Tuesday, November 11, 2008

My dear Mama

I believe I mentioned that I have embarked on a new writing project. Originally, the focus was quite narrow, revolving around Thomas Edison and his eldest daughter Marion "Dot" Edison.

She alone of her siblings was close to Edison, especially after her mother died, even traveling with him when he took an unprecedented (for Edison, at least, who spent days and weeks at the laboratory, sleeping on the floor) seaside vacation in search of a second wife.

Part of the Edison legend is that Marion witnessed her father tap a proposal in Morse code into Mina Miller's soft palm.

Soon after, Marion went away to boarding school. And by the time Mina's first child was born, Edison's sixteen-year-old first-born was on an extended tour of Europe.

Edison was an inventor first and a husband and father second. Which was his choice, but it meant that Marion's only contact with her family was via her stepmother's letters. Because he very seldom wrote.
INCOMPLETE No letterhead

My dear Mama,
I hope you do not think me neglectful for having written before but under the circumstances I know you will be indulgent and overlook it. I do not feel very much like

Writing now but I feel that I must write if it is just a short note to let you know that I have not forgotten you. I am now on the Riviera and at last with Mrs. Earl. I have only been here a week but I feel that I have gained more in that week than

all the others put together since I have been over my sickness. Feeling and looking as I do I could not be situated more comfortably. We have a lovely little Villa and our meals served from a hotel. Mrs. Earl is a dear good woman I feel that I will grow very fond of

her. I have already begun French with her and she makes study very interesting. Miss Brigham is still with us but will probably start for the north next week. She is not very strong and I would like very much to invite her to stay until the north gets warmer but I think it would be easier for

Mrs. Earl if she did not stay as Mrs. Earl cannot help but feel that I look to Miss Brigham before her. Mrs. Earl is almost helpless with her broken arm so her sister has come with her. I did not receive the pink negligee you sent me until the other day. It was very kind of you

To send it. The letters I appreciated still more. I only wish that they had come to me while I was in the hospital. You surely do not blame me for feeling hurt to think that I only heard from home twice during those long dreary weeks spent in the hospital. It was quite the talk

Of the hospital and you can imagine my mortification. I do not blame you so much but Papa is my own father + I never thought that he would treat me with anything but kindness. I know that he did not mean to add a pang to my suffering but it was at a time

When I needed every proof of affection and two short letters in seven weeks did not prove that there was much. I wonder if I had died if you or Papa would ever have regretted not sending me a few words of sympathy for those awful hours. I did not mean to speak of this at all when I began to write it is all over now but I can …
I found a selection of Marion's letters in an on-line archive of Edisonia. And while I printed out and read through a sheaf of them a month or more ago, I recently decided to transcribe them. Partly so I could read and re-read them without having to re-learn Marion's handwriting every time but also because I wanted to feel what it was like to write her letters.

I've spent almost all my writing time of late re-writing these letters. Being patient with myself, with Marion.

I read these letters, of course, as the eldest daughter of an ambitious but thwarted mother.

I read these letters as the child of an willfully absent father.

I read these letters as the child of a divorced couple, as someone who was supported by her father while in university, as someone whose communication with my father is often via my stepmother.

I read these letters remembering what it was like to feel that I had no home of my own anymore.

And I dislike that the focus for this project has widened, that has become about absent parents. I dislike how that absence is gendered. Most of all, I dislike that has also become about my own absent parent and the legacy of absent parents that I inherit.

I dislike it but reading these letters, with their aching spurts of blame and accusation, has helped me, given me a template for poems not only on her experience but, perhaps, my own.

Poor Dot, writing home after contracting smallpox in Dresden in 1890, has shown me I have choices about how I write about this, if write about it I must.


Brenda Schmidt said...

Sounds like quite the journey. Good luck with this, A.

m said...

Nothing worth doing is easy, and it sounds like you've tapped into an amazing project that's going to be as difficult as it will be rewarding.