(A Flight of Swallows)

[I mean to post this on August 7th--my grandmother's birthday. It is a piece I wrote last year for my Experimental Fiction class & is prompted from reading Wittgenstein's Mistress by David Markson]

My Nana, Eunice Hughes. Thanksgiving 2007


My grandmother is the youngest of twelve children. Growing up she learned things; count the chirps of crickets to determine the temperature; a Luna Moth lives for seven days; orcas are actually dolphins.

She takes these things & draws them in the dirt. She tells me she went around barefoot because she could. She goes to church for the sound, since cathedrals helped bring about the birth of harmony—the joining of many tones together.

Days pass. During migration, the Branta canadensis (Canada Goose) passes overhead in V-shaped flocks. She wants to call it the Canadian Goose, but that name is not the ornithological standard. She instead draws it as well, a waterfowl among her toes.

I ask about the barn, if it was red like many are. We compare it to other structures of architecture.
She starts wearing shoes. She thinks about where she is from: North Carolina. About the Appalachians. About the subranges. About the state insect (European honey bee). About the state motto (Esse quam videri).

She grows up, moves away.

Now my grandfather enters. He tells her that the humming bird is often mistaken for a large clear moth. He tells her that speaking begins in the lungs, with airflow causing the vocal cords to vibrate. She marries him in a tea-length dress.

First they live in Harlem, then Long Island—a product of two glacial moraines, one acting as a spine for the island. Because of the movement of glaciers, there is a difference between the North Shore & the South Shore. They decide on a small apartment.

I ask where I am during all of this. She tells me she hasn’t got to my part yet.

The past left by glaciers doesn’t bother her, & she works at night for an airline that no longer exists. My uncle is born. My mother is born. I am still waiting.

My mother takes piano lessons. Two wholes make a major note; a half & a whole a minor. There is no black key between B & C, & E & F. The piano makes noise that can be simplified by calling it vibration.

On vacation they take photographs at the Golden Gate Bridge, only the second largest suspension bridge in the US (the first: Verrazano-Narrows Bridge).  They stand looking at the bridge, which spans the Golden Gate, a strait connecting the San Francisco Bay to the Pacific Ocean.

At this, I tell her I have seen both oceans.

My mother & uncle grow up. They learn about the rock behind the elementary school: another product of the island’s ice age. Once, while driving, my mother points it out to me. It is most likely Sedimentary.

Landscape can evolve by the process of faulting or folding. Erosion as well. The stream behind my grandmother’s house in the south began to grow a larger mouth as the water took more land.

Instead of brown she says ecru or umber.

It’s a mild Saturday in January, my grandmother says. I am excited because this is my part. My mother whispers to her belly that the Sharp-Shinned Hawk (she is too tired for proper classification) makes its nest in conifers (pines). Later I tell my mother I have a memory of hearing a low-frequency humming noise while inside her. When I was born, it stopped.

My grandmother takes me outside, points things out to me. When we startle a flock of birds, she says to use their collective name: a flight of swallows. Later there will be a parliament of owls, an unkindness of ravens.

She tells me people can develop an allergy to cedar trees.

Hyperthymesia is a condition in which a person contains an extraordinary autobiographical memory. But what good is remembering only about your-self? The Sturnella magna (Eastern Meadowlark) is among the first of the birds to appear in spring. Its song is a clear whistle of say-you, see-here

All birds have vocalization other than song. My grandmother tells me that if we are ever separated to call out to her, & she will hear me & respond, & at least our voices can be together.

Left: My grandparents on their wedding day. Right: A portrait taken in the 80's.