Fall 2009, Volume 7

Poetry by Marianna Hofer

Civil War Widows Move Among Us,
                                  Carry Their Stories Quietly Away

          Let me recollect a minute or so. You need to
          understand I don’t think of him but maybe
          3, 4, times a year.  Some small moment, unbidden,
          gets recalled, then slips away yet again. 

It seemed a foolproof plan.  And
I did love him, in that simple way
of knowing he needed someone to fix
supper, beat the dust from rugs, fill
vases and jars with spring wildflowers,
chicory, Queen Anne’s lace, snow dusted
pine boughs.  I could do all that and
then some.  I could guide a plow, break
a straight furrow, milk a balky cow,
haggle with the tinkers and gypsies
who turned up at our open back door. 

I liked how he could close the door, any
door, and it kept closed.  The past was
just that.  Gone.  He’d left Texas, moved
here to Indiana, made his wife’s death,
the war, children grown, gone, stay there.
My people could never shut doors, kept
circling back, picked at the bones of
the past, how they couldn’t change
any of it, how it cheated today.

I know some looked at me, thought
themselves more honest, less grifter.  But
while the pension meant money, it
wasn’t close to what I’d set out to find
for myself.  He offered someone who said
Mattie, not Matilda, a name that snapped
at me daily.  A way to get away from
all those babies, shared beds, keep a house
that stayed tidy more than a day.

One night right after we married, hair down, barefoot,
likely wearing one of those long pale pinafore dresses
I favored back then, I chased fireflies in our front yard.
                                             And the sky stretched
far overhead, stars all dusty light, shimmering against
the faint clouds like nets thrown over cherry trees to keep
the birds from the ripe fruit, like the underside
of acres of Queen Anne’s lace, like girls on
their hands and knees in damp summer grass,
long hair tossed over their heads to dry. 
                                                  And he said much
of what little he would ever say about the war.
That when he was my age, he was still trying to
figure out what he’d done, how it was just him, of
all the boys he left town with, who stumbled home
2 years later feeling he’d lost a lifetime, time and again
in those 24 months.  I stood, a firefly blinking in
my cupped hands, thought, I’m 18. What will
I want to say about now when I’m 78.   That
we laughed so much, laughter danced
through the open air, the winter kitchen.

I loved the boy in the tintype, his steady eyes
gazed calmly beyond the camera, long hair
brushed back neat, hat in hand, a boy who’d
read just enough Emerson, Dante, Simms, even
early editions of Whitman, to know romance
and honor and all that sounded like a good
honest notion, but reality probably would
be different, messy and sad and perplexing.

That’s the thing.  When people come
to talk to me about him, our lives,
they say how hard the choice to wed
must have been, how lucky, how
amazing, all that I saw, all the history
I touched, meaning about the war.
How I’m a link to the glory, the tragedy,
what they call the romance.  I suspect
to them it is, but to me, it’s a life.
My life, and not some vague history. 
Not, by a long shot, what they call
living history.  I’m not that.  History,
I know, means the past, over and done,
and I’ve never been that.  I kept
moving, still see a future teasing out 
close as the ends of my fingertips.

Once, somewhere near the end, he told the story
of how, at some point in the past, this part of
the world was awash in grasses that towered
over the flat landscapes, a good 5 to 6 feet high,
reddish tipped, made a sound like a long
whisper, a long promise to never fade away. 
Which, like so much, didn’t pan quite out.

When he died, I wept as if
an old widow closing the eyes
of her childhood sweetheart. 
Then I had to turn the lock
to that door and went on.

                          An old widow now,
my second husband buried just a year,
I still make a moist red velvet cake,
real fried chicken, put in a garden,
still do all those things that turned out
to be easy once you make that leap,
hope to find things better as you land,
open your eyes, start that walk away
to what might be better, might last, or
at least be different from yesterday.


Note—during the 1920’s and ‘30’s some young women in their late teens or early twenties married Civil War veterans who were in their 70’s and 80’s.  And while most of these marriages only lasted 3, 4, maybe 5 years, some of the women are still alive; now in their 90’s, they provide, as one blogger noted, an interesting connection to the Civil War, yet also are just ‘an historical quirk.’  Most of the few remaining widows aren’t interested in talking about those marriages; again, to quote the blogger, ‘there’s far more to [their lives] than a short…marriage to a man almost seventy years older…’


BIO: Marianna Hofer works from Studio 13 in the gloriously haunted Jones Building, has published poems and stories in a variety of small magazines, and her b&w photography has hung in various local exhibitions and eateries. Her first book, A Memento Sent by the World, was just published by Word Press in 2008.