Henrietta


henrietta letters

Oh yeah, and I got some pretty sweet cat salt and pepper shakers, too. You’re welcome.

I’d never liked antiquing before — my mother half-dragging me around rooms full of musty nonsense that nobody wanted, my feet tired, my nose stinging a little from all that dust and “history.” History in quotes, of course, because much of it seems to be weird plastic crap from the 1970s that got tossed out of someone’s basement and somehow landed in a shop dubbed as an “antique.” But my family took a trip to a little town on the river and found an amazing shop with proper, beautiful antiques. Vases, gorgeous old pipes, well-preserved powder blue suitcases, lamps, a strangely huge collection of salt and pepper shakers and finally…a stack of old letters spanning from 1913 to 1935 chronicling the life of Henrietta, a woman from California whose husband died of influenza in 1918, whose children grew up and sent her postcards from their trips throughout the state, whose sister and disabled brother sent her darling letters, drawings, and times tables. My favorite envelope simply contains a newspaper clipping of a burned-down building, with the words “our old playgrounds are ruined” in thick pencil-scrawled cursive.

I hadn’t written or been inspired to write since I left India. Life has felt like a blur, and a not-so-pleasant one at that, since I returned. I miss my life in Bangalore, miss the way people treated me and loved me and randomly took photos with me, miss the bizarre hole-ridden sidewalks and too-strong milk in bags, miss the food (oh, the food), miss rickshaw rides through monsoons. I often find myself up at night wishing I were back there, even though I love being home in the states, where it’s actually quiet at night and I don’t have to wear long pants in 90 degrees with 80% humidity. I’m glad I don’t have E. coli anymore, which finally ended its long romp inside my intestines after 4 weeks of the most impressive diarrhea imaginable. But I want to go back. It’s particularly hard because I was supposed to be there for 10 weeks and left after 4 instead, so in my mind I’m supposed to be there, not here doing yard work at 7 a.m. or living in the country with only a few friends around. I got used to never being alone, always having something to look at or taste or laugh about (so many goats), and writing is such a solitary activity that I think I’ve been avoiding it.

But then…Henrietta. Henrietta has a story to tell, and I’ve been researching her family tree and census records, trying to get a timeline so I can imagine her life and recreate it on paper. She came to me on old, yellowed paper, wrapped in a pink ribbon, and it’s my job, my duty even, to do her justice. You’ll see the results. Not tomorrow, maybe not next year, but someday you’ll meet Henrietta.

Many thanks to my reader Hans, whose kind words and constant reassurance always add a little joy to my day! (Basically, he was like “Why don’t you write anymore” and I was like “Good question” and that was like…that.)

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