August 5, 1947

Dear Tilly,

It was so wonderful to hear from my best friend, although I should be very upset with you for such a short dissertation. You tell me you saw "Pollock's" as if he has painted only one canvas. More information would have been greatly appreciated for this poor isolated friend. And then you somehow relate the atomic bomb and the direction of the scientific community to the degradation of art into the abstract! I am left hungry for a real debate with you. You were short and bleak. Have pity for me, Tilly, and give me more information.

Perhaps you are sour for having to work the summer while I lie in the sun like a beached whale. Dear Tilly, you are free to touch your toes, drink a Manhattan, and dance till dawn. I, on the other hand, know my toes are swollen even though I can't see them, throw up every day at 2:00, and I am in bed by 9:00 every night. You are working on a budding career while I had to trade my wonderful laboratory job at the university for housewife and mother-to-be.

Oh, and I can hear you now. You need not lecture me. You know perfectly well that I am honestly feeling grand about being preggers. But I could use you here to form a front against Mother. She is silently protesting my lying out in the sun… exposed! I am rather undignified in my "condition." And at night when I sit on the deck, feeling glorious in the ocean breezes, she frets about me catching a "draft."

If there were a phone in this old house, I would call you and have a good chat. It would pick you right up. But then I know by the time you get this letter, Robert shall have arrived and taken you for a grand lunch. Isn't it a great coincidence he had to go in to the city to handle some pre-registration papers at Columbia? My husband, the ever-thoughtful one, promised he would amuse you at least one day while he was there.

Now back to your morose view of the state of affairs. Maybe it is the beautiful sea or maybe it is Amanda kicking inside of me, but I do not believe the state of America is as depressing as you paint it. Although you do make me think. Perhaps the closing of our little Beach Theatre is a sign of what you are talking about. I am sure you would say Aha! Just look at where America is going! When the sign announcing the last performance was tacked in the window, I was quite stricken, as was Mother. We attended the town meeting to lodge our protests, but money was the only voice heard. It seems the cinema is taking all the business away. I know this is such a small town and really only populated in the summer with us city folks, but still so disappointing. The teeners prefer watching movie stars on the big screen to the locals on the stage. It is a sad statement on the cultural tradition of any community when the theatre falls into decline and abandonment.

Of course I too have concerns about the atomic bomb. I am bringing a child into this world. But I have faith in the scientific community. Unlike you, I was a part of that community and do not see it as a self-involved, self-perpetuating, abstract sterile environment. Which brings us back to Pollock. I don't believe abstract art is a retreat from reality. Isn't it more of a creative response to signify our freedom and liberalism?

Tilly, pack it up and come and visit. This one-sided debate is too difficult. I want you to feel Amanda kick. How do I know it is Amanda and not John I am carrying? I just know. Mother agrees. And no, I have no other name than Amanda picked out. After all, it is a grand tradition. I am Amanda, my mother is Amanda, and my grandmother is Amanda. I wouldn't get into this debate with you if you were here. But since I can have the last word I shall state with conviction and without retort from you that an individual is not determined by whether or not she has her own unique name or shares it with her mother before her. I can guarantee you any name I might come up with will not be unique to this world. And then what? She shares a name with some unknown woman with no history between them, no connection, no pride in tradition! So pooh-pooh tradition all you want. My Amanda will be quite the individual; so much the more with the influence of her mother and her adopted Bohemian spinster Auntie Tilly. Yes, you shall be known as Auntie Tilly, Amanda's spinster Aunt. So sad for Tilly - twenty-four and already a spinster. Perhaps Robert will meet someone at school to introduce you to. Thank God for the G.I. bill. He'll be back at Columbia in September and finish what the war interrupted.

It's time for me to lather on more suntan lotion (one good thing to come out of the war) and start reading. I am going to see what Dr. Benjamin Spock knows about raising Amanda.

Please write soon and tell me about all those wonderful nights dancing until dawn, drinking Manhattans, and teasing all the eligible men of New York. And watch over my handsome husband adrift in the big city!

                                Love, your friend,

                                               July 5, 1968

Dear Auntie Tilly,

I tried to call you last night and this morning but I should have known you would be off with one or more of your eccentric friends. My wonderful groovy Auntie Tilly and her eclectic circle of friends! I so needed you here to be on my side against Mom and there you were off on some adventure. Daddy would have been on my side but he had to stay in the city and work. He never has time to come out here with us. Always working so hard in the city. Maybe you will see him. I bet you see him as much as we do. He thinks you're crazy wonderful, but then we all do. Anyway, if you had been here, you would have had to speak your true mind. You are the real thing, not plastic like so many people your age.

It is blissful on this stretch of beach. I guess I am glad Mom shamed me into coming for the Fourth of July. The fireworks have come and gone except the ones Mom is shooting out of her eyes right now from the deck. She is more upset about me moving in with Kevin in August than she was about my arrest last April. And to think if I had not taken part in the protest at Columbia State that day, I would not have met Kevin. We are soul mates.

Did you hear the whole story? Mom was actually relieved I was arrested. She's convinced it saved me from getting shot. I was caught tearing down the fence around the Morning Park Gym. It was a symbol of injustice and prejudice! The halls of higher learning cannot just turn their back on the black community at their back door! Anyway, if I had not been detained so long at the jail I would have been at Hamilton Hall for the sit-in. You know how badly that turned out. Pigs! But once the students were in, it was locked and no one could enter. All I could do was ferry them food for the next seven days. In Mom's eyes, my arrest saved me.

So now the big deal is moving in with Kevin, not to marry. That just isn't my bag. Besides, how can I bring a child into a world of war and assassinations? Of inequality and racist values where individual creativity is suppressed or punished? I know you will understand. You never married and had children. Auntie Tilly, you really must speak to Mom on this. Can you dig it? After all, I am twenty-one and there isn't much she can do about it. Do you think she is more upset knowing there will not be any more Amandas in the line? If the future does improve and I have a child, I wouldn't name her Amanda. My child would be set apart, her own name like Moonshine or CatEyes.

I am heading back to the city tomorrow. I will be staying with Carlie until our (Kevin and me!) apartment is ready in August. I am looking forward to school starting again. I must absorb all the knowledge I can to fight the establishment in academia. Students and minorities must have a voice.

I hope we can get together for lunch and a good rap session before school starts. Kevin and I want to go to the Democratic National Convention for the marches there. I want to tell you all about it. I think I will need you to run interference with Mom. Or not. Maybe she will still be consumed with my living arrangements.

                                Peace and Love,

                                              June 7, 2004

Dearest Tilly,

Like my mother and my grandmother before me, I am lying on this stretch of beach writing a letter that I know you will tuck away in the blue hatbox that sits in the top of the closet in the guestroom of our family beach home. That guestroom was always Aunt Tilly's room to me. Thank you for giving me this box but I do not think I can accept it yet. You will be here again to tuck this letter into it yourself.

You are a sly woman, aren't you? My doubts about motherhood and my determination to name this child anything but Amanda have all melted away. I have spent the morning in the sun, reading the letters to you from Grandmother and Mother, feeling their presence while feeling the presence of the child in me. Past, present, and future.

I now know my activism won't end. My quest for enlightenment cannot be daunted, only complimented. My career may change but this new addition to my life is so much more. And I will name this child Amanda. How smart you are directing me to these letters. You put me back in touch with who I am.

The line of Amandas stretches back to 1882. Did you know that? Rummaging through your hatbox reminded me of a trunk Mother kept in the attic full of keepsakes and letters. Starting at the top of the trunk were flyers from Mother and Dad's protest days, letters from friends and family, drawings and cards I made for them. As I peeled back layers like the bark on an old tree, I exposed the rings of history of the Amandas. You have known three of us but in those three you have seen some of all of us. I can only hope to live up to the name.

That blue hatbox started me on a path of discovery that has revealed so much about Amanda and about you.

The name Amanda is of Latin origin and means love or worthy of love. And then there is Venus, goddess of love. What has Venus to do with all my Amandas? On December 6, 1882, the birth date of my great, great grandmother (the first Amanda) the Venus Transit occurred. The Venus Transit occurs when Venus crosses the sun. I plan to see it tomorrow, right here on this beach. It will be the first time in 122 years. My Amanda is to be born on December 6, the birthday of her great, great, great grandmother. Isn't this all amazing? So you see it is practically a spiritual name.

At first I thought you didn't mean for me to see all that lies in this hatbox. I thought it must have been your memory slipping when you directed me to it. I thought maybe I would write and not mention all that I found. You must have forgotten and did not mean for me to uncover it. But then I realized your mind is as clear and as clever as the day I was born.

My grandmother loved you. That is quite obvious from her letters. And apparently my grandfather loved you, also. That note from him, at the bottom of the box, was a beautiful tribute to you. Such a testimonial of love. All those times you both happened to end up in the city, for so many years – you weren't such a lonely bohemian after all.

You have called me a romantic when you have patted my cheek with affection; you have called me indifferent when my passion has not risen to an occasion. With all the Amandas before me now gone, my grandfather gone, you knew the truths and lies hidden in those letters would lead me down a path of self-discovery as I came to know those women before me. It was more important to you that I make this journey of discovery than for you to keep your secrets. I love you for that.

You can't relinquish ownership of your blue hatbox quite yet. You must make one more trip to the beach house. As soon as you feel strong enough, I will bring you here to lie about and watch my Amanda play in the sand.

Until then – dearest Tilly, groovy Auntie Tilly, clever Aunt Tilly -

                                With Love,

Copyright © Brenda Whiteside 2007.

Title graphic: "Hatbox of Thoughts" Copyright © The Summerset Review, Inc. 2007.