Sometimes the text was drafted in multiple copies to get it right, studies for the larger canvas.
She yelled out for her boys in a battle cry that curdled my middle-school blood and led to ugly hysterics on the drives home.
The store-bought text of the card itself was important. As we got older, she favored the blank “No Message Inside” cards particularly when they were adorned with images of life and beauty from earlier, forgotten times – Renaissance lute players, tapestry troubadours, Aphrodite urns, Lascaux cave paintings, beautiful things she spun back into temporary life like Tibetan prayer wheels.
If the picture was perfect but the text on the card didn’t fit, she’d strike the ghost writer out with a casual slash lest there be interpretive conflict. It mattered what you said, but in particular it mattered what you wrote. The space inside a card was a canvas, her canvas, and she’d shade and paint it in her own fashion, and always with authority. Oh, as if it could be otherwise for little Gail Westgate of Lincolnwood, Illinois, the schoolgirl with a million words and the towering talking stick!
My mother could be wild and fiery and undisciplined. She could be opinionated and loud and at times not all that lady-like. “Well, fuck ‘em.” On occasion she wore combat boots exactly like the schoolyard insult – or they looked like combat boots to me, and I complained and nagged at her about her clothing until we fought about it. She used bad language in front of our pastor to the point that he memorably referred to it as “her punctuation.” At baseball and soccer matches she stepped away from the orange-slicers and the juice pourers, that ancient wall of silent and obedient mothers, and she yelled out for her boys in a battle cry that curdled my middle-school blood and led to ugly hysterics on the drives home.
Her mind raised the wild seas about her, scattered the gulls, and terrified young sailors for hundreds of miles in every direction.
In part the hurricane that was the outward expression of her personality fed on warm circling currents of financial, marital and professional anxieties, but it was also her natural temperament, her astrological predisposition. She was passionate, blunt, irreverent, outspoken, opinionated, chaotic, unbridled. She was an Aquarian ruled by Mars, and it meant that she could – and often had to – carry her water in a storm. So she did.
At her memorial service in an overflowing museum room in St. Paul, Minnesota friends from across the country came to honor her. I was struck, even awed, by the deep attraction that this wild side of her personality had for so many of her friends. The speakers kept coming back to it, this side of her that I had resisted and tried to calm and settle or soothe, completely selfishly and to no avail. Her closest friends loved this irreverence and her loud, easy freedom, the wild whirl of thoughts and ideas that eddied about her, that streamed off so easily into conversations with complete strangers – the mad, high decibel rush of historical references, novels, philosophers, movies, popular music, the whole mental hurricane of her life and excitements and joie de vivre. Her mind raised the wild seas about her, scattered the gulls, and terrified young sailors for hundreds of miles in every direction.
When my mother expressed herself in writing, her hurricane focused. Her wild world stopped spinning. She found her center. The sun broke. The sky cleared. The waters stilled.
She talked to movie screens from her seat and, yes, people around her would complain and move, indignant, across the theater. She yelled, outraged, at characters on television, art and life blurring together, the boundaries irrelevant to her. The day of the memorial service one moist-eyed friend remembered overhearing her in that very same museum talking excitedly about some painting or other with a stranger in a nearby gallery, only to enter that gallery and find my mother alone there, simply thinking out loud, conversing with herself, the inner museum of her mind expanding into the physical world, a trick of perception, a trompe d’oeil, expanding and annexing external galleries, her inner thoughts enjoying the chance to get off leash and range about in their natural habitat. The memorial crowd trembled with laughter and the delight of shared recognition and, of course, with loss.
But there was another side to this one, a counter, an opposite, an inside out.
When my mother expressed herself in writing, her hurricane focused. Her wild world stopped spinning. She found her center. The sun broke. The sky cleared. The waters stilled. And in that quiet center she surrendered to a larger calm. She slowly and thoughtfully filled her Aquarian cup.
It was there she found this alternate expression of her being. It was there the vast expanse and torque of the outer storm wound down to its core, the energy focusing steadily into the center, the eye opening, the soul awakening. And in that calm center the kaleidoscope of her heart would begin to stir in its opposite direction, lovely jewels and colored pebbles falling delicately across each other, shifting in her blue-green waters, casting pattern after pattern against the mirrors of her heart, effortless thought after effortless thought, one lovely, unexpected treasure after the next.
Feel something. Twice a week.
The first chapter in this collection of essays:
The full text of Scheherazade:
Here is the full collection of essays to date combined into a single post.
This essay is part of a collection of essays written after the loss of my parents — about time spent alone in my family's summer home dividing our music, our photos, and, above all, our letters.
Readers Read This:
This is an underserved subject by a writer who has a gift at orderly classification into new categories. Here, is an essay on the “where” the content of a writer’s work comes from. Does it come from imagination? Memory? On a personal note I’ve thought about this a lot recently, particularly as I make a shift away from memoir, clearing out ancient pieces of writing and into fiction. But more to the point, and it may be its own essay, I’m thinking a lot about everything not coming from a verified internal source, that some percentage of imaginative work should (possibly) come from a place that isn’t quite logical or defensible, that is more subjective and instinctive, that may not hold up — and yet carries something below the surface that has some clear value I can’t quite put my finger on.
Dylan is mentioned in this piece, and he’s been a bit of a reference point because he throws in a lot (sometimes too much for me) lines that “don’t make sense.” But I think his allowing lines to not make sense opens a door to something deeper than everything filtered through the left brain. I’m trying to give some percentage, likely a small one, to sections that are unvetted by the left brain, that emerged in their own way and that any Freshman Comp English teacher would nix and redpen, but I happen to think surface something valuable.
Anyway, if you care about this sort of thing, this is a very interesting article The siteis an interesting site too, one that, curiously, includes writing that crosses many of the classifications in the essay. Yes, this subject interests me a lot — and it is an eye-opening way to look at writing. is a writer to subscribe to either way.