Memory poem: Pier

For Day Three of a five-day Open Write Challenge on the Ethical ELA blog, Margaret Simon invites memory poem writing. See her glorious sensory poem and one penned by her second-grade student, as well as other offerings and the inspiring “mystery of memory” mentor-poem from Nikki Grimes, here.

Today’s poem challenge begins with the word Think, followed by a word linked to childhood associations and evocative detail. Grimes’ poem begins with Think food and leads to her grandmother’s pineapple upside-down cake and food being “so much more” than nourishment. Margaret’s poem begins with Think dirt and brings the reader into a very real moment of making mudpies (you can feel and smell it) and the deeper context within.

Memoir is probably my favorite type of writing; it is a chance to stand once more in your childhood shoes, experiencing the world just as you did, only framed by knowledge gained since. I had to think a while before an image came to mind foe this memory poem. Then I had to think a while longer about what it meant …

Here’s “Pier.”

Think pier
and danger comes to mind.
Weathered gray boards
armed with splinters
meant for tender young feet
encased in sneakers
that Grandma made me wear.
Sneakers stepping deliberately
from slat to solid slat
avoiding intervals of nothingness
where water laps dark and green
below, moving and moving
until it seems the whole pier
is floating out to sea
with me.
Summer sun beating down
casting our squatty silhouettes
on grainy gray wood-canvas.
Grandma’s sunhat fluttering
in the river’s breath
brine in my nose, my mouth
endless expanse of silver-green water
glinting, beckoning,
reckoning—
there are no rails.
There are nails.
Tie the string to the raw chicken neck
toss it over—plop
and wait.
Let the nail-anchored string
rest on your fingers
until it moves with strange little jerks
then pull so so slowly
so carefully.
Use both hands but
have your net ready
for the greedy green-brown crab
with fierce orange ‘pinchers’
—keep your fingers away!—
and legs painted bright watercolor blue
soon scuttling around in
Grandma’s galvanized tub.
Think pier
and she’s right there again
between me and danger
showing me how to navigate.

Photo: Pier. Richmond AACA. CC-BY. Cropped and converted to black-and-white. The pier of my long-ago childhood memory is so like this one.

Stayin’ alive

The master says it’s glorious thing to die for the Faith and Dad says it’s a glorious thing to die for Ireland and I wonder if there’s anyone in the world who would like us to live.

—Frank McCourt, Angela’s Ashes

A friends tells me she can’t turn on the news at home anymore because her first-grader is terrified of catching “the cronavirus.”

I remember that terror …

It began with nosebleeds. I had so many as a child that the pediatrician told my father the vessels in my nose might need to be cauterized.

“Carterized? What is that?”

“Burned.” Said my father, before thinking better of it.

Burned?

BURNED?

I lived in mortal terror of having another nosebleed, of having the inside of my nose burned.

I told my Sunday School teacher about it: “My nose might have to be carterized if I don’t stop having nosebleeds.”

“Well, it’s better to have a vessel burst in your nose than one in your head.”

A vessel can burst in my HEAD? What does that mean? What happens to you if a vessel bursts in your HEAD? Do you die?

My head felt weak. I tried not to move it very much.

“Why are you walking so stiff and hunched up?” snapped Mom.

And then there was the sign in the church stairwell:

FALLOUT SHELTER

“What’s a fallout shelter?” I wanted to know one evening after supper when our neighbor walked across the street to play Yahtzee.

“Oh, a place where people can go if there’s a nuclear bomb, to be safe from the radiation,” said Mom, taking a drag of her Salem.

“Yeah, and this is the first place that would be attacked,” said our neighbor, shaking the dice, “with all our military bases and being so near D.C.” The dice rolled across the table. “Damn! Nothin’! I guess I’ll have to take it on Chance.”

How will we get to the fallout shelter to be safe, if it’s blown apart?

Why do we live here?

Nuclear bombs… the vessels in my nose, the ones in my head … what’s gonna blow first? What will happen to me? How’m I gonna stay alive?

—Yes, I remember the terror. To this day.

—Remember the children.

Photo: Fallout. m anima. CC BY

‘You were my favorite memory’

BoJangles

New BoJangles at night. Mr. Blue MauMauCC BY

Spring arrives amid a flurry of wings, bird voices rising with the morning sun, daylight hours stretching perceptibly longer, the first warm breath of promise to come.

On such a day, two years ago, my youngest son’s lifelong friend died in an accident.

She was eighteen.

She was one of the prettiest children I’ve ever seen. Big, brown, doe-like eyes in a round cherub face. Musical, like my son. They grew up in children’s choirs at church, were in band together throughout high school. She played the flute. My son occasionally accompanied her and their other childhood friend on the piano during worship services. All three of them sang:

I’ve had many tears and sorrows

I’ve had questions for tomorrow

There’ve been times I didn’t know right from wrong

But in every situation

God gave blessed consolation

That my trials come to only make me strong.

Through it all,

Through it all . . . 

Their voices blended beautifully. Hers was high, clear, pure, almost ethereal.

I wrote to her, told her so. Said that she needed to sing more often.

Perhaps that note was in her things, still, when her mother began going through them after her death. I do not know.

But an essay she’d written in high school was there.

Its title: My Favorite Childhood Memory.

Her mother copied it, sent it to my son and their other friend—for she wrote of them.

I wondered, when I first learned of this essay, what the memory was. Maybe a birthday celebration, as they were all born in August of three successive years. Maybe working Vacation Bible School or Bible Sports Camp together as youth. Maybe it was the time they went shopping and bought two betta fish that my son named after gospel bass singers, or one of the summer beach trips they took, growing up. The three of them even went to the prom together, once.

My son let me read her essay.

She wrote of Sunday nights when the three of them would go with her family to BoJangles for supper, how they told hysterically funny stories, how she laughed and laughed. She said these were the best times of her childhood, that she would always remember them . . . .

She is gone. Her words, her love for her friends, remain:

You were my favorite childhood memory.

It seems almost like a thank-you letter, now.

My son says once in a while, when he’s out walking laps around the church, exercising his body, easing his mind and his soul—he can hear her singing.

It’s two years today, a Sunday. Tonight her family and friends will gather at BoJangles in her memory.