Blithe memory

My grandmother loved music
all of her life.
She wanted me to love it, too.
And so she took me to
Murphy’s Mart
(if memory is correct)
to buy a child’s chord organ.
I looked at the pretty blue instrument
and chose a doll instead.
Grandma couldn’t understand.
But you love playing my organ…
don’t you want one of your own?
At the time I didn’t have words to say
I love music but it isn’t my destiny.

The doll, called Blythe,
had eyes that changed color
when I pulled a string:
blue
green
pink
orange.
I picked her instead
of the music.

Grandma, dismayed,
bought her anyway.
It was only the beginning
of my fascination
with seeing the world
through lenses
of many colors.

Maybe it was then
that a writer
instead of a musician
was born.

Neo Blythe ‘Bohemian Peace. MissBlythe. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

I have learned, in researching my Blythe doll, that Kenner only made them for a year (1972) in the U.S. A Japanese company bought them out. An original Blythe doll is now worth a couple of thousand dollars. I don’t know what became of mine, unfortunately. My grandmother’s own glossy-wood Roxy chord organ from the 60’s, however, stands in my foyer. In the end, it’s infinitely more priceless to me.

See another good example of Blythe at https://www.facebook.com/watch/?v=897056547546831.




Of angels and stairways

with thanks to Carolina Lopez for the Open Write prompt on Ethical ELA today

I’ve Been Writing This Since

I’ve been writing this since
I looked into the wide vent-grates
of the upper room floor
of my grandparents’ apartment, 
sure that I saw angels
in the depths

in the same way 
that I saw stairsteps to Heaven
in the light fixtures
of the doctor’s office ceiling
when I was a sick child.

Yeah, well.

I am still here
believing
when those I loved
are long gone
yet cheering me on
from the other side of portals
I cannot see

perhaps they are looking
through vent-grates
and light-fixture stairways
at me.

Lighting & grate. Photos by Portland_MikeCC BY-ND 2.0.

Starting a semi-sestina poem

with thanks to Wendy Everard for the Open Write invitation today on Ethical ELA. A traditional sestina has six stanzas and a three-line envoi; the initial six ending words rotate through remaining stanzas in a prescribed order. Today’s process begins with brainstorming six words. For a semi-sestina, one can alter stanzas and lines, exercising creative freedom…

Here are my six words and opening stanza at present. It will take some time to see where they lead…

fabric
scissors
fall
damage
pieces

pattern

Childhood Memory

She spreads the pattern across the fabric
placing the pins. Wielding her sharpest scissors,
she cuts along the grain. The scraps fall
to the floor, haphazard collateral damage.
She will not save the pieces
or remember their wholeness, before her pattern.

Cobbler cutting fabric with scissors. Ivan Radic. CC BY 2.0.

Hummingbird observations

It all started last month when I saw one hummingbird in the backyard, out by the pines.

She appeared from nowhere, hovering stock-still in the air across the yard, directly facing my son and me as if to consider what manner of beings we are before she darted away—poof. Perhaps it’s just my overactive imagination, but I felt like some sort of message was in this magical appearing. Something the bird wanted…

I bought a feeder.

In a day or so, I had a bird. Or two.

Then there seemed to be three. All females.

Eventually a male showed up with his gorgeous fiery throat. From a distance he looked like a flying ember. He preferred coming early in the morning or around suppertime. It’s almost like His Tiny Royal Highness was letting his Royal Nectar-Tasters go before him to be sure the stuff wasn’t tainted. I cannot say, however, that he was any match for the females in regard to which was most vicious in the dive-bomber approach of driving all others away from the sugar water.

Hummingbirds are contentious creatures. Terribly territorial.

I’ve learned there’s a scientific reason for this: Their metabolism requires them to feed almost constantly. Hummingbird hearts have been recorded, I read, at 1200 beats per minute.

I bought another feeder.

As of mid-August, there’s a squadron of hummers at my feeders, so much so that the original feeder hanging on the kitchen window has to be refilled daily; I had to buy more sugar. I know that ruby-throats (the only kind of hummingbird that breeds in the eastern U.S.) are supposed to start migrating to central Mexico. The males go first, in early August, which explains their current scarcity, I think. Females wait a while longer. I’ve also read that some hummingbirds stay in residence all year. We shall see… I have learned to recognize some individual females by their different markings: one with black speckles all down her pale breast and belly, one with a pure ivory belly and a brighter, iridescent green back, one with a darker head, one with a lighter head and pale stripe on top, and one with a precious, tiny dot of red at her throat, like a lady bedecked in a ruby pendant. When I opened the blinds one morning last week, there was Little Ruby, hovering in the gray dawn; we were so startled by each other that we both froze for a split second in mutual awe (wonder on my part, likely fear on hers) before she zipped away.

At this point I must mention my grandmother. Hummingbirds and cardinals were her favorite birds, perfect symbolism for a woman named Ruby. I saw my first hummingbird by the spirea bushes in her yard one summer. The loud buzz of the beating wings alarmed me—was this a big bug coming after me?—but Grandma Ruby’s childlike delight quickly allayed my fear. And then there was nothing but enchantment for this tiny, dazzling fairy of a creature, glittering like an emerald, my own birthstone, in the sun.

Perhaps that is why I took my six-year-old granddaughter out with refilled feeders yesterday:

The hummingbirds hide in the crape myrtle and cheep at me whenever I take their feeders down.

They do? Why, Franna?

They just want their nectar. They are saying ‘What are you doing with my food!

I haven’t ever heard them cheeping.

Today you will.

And so, for just a moment, I held the favored window feeder out at arm’s length as my granddaughter stood by, very still. Two hummers appeared instantaneously, cheeping competitively before hovering, suspended in the air, eyeing me, uncertain, their whirring wings as loud as electric propeller fans. Each took a tentative drink before whizzing off to the pines out back.

I hung the feeder and my granddaughter said, Quick, let’s go in before all those wings come back!

I chuckled, remembering my first experience with the intimidating sound when I was about her age. We darted for the door. As we entered the house, she said: I heard them cheeping!

And then, before I could reply: Franna, look!

She pointed to the window, where a hummer was perched on the very top of the feeder.

Well, that is something new, I said. I haven’t seen any of them sitting up there before.

My husband, sitting at the kitchen table preparing a sermon, said: That bird was perched on the feeder hanger the whole time you were fixing the sugar water.

I am sure she was one of the two who dared to take a drink when I was holding the feeder.

For the rest of the day, this little bird perched, fed, flew off in skirmishes with other tiny feathered Amazons, and returned. Whenever I looked at the window, she was there, looking in, occasionally fluffing her feathers. I am not sure if she’s nominated herself Queen of This Feeder or if she’s simply curious—hummingbirds are known to be extremely so—and is watching me as I play with my granddaughters and cook supper.

I suppose the ultimate question is who’s observing whom.

And what we are learning about each other in the process.

Didn’t realize, until I reviewed the day’s photos, that I happened to catch her with her tongue extruded. Every minute with hummingbirds filled with absolute wonder. I have christened her Lilibet, the nickname of Queen Elizabeth (since she seems to be reigning over the feeder) and also in honor of my great-aunt Elizabeth, Grandma Ruby’s sister. I wrote about Aunt Elizabeth’s hummingbirds a couple of weeks ago: Solitary existence.

Next goals: 1) Get a good photo of Little Ruby and 2) Invest in hummingbird feeder rings for my granddaughter and me to wear…can we stand still enough for them to come drink from our hands? Will they actually do it?

*******

with thanks to Two Writing Teachers for the weekly Slice of Life Story Challenge

Remembering Olivia

Early 1970s:

My aunt bought a tape recorder
such a modern thing
she had my little sister and I
sing into the thing:

Let me be there in your morning 
Let me be there in your night 
Let me change whatever’s wrong

and make it right (make it right)
Let me take you through that wonderland 
That only two can share 
All I ask you-ou-ou
ou
is let me be there ..

We giggled
and felt so grown-up
singing the soul-felt words
of such
a beautiful
person

we knew
and believed
every word….

If you love me, let me know
if you don’t, then let me go
I can’t take another minute
of a day without you in it
If you love me, let it be
if you don’t, then set me free
Take the chains away
that keep me loving you….

We loved you,
Olivia,
from our very beginning.

Solitary existence: the hummingbirds

Hummingbirds lead a solitary existence.

I saw one hummingbird out back last week, darting about the pines. It turned in my direction, tiny pale-bellied fairy-creature suspended in midair, as if to acknowledge my presence across the yard before zipping away. I wondered if it was making some kind of request. The next day I bought a feeder and hung it outside my kitchen window; within moments, a tiny female landed to sip my homemade nectar.

The next day another female arrived. I watched the two of them competing for turns at the feeder. All day they chase each other away, each still managing to land and feed for the few seconds it takes to sate a creature so tiny. One tentative male finally showed up today, his ruby throat resplendent in the sunlight. I haven’t managed to get a photo of him yet. I hope he’ll return, despite these territorial females.

There’s a lot I didn’t know about hummingbirds. They’re curious. They watch me through the window as I’m watching them. I read that they’re highly intelligent; they learn to recognize the person who feeds them and may even remind this person if their sugar water is running low. They are not social, not flock birds. When they migrate to Mexico in the fall, they go it alone. Why does this pull so terribly on my heartstrings? I cannot shake the image in my mind of this tiniest of birds flying so far by itself.

They do not think of themselves as fragile. They are not lonesome.

It’s what they do. They lead a solitary existence.

With that, the hummingbird memory stirs.

Summer, long ago. Riding in Grandma’s rocket-red Ford Galaxie 500 along the dusty dirt road to her sister’s house. The Galaxie doesn’t have power steering or air-conditioning so the windows are down and Grandma has a Kleenex stuffed into her cleavage to catch the trickling sweat. Fortunately Aunt Elizabeth only lives about a mile away, in a little bungalow house with square tapered columns, off to itself by cornfields and groves of hardwoods. There’s a path in the grass of her yard where her old maroon car (I think it was maroon, either a Ford or a Chevy, I can’t recall exactly) is parked by the weathered outbuilding. Grandma and I park behind it and walk in the shade of the trees to Aunt Elizabeth’s back porch.

Everything is old. The porch floorboards, the screen door that squawks on opening and closing, the tiny, cramped kitchen, the worn linoleum revealing a slightly swayed floor, the living room with braided rugs…it’s a dark house, faintly musty. The smell of Time hangs in the air, unmoved even by the square electric floor fan humming on high speed. Aunt Elizabeth is pleased to see me. She opens her arms to give me a hug and kiss. Her pale cheek, faintly mottled with reddish freckles, is cool. She’s two years older than my grandmother. She asks how my Daddy is, says she sure does miss him, oh, she used to enjoy having him over to eat…

Aunt Elizabeth doesn’t have children. Not any that lived. When I first asked about it, Grandma told me of her sister’s two premature, stillborn babies. Tiny things, said Grandma; she was there when it happened. She held them, grieved for them. Aunt Elizabeth was married to Granddaddy’s youngest brother, who died before I was born. He suffered from some kind of condition doctors could never figure out. Without any warning, he’d lose consciousness and collapse. It happened numerous times until the day he had a spell and couldn’t be revived.

So my great-aunt, in her sixties, lives here alone, way out in the country where, in the 1970s, people still don’t have telephones; they drive to each others’ houses to visit and catch up on news. It is good that a few of her eight siblings live close by, that grown nieces and nephews make a point to come by to see her when they can. Aunt Elizabeth gardens, cans her vegetables and preserves in glass jars for storing on her kitchen shelves, drives to town, tends to herself, is completely independent, yet it seems a solitary existence to me. As she chats with Grandma I wonder if she’s lonesome, if she still misses her husband, gone for so long, and if she’s sad about having no children or grandchildren of her own. She hands some bubblegum out to me and I know she got it because she knew I was coming.

When our visit is over, we all walk out on the porch — that’s what you do, in the country. You walk out and wave until your visitor drives out of sight. Unwritten etiquette. Everyone does it. Same for throwing your hand up to any other car you pass on the road.

But Grandma and I don’t leave yet, because of the hummingbirds.

They’re everywhere.

Aunt Elizabeth has strung up several red and yellow plastic feeders around her porch. At every one is a horde of the tiny birds, dipping in and out. The air vibrates from the rapid fanning of their wings; I feel the circulation, a coolness against the heavy summer humidity.

I am awed. I have never seen anything so magical before. I can’t even count how many hummingbirds.

The sisters, in their delight, laugh like young children.

—It comes back to me, watching the few contentious hummingbirds outside my window almost half a century later. I didn’t know how rare a thing it was, then, the communal gathering of hummingbirds. I remember my great-aunt, not with pity. I hear the musical sound of her laughter and the humming of all those tiny wings there on her porch….knowing that in the long enduring of life’s losses and trials come moments of pure enchantment and abundant richness.

I shall need more feeders.

*******

with thanks to Two Writing Teachers for the weekly Slice of Life story-writing invitation

Mimosa memory

with thanks to Margaret Simon for her photo, inspiring “This Photo Wants to Be a Poem” at Reflections on the Teche.

The mimosa tree was a frequent, ethereal sight in the southern summers of my childhood.


In backlit childhood memory
grows an enchanting peach-fuzz tree
waving its handlike fronds at me
fairies beckoning merrily

The brokenness of things: 5

part of a story-poem memoir, when I was nine

The nurse affixes
a sling
for my left arm
in its heavy
Z-shaped cast

she helps me
from the hospital bed
into the wheelchair

she wheels me
across the hall
to see the little boy
with the crushed foot
who’s five
who’s been screaming
almost
non-stop

there he is
very small
in his bed
with crib rails

his foot
big with bandages
is suspended in the air
on a tall sling

I see
the surprise
on his tear-streaked face
when he sees
me

This is the girl
from across the hall

says the nurse
She has a broken arm
look

but she’s okay
the doctors have fixed her arm
so it can get well

Hi
I say
because
I can’t think
of anything else

he stares at me
this little boy
with the crushed foot
who is five

but he’s stopped screaming

Hi
he says
at last

he doesn’t smile
exactly

I don’t know
if his foot
is going to be
okay

I just know
as look at him
and he looks at me
that somehow
he
will be

because
I am

Get Well Soontsbl2000.CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

The brokenness of things: 3

part of a story-poem memoir, when I was nine

Two weeks left
of the fourth grade

two days at home
in bed
with a cast
and bags of ice
on my left arm

to be told
on returning
to the orthopedist
for follow-up X-rays
that the bones
have slipped

which means
I’ll be going
to the hospital
where they can
put me under
to figure out
how to position
my arm
for it to heal

I feel small
and alone
so alone
even though
the nurses in
their green scrubs
are kind

think of your favorite things
says one
as she affixes
the rubbery mask
over my my mouth and nose

what do you like to eat
she asks

her eyes are smiling
over her surgical mask

I cannot see her hands

chocolate chip cookies

and for a second
I can taste them
before a chemical taste
tingles in my mouth

my throat is cold
is the last thing I say
as I descend
into
gray
nothingness

A nurse and a surgeon…Etching. CC BY 4.0.

The brokenness of things: 2

part of a story-poem memoir, when I was nine

I never heard
of an orthopedist
until my father
takes me
after the fall
on the playground

and why has he brought
my Baby Ann doll

her plastic fingers
and face
look more smudged
than ever
in the glaring fluorescent light
of the exam room
where I sit
too embarrassed
and in too much pain
to say
I am not eight anymore
I am too old
for dolls now

the orthopedist
looks grim
while surveying
X-rays
of my poor left arm
against the light

not broken
in the typical place

an injection
for what’s about to come

it does no good, really

the orthopedist
braces himself
against the table
grips my damaged arm
with both of his hands

and pulls
and pulls
and pulls

my feral scream
comes of its own accord

that’s when Daddy
cries out

STOP. STOP.

— the orthopedist stops
he wipes his forehead

Daddy is pale
so pale
his blue eyes
animal bright

(in later years
he will say
I couldn’t stand
that man

but I knew
in the moment
he could not stand
my pain)

he stands there
clutching Baby Ann

who smiles at me
in her plastic way

she cannot help me now
but maybe
she’ll get Daddy through

doll hand. David Lee King. CC BY-NC-SA 2.0