by Maura MacNeil
After all, /we are partners in this land, /co-signers of a covenant.
~ Stanley Kunitz
Roots, like spirals of DNA, enter the image without warning. Feeders.
A forest grows through us, around us, entwining us. Binding.
I see an owl’s wing sweep down into the center image, brush against my mother’s hair.
I work on a mixed-media piece that includes the images of three generations of women in my family. The process entails the use of one of my favorite mediums: mulberry paper. I love the imperfect fiber, the way thick, textured lines of pulp bleed into areas of tissue-thin surface. When I hold the paper up to the window and move it from side to side, the undulating color shifts like wind, reveals palimpsest.
It is forgiving in my hands when I make mistakes, such as unintended creases, tiny tears.
It is almost eighty-two years to the day since my grandmother’s death in August of 1939. These days, I think of Margaret Elizabeth Farley Fuller almost as often as I think of my own mother, whose health deteriorates at the age of ninety-two. I am now the next generation of women to move to the front of the line. Holding that delicate ticket of mortality. It is my prayer that, in the years to come, this ticket is the admission to a deepening reconciliation with the worlds of my making as I move toward the cusp of living and dying.
I know my grandmother’s face only through a formal sepia-toned photographic portrait intended to be strictly composed. In this portrait she looks off to the right of the camera with a pensive, dreamy essence that has tugged at my imagination for as long as I have had memory of this image. I know her only from this shadow-place, suspended within a small reproduction of the original photograph kept framed on a bookcase. Here she exists within a decade or so before her death at the age of thirty-two at the end of a summer when she will sit down suddenly while walking with a friend in a wooded path near her father’s summer house in Indian Lake, New York. It is in that moment, frozen in my imagination, where she speaks of chest pains, shortness of breath. In that story, her friend will rush to find help and return with others. Upon their arrival my grandmother is dead in the forest.
If we are fortunate we possess one image of ourselves—a frozen moment of life’s amplitude—that will seize the imagination of someone in our not-yet-born DNA lineage—someone who will drive “onto the spit of land that lets us look back/across the harbor at the lights”— Yes, if we are lucky, the yet-to-be born-and-named will imbue us with their imagination, curiosity. Keep us close and framed. Will not allow us to become an orphaned image in a pile rummaged through at a flea market.
What has been sleeping within the image of my grandmother is now waking. There is so little I know and so much I want to know. I think of her in that forest in the last moments of her life. I think of her head resting against the surface roots of a maple, an oak, on a perfect late-summer day as her breathing slowed. Did she have final, fleeting images of her two small children, two small tendrils that became taproot that became what makes heartwood grow?
What I do know is that I want to believe that in her final moments she felt beneficent multitudes that now emerge one hundred and fourteen years after her birth into this world.
Eight-two years after her death.
It is what I hold within my hands as I smooth the mulberry paper over the photographic images of myself, my mother, and Margaret Elizabeth. I see likeness. I see roots. Binding.
Notes on Text:
- Images of Maura Anne MacNeil, Margaret Lenore Fuller MacNeil and Margaret Elizabeth Farley Fuller are part of an ongoing mixed-media project titled “Stitch” by Maura MacNeil. 2021
- The epigraph with the lines: “After all, /we are partners in this land, /co-signers of a covenant” is from the poem titled “The Snakes of September” by Stanley Kunitz from his collection Next to Last Things. 1985
- “…onto that spit of land…” is from the poem titled “Amplitude” by Tess Gallagher in the collection Amplitude: New and Selected Poems. 1987