When I first came across the recording, I clicked on it because the headline told me that this was “the only surviving recording of Virginia Woolf.” And it is, as far as we know. Virginia made three recordings with the BBC in the 1930s, but this is the only one that survives. I could imagine Virginia sitting in front of the microphone, reading her essays, gleeful that her voice would enter homes across Britain, fill a room, and then disappear. Only a memory of her voice would be left.
Virginia often tried to capture the passing moment in her writing—something that she talked about in the surviving BBC broadcast. She was frustrated that she could not always get the glimpse of a scene or a person firmly on the page. In her poetic way, her voice wavering because of her age and because of warped and fuzzy grooves on the record, Virginia said that words are useless, that they cannot possibly capture everything about a moment. “It is because the truth they try to catch is many-sided, and they convey it by being themselves many-sided, flashing this way, then that,” Virginia said stuffily, robotically, from her place eighty years in the past. “We refuse words their liberty. We pin them down to one meaning, their useful meaning, the meaning which makes us catch the train, the meaning which makes us pass the examination. And when words are pinned down they fold their wings and die.”
I am named for Virginia, and so I have always felt connected to her beyond her words. I heard Virginia for the first time last year, on my bed in the Midwest. At the time, I was trying to write an essay about losing my way, and about institutions and structures that were never built for me. It was a mess, honestly, and as I tried to plow through the mess, what kept coming out were words about my mom. She is the most present person in my life, as mothers often are, and her character is tangled up in the work that I try to do. I love my mom in a complicated, complete way that will never fit on a page. And yet I keep coming back to her. And I keep coming back to Virginia, because my mom named me for her. She must be the key, I have often thought. The key to writing, to saying what I mean to say, to pinning things down, as it were.
At the time, when I lost my way, I wanted Virginia’s voice inside me. Sound does that—it invades the barriers of our bodies and becomes real by rattling our ear drums, banging on nerves that zing directly to our brain cells, making a ruckus we cannot ignore. I remember how mom used to read to me in the large cushioned arm chair in the corner of her room. I don’t remember what she said, but I remember tracing the outlines of the colored roses on the chair as her voice filled me up. When I started to read and write on my own, I would show my work to my parents—first it was birthday cards, and then longer stories. My mom would draw a line through the words that weren’t right, and carefully straighten my grammar. When I got older, the big cushioned arm chair in her room became the place my mom read to my little sister, and where she picked patiently at my sister’s warts with a sterilized needle. My sister would read aloud from a book to pass the time. She would try to be patient, try to read the words carefully as her skin was excavated. I could hear them from my bedroom down the hall, where I was usually poised with a book, trying to listen and read at the same time, which never worked.
Virginia had a mother too, of course, though her mother died when she was three. But Julia Stephen was so loud in Virginia’s memory that she would try again and again in novels and essays to capture the woman, or even to capture the space left by the woman who passed before anyone was prepared to mourn her. When she was twenty-four or twenty-five, Virginia wrote a letter addressed to her nephew, and it was later published as her “Reminiscences.” In that letter, Virginia tried to paint her mother in words. “What would one not give to recapture a single phrase even! or the tone of the clear round voice, or the sight of the beautiful figure, so upright and so distinct, in its long shabby cloak, with the head held at a certain angle, a little upwards, so that the eye looked straight out at you. ‘Come children,’ she would say directly she had waved her last fantastic farewell, and one would grasp her umbrella, and another her arm, and one no doubt would stand gaping, and she would call sharply, ‘Quick, quick.’”
The thing about mothers, which Virginia knew well, is that they are too close and too far away at the same time. It’s a problem of focus. Even though Virginia spent most of her conscious life—you could even say all of it—without a mother, that does not erase the fact that her presence was once there, and Virginia would never stop trying to arrest her image on the page. “Living voices in many parts of the world still speak of her as of someone who is actually a fact in life,” Virginia wrote, when she was twenty-four or twenty-five. “Whether she came merry, wrathful or in impulsive sympathy, it does not matter; they speak of her as of a thing that happened, recalling, as though all round her grew significant, how she stood and turned and how the bird sang loudly, or a great cloud passed across the sky. Where has she gone? What she said has never ceased.”
But how do I tell you in words who my mother is without bringing her into the picture, inviting you to open your mouth so she can peer into it, her eyes screwed in concentration, her mind running through years of medical study in order to pronounce the diagnosis. For as long as I can remember I have heard from her patients how whip-smart she is, how she saved their lives, how they love her. I love her too, I think, as I hop onto her examination table for my vaccination and the needle pinches in. She pats me on the shoulder and smiles. “All set,” she’ll say, and, later, at the dinner table before dad has finished the stir fry, she might say, “Medicine is storytelling,” and begin to arrange her words so that her day becomes a perfect refraction of clarity and brightness, a feat I have never been able to manage with my own words when I speak them aloud. Sitting there, across the table, I will wonder how her assuredness might be connected to her success, to the fact that she gave no shits about the men who doubted her aptitude, instead cut her hair short to deflect attention to her gender, put her head down and ran—first on the boys’ track team and then all on her own, around the lakes near our house again and again. I will think about the tulips she had picked up over the weekend and how she will plunge the bulbs into the earth before most of the house is awake the next morning, tending to it all, making sure everything will grow as it should. And I will watch her hand, freckled more than mine is, grasp the stem of her wine glass, watch her fix her eyes on me and I will try to imagine her at twenty-five, the age I am now, and hope that we would have been friends, and think what we would say to each other if we were.
I replayed Virginia’s recording, last year when I was lost, on my bed. But I stopped midway through the second playing. This would be the closest I could ever get to her and she is not enough. Too far, too stuffy, not right.
My mom called at some point after that—maybe a day or two later, or maybe it was minutes. Of course, in my mind the two—my mom and Virginia—are connected. The name, the words, my mom—it all swirls sometimes, together. My mom could tell I was anguished, on the phone, and that I was beginning to lose the thread.
“Write about alligators eating marshmallows,” I remember her saying. She had seen alligators and their snacking habits in Louisiana, where she was with my dad for a medical conference. I picked at the comforter on my bed and I didn’t answer right away. There were several new pen markings on it because I had taken to writing at night, waking up an hour into my supposed sleep to get something down, afraid I would never have the same thought again.
“Remember when we used to make those cathedral cookies?” she said. Still, I could not answer. I did not have the words to tell her that I could feel her care for me over the phone, and how I fear that no combination of words will convey how close she is to me, and how far. I cannot pin some things down. “You know, rolling the mini marshmallows in melted chocolate and coconut flakes? Write about that.”
I nodded, though she could not see me. I did not, that day, in my bedroom with my laptop playing Virginia’s voice, write what I meant to write. I did not write the things that had made me lose my way, and I did not write about alligators either. Instead, I listened to my mom, and I tried to get this down—what happens when words fail, and what to write when they do.
Virginia Marshall is a writer and audio producer. Her work has appeared on WBUR, The Harvard Review, Atlas Obscura, Brevity, The Millions, and other publications. She tweets @vrosemarshall.