blackbirdonline journalSpring 2019  Vol. 18 No. 1
an online journal of literature and the arts
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Blue Prints

I saw the blueprint
of your apartment.
Edna always
shows me the letters,
Mama also.
Seems we should be
talking color schemes,
picking cotton,
and hunting apples
in the leaves. (Ha)
They are all gone
now you know.

Reading the lines tailored to a slender slip of paper, I read into the breaks. I read them as baring the bleakness held in the parentheses, giving the ha, like a dejected speaker’s lip, a twist. As pausing after They are all gone so the reader can think back to the loves named that would go too. And as making a heavy declaration of now you know by standing it alone.

This is the first among the letters to my grandmother, Elizabeth (as I must get used to her being addressed). Elizabeth, age seventeen, had just married and moved from the family farm in North Carolina to where her husband would work in Washington, DC. The writer is an aunt I never met. At the time, she is near Elizabeth’s age, also recently married.

In North Carolina, the unmarried women of a household had all slept in a single bed. In DC, the bed is only something the family can inquire about as a movable object, wondering how, among other furniture, it has been positioned.


A note Elizabeth’s much younger sister adds is a study in contrast to the aunt’s, in that it leaves no space.

roses are blooming very pretty and pink I am going to send you a rose a bud so it will last a long time and you can put it in water and it will last a long time and you can watch it bloom that little bud will be me 8 more days and my school year ends love nelly

Stanza is the Italian word for room, and in this letter without any such divisions, the girl is herself unfolding into Elizabeth’s home, they are sharing quarters again. The sentences run on, right over the implications of aging and change, making their case for continuation, straight to Nelly’s name.


Nelly does not crowd out the aunt, though, but rather helps me see her more clearly. How she is expert in pause, repeatedly drawn away from the letters to tend pots or babies, her return marked by changes between pencil and pen. And constantly reconsidering the value of their small country news, and what she can do.

My hand wobbles like a new calf. By the way, we have a new calf. Oh, but I’m not practiced at this. There’s so much that needs erasing.

An expert on language might be able to explain away some of the lack of confidence here, help dwell on the courtesy of her phrases. Exchanging floors is linguists’ term for the way women interrupt their own speech, when they are able to converse in person, with um, sort of, but, a bit, it seems, who am I to say, providing places for a listener to enter.


Another letter, after more seasons passed, asks,

Did you know the cherries are ripe here?
That the baby has little shoes?
But the bottoms are soft.

It is tempting to be jealous of the letter writers who may presume distances can be spanned, answers to their inquiries will come. They can do this because they are not yet addressing the dead.

The half of a correspondence left in the dark of the deceased’s house are replies—not necessarily in the voice of the one who was dear to the inheritor. I want the words of my grandmother, long gone to the grave. What I get are a small box of strangers’ questions, and the gaping blanks following them.


But the questions the aunt asks are of the politest kind. And the amendment, after telling about the baby’s shoes—But the bottoms are soft—is meant to soften the blow. To ease Elizabeth’s realization of time elapsing and what she no longer knows. (At least the baby has not grown so that he can stand tall, walk out of the frame of reference, the mind’s gilt-edged image of home.)

Comfort, not foreboding, is what that first, narrow letter was intended to convey. The writer was making use of scraps. The family was poor. And, for a while, they lived, so fortunate that, when letters stopped, it only meant they had run out of paper.


When the crops had been harvested, or there was work at the mill, the aunt’s letters are on stationary and full of the digits of yardages for curtains she’ll make and cents spent on setting up her own home.

They bought me two of the prettiest gowns you ever saw. They are real silk ($6.95), baby blue.

Details, but not all the story. I have to put together from others’ letters that she could not go to town to do her own shopping, was bedridden in the finery.


No mention of the death of her brother in a plane crash, the war he was training for. Such facts must be gathered from clipped bits of newspaper.

While she writes, There’s a dress I’m going to sew.

Then as a favorable description, The fabric is soldier blue.


And there’s this:

Having a husband and housekeeping are hard. You and I never suffered so much working in the fields, really. But he is going to tint the ceilings sky blue.

It is only after I have become curious and press those who have survived her that I learn what she couldn’t put in writing. The truth about her husband. About the color of bruising, the eye blackening, her bones—

In the letters, she is trying to give what the lonely recipient wants to hear, girlish memories of working outside, not under the roof or given into the hands of anybody.


Even in closing our letters with our own names, we mean this as a gesture of generosity. Mean please reply, send signs you’re there, an envelope to unseal like peeling petals from a flower (even if the outside has shriveled and dried) seeking the color it was alive.

So, I have letters from my great-grandaunt. (Is that the correct combination of words with which to designate her? Should removed be in there?) A woman who died before I was born, at age forty-five. I fill in as best I can, and it has given me some company, somewhere to stand (on the scrubbed linoleum floor of an old kitchen of my envisioning).

Throughout the woman’s funeral, I’ve heard, the preacher called her by the wrong name. Nobody stopped him. But her words are here still, what I write of today comes from pages signed Lucille.

I’ll end, and not be done with that name, then. Build with what measures there are, based on what lines have been given. Imagine being among young women, running out into wide fields. No one bound, nothing broken, convincing each other the blue of our lives should be the color of sky.  

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