In an exhibit at the National Portrait Gallery in London in 2015 (reviewed here), the images of women marching for the right to vote remind me of all the women who came before us, our grandmothers and great-grandmothers. Those… More
A character is born in Christchurch, NZ. I know her, but where does she live? What is the address? What is the view from the front window?
The house, imagined from a combination of old photos found in the archives of the National Library of New Zealand (collections), comes to life. The newspapers of the day report the daily sports events, petty crimes, and news from London; this becomes the morning breakfast chatter between mother and daughter. And then, of course, there is a need to walk out the front door, turn onto a street. Her mission is to buy a dress, but where? Ballantyne’s. And then a photo falls from google-space and you find a place rich in detail to build a believable encounter.
Chapter 4, Caroline Light, Christchurch, New Zealand – 1895.
For another journey through the streets of a London, this interactive link, on Charles Dickens Oliver Twist written in the New York Times last week is exactly the trip I like to take.
“The end is where we start from.” T.S. Eliot Little Gidding
As a writer of fiction I am invested in the belief that time travel is possible.
Going backward or forward—or any combination of actions—in story telling is critical to engage the reader. But time can also be an abstraction, even if it is an anchor to the most important moments of our lives.
I first became aware of the effervescence of time while dozing in the front row of a London theatre. My late mother, at my side, also doing a head-nod—after a too heavy English dinner—was equally unimpressed by the play being performed two feet in front of us.
Copenhagen by Michael Frayn had won a Tony and was the hot ticket that year. Unfortunately a discourse on quantum mechanics was too much after a long day of visiting with Mom’s old friends.
Embarrassed? Yes. So I bought the script and continued my examination of time. Reading In Search of Schrödinger’s Cat was also sleep inducing, but the thought of something (a cat in this example) existing in two different states of existence at the same time was more than an interesting time bending story, and, I was already down the rabbit hole. (Illustration above by Lisbeth Zwerger for a special edition of Alice in Wonderland )
Of course, time travel and the notion of other levels of existence have been around for a long time. More reading for me here: brain pickings.
And it continues…. the movie Arrival is another tour de force on the subject.
Looking at her from a distance of two centuries, you might wonder how Mary Wollstonecraft, so ahead of her time, arrived at her inspiring thesis: Vindication-The Rights of Women. In her day, the late 1700’s, she was an outlier, an independent thinker, who wrote for us, and for that matter, every generation who followed her.
Yes, there have been others: Simone de Beauvoir, Germaine Greer, and Gloria Steinem. Yes, hundreds, if not thousands of others, who knew the same truths, experienced the same issues and fights. They all wrote for us. Some of these books might seem dated, not relevant, or out of touch with today, yet, the news of the latest insult repeats unsolved issues. Mary’s ideas, published in 1792, had a bite. They left a mark on me.
Reading Mary’s biography by Lyndall Gordon, I knew I had the link to the past I was looking for. I had been researching my family history, using stories my mother told me, census reports from Australia and New Zealand, journals, and newspaper clippings . I was elaborating, embellishing, and I was creating a fictional history of women, of mothers and daughters. How far could I, in any good conscience, retreat from the truth and create a fiction that was universal? And then Mary stepped in.
More about Mary later.
Jen stubbed her cigarette out on the window ledge. The room behind her was quiet, her stepsisters still sleeping, lay twisted in the cotton sheet that barely covered them: Lucy faced north and Mary south, positions they had negotiated when they were six.
Hart Street was dark; there was only a hint of the morning sky. Jen looked over at her pack of Marlboro Lights. People should have warning labels: Dangerous to your health, Not fit for family gatherings, Unable to keep promises. She held the pack and counted the number of cigarettes left. If she didn’t have one now, the five would get her through the afternoon. The argument last night with her mother had kept her awake; if only her mother knew what she had to do today.
“You need to get away from him, you’re better than he is, don’t you know that?”
Jen’s mother, Maureen, was washing dishes while Jen slowly dried them. Mary and Lucy did their homework at the small table. The kitchen became too crowded when Jen’s brother walked in and opened the refrigerator door.
“You just ate, Billy,” Maureen said. She turned away from her daughter who was drying a glass and faced her son. “Look at you, you’ve grown two inches in the last month. I can’t keep enough food on the table.”
“Sorry, Mom, just wanted something sweet. Do we have any ice cream? It’s so hot tonight.”
“Not in the budget this week.” She looked over at Jen and shook her head.
“Don’t worry Mom, I won’t get fired. I told them I was sick, had the flu, and needed to be out for two days so I wouldn’t infect anyone.” She touched the bruise around her eye.
“Well, I hope they believed you, because you know….”
“I know, Mom. I know you need to cover the bills.”
When Jen’s stepfather walked into the kitchen, she turned so he wouldn’t see her face. If he had seen the black eye, he would have gone looking for Lewis, and he would have taken Billy with him. That’s what Maureen had told her.
“Having a family meeting without me?” He leaned over the table and looked at what the twins were working on. “You girls must be really smart to be able to answer all those questions with this noise.” He smiled at his wife. “I guess you two have learned to block it out?”
“I don’t think so, they keep one ear on our conversation,” Maureen said.
Lucy looked up at her father. “They call it multi-tasking, Daddy.”
“See, honey, I never heard of that, and yet, Lucy and Mary are doing it in front of me,” he laughed. “I’m going back to the game, come on, Billy. Let’s leave the ladies alone in the kitchen.” He motioned to the boy, who moved around the two girls at the table.
Maureen looked at the closed kitchen door. “He had a good day today, Jen. I’m glad he didn’t see your eye.”
Lizzie Bower waited on the second floor landing while the next load of furniture was hauled up the stairs. Decisions needed to be made: the contents of her mother’s apartment had arrived on Ellis Street.
“Oh, oh…so who is sending you these things? They are all so—so beautiful!” her landlady shouted up the staircase.
Lizzie didn’t need to see her face, she could imagine Mrs. Thorn’s mouth open as each item marched up the stairs: a five foot gilded lamp from a South Hampton estate sale, a small Chinoiserie desk, an iron Napoleon camp chair with brass arm rests and a leather seat. It was a seemingly endless parade of exotic furniture and boxes whose contents could only be imagined.
“Belated wedding gifts from my Mom,” Lizzie shouted back.
Turning toward the growing piles, Lizzie showed the movers where to place the excess of her mother’s life. The men positioned the alien furniture next to the Goodwill discards that decorated the apartment; they demolished any semblance of balance the room once held.
“Jeeze, whoever packed this … supposed to use the fourteen by fourteens for books, Miss, the little ones, yah know, the ones that say: BOOKS.” The mover gave Lizzie a look as he heaved himself through the door.
“Sorry, my mother…”
Lizzie raised her eyes toward the ceiling; she couldn’t expect him to be interested in the details of her mother’s move to London. It was difficult enough for her to explain her own life, but now she had to come up with a rationale for these castoff pieces of furniture. Slicing open one of the boxes with a knife, she found dirty ashtrays and cigarette butts.
Maude had to wait for ten minutes so Johnny Heart could live forever on her arm.
Johnny had tattoos, he had plenty of them, but then he could: he was with the circus. It was almost required to have them there. Everyone she met at Morris Brother’s Circus had them, even women. Maude started to think about the ones on Johnny’s chest. She remembered the night when she counted twenty, each was in the shape of a heart with ribbons threading through them. Inside the wavy bands a name or a word was written. Her favorite was the rose bud that looked as if it was about to open. Curling from below his right elbow over his left shoulder, a snake twisted, green scaled with a red split tongue extending its length with a small v behind Johnny’s neck. Maude had never seen such a handsome man; his salty smell reminded her of the ocean.
“Okay, girly, it’s been ten minutes. Have you decided?”
“Yes, I’m ready. I’ve been thinking about this for a while. Since my friend is here, I’m going to do it now.”
The man stepped back and looked at Jewel, making her feel uncomfortable.
“Do I know you, girly?”
“No, I just have one of those familiar faces.”
“Humph, look at theses stencils. Here are the letters and size I suggest, but if you want to look around and pick out your own be my guest. As you’re coming in here and I’m the expert, these here are what I’d call lady sizes and what I’d recommend. Take em or pick your own.”
Looking around the shop, Maude viewed the stencils hanging all over the walls, pictures of animals, women and almost anything a customer could imagine. Stacked carelessly on a shelf, stained with black circles and drips, pots of colored inks waited. Two swiveling chairs and one lone table, where more complicated work was done, filled the floor space. Maude thumbed through the tablet, agreeing to go with what was offered.
Combing Frances’ hair, Mrs. Buhle turned her around and tried to smile with lips too thin for the gesture. Her black eyes squinted. The skin on her forehead was marked with lines and two oval brown splotches. Mrs. Buhle was very old, but then everyone appeared very old to Frances, who was five. The woman’s shoulders were rounded, padded with a thick black sweater, fluffed like feathers. Frances tried not to move. She was sure she was going to be eaten, or at least pierced by some hidden instrument.
“Now Frances, your mother is coming to visit you today. She wants to see a happy girl. You’re a happy girl.”
This was not a question.
“I’ll take you downstairs, you can go into the front room today. Don’t look so scared. When your mother leaves, I will have a little present for you. How about that…Frances?”
Frances turned her face up toward Mrs. Buhle. Maybe she would get an orange, she liked oranges. She closed her eyes and waited for the blow that didn’t come.
“Frances, Frances, where are you? Are you hiding…sweetie?”
She was trying to hide from her mother, Maude, but her small foot stuck out from behind the large rose-colored wing chair.
“I think I can see you, I see you.” Her mother began a singsong voice.
“Come out, come out, where-ever-you-are. I have a present for you, come out, come out.”
Peering from around the chair with one eye, Frances saw her mother holding a big box with a yellow ribbon.
“Come on, come on…. I’ll help you open this big box. Is it too big for such a little girl to open? Let’s just see what could be in here. You can do it along with me, sweetie.”
Frances crossed the room, smiled and began to pull on the ribbon. The box contained a tea set, a real tea set, not play size like the one she once saw a girl playing with in a book. Frances was very disappointed.
“Give your mum a big squeeze. I have missed you so much. Give me a big hard hug so I can always remember how it feels.”
Her mother had a soft face, with blonde curls falling from under a little red hat. The hat matched the color of her lips and her fingernails. The hug pulled Frances into the folds of a white dress where an exotic scent sealed the moment.
A few days later the tea set disappeared into one of Mrs. Buhle’s cabinets. Mary was determined to get it back to their small room on the third floor.
“It doesn’t belong to them, does it, Frances? It belongs to you; it will always belong to you. I don’t care what she does to me…I’m getting it back.”
Mary was caught, standing on a chair in the pantry. Mrs. Buhle’s daughter watched as her mother pulled Mary off the chair and dragged her into the back room where they kept the punishments.
Draft From: The Last Daughter of Elizabeth Light
My mother was raised in multiple foster homes. Once she received an orange as a Christmas present. Her mother never gave her a yellow tea set.