Two old black-and-white photos hang on the wall in my hallway, all of the same woman. Her name was Helen, and she was my mother's mother's mother. She was about my age in that blissful period after WWI and before the crash.
My most treasured possession is one of these photos, an original tintype, a natural sepia that glints silver in the right light. In the photo Helen poses strong and square-chinned with a group of women. Some sit relaxed in chairs, some lounge on the floor, some stand strongly against a fireplace, hand on one hip while the other holds a cigar. It could be me and my friends: modern, confident, not a scene from 100 years ago.
Here’s the thing: they’re all in drag.
My mother found the photo in an old album, had chalked it up to a distant cousin, some fraternity photo, but on closer inspection realized it was women in suits and caps. So passingly masculine it was unnerving. The photo had gone unnoticed for years. Most photos in the album had descriptions written in my grandmother’s careful hand. This one was notably blank.
But that doesn’t mean there’s not a story there, one I create for myself. I imagine Helen tearing up the town with her girl gang, living it up in the Roaring Twenties—experiencing a rare moment of freedom from the norms of society during that time. It’s an image I treasure as part of my own history, though maybe it never happened quite like that.
I’ll never know the full story of that photo, but it doesn’t stop me from trying. I come from a family who doesn’t tell stories. I know very little about my parents or their parents. I think there’s some fear for them in looking back, in maybe seeing something they don’t want to see.
“There’s nothing to tell. We didn’t do anything interesting,” my mother tells me. I’m not sure if th self-consciousness comes from the fact that this is a lie or that it is the truth.
This week after deciding to write this poetics essay, I reread Isabel Allende’s Eva Luna. It’s less known than Allende’s most famous work House of the Spirits, a book I’ve read in both Spanish and English half a dozen times. Eva Luna traces the fictional Eva’s history from birth—her travels, her loves, and the tumultuous political history of her country.
Eva Luna follows the form of a traditional magical realism novel. A very detailed, very believable, very realistic story is shot through with moments of magic. Events that are supernatural or unexplainable or a bit too strange to believe.
In the book, Eva recounts her own story, full of happenings that should seem eerie or unnatural but weave gently into her believable, though fantastic life. A woman gives birth to a two-headed monster. A house of a villain is filled with mangoes that slowly rot and turn a house to jelly, sending the smell of marmalade throughout the town for years. Fortunes are read and come true, over and over again.
In my mother's retroactive history, Helen was much like me... just searching for something she couldn't find during her lifetime. A bit different than everyone else, resisting the role that society had cut out for her.
I think about this a lot. That queer vein that runs through families but that is so often a secret shame versus a part of the family narrative. The story is only as queer as I make it, but it's only as straight as everyone else tells it.
Helen was unmarried into her thirties—a scandal at that time. She eventually married a man much older than her, though it’s unclear whether this was a choice or a coercion or the effect of the backlash of a conservative society in which women were no longer free to roam with friends, dressed flashily or unfemininely or drink and smoke in public.
One of my other photos of her is one of her at her wedding, a close-up of her in a white dress, hair pulled back, a serious expression on her face. My grandmother gave me this photo when I was a teenager. She thought I looked like Helen, though I didn’t see the resemblance. The photo is colorized so I can see her dark hair, her blue eyes like mine. She’s wearing the delicate necklace I’ve admired on my mom on special occasions, the one I will inherit.
There’s another wedding photo of her I’ve seen, posing with her husband. I’m not sure what happened to that photo. It was less interesting to me. The couple is viewed from a distance, standing on an altar, serious-faced, hardly touching.
The family stories I hear never mention her husband. He was a somewhat absent figure. Instead, I hear of the close relationship between Helen and her daughter Rose. That bond, finding another woman to place all of her love and attention onto, making something that felt right for herself.
That’s the story I make for myself.
Throughout her life and throughout Eva Luna, Eva weaves her own stories—combinations of what has happened to her and what she has read, mixed to form infinite possibilities. A sort of Scheherazade—suspending your disbelief just long enough to hear it through to the end.
In a way hers is a life built on stories, a need to both relay what has happened to her as well as create an alternate history. Allende combines both the disbelief at the political upheaval of an unnamed South American country (which closely mirrors the absurd real history of Chile in the 70s) with the slight strangeness of growing up a woman who didn’t do things “proper women” do.
I don’t often read fiction, but Allende writes this story in a way that even memoir buffs will approve of. Something fiercely real but with all the tenuousness of the fictions we tell ourselves—our superstitions, our fears, our hopes, our imaginings.
I latch on to every story I hear about Helen, trying to piece together some sort of history of who she was, what she was like. She’s a real person, but my stories about her all carry a bit of magic—trying to conjure this person from a few words and stories and photos.
I never got a chance to meet her.
Helen died of breast cancer when she was in her early 50s. She died when my grandmother was close to the age I am now. I think a lot about how her body gave up on her too young. I can't help but feel that her illness was a symptom of never finding the love or touch she needed within her lifetime.
That’s a story I create, I guess, and a story that’s one of many. The story of the photo of her as my confirmation of her queerness, the way she was out of place in her lifetime. It’s like she was dropped into the wrong century. A bit magical and unbelievable and unusual. Maybe more of a character in my mind than an actual person who lived and lived fiercely, if all wrong for her time.
I think the thing that ties this all together—family lore and magical realism—is the tendency of humans to tell ourselves stories. Magical realism feels real because it’s based in actual human emotion. The “magical” elements that enter the stories aren’t outside of the realm of human belief or understanding. There aren’t aliens or dragons or anything that could be labeled something out of the fantasy genre. The stories of magical realism recall moments of superstition or faith or religion or dreamings. These stories are part of the realm of what is *almost* reasonable for us to believe.
My friends and I often discuss horoscopes and zodiac signs. We’re smart individuals. We know the stars don’t determine our fates, but we believe it. And I guess that’s the same with these stories—our family stories, stories of our pasts, the stories we tell ourselves to explain.
I may be projecting my story onto Helen’s. I may be creating a family history I was never given. My mother always comments on the family stories that show up in my writing, thinking it uncanny how keenly I remember the details of what I’ve been told. What I don’t tell her is that I can always remember these stories because there are so few. I cling to ever detail.
The year my mother fell in love with a professor twice her age in Luxembourg…
How my brother pushed a screen out of the window and sledded down the side of the house into a flower bed…
How my dad’s grandmother fed him his pet rabbit for dinner…
These are moments of magic, and moments of real. What is there in common between superstition and astrology and religion and history and folklore? They’re all stories.
That’s the magic of these stories—and the people in them. You can keep them alive and believable as long as you keep speaking.