Fall 2021

Strokes Through Water: A Feminine History

by Sophie Buckner

February 23, 2016

The women are the first to go. They drop out of the family line like snatches of dreams already forgotten when awake. I search through an online database of ancestors. It’s a collaborative website, so family members I don’t even know add and delete names, pictures and stories. The deeper I go, the more just Anns, Elizabeths, and Eleanors I see. No surnames. Attached to no one but their husbands. And yet, I see worse: Mrs. John Bray and Mrs. George Addams. Nothing more to signify these female lives. And still worse. The slot for the woman’s name remains blank. The tangible male connection through marriage isn’t even enough to keep these women from disappearing completely.

March 19, 2016

Trevor and I sit at an Indian restaurant with his aunt and uncle. I tell them my plans for grad school and that I’m starting my applications. A little boy stands on the table next to us and smears food onto the linoleum top, scatters crumbs onto the seats and floor. Two women sitting at the table ignore him as his little shoes shuffle their plates. 

“Well, I think Trevor should go to grad school first,” Trevor’s uncle says in a husky voice. Then, as if I won’t follow the connection, he continues about liberal arts majors and how there’s no point in wasting an education on a degree that won’t get you a job and these kids graduate college and can’t find a job and then you ask them what they majored in and they say something like English then you say well that’s why they can’t get a job. 

But I don’t miss the connection, and I even make more connections than he ever intended. Somehow, I know he’s saying that women shouldn’t consider advanced degrees because they’re going to stay home with the kids anyway and that’s where they belong. And then, I take the connections further, knowing Trevor’s uncle means the man’s ambitions take precedence over anything the woman wants. 

 Trevor’s aunt—an artist—sips at her straw. I smile and watch the male toddler wreck the table next door. 

Summer 1879

Achsah May Hatch (great-great grandmother) watches the distorted pillar-like forms trudge through the water. Far-away splashing and yelling. One of those forms is her father, oblivious of his four-year-old daughter submerged in water. He’s in a flurry of trying to rectify the buggy. The current tugs May’s dress and pushes her away from the forms and the upturned buggy resting on the river’s floor. She worries about her red leather boots now soaking up as much water as her lungs. She had been stroking them before she fell asleep on the buggy floor. Velvety flesh not yet wrinkled. The rocking of the carriage had coaxed her eyes to close, and now the gently tugging water does the same.

A giant hand clenches the red leather-clad ankle. With the upward movement, her organs push into her ribs and water surges over her. Her body breaks the water’s surface and gravity presses air into her lungs.

That giant hand belonged to 53-year-old Noah Brimhall, Trevor’s great-great-great grandfather. 

Email received February 16

Dear Sophia Buckner,

The School of Graduate Studies is pleased to inform you that your application has been approved and you have been accepted to begin graduate studies at Utah State University. Congratulations on your achievement, and welcome to USU!

As I read the email, instead of feeling the bloom of excitement, I feel like a chain is cinching around my chest. This email might as well not even exist because of an email received days before.

Email forward by Trevor Buckner February 10

Dear Trevor,

The attached letter is to notify you that Purdue University, School of Mechanical Engineering is holding our Graduate Visitation Event March 3 -5, 2016.  You have been selected as an outstanding applicant. We would appreciate your attendance in order to help you make the best decision for your graduate studies.

Circa 1870

Ann Ratcliff’s (great-great-great-great grandmother) husband, Thomas, converts to Mormonism and wishes to go to Zion, to Utah, across the ocean and half a continent. But Ann is Catholic. She listens to these men called “elders,” but clings to her childhood faith. Thomas would go, though. She knows she will have to leave mother, father, home, and faith, but she buys a suitcase and packs her life into it.

September 2008

Before college, growing up, marriage, Trevor and I shared a high school English class. Whenever we got papers back, we compared scores. But when scores were not enough to prove superiority, we counted the number of red-inked “Good!”s, “Excellent”s, and even smiley faces scattered throughout the pages. I don’t know how he always seemed to have more.

Circa 1932

Betty Marie Miller (grandmother) is angry because her brother, Buzz, gets a horse, but Betty doesn’t because she’s a girl. But surely Buzz doesn’t want a horse, Betty coaxes. Having a horse means feeding cattle and hauling hay. Having a horse means brushing the coat and clipping hooves. Surely Buzz wants Betty’s easy cat instead. Before the week ends, Betty has a horse and Buzz has a cat. 

Summer 2000

The ratcheting sound of duct tape pulling off the roll. My brother pulls out a kitchen chair. Do you think you can get out? Of course, I can. I sit, bending my arms around the back to lock my hands together. He wraps the tape around my fists until secure. 

I contort my arms to twist the silver bonds. The tape adheres to my skin and burns as I try to free myself. He leaves to watch TV, and I can’t get out.

With three older brothers, my childhood was a war. Constant wrestling and contests of dominance. The crowning achievement of that childhood was when I made my big brother cry by twisting my fists into his black hair.

I tried to wrestle with Trevor. I knocked him onto the bed, straddled his torso, and slammed his wrists into the mattress. His blue eyes crinkled at the edges as he laughed. He didn’t even try to overturn me. He just crumpled his arms and legs into his chest, like a dead spider.

June 1961

Tereasa Jean Lowry (mother) sits in an oversized inner tube tethered to the back of a raft in the middle of Lucky Reservoir near Boise, Idaho. Her mother, aunt, siblings, and cousins ignore little Teri as they chat and swish their legs over the side of the raft. Bare legs shining white in the sun. Teri slips through the inner tube, and the water swallows her. 

She can’t swim. No one saw. No one noticed the small splash. She is going to die. 

She counts the jelly-like bubbles as they wobble from her lips to the surface, sees beams of sun through the wooden slats of the raft above her, watches paddles slice down into the shadowy water. 

A giant splash. A dark form—her brother—pulls her to his chest and brings her back to air and life. 

January 14, 2016

As we walk into Café Rio, Trevor and I talk about why few women pursue careers in science.

“Do you think people discouraged you from pursuing science because you were a girl?”

I open the door and let my husband through. Rihanna’s voice pours over us as we enter the crowded restaurant.

“I think I just didn’t like it.”

We shuffle through the line. Trevor orders a beef burrito, and I get a chicken salad (not because I’m a girl, right?). We sit on bright metal chairs with chipped paint. Between guacamole-smeared bites, we continue discussing and I can’t help wondering if I chose to study English—if I like English—because I’m a girl. 

April 4, 2016

I was the only girl in the percussion section in the junior high band. I got stuck playing the triangle or the cymbals. I eventually quit to join choir.

I was the only girl on my junior basketball team. The boys never passed to me. My calls of “I’m open!” and “I’m here!” fell like soft flakes of snow that melt before hitting the ground. I scored my only basket after ripping the ball from the hands of my own teammate. 

April 20, 2016

I might as well say it: many of my ancestors were polygamists. I’m embarrassed of this, but it’s something about my past I have to accept. For a sad apology for my ancestors I look at the utility of polygamy. Mark Twain visited my ancestors and called these Mormon men the most Christian men he’d met to have married so many “ungainly” women. People say more women than men followed the Mormons, and these poor women needed to be taken care of as they crossed the treacherous plains and built a society in a desert. Society at the time didn’t favor single women, and polygamy was a way around that. Women benefited from the male connection. 

In 1869, the polygamist men of the Utah territorial Congress granted the right to vote to all women of Utah. Maybe Twain was right about these Mormon men, although his statement was meant to be ironic. Maybe they did intend to take care of their many wives, and allowing them to vote was a purely altruistic act, just like marrying more than one. Or maybe they wanted to repair a reputation of oppression that seeped through the country, tainting the minds of those men who could offer the territory statehood. Either way, the federal government revoked the right for Utah women to vote in 1887. 

1888

Eleanor Favor Cox (great-great-great grandmother) left John for a man named Sole while John was a missionary in England. She left six of her ten children with John’s other wife and moved to live with Sole. The record leaves no hint of Eleanor’s motivations for leaving. A protest of polygamy? Or a passionate affair? Maybe a desperate abandonment of duty—she left six children. Although the record says much of John (who was Brigham Young’s personal barber, fathered over thirty children, fled to Mexico when polygamy was outlawed, and was later imprisoned when he returned to the states), Eleanor, and her infidelity remain largely undocumented, just a blip in her first husband’s biography.

June 1995

A crumbling piece of cement slants into the creek in front of my house. I liked to sit here and watch the muddy water, splash my toes in it. I don’t remember how it happened, but I know one day, I slipped off and into the water. My brother pulled me out by the neck of my t-shirt.

December, 14 2015

Sometimes sorting out the past gets messy, and people get lost. Great Aunt Joy tells me Lars Haling, my great grandfather, only married once, to her grandmother, Anne Marie Christensen, but the database lists several wives. But she knew him personally, and he only married once. Convinced by her surety, I begin to electronically detach these mystery women from my great-great grandfather. It’s not uncommon for these kinds of mistakes to happen. Many times, the extra names are all the same person who went by different first names in life. But when I chat with online support for the website, the woman finds a document showing the record for Lars’s marriage to Kjersten Maria Andersen. I stop detaching, but damage is done. No way to track down the women already detached. People had obviously already tried to erase these women from memory, since Aunt Joy, his own granddaughter, doesn’t even know. Already erased from my family line, erased from the male connection, maybe erased from history. 

Email sent March 23

Utah State Admissions, 

I am very pleased with the offer; however, I will not be able to accept it. My husband was accepted to a school in Indiana, and we will be moving there in August.

Hatred throbs inside me like a spitting copperhead when I know I have to write the email rejecting my admission to USU’s graduate program. I walk home from campus, pounding the sidewalk with my steps. I’m ashamed to write it now, but that hatred flared for my husband. I know I am wrong. I know that Purdue would prove best for our family, but I hate him. I hate the boy who beat me in English class. I hate the boy that tied me to chairs with duct tape. I hate the boys that wouldn’t pass the basketball to me. I hate the boy who saved my life. I hate them all. 

But, of course, hatred is wrong, unfair, and destructive. Worse, it’s unproductive. I’m not sure what would be productive here, but writing it down seems important. Documenting as many women as I can. Documenting myself. To prove that we exist. Maybe it won’t mean much in a hundred years. But for now, I just see myself here, in this moment. Constantly fighting my own erasure. Constantly fighting to not be forgotten. So I scream and kick and write. I write, write, write. Like the women before me, I write like the strokes of my pen are strokes through the water, water that pulls me down to non-existence. 


Sophie Buckner is a PhD student at the University of Connecticut, where she also works as a graduate assistant director at the writing center. She is passionate about mentoring young writers as she works on her own writing craft. In 2018, she received the Aetna Creative Nonfiction Award and the Long River Review Graduate Student Award. Her poetry and nonfiction have most recently been published in HerStry, Pilgrimage Press, The Offbeat, and Foliate Oak Literary Magazine.

Fall 2021