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Original Essays


by Elizabeth Hartley Winthrop
  1. December


    Elizabeth Hartley Winthrop
    "Winthrop is a master of observation, and her ability to crystallize themes in particular vignettes (fixing a broken phonograph, buying Christmas presents) brings this affecting family drama vividly to life." Publishers Weekly
  2. Fireworks (Vintage Contemporaries)
    $13.50 New Trade Paper add to wishlist

    Fireworks (Vintage Contemporaries)

    Elizabeth Hartley Winthrop
    "As full of hilarious missteps as it is poignantly sad. Winthrop proves to be a bitingly intelligent writer." The New York Times Book Review
Most of my memories are organized and stowed away like so many snapshots, and as I flip through the album of my mind, I am struck by the difference between childhood memories and recent ones. Of course, to a certain extent this is to be expected; our experiences as adults are different from our experiences as children, as are our interpretations of events. But the difference is larger than that.

Here's a recent snapshot: my mother propped up in a hospital bed. The light is dim. A machine beeps on the wall behind her; the other walls are not walls at all but plastic curtains that separate my mother's bed from the empty ones on either side. My mother's face is marked with abrasions; just above her lips and on her chin, the skin has been worn away, and her forehead holds the nubbled pattern of a carpet. Her lips are swollen, and everywhere around her eyes is starting to go blue. There are small bloodstains on her nightgown, which is her own silk nightgown, and not one of hospital issue. And it's funny, because you wouldn't expect it, but she's smiling.

Here's a childhood snapshot: my mother on the other side of a glass wall from me. She's sitting on a stool at a table with other women, and there is a paintbrush in her hand. There are other children on my side of the wall, smocked and messy with paint. The walls of the room are peach colored, and the ceiling lights are about the size of ironing boards, the fluorescent kind of ceiling lights that always seem to flicker and buzz.

Aside, of course, from content, there is a huge difference between these snapshots, because the first one I can animate. In this sense, it is actually less of a snapshot than a freeze frame, or the image on which someone pressed pause in a movie. I can rewind, and I can fast forward. I know that my mother, disoriented and half awake in a strange house, followed a course which at home would have brought her to the bathroom but instead sent her tumbling down a flight of stairs in the middle of the night. I know that my father woke me, and we called for the ambulance that brought her to bed in which I see her, when I think of that night. I know that in the snapshot she was smiling at the large male nurse who stood behind me making jokes, and that in a minute, after she had told him a joke of her own, her smile would stretch wider as his jaw dropped in shocked response. I know that my father and my sister and my husband were in the waiting room watching dawn-time MSNBC. I know that in a matter of hours, we would all be back at the house together.

The second snapshot, on the other hand, is devoid of context. I do not know what I was doing in that room on the other side of a glass wall from my mother. A feeling of helplessness accompanies this snapshot; I imagine I must have called for my mother, and she couldn't hear me through the glass, but I don't know this for sure. I don't remember getting to the room, or being there, and I don't remember leaving. All I have is the snapshot.

There are other snapshots like this, themselves completely vivid, but their context murky. There's one of a block coming at my head. Behind the block I see a girl with stringy hair and bangs, her arms outstretched with the throw. She's got chocolate around her mouth. I don't remember why she threw the block at me; I don't remember where I was at the time; I don't remember the pain of contact between wood and head. Maybe the block missed me.

There is a snapshot of a squirrel in the guestroom, skinny and cowering in the corner of the room. The window sashes — which are blue, which I do remember particularly liking — have been gnawed away, and blood is smeared across the glass. Outside, I can see that it is dark, but I don't remember how we found the squirrel, or what became of it, or who cleaned the glass, or re-sashed the windows.

There is a snapshot of my grandmother sitting in a wicker chair, mostly silhouette against the glare of the lowering sun behind her. Her hair is in a net, and her legs are crossed. A flip-flop dangles from her toe. In her right hand, she holds a rocks glass filled with vodka and milk on ice. Smoke rises from a cigarette resting in the ashtray at her feet.

Why these particular childhood snapshots should exist in the album of my mind, I can't explain, whereas the presence of more recent snapshots seems natural — my mother's midnight tumble was a big deal, as were, for instance, the events of September 11, which are bookmarked by a snapshot of my father's grim face as we watched the second tower crumble on TV. Of course these moments should stand out; the snapshots that fill my recent memory are as obvious as snapshots of the Grand Canyon or the Painted Desert in an album of a road trip out west. The early snapshots, by contrast, are random, equivalent to snapshots of a gas station bathroom on that same desert trip, or of the woman working behind the counter in the donut shop in Needles, Arizona.

In A Sketch of the Past, Virgina Woolf meditates on childhood. "Many bright colours;" she writes, "many distinct sounds; some human beings, caricatures; comic; several violent moments of being, always including a circle of the scene which they cut out: and all surrounded by a vast space — that is a rough visual description of childhood." This, to me, seems exactly right, as is her assertion that "a child must have a curious focus; it sees an air-ball or a shell with extreme distinctness," or, in my memory, it sees a block, or a glass wall, or smoke rising from an ashtray.

These are the types of details that structure Isabelle's world. Her December, which is the ninth month of her elective silence, consists of the color of light filtered through an eyelid, of snow falling through an outdoor light, of the hairy back of an exterminator or the clucking sound of a turn signal. It consists of the intricate design of an Oriental carpet, of a toy caterpillar glued to the ceiling of the car, of the cracks on the back her therapist's tongue. These are her "snapshots," or the things I imagine she will remember of this time when she is grown, arbitrary then as air-ball or a block coming through the air, but now the details that define her world — and she records them diligently in her sketchbook, or her "album" of December.

For her parents, Ruth and Wilson, December consists of Isabelle's silence; her silence is the great forest made up of so many incidental trees, and if Isabelle will remember the trees, her parents will remember the forest. Each of them go to their own great and desperate lengths to penetrate their daughter's silence, Ruth through therapy and art, Wilson through plans of distraction in the form of a trip to Africa. Isabelle herself is far from oblivious to her parents' frustration and agony, of which she knows her silence is the cause; one of her drawings — one of the "snapshots" that haunts her — is the image of her parents in a posture of grief, "Ruth with the knuckles of one hand against her forehead, the other hand in Wilson's, Wilson himself half out of his chair, almost on his knees, his free hand outstretched, as if beseeching his wife to stop, please stop crying." Isabelle is aware that if she would only speak, her mother would stop crying, but she cannot bring herself to break her silence. The world has stunned Isabelle into a silence that is equally as stunning to her parents.

The way that different people, particularly parents and children, can view the same thing so very differently was one of the subjects I was interested in when I began to write December, and the reason why I told the story in alternating points of view. Isabelle's silence is the great beast around which the three of them triangulate, but each of them has a unique and individual view of the thing. For Isabelle, her silence is both a protection from and a reaction to the bewildering aspects of the world, heightened by the "curious focus" she has as a child; for her parents, it is an affliction and a mystery, partly because they view the world so differently than she does.

It occurs to me now that the image that Isabelle draws of her parents in that anguished posture is the image around which the book turns. The novel's first section, in which Ruth and Wilson's desperation slowly mounts, ends with the two of them actually in that posture and at the apex of their distress; Isabelle is watching from the shadows. The second section of the novel begins with Isabelle working to record that image in her sketchbook the following day; the drawing is intended as a gift she will give to her parents, an apology, an acknowledgement, a gesture of love, and something that they can see in common.

People often ask whether there was a time in my life when I, like Isabelle, did not speak. The answer to this is no, but her silence, for me, is a metaphor for the way any adolescent girl might react to the difficult task of being alive, whether it be through depression, addiction, anorexia, or any other number of ways. In this sense, I am writing about all the girls who allegorically lose their voice for a time in the confusing process of growing up; in them, I see reflections of myself, and for this reason, as Isabelle's drawing is for her parents, December is for mine.

÷ ÷ ÷

Elizabeth Hartley Winthrop is the author of the novels December and Fireworks and has published stories in Wind, the Evansville Review, the Missouri Review, Red Rock Review, and the Indiana Review. Currently, she is living and writing in Savannah, Georgia. spacer

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