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You named me after three tombstones in Laurel Hill Cemetery. Your freckled hand on your swollen belly, your light gray eyes scanning the marble and granite slabs. You were running out of time. You said it was the touch of cinnamon in the August air. Autumn was coming early and so was your baby. I pictured you like this, your strawberry blonde hair aflame in the boiling summer sun. Your bangs glued to your forehead in thin strings.
At St. Mary’s, the other girls called me Soap-rona. I tried to tell them Sophrona came from the Ancient Greeks, meaning sensible and self-controlled. But they were just little girls, given names like Sally and Chrystie and Tara and Joan.
On my thirteenth birthday, you wrote to tell me the origin behind my middle name: Viola. It had belonged to the daughter of a wealthy stonemason, Viola L. Charles. The L. stood for Lucretia. They lived on the cusp of the city, near the cemetery. At eighteen, Viola drowned in the Schuylkill. She wanted to prove to her father she was as good a rower as her older brother, John. There was a dense fog that morning and Viola’s boat hit a rock, tossing her overboard. Being a woman in a family that cherished men, no one had ever thought to teach her how to swim. You said it was a sad story, but important nonetheless. Viola was fearless and I should be too.
Your letter arrived on Thursday, three days before my eighteenth birthday. The yellow envelope reeked of earth and incense. Lavender fell, then faded parchment. I knew you lived in a small community in upstate New York. Sister Constance called you hippies, her face pinched as she spoke. You said you lived with free-thinkers. That one day I could visit.
Yet you had never visited me.
I unrolled the letter, spellbound by its contents. You wanted to meet on my birthday at the cemetery where you named me. There, you said, you would tell me the origin of my surname: Wood. My chest hummed with longing. My hands trembled, reaching out to the mother I’d never met.
I find Jeremiah Wood’s tombstone, taking the path you described. The stone is speckled with time and bird droppings. Born June 6, 1801. Died January 7, 1845. My fingers hover overthe grave, daring to caress it.
“He was an artist,” you say behind me. Your voice is huskier than I imagined. I study the name and dates carved into the stone. “He painted murals before the city was covered in them. I wanted you to be creative.”
My heartbeat thrums in my fingers. I turn to face you. Your eyes are dark blue, with thin lines crowding the skin around them. Your hair is deep mahogany. You are nothing like I imagined, looking nothing like me, but still, you’re my mother.
“Hi, Mom,” I say.
You smile, the lines by your eyes deepening.
Christina Rosso (she/her) is a writer and bookstore owner living outside of Philadelphia with her bearded husband and rescue pup. She is the author of CREOLE CONJURE (Maudlin House, 2021) and SHE IS A BEAST (APEP Publications, 2020). Her writing has been nominated for Best of the Net, Best Small Fictions, and the Pushcart Prize. For more information, visit http://christina-rosso.com or find her on Twitter @Rosso_Christina.