by Lynn Strongin

(You Own Whom You Save)



The Amish have a lovely, if severe principle of boundaries which guides them in everything they enact, everything they create. In planning one of their barns, they sketch out the shape on the ground, not like other architects on a piece of paper.

Not like in the Old South when our nanny inspired us with fear of the devil by telling us he had a red tail and if we didn’t put our slippers under our bed, the Devil would peruse us. In the New South, superstition is quieter, yet beats like a heart, or a kid jump-roping under your pinafore. In the New South, superstition is quiet. But when I was growing up it was Gothic. Part of me lives above, always part below, the Mason-Dixon Line, defining my imagination: one of conflicts, confusion straightening out from time-to-time, one of recurring and inspiring distortion, The South magnetizes me, and magnifies thru the lodestone power of imagination..

* * *

Long ago the world was a fairytale. When we were children. Music of water sliding thru wooden spokes of cartwheels. No strikes going on. More routes than one you could take out of the valley. You were accustomed to walking thru storms but only with your hand in your parent’s hand. Your parents were sure-footed, you were obedient, the carts that rolled on were sturdy. You had confidence in sun and moonlight, in working and playing, in breathing. Snows fell. Rains came. Donated hay reached burned out farmers. If you cried, you had your savior: help always came in time.

Trying to gain perspective on Blair’s suicide I come up with the old Chinese superstition thatwhen you save a life, that person belongs to you.. Hence, will I always partly belong to the hospital where my life was saved at age twelve? Those nurses who are now a blur of white, mysterious as Mary, in milky dawns and evenings; those women who no longer have faces, and only a few have names, wearing the white gown of uniformity, anonymity. I belong to them.. Is that why I have enacted only a partial return to my home, the civilian world?

With letters scattered here and there debating what to do on my sixty-fifth birthday—”I will love you whatever your decision. I cannot begin to imagine how hard things are for you, but make one last effort to leap thru the hoop and come!”—the tree shivers outside my glass window as though the little leaves of the lace-leaf maple were flame, and I know the land in which I found refuge, although my exile, fits in with the paradoxical terms of my entire life, and lays claim to me.

* * *

During those perilous days of my withdrawal from a prescription drug, I walked on eggs, or flame. Dr. Pitchford told me, “The only patient I kept on this drug took her life. Who ever said it would be easy? I want to take you off it.” I asked to remain on a small dosage and I proved a good bet, despite Pitchford warning, “I’ve just returned from seeing a woman convulse for ten days in the asylum, coming off this drug.” It was do or die.

“Anyone would have done it,” Ava told me when I comment upon her bravery wading into the water after Blair having escaped from the mental asylum up the hill. Yet I couldn’t have. Had I seen a woman wading into the bay on a dreary December afternoon (like this afternoon). If I’d had my suspicions. The most I could have done would have been to phone someone—the police. Could I have accompanied her each step of the way, looking backward, looking forward at once? I have made music in the mental wards for the inmates.. I know that hesitation, which takes the patience of a saint to follow. I have envisioned, in colors of rich brown and green, the scene of the long-boned athletic woman of Irish ancestry with broken mind and my Ava walking that one mile back to the mental pavilion of the asylum. I flash forward to our own Row—Rowena—becoming emotionally disturbed, “mentally disturbed,” at age fourteen, crashing, younger than Juliette.

Comfort comes in opening our quilt book to an Amish design. The Amish barn is sketched on the ground. Retaining its glowing contours, I close the book of another dark winter day. The Amish colors rise. Blues which are cobalt and indigo. They flame, then die down. Payne’s gray, colors severe, lovely.



Around and around they go, stallions, palominos, chestnuts,  whirl, a blur of painted wood, golds and greens, reds swirling like the barbershop pole, twirled candy. Pegasus-like, the large, the mythic and at times frightening carousel horses of our early childhood, the wooden animals carved in England, Sweden, give us sensations nothing else gives us. We are exhilarated, we become dizzy, we want to be rescued. In wild abandon, without plunging to the wooden floor of the carousel, one reached out for the gold ring. Spring is a blur, a haze of impressions. Autumn, October and November are dusky colors, burnished woods which gleam as though polished by a rosin. Then the most defining and defined season, Winter comes. I hold close the clarity of objects and nature frozen. I remember the carousel in Central Park from which I caught glimpses of fairy laces, trees glassy with snow turned icicles, the city skyline of Manhattan turned into glittering frost.

Last night I dreamt I was back in New York, bent over the drawing board copying a musical score of late Brahms. Snow started falling in late afternoon at four 4 p.m. It drifted into crevices of old bricks softening, making them handsome. “Is it still snowing?” I asked Rachel when she came in from her violin lesson. “Yes!,” she smiled and went to our room to practice. By seven p.m., the snow had thickened, turning parked cars on West  75th street into peasant huts sagging with snow. By ten p.m. I transferred from wheelchair to window sill and in the gold cone of light thrown by our lamplight at the corner of 75th and West End Avenue the flakes were spotlighted, visible one distinct from another one. The entire city was silent by midnight. I lay down to dream of a hot bath and getting my legs warm. By this time, Rachel was asleep with her violin at her feet, curled like a kitten.

* * *

This very afternoon, fifty years later, quite suddenly, alarmingly, Ava ran out of the living-room with Tilden, our Carousel Horse, in her arms. “It’s about to time to put old Tilden in the junkyard,” she said. “The junkyard!” I said, “You once loved him.” “I never,” she claimed. Trying to upset the applecart before music-hour with Beryl? The air boded snow: it was clear and glassy like pears.  Come to consider it, in a similar huff, on an ink-dark Canadian morning, she bodily removed the one foot-high wooden rocking horse I found for our home. I now keep him as a clothes-horse in the bathroom. Maybe it has something to do with horses. To what happened to a cousin of hers at age 13.




As children in rural New York State, we made snow angels. Lying on our backs in snowsuits, looking up at a perfectly saturated blue sky, we spread arms and legs causing an angel to be brushed in the snow. A hard fall made a good angel.

“Your mother will probably not live much longer,” writes my brother-in-law, Aaron. While Marcelle herself says, “I think of you all the time,” and a close friend   writes “You are in a difficult position. I do not envy you.”  I consider going out, buying a parka-type coat with fur to keep warm. But voices encircle and invade me.

Ballet invaded Rowena with a Myshkin-type, a Russian romantic haunting which comes to mind as I contemplate these three things: the Amish Barn, the Carousel Horse, and the Snow Angel. Then I come to the part where we bear responsibility to own whom we save and think of Rachel becoming free of anxiety over Row. Will she ever?

Those who study how fires burn can at times engineer a fire back to its beginning: finding the very butt of the cigarette which caused the conflagration, even down to the brand if, for example, it has a gold ring round the filter. The shape of a fire will often point you back to its beginning. Was there a point in Blair’s childhood where her drastic mood swings, from manic to despondent, began? With 20 / 20 hindsight, her mother can see this. But as the girl betrayed joy the first day she was taken to her sister’s playgroup, was the terrible sorrow readable in her eighteen-month-old features then? Possessed by insecurity, did sparks light up at her coming? Maybe now that Blair no longer is alive, the shadow can slip free. The drowned one who once sent out ripples has become a blur.  She has sunk like a stone.

Stroke-after-stroke the dark beast bore down. When the girl opened the door to the stables, the Midwestern flatland was dazzling. Ava’s girl-cousin. How Monette shielded her violation, her sorrow like a miscarriage whose marks she carried on her adolescent body, and within her, secreted it in her pocket, a splinter of glass all these years in her breastbone is a mystery. It  brings to mind Civil War soldiers, and the gurney-bearers, sometimes three, often two. Men who would enact the “carry.” “Pinto,” hoofbeat-by-hoofbeat, the glossy pony I rode away over the prairies, the hills and the mountains of my dreams all these years. Of tracing a fire to its ignition. I think of how I have engineered my hours slowly, laboriously since paralysis at twelve. How ironic that my brother-in-law, Aaron, should claim “nobody loves you as I do, ” and—having urged his wife, Rachel, over and over to take compassion upon my situation—having prompted her he falls precisely into the pit.

“Good thing for you you married a war kid,” I call out to Ava who is reading in the living room. “It’s the hour of the day when I need to do a chore. Drill. Drill. My body needs to be moving stacking these dishes away.” I laugh.

That travel is harder for me than for Rachel is so clear it would cut if it were glass. However, soon she will receive that trailer, that long nightgown. Maybe a patch job is the best we can hope for. I consider the hexagons and circles, oblongs and triangles painted upon ash-colored Amish barns lit by an ash moon. “Indigo,” Mother would say, “Rachel has rich coloring.” “What am I then?” “”You are ash blond, a natural dirty blond.”

There is nobody to whom I could confide my pain.. Would this disburdening  connect dot-to-dot the fiery shapes of darkened emotion which the stars contain?

Once I had to use a wheelchair to get about, there was no longer a way to draw a snow angel. I mentally pressed my boyish frame upon the windowpanes of the ward at night creating an angel falling, spread-eagled. Nor was riding a carousel horse still open to me, but I got the feeling. How abundantly I got the feeling.

Rachel’s eyes are sooty with lack of sleep. She has read her daughter’s diary line-by-line, taped her phone conversation with a hidden recorder inside the dial, still she cannot get to sleep at 2 a.m. because her daughter’s not home. It is Rowan’s 14th winter, Rachel’s 59th birthday. Her world will feel like ashes by morning when someone finally tracks her child down. “I’m homeless!” the cry echoes over and over thru Rachel’s dream as she tosses and catches the first cindery sparks of dawn,

In the eerie dawn, can Ava let go of Blair’s body? Like the sun out of the old Southern Cypress swamp. Let it slip into the water, forming rings? Is it possible to trace this fire back to its ignition: one gold loop, a strand of hair tied around a girl child’s finger in prayer and praise of the whole firmament, an exultation whose other side whitish  hellfire burning.

* * *

Line-by-line, the Amish draws. Silo and stables, first design comes down. Is the savior forever in chains?  Lovely if severe, she too sinks into sleep, the outlines pristine.




When an animal is wounded (small birds and large, toads and rats treated cruelly), there is a society to protect them.

The judgment of the family comes down, that gavel of December stone light. The tallow of winter sun burns down. I define myself by not making this trip, to visit Rachel, just as I have defined myself by immigration which has resulted in exile. One day a baby bird fell out of the nest on our terrace. Ava called the Society For the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals which came to save it in a box, but it was too late, even with air holes cut in the cardboard box. She made a contribution to the Society following this death and ever since they have mailed her their regular newsletter.

Birds in a hat, birds fed by an eyedropper—I consider the succession of dying wild birds which riddled our childhood. I consider this as Rachel and I doff our sainthood at the same moment. We have had it. Despite Aaron’s best effort for thirty-eight years, she has needs he cannot meet though he “gives it his best shot every day.” I too am less patient with Ava than I used to be. I have fallen very hard and made a perfect angel.

Why should I be surprised by Aaron? Aaron is as American as apple pie. Ava rises, perplexed by the number of birds flocking in our terrace-trees. She shines a flashlight on one, in daylight, to determine whether this is a house-finch, whom we encourage, or an English sparrow whom we discourage from flocking. A born rescuer, she looks for signs of damaged wings. I turn away to the task at hand. Always considered the hard-hearted one in the family. “You are more like Marcelle,” each day, she warns. “Yet,” I reply, “you urge me to visit her. Why would you have me?”

“That,” she says, hands to hips, “is responsibility.”

Rowena. Her glass body, broken, shattered. I saw Aaron tenderly bending, stooping in anguish to pick up the pieces. “I think Rachel is over-invested in Rowena,” I once said. “Indigo, how can one over-invest in a self-injuring child?”

* * *

The girl’s voice comes: I, Rowena, am in anguish. Desperate to keep it from them, my mom and dad, how I tattoo my body as once my feet patterned the floor dancing, the chalk marks shining up to me sharp as stars. I belong in the Maryinsky Theatre, on the Bolshoi boards. Lessons cost the earth. Mom’s viola sounds like pure gold, poured velvet. Like Basket the cat I loved to stroke. He died last spring. I was emotionally exhausted, I explained to them. We all have a breaking point, Dad said. Mom said if she sold her primary viola she’d make a killing. I was overwhelmed. When Anne Frank ballet was choreographed for me, I played with mom. She said she was nothing as a wunderkinde compared to me. I broke. That’s all. How can I explain to them? Myself, I explain by cutting. Once I considered cutting myself with icicles when Daddy hid all his razorblades.

* * *

She carried her home in both arms, hair soaked, neck limp. Home from drowning. Wracked with self-doubt, self-criticism, carrying her. But who is she? Ava, with her gray-brown eyes. Or is she Rachel with her dark brown eyes, lowered lashes, cheeks golden? With the help of no white dove, but winter sun, a shriven sun, it is my sister who struggles home. The child in her arms looks quite the little aristocrat, the heiress who has floated away.

* * *

Onyx and obsidian, nine years ago (exactly half her life, now at eighteen) Rowena dressed on Halloween as Pippi Longstocking. My ear retains Rachel’s relaxed laughter over the phone. She had a voice warm as the viola. “She was the perfect child,” Rachel told me. Ours was an unlikely canonization, or is it? At any rate, we have doffed our haloes. Obsidian is dark, glassy volcanic rock formed from lava. That was in hardscrabble, Yankee country, upstate New York, one of those old mill and mining towns with boarded up linen-mills. Now Rowena, you are no longer in a valley but they have found you a city, a city with a billion lit windows, a zillion cutthroats. You are on your own. Does your mother still wake at midnight her body shaking? A chill shot from head to toe? Does she still take tranquilizers, does she still have a tic in her cheek, a tremor and a swelling in her bow hand?

Child, you know not what you have done. Lovely, severe Amish barns, rolling Pennsylvania Dutch country lies beyond this historic land of Gettysburg. This is Pennsylvania. I used to fly from our state, New York, to this territory, one-state over, in my dreams.  A strict, Mennonite Swiss sect, the Amish left colors in blocks exquisitely measured, yet they did it with their bare hands. As you shaved air by arcing a circle with your hand. It was this way that you measured off the four walls of a room, by simply pressing your palm to the air. Little did we realize that your childhood was being imprisoned; scant our recognition then that childhood was encapsulated in your breathing: barns, carousels, snow angels, you subordinated all by your laced lung breaths. A whip on the left side of your face came down when you were twelve till your eye stung, and broke. Suddenly weary of your own tolerance, you plotted escape. You were tired of dancing, you hated dancing, even as your toe described a pirouette like the blade of an ice-skater knifing ice. You were in rebellion, yet, Rowena, we now know—who can never own another living being—we did not even glimpse your torment the tip of the iceberg; we could not. With all our combined quickness as a family steeped in music and medicine, we were unable to diagnose your illness in time: now we hold it and it cuts our own hands. Just a girl, at times you looked so tired you were blind. You had taken it to the edge and over. You were standing in a place, the perfect child, younger than Juliette, being soaked thru with rain, going blind with fatigue, a place which you once loved. You were the idyllic child: crystal, mysterious; you had a pure heart, no shadows thrown by your ideas; you wore no mask but were enigmatic as the White Nights of Petersburg, but by your early rebellion you had only shaved the surface of the ice at ten and eleven, in those virginal days of heartbreak beginning.

(October 31, 2003 CANADA)

Lynn Strongin’s “Audubon Wallpaper” is a part of her memoir Indigo. In 2006, the University of Iowa Press will publish her anthology The Sorrow Psalms: A Book of Twentieth Century Elegy . She also has two chapbooks of poems coming out in 2006: Dovey & Me (Solo Press) and The Birds of the Past Are Singing (Cross-Cultural Communications, New York).

excerpt from Indigo, a memoir-in-progress by Lynn Strongin