He vowed to learn everything, to understand his life, his
daughter, and why his Aunt chose to slip into the sea. These
tales whisper around the china at the wooden plank table,
past hand-caned chairs and settle, reverberating through
a story I have carried like an old Rookwood vase for fifty
years. At this table, my history shifts perspective.
My great grandmother stood on the deck of the Lucitania
after the crumpling thud of the torpedo, the rapid listing,
the frantic cry. “Women and children to the lifeboats!”
How long did she stand in that brief vast chilling moment
of choice? Survivors reported she was last seen walking arm
and arm with my great grandfather, calmly returning to their
stateroom, leaving my grandmother alone, twenty, at college,
to wake to the news of their vanishing into the North Atlantic.
We sit at the Porters’ table of grandparents, uncles and aunts,
Fairfield’s paint-spattered easels still on the porch, Eliot’s
photographs on the wall, poems to be read next to the fire.
The stories continue. Anina tells of the paths designed
ninety years ago to trace the edges and heights of the island,
the choices made to not cut the woods, to let the trees crash
and rot where they fall, to create soil for the millennia ahead,
rather than cutting, which washes the soil away. It does leave
a tinderbox if there’s a fire. “We keep the trees back from the
houses as best we can, but it’s a risk we take.” The candles are lit.
Bowls of ripe peaches and blueberries are brought to the table.
Rising fog disappears the islands across the reach. In the story
Bucky Fuller headed into a library to read, began with the farthest
reaches of the universe, continued through everything until he
reached the microscopic. He emerged with one word. Integrity.
That is what holds it all together. That was why, he realized, my
aunt made her choice. I suddenly understand. This is why my great
grandmother made her choice. I look around the circle of travelers
who sit at this table at the edge of the world, in the time of the silent
spring, when the vast colony of barn swallows have disappeared from
the island in the last five years. We don’t know what we will face, the
call to lifeboats, the choice to slip into the dark sea, the windfall of trees
slowly rotting into soil, the tinderbox. But we each are held together,
points around the compass of this table with that one word. Integrity. It
is what takes us out into the glean of the meadow grasses to face the day.
With gratitude to the participants in
Anina Porter Fuller’s Art Week Residency 2005
There are other accounts of Margaret Fuller’s death at sea.
This is the story I heard.
59
Here we ride in our island lifeboat, cast adrift
from the steady moorings of our days, allowing
stories to drift to the surface. Where the scent
of oils, pastel powder on the thumb, the focusing
of the lens and carving of words sail us out beyond
our known world. Stories turn mythic arising
among strangers on an island. Anina followed
her uncle Eliot as he photographed birds’ nests.
She carried them home, lined the walls of her
childhood where she slept for sixty years. The
songbirds so thick, their song so pervasive,
are now so rare. Just the call of gull and crow,
and occasional wren. “It is the silent spring,” she says
with grief. Telling of inhabitants of Bear Island across
the reach, Brita tells of the pregnant Margaret Fuller
and her Italian count crossing the North Atlantic in a
storm. When the call went out for women and children
to be saved, she chose to throw her journals in the life raft
and went down with the ship in the arms of her husband.
The next story is of the young and reckless Bucky Fuller
who squandered his inheritance, killed his young daughter
with neglect. He walked into the sea at night, stood up
to his neck, holding the pistol to his head. Staring into
the sky of stars he faced the tragic mystery of his life.
St o r i e s f r om t he I s l and a t t he Edg e o f t he Wo r l d
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