Dear Esther,

May I address you as dear?

I’ve never met you. Never even seen your picture—I don’t think one exists. But there is an image of you, a striking image, that I carry with me.

Remember when people used to carry photos in their wallets? Slide them behind clear plastic? No, you don’t. Just as my grandchildren won’t remember that bottled water used to mean the thick green glass of Perrier. No one remembers what they weren’t yet alive to see. But I’m humoring the wanderings of my brain right now. Images inspiring images inspiring the imagination when the real is unattainable—or too painful to hold.

So, Esther. The image that strikes me, over and over, with great force, is one of you as a young girl unsteady on a ladder. You, with your short black curls and long black skirt. You, at three or four, or five, or six—does it matter? I can only see the back of you. Your hands closed tight around wood, your heels pressed onto the rungs. You’re leaning, though. Leaning towards the left.

I Googled Images to find such a shot—a young girl in the early 1900s on a ladder against a shack. Nothing but sketches of child laborers climbing through a brick building’s window. (Not sure why they couldn’t use the door.) But you, I don’t think, were ever a child laborer. I don’t imagine you ever held a job. No. That’s not the image I see.

You see, the story goes, when you were a child, a young child, Esther, you climbed a ladder—the story doesn’t indicate why—and, as you became increasingly unsteady, fell, hard, onto your head. That fall, when you were three or four or five or six, is the reason given for your awkward limp, your leaning to one side, always to one side. It’s the reason you never learned to spell your name.

The story was told to me by your daughter Hannah, my mother. The story was told between snot and tears: “I worked so hard,” sob, sob, “so many hours I tried to teach my mother to spell her name.” Oh, the drama! Mom told me this when I was three, four, five, and six. To this day I hate drama.

But I wonder what it meant to my mother that her mother never learned?

Esther, I’m writing to you though you can’t read—just in case there’s magic in death. Can you read now, now that you’re on the other side? (Must we always take sides?)

I’m also writing to you because of ghosts. You haunt me.

Ghosts are the current rage in literary communities. They’re all over Zoom. Classes with names like “Write Your Ghosts.”

“Write your ghosts.” (Don’t worry, “we’re not recording, so we all can feel safe.”) Speculate. Speculate. Pay me. Pay me. We’ll call up ancestors. Hell, we’ll even heal them while we’re at it.

Dear Esther, don’t get me wrong, I’d love to heal you. I’m just not sure, the secret’s on Zoom. (Call me a cynical fuck.)

Before the fetishizing of ghosts, there was “writing the body.” Remember those days? No. You don’t. But oh, the body! Your crooked body! How would you write your body, dear Esther, a body tilted to one side?

The story goes, you married young, an old man with sons your age. The story goes, your husband died when Hannah was five. The story goes, you gave her up when she was eight. You were poor, you had “limits,” you couldn’t care for her anymore. So you dropped her off at a poor orphanage with too many limits. Here’s the rest of the story, Esther: they didn’t care for Hannah either.

Did you know Esther was a powerful woman in the Bible? A Queen. Now, that’s a story! Read it someday. Maybe God can read it to you, wherever He is. I’d love to know where He is.

Dear Esther. I don’t know you. But I’d like to. I haven’t seen your picture, but I see you. I see you, dear little girl on a ladder. You haunt me, dear little girl who falls. I’d like to think I would have caught you, Esther. I’m pretty sure I would have tried. E-S-T-H-E-R. We have spell check now. Spell me an image I can hold.

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