I Want to See That White Bear, I Want to Climb Inside the Mysteries

& Writing Letters in April

Two or Three Things I Know for Sure1: Esther Davies Murdock, my grandmother’s great-grandmother, was born in the spring of 1838 in Pickering Town Canada, where apparently “about the country was a big white bear which she saw very often going to and from school. It was tame and friendly.” She was 12 years old when her family joined a wagon train headed for Utah, and along that route she lost her mother to cholera (“cut a tree bark in two for a casket, wrapped her in pretty blankets and linen sheets”) and nearly lost her father to the same disease, (“had to be raised to a sitting position to watch them bury his wife”).

I’ve gone down a serious genealogical rabbit hole of late, and though there is plenty I don’t know, I’ve learned that Esther goes on to become the second wife of Nymphus Corridon Murdock. She has nine children but only three of them survive into adulthood. And, in what can only be an example of stone-cold badassery, she apparently asks for and is reluctantly granted a divorce from Nymphus in the fall of 1877. It was a highly unconventional thing to do at the time, and an example of the kinds of mysteries that this research turns up. What did the patriarchs around her make of this fierce little person who decided she was done with the polygamous marriage and would live out her days in her own house on a little farm, with two of her young children?

Esther Mariah Davies

I have yet to come across personal journals of Esther that would offer insight into her interior thinking on the subject, but the most intimate parts of a story often don’t make it into the permanent record anyway. And the more I read, the more what’s missing begins to take a palpable shape, so that its absence is its own kind of presence. I can read stories of the first pioneers to reach the Utah valley, but I don’t know the first-hand accounts of Indigenous people (from the Northern Shoshone, Goshute or Western Shoshone, Southern Paiute, and Ute peoples) who lived there before the first wagons rolled in. I’m reading for their stories as well and they are also what’s missing.

An intrepid group of letter-writers gathered for the Letters workshop last Monday, and we’ll meet again at the end of the month to see how close we came to writing thirty letters in thirty days.2 One of the writers I shared in the workshop is Victoria Chang, whose book Dear Memory: Letters on Writing, Silence & Grief is a kind of meditation in epistolary form, as she writes letters posing questions that can no longer be answered. The book includes family relics like photos, a marriage license, and collage with text posing more questions. She writes toward the unknowable, and manages to create meaning in the space that’s left behind, showing a way to find ourselves in our histories.

And now to the Truth & Dare this month:

Truth: Write a letter — to a real person, living or dead, and ask questions about something you wish you knew the answer to.

Dare: Send the letter in the postal mail. In the case of missives to the dead who will not be checking their mailboxes, shred the letter into tiny tinder and make a little fire. Conduct a ritual of your own and let it take smoke form.


With thanks to Dorothy Allison for the fine lead-in


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