Winter 2007 Issue




By Meredith Sue Willis


There is a process in navigation that locates an unknown point by forming a triangle among it– where you stand, perhaps– and two known points. From time to time, we use great events in history in this way. That was the year I got married and also the year of the great Blackout. Where were you living when the president was shot?

Great events – the bombings and genocides, the assassinations and scandals in high places – tend to frighten us with our smallness and vulnerability. We strain to regain equilibrium, some of us through prayer, some through political action, some by withdrawing to our friends or families. Yet, we are all always a part of it. It was history that drove people out of Northern Ireland to take their chances in the Appalachian mountains of America. The vicissitudes of history that gave them the upper hand over those who had previously used those lands. History and chance.

I imagine that the survival of my exact genetic material was assured by a series of accidents: the dead branch of an old oak tree that fell and missed a man who was clearing fields for plowing, and he was one of my ancestors. A midwife who once washed her hands in cold water and homemade lye soap– and thus a woman and baby survived who were also my ancestors.

And then there was the fact that my father was discharged from the army for bad eyesight just before they changed the medical standards in order to take in more soldiers, and thus my father spent the war in Akron, Ohio, working in an airplane factory rather than dying on the beaches at Normandy before I could be conceived.

Behind him, in the mountains, the farmer who dodged the branch, the midwife with clean hands.

My father’s father’s family were short, dark people who didn’t keep a family tree and were perhaps part Melungeon, that southern mountain mixed race group that now claims a Mediterranean ancestry. My father’s mother’s family were lighter-colored, larger people, established families in Scott and Lee Counties, Virginia. They were educated by the standards of their day, and they say that my grandmother’s mother rode a horse, and that this demonstrated her pridefulness, and since pride goeth before a fall, it was no surprise to anyone when her husband ran off with the hired girl.

The children were divided over whose fault this was: my grandmother’s brothers said he was driven to it by her gentility, but my grandmother’s older sister blamed him. My grandmother herself, the baby girl, had been the delinquent’s favorite and the playmate of the teen-aged hired girl. She was crushed to lose them, and as she got older to know that her family’s business was talked about by people up and down the Powell Valley. Her mother eventually remarried a rough-hewn Mr. McPhee, and my grandmother had to share a bed with his large and not always clean daughters.

But the haughty woman held onto a nest egg and used it to send my grandmother, not Mr. McPhee’s daughters, to boarding school for a term. There my grandmother picked up more ideas about gracious living and the world beyond southwestern Virginia. When she came back, she soon married my grandfather– with his small, dark ancestors of somewhat doubtful bloodlines. My grandfather himself was an up and coming man with plans for the future. He was a man who intended to go somewhere. He liked to say that a man who wants to go somewhere must go where they have somewhere for men who want to go somewhere to go. He took a job teaching school in Wise County, which was less populated and steeper than the farming valley where they had grown up. They lived in a cabin on a mountainside. My father was born there.

Here I begin to locate myself. I have been to Wise County. I used to spend summers with that grandmother. Her life coincided with enormous swathes of twentieth century history. She lived during the time of both Russian Revolutions, two world wars, and various struggles for and against empire. She was in the same age cohort as Pablo Picasso, Rosa Luxemburg, and Adolf Hitler. She was, especially late in life, a reader of books. And yet, as far as I know, she had no opinions on either revolution or modern art or even of war, except to express her relief that her son didn’t have to fight. Did she believe that History was not for her? Was she simply too busy keeping house in that cabin to think of her place in the world? She was still a teenager in her first year of marriage, living in that place called Bold Camp. Immediately she became got pregnant. How could I ask that she be aware of Europe or Asia or even New York or California as she stood, on July 10, 1917, stirring the blueing in a pot over an open fire, waiting for my grandfather to come home.






July 10, 1917
On The Attersee in Upper Austria


While, at that same moment, an artist is looking at a town on the far side of a large lake in Austria. The town is set against a hill raised and flattened by the lens of his spyglass, as if each little house were fastened to a coverlet that someone had pulled up and gently undulated. This is what Gustav Klimt, painter of patterns and sexual ecstasy, sees at this moment. He chuckles in delight at the flatness of it, although flatness isn’t the point, except in as far as the flatness creates the surface pattern he is always seeking.

Klimt loves pattern, and in winter he paints lovers and orgastic-eyed women pulsating in color, imbued with sensuality. In summer, he paints landscapes, and this day, on the dock on the Attersee, he looks through his telescope and sees something new. Yes! He has always known! The world is made of pulsations of light and tiles of color, whether in the studio or on the hillside. He loves this, feels rapture in the quivering surface of the water, in the buzzing golden haze on the orchard, in the rooftops of the town.

He is an informed, modern man. He thanks God he is too old to be conscripted for the war. The war is foolishness, he says. It is the result of nationalism and anarchism and all the other Isms that would suffocate beauty. Death comes soon enough, he says, thinking of his painting of people sleeping under a colorful quilt, and beside them, the death’s-head grinning, with his shroud of crosses, with his weapon ready. He comes soon enough, says Klimt. Why encourage him?

The goodness of life is what he lives for. The goodness of life includes food, sex, summer on the lake, companionship around a bottle of wine, and, above all, this pulsation of light, these colors he will touch to his canvas with the tips of his brushes.

He will paint all morning, till he is hot and hungry and ready for some conversation. He will paint cropped edges and close focus, infinitesimally distant trees, piled up like haystacks, like gumballs. Piled up like the slopes of the Appalachian mountains that Emma Goldman sees from her train as it chugs through West Virginia, Kentucky, and southern Ohio. Not so far, as the crow flies, from where the mountainside looms over my grandmother’s shoulder.



July 10, 1917
The Most Dangerous Woman in America on Her Way to
The Federal Penitentiary in Jefferson City, Missouri

Emma Goldman is on a train, watching America unroll, surprised by the darkness in the shadow of the mountains even though it is broad daylight. She loves train travel, the suspension of ordinary activities, the naps, the reading, the conversations with strangers. She enjoys her traveling companions, two young federal marshals who are escorting her to prison. She is eating a meat sandwich, and she has treated her guards to sandwiches too. Finished ahead of her, they have gone to smoke and left her unguarded. She especially likes the plump one, MacLeod. She would gladly have him on her side– but then, she wants everyone on her side!

She sees a small settlement along the river and a woman hanging up her wash. She wants her too! All the ones she can see, and the ones like my grandmother hidden from her in the folds of the mountains. She wants them all to enjoy the fruits of this splendid big country of big ideals and bad leaders.

She is amazed by these mountains that fill her gaze: how near they seem! There is a river, there is the railroad track, there is the little line of houses, and then the sheer forested mountains. She rests her eyes in those dark folds of rich green just a hair’s-breadth from black. She feels sly: this is a little vacation, courtesy of the United States of Capitalism. This trip, she told the marshals, is a waste of the government’s money. Her smart lawyer Weinberger is filing a whole sheaf of papers about why she should be free to tell the world that this war is not against the Kaiser but in cahoots with the Kaiser, a war against the international working class! Well, that’s not what Weinberger will say to the judge; he has technical points, but she is confident that Weinberger will get her out of jail. She has great faith in Weinberger with his beautifully tailored overcoats and dove gray homburg hats, always with the brim perfectly rolled, not a spot on it. She teases Weinberger about his vanity, but he is a good man, working for the cause in the way he can, which is not her way, but she is old enough now to see that there are many ways of struggling.

Weinberger says the trial was a farce. Of course the trial was a farce, she says, it is always a farce when the ruling class pretends to be fair to revolutionaries. This time it was their stand against conscription, the next time it will be something else. Any excuse to take them off the street. She minds less for herself than for Sasha who has already lost so many years to prison. She has lost weeks and days and overnights, but he has lost decades.

She is forty-eight years old, and sometimes her teeth hurt, and when they don’t hurt, her knees do. There is a balance, a trade off, between what you lose and what you get with age. She and Sasha are no longer lovers, for example, but they are still good comrades. Her monthlies have ended, so she no longer has to travel with the rags, thank God– no washing them out at night in poor people’s houses and cheap hotel rooms and then looking for a place to dry them. She is thicker and slower that when she was twenty, but she has gained the wisdom to know that it is not only the destination but also the journey that matters.

She thinks it was not understanding about the value of the journey that led them to try to kill Frick. She and Sasha and the others wanted to make a bonfire of their lives to rouse the workers and create the future. They had hardly seen America, they barely spoke English, but, learning from the tactics of their comrades in Europe, they believed the workers’ revolution could be started by a single call to action, and they decided to bet everything on this one great action, this attentat, that would clear the clouded minds of the masses, make them understand who the enemy was.

She wonders now if they would have adjusted their tactics if they had talked to some American workers first. And poor Sasha, with all his years in prison and his bad English, she thinks he has probably still not talked to them.

Well, the American workers didn’t get the message. Not even the Amalgamated union at Homestead for whom the blow was struck understood the attentat. Some argued that it even raised sympathy for Frick, the bloodsucking industrialist, who was revealed as a man a bullet could penetrate. Frick bleeding in his chair, murmuring, Spare the misguided young Anarchist! And Sasha represented in the Press with wild hair, wild eyes magnified behind his glasses, and the nose, of course, the rabid anti-Jewish American press and its big noses! A nose like a locomotive. Gentle passionate Sasha portrayed as the monster, not Frick, the Baron of Homestead! Boss of the Pinkerton thugs!

And now Frick prospers in his old age, she thinks, collecting art. He uses the blood sweat from his workers’ brows to purchase swooning madonnas with gold leaf in their hair. Well, let him live. Long live Frick. She’s glad Sasha didn’t assassinate him. She doesn’t have the stomach for killing anymore. Death breeds death, she thinks, gazing out at the mountains, feeling the hot wind. It is too easy to kill. Death breeds death, and life breeds life. Frick acted in his self-interest as we all do. What is needed is to expand that self-interest to include all of humanity, all of life. She would still give her life if called to, but she will no longer take someone else’s.

MacLeod lumbers back, a big boy, what they call in English a strawberry blonde, pink and yellow, with tender skin and neck rubbed red by his collar.

“So,” she says, “once again I did not squeeze my fat body out the window and leap to freedom.”

MacLeod grunts and settles in the seat facing her, not to miss anything.

She says, “You enjoyed your anarchist sandwich?”

“Yes. It was a good sandwich. Thank you.”

She smiles. It bothers him that she is a regular person, like maybe his Aunt Sally. She says, “You should work for the people instead of for the Carnegies and the Rockefellers.”

“I work for the United States,” he says. “That’s the people.”

“You only think so. You think you are working for the people of your country, but you are being tricked into working for the interests of the rich.”

He snorts softly, a big draft horse of a boy.

She says, “This is a waste of your government’s money, you know. I’m going straight back. And if I don’t, someone will take my place. You ought to be fighting for the working man, MacLeod, not dragging people of your own class to prison.”

He says he’s just doing his job.

She laughs. He has told her he is from Ohio, from a farm. She looks at him and thinks of pigs and plows and barns full of corn. She likes so much these real Americans. “And I too, MacLeod! I am doing my job! I will convince everyone to join the struggle!”





July 10, 1917
Bold Camp, Wise County


Meanwhile, my grandmother stands in front of the cabin where she has built a fire to boil the blueing to whiten the wash. My grandfather has finished his term as schoolmaster. My grandmother is doing the best she can in a cabin worse than even the poorest farmhouses at home. She can make do as long as she keeps her eyes down, on the swirl of shirts, if she doesn’t let her eyes drift up the mountainside, which is in front of her, behind her, on all sides of her, so steep that it threatens to crush her. There is not another house in sight here, and the houses just out of sight belong to people to whom she is a stranger. She knows the Bakers and the Robinsons and the others, and they have offered to help when the baby comes, and she’ll accept their help, but Mrs. Robinson and Mrs. Baker have hard calloused hands and bake with cornmeal. They are not her mother or her sister.

Her loneliness has become a malevolent whisper about terrible, inexorable dissolution to come. She knows you are supposed to be glad about a baby. She knows that they won’t stay here long, that even today he is on the move, exploring the coal company towns where there are jobs for a man like him. She even liked this cabin well enough in the spring, when they first came. It was like a tree house with its raw wood walls, its board floors. But then her body began to swell up with terrors.

And now she hates how the mountainside falls into shadow as soon as noon has passed. There is not enough sun for a good garden. She concentrates on the odor of the blueing, which blots out the smell of the trees. She can see a sliver of sky above and the green sharp inclines that she would swear are creeping closer. She has this idea the mountains are watching, and if she makes very small movements, there is a chance that the malevolent powers won’t take away everything.

The baby has shortened her breath, caused her back to ache. A great wall seems to have risen up between her and the future. She thinks she’s not going to get out of this alive.





February 6, 1918
Death Apprehends the Artist

My grandmother thinks she is going to die, but she has more than sixty years ahead of her. Klimt, on the other hand, is struck down a few months later at the height of his powers. Is this all? thinks Klimt. It is such a surprise, the blow that leaves his left side paralyzed. Oddly, the stroke has a resemblance to the conception of a new work: a flash of white light, a falling into. This thing, like his work, demands his attention. He doesn't rail against what is before him because he is so absorbed in it. It lacks the grinning personality of the Death’s Head he painted. This thing moves almost imperceptibly but constantly toward him. It fills the door, hides the ceiling. It is an enormous, silent, yellow block. Sometimes it pulsates slowly to orange. He tries to blink, to clear his eyes, but it fills everything, this great congealed block. As it approaches, it becomes paler, at once transparent and as massive as a mountain. As abstract and as concrete as his own hand.

Which he uses to reach for it, spreading his fingers as if they were brushes. He would speak to it, but there are no words. With his good hand he sketches it in air as it approaches. Half painting, half swimming, he reaches for it.






February 6, 1918
The Anarchist Begins to Serve Her Sentence



Emma Goldman’s first trip to the Federal Penitentiary was a vacation compared to this. She believed correctly that Weinberger would get them a new trial, but she failed to look beyond the second trial, which, of course they lost also. A person knows, she thinks, and yet a person doesn’t know. This time she will be staying, at least until they figure out how to throw her out of the country. This time, instead of the warden greeting her at the gate, she encounters only sleepy-eyed hirelings. This time, they have done the things they refrained from doing the first time: shaved her head, stripped her and lifted her naked breasts to make sure she isn’t hiding anything in the crease underneath. They’ve probed her privates.

At first she tried to make them talk to her: “So, you think I might be carrying a gun up my tuchas?”

But they don’t react. They don’t shove, they don’t shout, they only give orders. They move her from place to place, with each wait longer and longer. This is the longest wait of all. She sits in her irritating, stiff canvas dress, towel and blanket folded on her lap. There are no windows and only one lightbulb in a cage far higher than she could ever reach. There is also a cage over the small glass hole in the door. She reminds herself that even though she is alone, she is certainly watched. She tries to keep her back straight.

The walls seem remarkably close, the door unutterably thick. Carnegie and Frick would be pleased to know their steel doors are enclosing her. She tries to cheer herself with a little irony but is too cold and tired. She feels the weight of Frick’s doors and girders. She has been in jail many times, but it is as if this is the first time she ever noticed the doors and walls

She tries poetry, quotes Blake who saw visions and hated the way capitalism turned men into machines: And was Jerusalem builded here / Among these dark Satanic Mills?  But nothing gathers energy, everything trails away. It’s because I’m old this time, she thinks. I can see death in the corner.

She sees death squatting there, but she makes a point of not looking directly.

Maybe she just has a cold coming on. Maybe she is out of practice with jail. The last time here, she was treated as a celebrity. This time she is going to be just a regular inmate. This time they will leave her in this holding cell for four hours or twelve or twenty-four if they choose. They can leave her till she pounds on the door for a toilet, till she pees on the floor. This time there will be no special conditions, no Attorney Weinberger, no Anarchist press or even a Liberal Press with an interest in her right to speak.

So, she says. So be it. I am again one of the people.

And the Captains of Industry have not won.

And you, Death-in-the-corner, she says. I see you, but I won’t look. I’ll never be ready for you, so when you come is your business, not mine.

She has been trying to appear defiant to the watchers, but changes her strategy. She lays her little bundle of linens on the bench and lies down, using it for a pillow. She pretends to be relaxed and comfortable. Eventually they’ll put her in a cell, and eventually, if not tomorrow then next week or the week after, they’ll put her in with the other women too. They’ll give her work, maybe back in the laundry, tearing old clothes into rags. There’ll be maybe some of the women from last summer, maybe new ones. She always has friends among the working classes.

She doesn’t fall asleep, but she drifts to last summer and the young girls who called her Mommy. She liked that. She liked especially one tiny girl whose bright hair seemed larger than she was, who leaned against her when she talked. She was trying to explain to them that the war feeds on the blood of American boys and German boys and French boys, but profits the Kaiser and the Rockefellers.

She said to the little one who rested her cheek against her back, “What do you think of all that, mammellah?”

And the girl said, “You rumble when you talk.”

And she burst out laughing: “One day,” she said to the girl, “one day we will all rumble together–so loud the walls fall down!”

And maybe, she thinks, maybe that girl with the hair will remember. Maybe someday the girl will be doing the wash behind her shanty, next to the railroad tracks. Her arms will go up and down the washboard, and her children will run in and out among the sheets. The children will come for a hug, and the girl will say to them: I don’t know much about politics, but I once met a woman who let me lean against her when I needed comfort. And that is all the politics we ever really need, to hold each other up.

You have to start where they are, she thinks, suddenly clear in her mind. Her eyes open. You start with a kind caress to the lonely. Then you talk to them about birth control, a thing she knows how to teach. First, they must be for themselves and then for each other, and eventually for the working class. You do not belong to your husband or your boss, she’ll say. And if your God says otherwise, then get another God.

She will organize discussions. She will make a game of memorizing the addresses of birth control information sources. They will act out little plays to practice how to convince a man to take precautions. Everyone will giggle in embarrassment and tell jokes.

She sits up and stretches and yawns, pretending she has had an excellent nap. She turns her face toward the door and flashes the hidden watchers her biggest smile, which she knows still has charm, even missing a tooth here and there. She mimes raising a glass.

“To revolution,” she says. “To freedom!”





February 6, 1918
Leaving Bold Camp


My grandmother is waiting on the porch in her wedding suit and best hat for my grandfather and Mr. Baker in his wagon that will take them over Pound Gap to Kentucky. She is so eager to leave that hope is as sharp as despair. They are voyaging out, she and her husband and the baby.

The fire has burned down, so she worries about the baby. He is propped in his canvas bounce chair. Calmly he extends one fat leg at a time as if to admire the cream-colored leather leggings her mother sent. There are twenty buttons on each leg, and his legs are almost too fat. His cheeks are rosy with cold, but he has a good wool cap with earflaps, tied securely, buttoned up, coat and leggings. She knows he is fine, but she worries just the same.

She is at loose ends, standing and waiting like this. She puts her shawl over the baby, but he deliberately, cheerfully, kicks it off. He smiles at her with his sly, placid smile, and she tries to look serious, but he always catches her out and makes her smile back. She feels a rush of love and trust for him. He will never make judgements on her. He will never leave her heart.

Her husband has not said a lot about the house where they’re going, and she is too proud to ask. He has a job as assistant manager of the company store, and he says the new house has tap water in the kitchen, and that it is uphill from the miners’ houses. She can tell from the shifting of his eyes, though, that it will only be above the miners’ houses in position, not in quality.

She doesn’t mention linoleum. Linoleum would make a big difference, fewer breezes up through the boards, fewer insects, easier to clean. Bright colors. But she will know soon enough. And if there’s no linoleum in this house, then there will be in the next house or the one after that.

There is a faint smell of wood smoke from the next unseen farm, there is the scritch of black branches, the worry if the baby’s red cheeks are going to turn to chilblains. This is the center of the universe.





Because her aims were limited and practical, and her luck good, my grandmother got most of what she wanted from life. Emma Goldman got less because she wanted more for more people. Klimt got everything but was not satisfied with how long he had it. None of them knew what was coming, of course. Goldman probably guessed that she and Alexander Berkman would be deported, but she would never have imagined how deeply disappointed they would be in the Soviet Union, or how they would move from country to country, political vagabonds with deteriorating health. Not that knowing this would have changed how she lived her life.

Nor would knowing the date of his death have stopped Klimt from painting.

And my grandmother guessed correctly that she would eventually get a house with linoleum, and perhaps even that the Company would move her to better and better houses and towns. She found the town she wanted in north central West Virginia, the town where I grew up. There she did not have to live in company housing. It was a proper town with an ice cream parlor and ladies who wore gloves and hats with veils to church, a high school in town and a state teacher’s college only ten miles away by street car. My grandmother wanted to stay there forever.

But my grandfather began to have stomach pain and to pine for a store of his own– that American dream of self-reliance as sharp as a lion’s tooth. My grandmother would never, ever, have guessed that he would choose to build his store back at Bold Camp, which she had left with such fierce joy in 1918. That they would move back there, that he would die within two years, that she would go on alone for twenty-five more as the widow lady storekeeper.

That Mr. Baker, the good old farmer who moved their things in his wagon, would have been widowed too, and she would let him come courting, though she never married him. He paid his visits in a full suit with vest and string tie. He drove down the mountain in his unregistered jeep, which he parked at the store, then he opened her garage and backed out her two tone Pontiac sedan, which she had bought herself, and which she drove to town for their Sunday dinner, wearing a light coat, a small hat, pumps and nylons. A few times a year, she drove to visit her kin in Lee County.

Her children, both school teachers, brought their families to visit from West Virginia and Tennessee.

Sometimes I wish my grandparents had been Klimt and Goldman.

And yet, isn’t the fact of who we are a gift in itself?

And may we not also use that quintessentially human attribute, the imagination, to explore other possibilities, to locate ourselves both precisely and in the largest context possible?

We may re-imagine ourselves and claim the whole of human experience.






The Saranac Review is published by the Department of English, SUNY Plattsburgh, 101 Broad St., Plattsburgh, NY 12901.