Jessie's Message (for Captain Margaret L. Putman)
Updated: Dec 31, 2020
Once upon a time, I had a dear friend named Maggie. She taught herself calligraphy, sitting at a drafting table and painstakingly writing with pens and quills on large sheets of thick paper. She was a sailor, and kept her yacht, Random Starr, in the Caribbean. She used to live on her boat off and on, eventually making it her home.
Hurricanes are inevitable in the US Virgin Islands. She and the boat had survived Hurricane Hugo in 1989, a category 4 major hurricane. Maggie had sent me in the mail newspaper articles from St. Thomas about how Hugo had ravaged the island and the community. And soon after, in 1992, Hurricane Andrew struck.
Maggie died in 2006 of COPD in Chicago, where she had moved with her companion Greg after selling her boat. She was only 57.
She sent me the flag that flew on Random Starr, folded into a triangle. I still have it, still folded. Here it is, frayed at the edges, inscribed to me.
I also have several pieces of her calligraphy. One of the pieces is Jessie‘s Message, a beautiful bereavement poem.
Some years ago, I began sending this poem, specifically Maggie’s calligraphy of it, to friends who had lost a parent. Deb for her father. Linda for her mother. This year has brought more deaths than would be expected, due to the pandemic. Just in the past two months, several friends have lost a parent. Three lost their mothers and three others lost their fathers, all but two to Covid. I have sent Jessie's Message to many of them. Maggie had a big heart, and I think it would please her to know that the poignant words she so painstakingly wrote might offer comfort to some, years after her own passing.
She had a mischievous sense of humor and inscribed this limerick as a dig at those of us pursuing higher studies.
As I read the other pieces that she created, I see in them a foreboding, a statement of her own struggles. Here, for example, is a cry of despair, Stevie Smith's I was not waving, but drowning.
With the health issues she battled, these lines from Lorraine Hansberry's The Sign In Sidney Brustein's Window seem especially poignant.
Her calligraphy seems a reflection and acceptance of the fleeting nature of life. Here is an eloquent love song, imbued with the impermanence of even the most beautiful moments.
“Maybe you and Rachel can come and see me here in Chicago,” she called to say from the hospital, not long before she died. I, then the mother of a newborn, struggling with parenting and work, could not go see her. Rest in peace, dear Maggie. I am glad to have known you, your fierce beliefs, your generosity and your talent. I know the decks are beautifully varnished and sparkling on the boat you are sailing now.