Literary Mama writing about the many faces of motherhood
Talismans of the Whirlpool


Their father floats his six-foot telescope between binary stars -- talismans of the Whirlpool Galaxy. Twenty-four years, the whole of our marriage, longer than our daughters' eighteen years, he has searched the darkest skies, searched for that smudge of spiral arm and star cluster, of dust cloud, and the black hole at this galaxy's heart.

We are alone. Again.
This morning, the woman who owns Splendid Treasures, the antique shop in the ruins of an old mining town three miles up Phantom Canyon from here, calls us "Empty Nesters" and raises her arms in triumph.

"You did it," she says, amidst the detritus of fallen households.

Once, on an August night late as this, as their father scanned the universe, I kissed our tiny daughters sleeping beneath a whole shower of stars and felt the earth turn beneath this radiant point. Tonight, our daughters sleep elsewhere beneath these quiet stars and their father, standing beside me, is all shadow, my own "dark matter" against the soft egg of the moon. I watch the vague shapes of constellations, that I still have no names for, encircling us. Our daughters are falling away, and I can only measure their leaving now the way Galileo, the ancient astronomer, once measured distance and time: with the breadth of these hands, with the falling of this late summer seed, with the silences we count between the murmurings of the paired owls we love -- lonely pulse of our hearts tapping unbidden, uncounted at our wrists.

I think of Galileo, tipping his primitive telescope to the once unknowable sky and finding for the first time the craters of a moon and then fixing forever the Inquisitor's terrible sun into the center of our Copernican galaxy. Spira Mirabilis -- Wonderful Spiral -- the astronomers call the Whirlpool we search for. Mira, Hebrew for oh wondrous one -- what we named our daughter who came after, crying into this world when her twin was taken from my body so quickly, so silently, with such little breath that I could not see her as apart from me for a whole day, a whole night fevered from that birthing until I wheeled myself in to watch her sleeping in her glass incubator, her sister beside her, the still centers of my life, there.

In their father's astronomy book, the Hubble telescope magnifies the Whirlpool galaxy into a glory of heat and light, reflecting far beyond what the primitive glass of Galileo's lens or the mirrors of this hand-built telescope, which their father keeps sweeping against our darkest skies, could possibly hold. Spira Mirabilis is the mathematician's dream, the precise symmetry of an infinite curve repeated over and over again on this earth, in these heavens -- the Whirlpool's spiraling arms, the hurricane's vortex, the clustered seeds of a sunflower. "The hand of God," Galileo said -- measurable, manifest in this spiral nebula that my daughters' earth-bound father wants to capture, to hold for a brief moment in the telescope's eye piece, in the cold curve of his palm that has held me, too.

"Celestial womb," I tell him, star birth and blue stars curving geometrically, perfectly from that galaxy's holed center through the strings of space and time, the light years yet to touch us, to touch those whom I can no longer keep close.

I remember my daughters inside me. My wanting body so long arid that their father and I could not believe their quickening, the tiny salt springs of them erupting from within my sad bones into such small creatures -- such small moons -- form and formlessness shadowed in the ultrasound beneath their placental bubbles. Month after month, we watched the curve of their waxing bodies, those particulates of stars, galaxies of our own making, folding in and out like some earthly night blooming flower that opens and closes before first light. Even now I remember the masked surgeon cocking his head to better see that televised Yankee's game, bantering the lore of Koufax and backdoor sliders with their father as he pierced my navel with a needle to withdraw the first shed cells of my daughters.

"It's harder with twins," he said, glancing down at my shivering, blue-veined belly, "not to stick 'em."

Below now, nestled in my pubic hair, is the ragged mid-line incision where a woman surgically cut through my skin, through the uterine wall, into the bag of birth waters-- their hearts faltering, each daughter pulled from me with her gloved hand. I remember years ago, my mother telling me that with her children's leaving, with my leaving, how she had nothing then.

Fifty and nothing. My age.

I watch the tiny, erratic satellites zigzagging perpetually over my head and the low moon spinning the constant contrails of night jets into light. Galileo said the universe was written in the language of the mathematician, that without understanding its symbols we are left "wandering in a dark labyrinth." I wonder what we will have now, with their leaving, their father and me.

"You know," their father says, as he calibrates and fiddles with his telescope, the red bulb of his flashlight circling the darkness between us, "that these galaxies are spinning further and further apart until finally there will be no stars. Nothing."

Today, my daughter calls me to tell me about a theory she has learned in college, of time eradicated, even the bending light of stars gone into the now and the now, existence--without time -- everlasting, our spatial world a collage of what is past and present and future -- all fragmented, all parallel, all immortal.

Consoled, I think.

"I don't understand it," my daughter tells me.

I think of Daedalus, father of Icarus who flew too close to the sun and fell to the sea, that craftsman strapping his beloved son with feathers to free him from some human labyrinth and then watched how the boy's arms, passionate as the dawn, floated irretrievably skyward, the feathers he crafted into the measured curve of bird wing, light as air beneath the pitiless sun. How many times did he search the sky for him, call out to his lost child, that moment in this theoretical universe sealed in forever and all the long, lonely years after? Like every crystalline moment of our lives, my daughter's physicist says, fixed forever, every love of ours lost, not lost, lost as we dream again and again of the bobbing sea, the blind ships beneath our emptied skies like driftwood.

My friend, another empty nester, tells me, "I don't know what I grieve for," and I watch the moon throwing its constant flux of shadows on this little world I can name into being: Phantom Canyon, Cripple Creek, Nipple Mountain. Daughters. Father. Husband.

"Immortality is all around us," the physicist says. "Our task is to recognize it."

Like Galileo tonight, their father and I are searching for the waning and waxing of Venus, for the named moons of Jupiter, for what moves us in the far emptiness beyond our human time, our human selves. Somewhere between the measured stars of Cygnus and Draco, of Orion and Serpens lies that God of Galileo, infinite, eternal, mathematic. And somewhere below Alkaid, what their father names for me, end star of the Big Dipper's handle, daughter of the Bear, what I showed our daughters each time we lay down beneath the Milky Way, road of our most ancient gods, lies the Whirlpool Galaxy.

"The gifts of angels," I told our daughters that night when we watched not stars I know now, but the dust of comets a thousand years old that I could fit in my hands, the broken pieces of planets I will never see lighting those dark skies, the warm flesh of my daughters I still press my face against. Soon the constellation Perseus will shower its meteors over us again, where the head of Medusa waits to turn every moment of us into stone.

Their father tells me we are near everything now. Beneath the jets' hum and the light wash of the city, I press my eye to his telescope until it blurs and tears in the cold night air. Here is the dark matter of this world, its smudge of gas and stars, whole galaxies that Galileo never dreamed of, what their father and I cannot yet grasp, drifting and everywhere.

Kathryn Winograd’s first book of poetry, Air Into Breath (Ashland Poetry Press) won the Colorado Book Award in Poetry. She is also the author of Stepping Sideways Into Poetry (Scholastic Inc), a teaching resources book. She has published poetry, articles, essays, and children’s poetry in numerous journals and magazines, including recent publications in Fourth Genre and Hotel Amerika. She is faculty for the Arapahoe Community College in Colorado and core faculty for Ashland University’s low residency MFA program.

More from

I love this essay and the connections it makes between motherhood, growth, immortality and time. There was a house we used to live in and my mother said every time we drove past that she was sure if she peeked in a window she would see a little four-year older version of me still playing there.
Beautifully written with a tangible feeling of melancholy. The emptiness, feeling lost in the universe is driven back with the blessing of grandchildren. Reliving and recognizing the traits of your child and the joy they have instilled in your memory is reborn in those tiny new lives. It is as thrilling and wonderous as the first time with your own children. I look forward to the sequel in a few years!
This essay is amazing…so beautiful, complex and filled with feeling, revealing complex emotions.
Comments are now closed for this piece.