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When Women Were Birds: Fifty-Four Variations on Voiceby Terry Tempest Williams
I am fifty-four years old, the age my mother was when she died. This is what I remember: We were lying on her bed with a mohair blanket covering us. I was rubbing her back, feeling each vertebra with my fingers as a rung on a ladder. It was January, and the ruthless clamp of cold bore down on us outside. Yet inside, Mothers tenderness and clarity of mind carried its own warmth. She was dying in the same way she was living, consciously.
“I am leaving you all my journals,” she said, facing the shuttered window as I continued rubbing her back. “But you must promise me that you will not look at them until after I am gone.”
I gave her my word. And then she told me where they were. I didnt know my mother kept journals.
A week later she died. That night, there was a full moon encircled by ice crystals.
On the next full moon I found myself alone in the family home. I kept expecting Mother to appear. Her absence became her presence. It was the right time to read her journals.
They were exactly where she said they would be: three shelves of beautiful clothbound books; some fl oral, some paisley, others in solid colors. The spines of each were perfectly aligned against the lip of the shelves. I opened the first journal. It was empty. I opened the second journal. It was empty. I opened the third. It, too, was empty, as was the fourth, the fifth, the sixth—shelf after shelf after shelf, all my mothers journals were blank.
I do not know why my mother bought journal after journal, year after year, and never wrote in one of them and passed them on to me.
I will never know.
The blow of her blank journals became a second death.
My Mothers Journals are paper tombstones.
I am fifty- four years old, the age my mother was when she died. Th e questions I hold now could not have been comprehended when I was a woman in my twenties. I didnt realize how young she was, but isnt that the conceit of mothers—that we conceal our youth and exist only for our children? It is the province of mothers to preserve the myth that we are unburdened with our own problems. Placed in a circle of immunity, we carry only the crises of those we love. We mask our needs as the needs of others. If ever there was a story without a shadow, it would be this: that we as women exist in direct sunlight only.
When women were birds, we knew otherwise. We knew our greatest freedom was in taking flight at night, when we could steal the heavenly darkness for ourselves, navigating through the intelligence of stars and the constellations of our own making in the delight and terror of our uncertainty.
What my mother wanted to do and what she was able to do remains her secret.
We all have our secrets. I hold mine. To withhold words is power. But to share our words with others, openly and honestly, is also power.
I was aware of the silences within my mother. They were her places of strength, inviolable. Tillie Olsen studied such silence. She writes,
Literary history and the present are dark with silences . . . I have had special need to learn all I could of this over the years, myself so nearly remaining mute and having to let writing die over and over again in me. These are not natural silences— what Keats called agonie ennuyeuse (the tedious agony)—that necessary time for renewal, lying fallow, gestation, in the natural cycle of creation. The silences I speak of here are unnatural: the unnatural thwarting of what struggles to come into being, but cannot.
We hold these silences as a personal crucifix.
What is voice?
I will say it is so: The first voice I heard belonged to my mother. It was her voice I listened to from the womb; from the moment my head emerged into this world; from the moment I was pushed out then placed on her belly before the umbilicus was cut; from the moment when she cradled me in her arms. My mother spoke to me: “Hello, little one. You are here, I am here.”
I will say it is so: My mothers voice is a lullaby in my cells. When I am still, my body feels her breathing.
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