Nine Letters by Molly Sutton Kiefer


It starts as postcards, sent every Wednesday evening, dropped into a blue box, just after lecture, grainy images of Sugar Loaf Rock on nubby bluffs. Dear grandmother, I walked around the lakes two times today. Dear grandmother, bats flew at our heads like pitched stars. Dear grandmother, I hear ringing in my ears, I am singing myself to sleep.


The year we lived on the train tracks was the year I read Anna Karenina. I told you I didn’t understand how mothers can make that choice for love, or that kind of love anyway. I wasn’t a mother yet, then, when I wrote you. 

Last night I dreamed of infidelity, of how I’d do anything to keep my husband. No one asked me to trade my children for him.


When my husband and I met, he worked the graveyard shift at a Shell gas station. I’d drop in before I went to bed with a thick letter I’d written. Sometimes I’d include a mix tape, mostly Ani Difranco. Once it was a copy of The Bell Jar, tucked into a manila envelope. I didn’t want him to see the cover, in case his face fell—a book? 


Do you think it was the telegraph that signaled the demise of the epistolary partnership? Something made it quaint, something with wires and epitaphs, little taps along the contours of the earth. The graveyard of the envelope, made of pith balls and clock parts. Did you ever write this way?


One of my favorite books is Sylvia Plath’s Letters Home. Her diary too. And Anne Frank’s. I imagine them as leather-bound books on a shelf. My fingers would run over them, tip tip tip.

I love: handwriting, packets of letters tied with ribbon, pressed leaves in autumn, voting stickers, tufts of hair and feathers, wooden trunks, patchwork quilts. I am a cliché. My heart belongs to the attic.


Dear grandmother: I write to you in my diary because you are gone now. I tell you of your hostas thorning their way up through the earth.

When we go to Michigan for services, I come upon my letters wedged between empty jewel cases, in pressed-board drawers. I fuss over them, tuck them into my duffel. I told you to recycle them all—all of my dull observations about graduate school, about the lakes, about the converted church we lived in. I would stuff them into my shirt, down the legs of my trousers, walk around in the paper of it all, my grandmother-armor, a rustling chain mail.


Once you sent to me in the mail, a shoebox full of dirt. I thought: from your land. I thought: they will mingle. I thought: you didn’t write a letter. 

In that dirt were several plump dahlia bulbs. You labeled them in your upper case print: WINE, WINE, WHITE. We folded them into the dirt at the curve of our new house, miles from any train. Your dahlias burst like folded ribbons, tiny lips of color. 


In Cheryl Strayed’s memoir, she writes of ingesting her mother’s ashes—taking in the body of her mother, into her body, the body her mother made. She carried her mother inside of her for some time, and expelled. Dear grandmother, when you died, my mother handed me a mug of ash and inside of it were chips of bone. I wanted to put them to my tongue, see if you’d wick all the moisture out.


We took buckets of bulbs back with us in the trunks of our cars, in the drawers of old dressers. I kept postcards you sent from Egypt, love letters from the Nile. Stacks of notes from college, your handwriting like wrought iron, his like fence posts. 

Dear grandmother, I tried to wake them with our singing. I tried bonemeal, shredded newspaper, potash. Perhaps their address has changed so many times; perhaps there is no way forward. Perhaps it’s late and the moon hasn’t come out and I know you’re out there, I know it’s all strung together like letters in a closet, tied to the runnels in the spring dirt, the bug-etched tree bark, like newly formed alphabets. 


Molly Sutton Kiefer is the author of the full-length lyric essay Nestuary (Ricochet Editions, 2014). She has published three poetry chapbooks, and has work in Orion, Passages North, Hayden’s Ferry Review, The Rumpus, Tupelo Quarterly, Fiddlehead Review, Ecotone, South Dakota Review, and The Collagist, among others. She runs Tinderbox Editions and is founder of Tinderbox Poetry Journal. She lives with her family in Minnesota, where she teaches.