Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Hilda and Martha

This is an excerpt from my essay “Twenty-Two Thousand Days” (Sonora Review Winter 1999), about my great-aunt’s line-a-day diaries, which my sister inherited and shared with me after our great-aunt’s death. My great-aunt died at the age of 99 in 1991, and was survived for a few years by her partner Martha. The two women had been together for fifty years.

 In the third volume of my great-aunt’s line-a-day diaries, covering the years 1940-1944, I discovered several small scraps of paper on which my great-aunt copied out excerpts from her diaries. One scrap of paper reads:

Jan. 19
            M + I up late—Breakfast
and quiet interlude—lunch
to Gallery to see Van Gogh
pictures. Hat—Emily—MJC
+ I to smorgasbord at
Hotel Rochester.

On the back of the paper, in Martha’s handwriting, comes the reply:

If I recall we saw Frances
Baker there, too, and I
didn’t have money to
put in the Dutch
collection vase—or whatever
it was. Also my new hat
blew off on Univ. Ave. Right?

For these two women, who lived together for fifty years, my great-aunt's diaries provided a single lens for the recollection of a shared life.

She and Martha had been together for twenty-five years when I was born. I was born to their companionship; it was natural and unquestioned. My letters were always addressed to both of them, and in my great-aunt’s replies, Martha was always present—my great-aunt’s other self. On February 2, 1976, my great-aunt wrote to me:

Ground Hog Day 1976 and what a day it turns out to be! Yesterday we had a thaw. Today we awakened to a blizzard. We had errands planned for today, but instead we are holed in, and thankful that there is food in the larder. Also we are thankful for firewood. If the wind dies down a bit, we’ll have a hearth fire.

Martha has been out to the bird feeder with sunflower seeds. The sparrows throw the seeds around,—then come the squirrels to clean up the ground. When spring comes there are a lot of shucks to clean up.

I had though to go out and cut boughs from the forsythia bush today—but it isn’t working out that way. I don’t have the equipment for getting through snow banks.

The “we” of my great-aunt’s letters, her usual pronoun, seemed to split kaleidoscopically into “Martha” and “I.”

What do I know about their intimate relationship? I have sixty years of her daily notations, and all I can say for certain is that she and Martha loved each other. That is all, and everything. This seems to me to be a beautiful model for a life—a life shared openly and lovingly, with its secret intimacy always reserved. 

I think of those scraps of paper—Martha’s hat blowing across University Avenure—and all the intimate associations these diaries evoked, all the richness of shared experience. A diary is a small workshop for the creation of the self. But if anything, my great-aunt’s diaries, full of their shared experience, were aimed not at the creation of the “I,” but at the creation of the “we.” The “we” of her letters, the “we” that slid back and forth between two women for fifty years, on scraps of paper, in conversation, in the silence between words.

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