Skeletons II

Skeletons II

Not in entire forgetfulness,

And not in utter nakedness

But trailing clouds of glory do we come

From God, who is our home.

William Wordsworth, Ode: Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood

Anna Sophia, Isabella Margaretha, Catharina Elisabeth, Margaretha Rosina, Anna Mary, Dorothea Christina, Sophia Margaretha, Tabea Ruth

They must be princesses to have names like these. Bavarian princesses, Rhine maidens, who live in a castle along the river bank, whose occupations are bathing together in the shallows, braiding each other’s golden hair to keep it from tangling; their voices merge in impossibly pitched bird-calls; they are giddy, they zoom around the castle in mad games which take them through hidden passageways to forbidden rooms remote, turret chambers they can hardly squeeze into. In sleep, they are a pile of kittens, all interlocking limbs and tresses, all spats among them quelled, their deepest fears and desires told in whispers, until they lose themselves in dreams of forests full of trolls, rapacious wolves, witches, cruel stepmothers, these black forests nothing but a cover for cannibalism, murder, mutilation, as in the Brothers Grimm.

And so perhaps they are not surprised to awaken into the light of common day on an Indiana flatland subject to floods and tornadoes, until recently a lawless territory controlled by Indians on the warpath. Stripped of their mother tongue and given names, they have turned into farmer’s daughters who must work and work and work. Perhaps they think they have gotten off easy and make no attempt to escape. They will work for the night is coming when God’s work is done. But for all their faith and willingness, they will not be spared. Anna Sophia, just six years old, will burn to death on March 19, 1877.

The death of a child can end a marriage, but my great-grandfather, Phillip Frick, who was short and jovial with red hair, reported sleeplessness after his wife of fifty years, Anna Deindoerfer, who wore her hair tied back tightly in a bun, but in her youth had been the lightest dancer on the floor, died nine years before he did. Parents of eight girls and four boys born between 1871 and 1894, they had always held hands in bed. German Evangelicals, my mother called them, but what combination of religious fervor, persecution, economic hardship, spirit of adventure, or unspecified restlessness brought them to the New World, I have no idea -- what town they came from, where they landed, what route followed, what mode of transport -- like the boys in the family, these don’t concern me. I seize instead upon the sisters, Isabella Margaretha and Catharina Elisabeth already born, Margaretha Rosina about to be, at the time of Anna Sophia’s death, and in particular upon their names: Anna twice, Sophia twice, Margaretha three times. I find this more than customary renaming. Frenzied, obsessive, or compulsive, was it? Not the right adjectives, perhaps. But, each to each, these girls were bound and marked.

It was my mother who told me the story, before we left New York, so I must have been seven or eight years old. A farmhouse kitchen, pot on stove, flame beneath. Was Anna Sophia alone in the kitchen? Where were her parents? Her younger sisters, ages two and four? Did she stir the pot under orders, was this her household chore? Or did she take it upon herself? She was the oldest, she would help out. Dying, my mother said, she begged them not to scold her, not to punish. Was the pot heavy, did she pull it over, scalding her skin? Or was her plain dress for everyday engulfed quite suddenly in flames? Did she die that day, or linger? Why would my mother put such pictures in my mind? Leave me with so many unanswerable questions

*

In one of their many group portraits, taken in the photo car of the Vreeland Railway Palace, Belle, Kate, Rose, and Mary, young American women now, show off their slender necks, high foreheads, ample breasts. Their sister’s death is long behind them. They have arched brows, narrow noses, pinched in-waists. They look out eagerly. They almost smile.

*

The story recedes, the sisters separate, and I learn to identify my grandmother, Margaretha Rosina, the prettiest one. Or do I think this because she is mine? She is definitely the most stylish, and wardrobe details in her letters are easy to picture: a black fingertip length satin back crepe coat, a powder puff muslin dress with long sleeves. But why does my mother say her name is Rosina Margaret? She has it backwards as does my favorite doll. These subtle alterations, gaps in time and space, cease to matter as I piece her life together. Introduced by Belle’s boyfriend, she is courted by Frank Van Dyke, a traveling salesman from Iowa, keen on cars, those new-fangled horseless buggies, and he likes the fights, boxing, wrestling. She sends him a picture postcard of a skirt lifted just enough to reveal an ankle, broad hint in the caption of more to come when he gets home. Once married in 1904, he pins her in a half-nelson, throws her out of bed.

Rose is flirtatious, sexy, romantic. Well isn’t that nice to have someone in love with you, she writes to my mother married just three years in 1936. She likes the way Frank says Rose. Having his dinner ready in the middle of the day is its centerpiece. Like Anna and Phillip before them, Frank and Rose will celebrate a Golden Wedding. She believes she will die before he does. When, dying, he must be moved to another room, her life is over. She told me so herself.

But still together now while they are young, they move to Iowa where she bears two children, Marguerite and Howard, while Frank works as a chauffeur for a dentist in Des Moines. Here they have perks: an organ, a washing machine, gas lights. Some visionary gleam of openness, of land theirs for the taking, lures them next to an inhospitable sandhill in the Chickasaw Nation, in the brand new state of Oklahoma, just the place for an evangelical preacher who sets up a tent on the school grounds. Children lie quiet on pallets towards the back, lulled to sleep by the hymns. Call and response. Rose, dressed in white, is baptized for a second time in a muddy pond, rushed home immediately after the service. Revived. Born again.

I cannot dismiss the whole of adulthood as quickly as Wordsworth, with a nod to Shakespeare, does in the Ode : The little Actor cons another part/ filling from time to time his “humorous stage”/ With all the Persons down to palsied Age/That Life brings with her in her equipage. Or see it as a prison-house, inhabited by Inmate Man. But that the Frick sisters carried with them some fugitive trace, some shadowy recollection of past lives and of their first sister’s death, I have no doubt. Rose may have flung out her hand, incisive with her wedding ring, to discipline her children, toughened Howard by packing him a lunch for the road when he threatened to run away, but a more refined creature continued to lurk in semi-precious jewels that dangled from her pierced ears, in the delicacy of her embroidery on tea towels and pillowcases, in her low alto register, in her attention to fashion and makeup, her love of fine china and flowers.

Belle, Rose, Tina, and Sophie lived in the same town, Norman, Oklahoma, into old age, in steady and continuous exchange, long before telephones were ordinary. They called each other by their titles: Sister Belle, my grandmother always said, Sister Tina, Sister Sophie, common at the time perhaps, but striking to the modern ear. And their Round Robin letter was a singular creation. I don’t know who began it, or how it worked exactly. Dear Ones, my grandmother’s letters began. To save writing all those names: Belle, Kate, Rose, Mary, Tina, Sophie, Ruth. Those letters made the rounds reaching Kansas, I believe, and Texas, each sister adding her news, a long letter, but did anyone see all of it, did it double back and go round again? On into the next generation, even in Haiti my mother received it sometimes from one of her twenty-six cousins, Anna Laura, or Anna May.

How did Anna and Phillip bear the death of the little girl who was Anna Sophia? What did they tell the others, those already born and those who came later? Very likely their religious beliefs, including the direct experience of God, sustained them. They had no time for grief, I might imagine, as they worked to provide for themselves and their expanding family. Or, “back then” parents were more used to death in childhood and in general, thought of children as economic assets, easily replaced, who should be seen and not heard, who were not the objects of such fierce, protective love as we indulge in today. Names belie this, pens put to paper belie this.

Every day there is something, something I would like to ask my mother, Marguerite. She embodied an earlier Bavarian Margaretha, who must have been Anna’s mother. Just a guess. But what did my mother believe at the end about the meaning of it all, about God, about an afterlife? I can make a sketch, but it is my deep regret that we never discussed these matters. My grandmother’s inner life seems far more clear, though ironed out towards the end like her sheets. Rose is wife, mother, citizen upstanding, giving little or no thought to stolen Native American land, to black people forbidden by law (until 1963) to be found in Norman after sundown. She watches Queen for a Day, attends missionary society meetings, her husband is a Rotary man, she sings in a Methodist church choir, her week a map of chores crossed out. The meat-grinder, my uncle Bill called it. But no. Beneath this thoroughly Midwestern bourgeois surface, Rose leads a life of obstinate questionings, blank misgivings. She hurries through her housework to reach Jesus and his disciples in the Upper Room, scene of the Last Supper, also the name of a Christian publication she reads which provides Bible verses for daily meditation. She returns to that muddy pond.

The past invades the present. We drag immortality around with us, we pass it on. I never asked my mother why she told me about Anna Sophia’s death. Just took it inside, incomprehensible, where I continue to bump into it. Her mother told her, she told me. I waited till my daughter was grown, but I told her. Perhaps the story stops here, since Sirènehas no daughters. Such stories are too hot to handle -- we want to get rid of them, dump them on the next person and the next. Storytelling as a form of exorcism. I’m surprised to find that what interests me is not the truth, what really happened. I have little use for Ancestry.com, the starstruck voyeurism of Henry Louis Gates, or even DNA. One of my male cousins is short with Phillip Frick’s red hair. I am strict in housekeeping like Rose, first the glasses, then the silver. I have no need to go back too far. Anna Sophia’s story is the kind I like, half made-up and blurred around the edges, made of words both everything and nothing.


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