Thursday, December 18, 2008

Dear Abby

The fire smolders in the wood stove illuminating the bound letters of Abigail Adams on my lap. She penned these daily to her husband John who spent years among Parisians while she weathered winters and Revolutions American and other. Six years of letters, nary a sonnet nor an ode, yet she quoted Milton and Shakespeare like a child playing Für Elise from memory. She called him Lysander, her friend, as friends indeed it all commenced, and later correspondents were. She wrote so many more letters than did he, like today’s friend who cannot help herself from emailing thoughts as soon as they occur, untempered by any lack of response. Despite their early prim ardor, the letters feel platonic. No heaving bosoms, no Gothic castles’ secret stairways like in the romance genre of the time, so like today’s except in what then went unsaid. She wrote as if walled away behind brick upon brick of battles and politics and miles of Atlantic. Proximity would have prevented that – but then – the best we’d have of her would be a few stray invitations, or thank you notes, assuming even those survived. How is it that Jane Austen, then just a girl in Chawton wrote characters like Abigail, and even lived like her the days of parched habits and nights that led to solitary wakings. A sea apart, they pined patiently for passion while patriarchy and patriotism alike quieted their pulse. Yet Jane wrote satirically of insincerity and imagined answers to all lack. Was John a Mr. Knightley? The older, kinder, safer choice? Sometimes months passed between the sailing of ships carrying letters writer to reader, wife to husband. The news was old before it got there, and she too early born to have read Wollstonecraft, Fuller, Dickinson, Chopin, Woolf. She had no women’s lines to cite, no styles to imitate, to unbind her mind. (Yet Abigail put no stones in her pockets.) Unlike these activist authors she never broke convention, but to her husband dutifully wrote, and wrote, and wrote. My fire’s burning low. So many centuries of dying embers. So many women waiting for their heroes to appear from the hunt, the war, from exploration or conquests unimaginable from beside the hearth. Perhaps more than once she crumpled a blotted page for kindling. So I toss my first rough version of this poem among the coals and rise to get a log. This I can do. I see her in her gown, laying her quill upon the desk beside the inkpot, folding the letter, carefully sealing it shut with melted wax. I lift my ballpoint pen and reach for a clean sheet, more sustaining even in its near weightlessness than an email. As I wait now not for heroes but for words to come, I hear the water outside rushing madly, wearing down the banks of summer’s peaceful wandering stream. The wind rattles windowpanes, wailing wildly, then whispering, return, return, return. Lisa E. Paige Copyrighted Material 2008

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