An Essay Entitled “Mrs.”

Brooke Champagne


It is an essay told in three parts: the narrator’s sister is the titular main character. It begins with the irony that though Mrs. is unmarried with five children from two different men, when she’s happy and in love, she refers to herself as Mrs. Surname-of-whomever-she’s-dating-at-the-time.

It details salient incidents of her Mrs.-dom: how her first Mr., suspicious of infidelity, once cracked her over and over with a leather whip; chopped off her hair; how he kidnapped her, leaving their toddlers screaming mommy back at the apartment while he pulled her by the ponytail into the car, stabbing her leg with a penknife, the hole in her pants blooming into a rose, then drove her away for hours, promising the end, before inexplicably bringing her back home.

Here we insert historical references as a respite from savagery: according to the OED, the first printed Mrs. appears in 1485 London, where a Mres. Sucklyng bequeaths a “gyfte.” The dictionary affirms the contemporary appropriateness of our Mrs.’s usage: the title now applies without discrimination.

At this point we note the traditional inheritance of our fathers’ names, which, if we’re females entering heteronormative marriage structures, we go on to re-identify through our husbands. Feminists, like the narrator, who don’t take their husbands’ names, thus represent their fathers’ legacies. Even if their father, let’s say, once whacked their mother’s leg with a golf club when she laughed at his shanked putt.

The first section ends by returning to our Mrs.: how had she allowed this to happen?



The section in which the answer is made known. The narrator/main character’s mother married three times, and all three husbands laid hands on her. The first phone number the narrator ever dialed was 9-1-1, the den a panopticon of flashing lights — red fish, blue fish.

The idiom “laying on of hands” is derived from dozens of Biblical references, where, as in life, it cuts both ways. Jesus’s famous hand-healing in Luke and Mark and Acts. But then in 1Timothy 5:22: “Do not lay hands upon anyone too hastily; keep yourself free from sin.” Whether that sin be wrath or envy or lust does not present itself in this context.

Where the question is asked: if epigenetics gets the concept of inherited trauma correctly, then is the abuse of Mrs. learned, or is it biological legacy? A line of women’s names lost to dust, to fathers and husbands, women who screamed out and ran scared and hit back and believed in redemption and revenge and felt free and felt loved but were also beaten down, by hands and spit and whips and words. Whatever was available, these gyftes to and from our mothers.



In the final section, past is prologue. Here the narrator returns to her university’s library archives, to a 1895 journal from Blocton, Alabama, penned by a woman referring to herself only as Mrs. Narrative evidence of her husband’s years of abuse. The parasol he gifted, then broke over her head. Her packed trunk hidden under the bed. Names of witnesses who’d testify, their addresses. This journal, palm-sized, pored over and caressed like a talisman.

Where the narrator reveals her use of third person as obfuscation: that she has feigned ethnographer when she’s the autobiographer. Her own journals, written many years ago but throbbingly alive, reveal similar stories. How she knows precisely what it feels like to have hands lain, wrapped around her neck. Mouth hooked like a fish to pull her up to meet him, or dragged down to the floor where it belonged. In the journals, in the past.

In the present, her daughter is the gift. When caressing her head at night, the narrator wishes to make a permanent helmet of her hands, for her hands to transmute the power to rescind legacy. The narrator, remember, is me, the legacy mine to give. But since there’s no permanence in a mother’s hands, in the future, when my daughter uses her grown hands to trace the lines my former lover gifted me, I long for this: should she meet some version of him, in a classroom, in a bar, she’ll find something so recognizable, so uninteresting in his demonic smile, she won’t be tempted to learn how that story will end. Here in my hands, through the sheer naming of myself, I carry the hope that my daughter, and hers and hers and hers, might be bequeathed a different gift: a different kind of name.


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