Report of Findings on my Mother, Electron Microscopist for the United States Department of Agriculture

Shevaun Brannigan

  1. My mother was born in 1951; twenty years prior, the electron microscope was invented. Her particular microscope took up an entire darkly lit room, in which she sat daily for over twenty-five years, back curled over the viewer with one or both hands on the microscope’s dials, turning them slowly to zoom and pan over a given sample.

  2. The technology is declining in use and flawed—because it involves speeding up electrons in a high vacuum in which no living thing can survive, it leads to a career of observing the dead.

  3. Despite the large size of the microscope, the samples she looked at were quite small. “Quite small” here means the thinnest slice possible of, say, an infected corn kernel. She viewed the infected corn kernel at the cellular level, trying to isolate the virus that was causing the corn to fail.

  4. Over the years, her vision began to weaken from staring through the microscope at sick cells. Further, her paycheck began to suffer as she attended work less and less, then ultimately not at all, both related and unrelated to her vision. More relevant was a debilitating depression and possible early onset dementia.

  5. The alternative to the electron microscope is the light, or optic microscope, whose technology dates back to as early as the late 16th century, and which allows observation of living specimens. Major advances in this technology have occurred in the last decade, but its magnification powers can still not begin to compare to the electron microscope. The scientific world of magnification is torn between one of dark and light, of the dead and the living.

  6. Over the years she’d grown used to the dark. She did not attend work for a total of five months, and spent these months sitting in front of the television with the drapes drawn, watching crime shows and figuring out who was the culprit.

  7. For Christmas, before she stopped giving gifts all together, she would give framed prints of her virus findings. She apologized for the unwrapped black and white 5x7s, which were quite beautiful, saying that she wished she could get us something we actually wanted.

  8. What we actually wanted was whatever was causing her decline—the heart skipping like a young child learning jump rope, her self-medicating, the memory loss that felt so convenient at times—to undo its damage and leave, like a contrite houseguest.

  9. Some of the most interesting electron microscope scans are of insects. In them, proboscises curl like party favors, while eyes look like microphone heads. My mother worked exclusively with plant samples, though she had worked with animals in the far past, until she refused to continue for ethical reasons. Prior to her transfer, she came home with rabbits so they wouldn’t be killed—an animal rights magician.

  10. Despite not knowing what day of the week “today” was, she was always going to work “tomorrow.” “Tomorrow” became a magical place. There, she had the strength to stand up and take a shower. To do her laundry and wear clean clothes that fit. Clean the cat boxes after a week or maybe more, and pick up the collection of empty cat food cans from the kitchen floor. All of this before she was out the door, to drive to work and water her office’s plants, then start the day of looking at samples.

  11. She did not know if anyone had watered her plants while she was out of work. She had a cactus she thought might still be alive, even if people hadn’t been taking care of it regularly. She mentioned this cactus to me each time we spoke on the phone as though it had just occurred to her. Every time, she described how sharp its needles were.

  12. For obvious reasons I started to think of my mother as being like this cactus. She persevered in existing. She had a prickly presence about her. She was prone to bloom in the summertime. I had not seen her in so long, and she had described herself over the phone as so ill, it was not a stretch to picture her as tinting green.

  13. My mother had great moments of light in her life. The USDA had enormous orchards, rows and rows of apple trees, and one summer we ran through these rows and came to rest in a patch of dandelions, while the sun set as though the golden sky were being peeled in a single motion around us, and we blew dandelions at each other, and I felt we were the whole world’s core.

  14. Viewing this memory as a sample on a slide, my immediate instinct is to zoom out and back away. From the mother and daughter playing to the whole orchard overhead, the two of us just flecks on the slide, zooming out to see the entire USDA campus laid out over hills, its greenhouses and brick laboratories and great open stretches of land stretching from the edge of the slide to edge of memory, to a great spin of the dial and I’m looking at the whole state of Maryland, the state we crisscrossed in her blue Chevy van back and back again.

  15. Because the room containing my mother’s electron microscope needed to be kept almost completely in the dark, but for the lights on the machine, the entrances to the room were revolving doors made of black aluminum. You entered the tube of the door through her well lit office, then turned the door ninety degrees and were ensconced completely in darkness. Turn the door 180 degrees and you were in the electron microscope’s room.

  16. When I was a young girl, I spent many a summer sitting inside this tube, spinning the door. On one side of me, the light. On the other, a dim room punctuated by red dials and blinking buttons. Best of all was the in between, the complete blackness of not committing to one or the other while knowing I still had a choice. As a grownup, when faced with a difficult decision—to call my mother after one of her suicide threats? or the police?—I still clench my eyes shut and immerse in darkness.

  17. At the time of this writing, to my knowledge, my mother is still alive. Returning to the issue of electrons versus photons, of darkness versus light, I find myself spinning the mental revolving door over, and over, and over again. I am grateful that she is alive is a thought of light and the living. I want my old mother back is a thought which reflects greater powers of observation, ones of electrons and darkness. It’s a thought that requires an admittance of death. And so: the mother I knew has died.

  18. My mother is a cactus, was lightness, is darkness; my mother is alive, my mother is dead; my eyes are shut, my thoughts are spinning; my memories persist, my memories will be stolen; metaphor is comfort, metaphor is all I have...
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Shevaun Brannigan has been previously published in such journals as Best New Poets 2012, Court Green, Lumina and So to Speak. She is a graduate of the Bennington MFA program, as well as the Jimenez-Porter Writers' House at University of Maryland. She presently resides in Philadelphia. This is her first venture into prose.