I hold the old the envelope with both hands, pull it to my chest. I imagine it had once been laying on a cluttered countertop near my mother. Perhaps she was on the phone, busily chatting, so he reached for this small envelope, addressed to Lolly Morgan in Corning, New York. He wrote his four words quickly but decidedly as if they had been burgeoning all night until they had nowhere else to go but over the white back of a stray envelope. All I have now is the envelope, the words themselves, the arcs and angles of my father’s tender encryption. “I adore you, Susan,” it says. “Love, Stephen.”
And a few inches down, my mother’s writing: “Received 5-8-80.”
I found it in a small wooden box I pulled from my mother’s storage. Mom seems to have glued a postcard to the lid—a painting that depicts a sheepherder leading his flock along a river in what could be a valley of upstate New York. Leaves litter the path like stray, wadded paper while the trees themselves, at least at the forefront, look like torches in their sunlit fall brilliance, a soft orange hue flooding the valley while the glow of autumn has only softly marked the crests of the hills. Just across the river is a red barn surrounded by a thick rainbow of foliage. So close to the river’s edge is the barn that it seems like it will fall in any moment, into the glittering mirror of color and darkness.
When I lifted the lid and its scene away from the box, I was thrilled to find a pile of letters along with two roses that Mom had apparently tried to keep alive by scotch taping wet cotton to their thorny stems, but they had, of course, died and dried, stuck—cotton still taped to them—into a white gift bow so that the whole thing looked something like a strange sort of corsage. And atop both the letters and the corsage was a plastic bag with two dark brown braids in it, my mother’s braids that were cut off when she reached adolescence, the braids that, when she was a girl, were tied around a chair in her backyard by some ill-meaning neighborhood boy who thought it would be funny to watch her struggle all day to free herself until her mother finally came home from work. I’ve taken the braids out of the bag several times, ran my fingers down each of them, feeling their smoothness, holding them up to my own hair, comparing the color, imagining myself with these braids, like Laura Ingalls Wilder, like Susan Mary Keller, this woman I hardly know, this woman who was my mother.
I find three polaroid pictures in the box—the first of my mother alone, standing amongst the cluster of birch trees on Bonner Road where she had married my father, but in this picture, she’s wearing her overalls and a tightly fitting striped t-shirt. She is smiling subtly as if annoyed by the cameraman somehow; she captivates me here moreso than in any other picture I’ve ever seen of her. Her shoulder length dark-brown hair is blowing a bit in the wind, and the sun is casting shadows of birch branches against her chest and face, the smile lines at her brow blending with the tree’s strokes.
Behind that picture are two pictures of my parents together, both of which depict my mother in her overalls again, his hand around her lower back in both, her feet bare in one—the one that, based on the lighting, was taken at dusk, the other first thing in the morning, their smiles in both evincing the optimism of youth, of new love. Just behind them, in the morning shot, three chickens can be seen pecking at the ground, the chickens perhaps that had led him to her.
He’d built a chicken coop behind the old farmhouse in which he was living, the one his mother had lived in as a child. Before that, he’d lived in a tipi for a year, and once in the old farmhouse, having left his job as a tree surgeon, he began to teach himself to live self-sufficiently, off of vegetables from his own garden, off the meat from steers he raised and killed himself, and finally, off of chickens for eggs and meat.
In 1927, nearly fifty years before, the house had been leased to a group of well-dressed men who said they would raise chickens on the property. But no chicken coops were ever built, and no chickens ever appeared. Instead, after the men moved in, a new chimney appeared and cars began to make traffic in the driveway late at night. When the police and FBI stormed the house, they found two men manning a massive bootlegging operation, the source of the odor emanating into the apple orchard behind the house. A local newspaper describes as “one of the coziest plants, for the production of illicit alcohol, ever uncovered in Western New York,” gauged at around a forty thousand dollar value, including 5,000 gallons of mash and 70 gallons of finished booze.
The house was, shortly thereafter, gutted of its still, leaving six-foot holes in the floors and ceilings. When Dad’s grandparents bought the place in the 1940s, they must have covered these holes, and Dad never saw the house’s old wounds when he visited the house as a child, but when his grandfather solicited his help storing wood, he’d tell Dad there used to be a large cistern in the woodshed, which was where the police had found that body two years after the bootlegging raid.
Yet another strange odor emanated into the apple orchard behind the house in 1929, which was when Mrs. Albert Perry first caught wind of something wrong. The police found a man in a tailored suit, patent leather shoes, with an elaborate set of gold dental work. He was short, obviously Italian, and had been shot once in the back of the head with a .38 caliber pistol before he was shoved into the cistern. All he had in his pockets was an address to a hotel in Olean and a bus schedule. In the cistern were two loaded revolvers and .32 caliber bullets and bullet fragments, but neither the guns nor the bullets matched the fatal slug in the victim’s brain. The only other .38 bullets were found in the shed’s door casing.
Dad remembers picking bullets out of the house’s walls when he lived there alone, when the house itself stirred, and in the darkness at night, he stayed up to hear the footsteps and strange quaking. The noises only stopped when he called out in desperation for his grandmother’s spirit.
She’d bought the place for only the cost of its back taxes in the early 1940s—the first owner since the bootlegging clan. The house had been locally feared, said to be haunted by the man whose body was found in the cistern. Theda, my great-grandmother, apparently ignored these fears, and bought the place as a weekend retreat for her family. My grandmother remembers the first night she slept in the house as a child. “It was so dark in there,” she said, “and the noises kept me awake. There must have been squirrels in the attic.”
Nobody ever figured out who that man in the cistern was or who it was that put the bullet in his brain.
But Dad was the one who finally brought chickens to the house on Bonner Road. He bought them from my mother. She’d advertised them in the Pennysaver. A few layers down in the stack of letters and clippings in her box, I find the check he wrote to her in the amount of twenty-four dollars on June 26, 1976 for 20 chickens. His signature is on the front, and hers—Susan Dodge—is on the back, looking a little different—faster, broader, less elegant—than it would be when her name would change, and she would become my mother.