113th Annual Conference - Portland, Oregon
Friday, November 6 - Sunday, November 8, 2015

Thanksgiving for Aurelia

Raul Moreno, University of South Dakota

In “Thanksgiving for Aurelia,” the writer confronts a question: What is the value of telling family stories? On a stormy night in November, after breaking open Dungeness crab hauled up from the depths, a farmer’s son reads his mother an essay in fragments that changes their relationship in ways they struggle to understand. Is it anger that drives these bottled-up sketches of the land they call "infinite variety"? Or something else entirely?


The true story that stills clouds the eyes of the preacher’s daughter I know as my mother consists of fragments. Brief entries from a first-person travelogue, archival accounts of Aurelia, a mythic railroad town abandoned in the 1930s, and a series of black-on-white photos that work to complicate rather than illustrate the essay’s prose. It’s my attempt to retrace my family’s myriad journeys through Indian country, where another kind of gold rush is always underway. Our journey in fragments has a practical purpose—helping my mother bury her father's remains in an alien cemetery dotted with familiar names. But as I pause for reflection in the small towns and reservations that line the highways leading north from WalMart and Wounded Knee, I begin to wonder about my grandfather’s own attempts at narrative nonfiction. His manuscript is titled—elusively, or perhaps by some accident—2160. I begin to wonder, in these forgotten places, whether “a vague sense of geology is all my family might ever know about the yellowing pages and the colorless sourness of a place we still insist on calling our own.”

On the night I read this essay aloud to my mother, she struggled to say something about the Dakotas, but chose instead to flee in tears to the basement of the beach house we had rented for Thanksgiving. Here’s the thing: We love our parents and grandparents in ways we fail to express. And yet our attempts as writers at repairing the silence, at breaking through the mirrored surface of the past, too often get mistaken for something cold-hearted. What is the value of telling family stories? In “Thanksgiving for Aurelia,” I offer another reading. Not of the origin story mother longs to hear, but the only way I know of telling her how far we’ve come from Aurelia's "infinite variety," that countryside the Romans once called the way to the sea.