I am from poem

How have I lived to be this old without attempting an “I Am From” poem?

A rectification …

I am from sharp pencils
from Ivory soap and Duke’s mayonnaise
I am from the secret vault under the concrete back steps
(cool, cobwebby, smelling of ghosts)
I am from gardenias
from towering Eastern pines
heavy boughs whispering
waving to me like a vertical green sea
I’m from storytelling and dogs
from Columbus and Ruby
I’m from Reader’s Digest and gospel music
From “You’re the oldest, set the example”
and “take care of your precious self”
I’m from Jesus Loves Me, red-letter Bibles, put your offering in the plate
I’m from the riverside and the shipyard
from collards with hot pepper vinegar and carrot cake from scratch
From my father’s crew-cut ever since his head was pierced
by a friend’s cleats in a childhood game of deer and dog,
from three translucent pink moles on Grandma’s chin.
In trunks and in closeted boxes my grandmother’s painstaking albums
rest atop layers of loose photos, paper strata of many eras.
I am etched deep in this phosphorite, the living reliquary
of all the stories.

The bottle

Today I have a literal “found poem.” Meaning not one derived from another’s work but as in finding it while going through folders from previous school years and unearthing poetry I’d modeled for students on writing around an object. I remember taking three objects with special meaning to me so the kids could choose which I’d write about.

They chose the bottle.

Which I found after my grandfather’s death, visiting the farm where he was born. It was the second and last time I walked this piece of land. The first time, my grandfather, grown old and frail, walked with me. Ten acres of fields bordered by trees is all that remains, but he showed me where the house once stood, and the barns, and the henhouse … all gone without a trace now.

Except for some long-buried treasures.

In the old days, farm families had a trash pile. What wasn’t burned away with fire, or washed away by ages of wind and weather, or destroyed by perpetual tractors and harrows, might be swallowed by the earth until the earth is ready to give it back.

I wasn’t expecting such a gift the day I walked alone, mourning my grandfather.

So, I told the students, as I prepared to draft, when you write about an object you might also consider the feeling the object triggers in you. For me, with this bottle, it’s wonder. I want to incorporate a sense of wonder in this poem.

And so I wrote for them, and they enjoyed making artistic suggestions (they wanted it to rhyme):

Granddaddy is gone
And I walk his old farm
How he loved this place
This wide-open space
Nothing now to see
Where barns and house used to be
Just an empty field
After harvest’s yield
Cold breeze blows
Through my heart, it goes
When I spot in a bit of grass
Sunlight glistening on—glass?
I momentarily forget my hurt
As I dig it from the dirt
—a bottle, imagine that
No telling how long it sat
Buried deep in this ground
As the as the years circled round
Whose hand touched it last
In that long ago past?
Clear glass, heavy, yet small
Cracked but unbroken, all in all
What unseen secrets must it hold
This bottle of stories untold

It holds untold stories, all right. I’ve not determined exactly what tincture this old bottle actually held. The faintest embossed image of a root, almost worn away, remains on the front. A health tonic, likely. I know my grandfather had a sister who died of diphtheria at age three, in 1907. I doubt the bottle is that old but I have visions of my great-grandmother nursing her ailing children and tossing that empty bottle onto the trash heap…

Sparking me to attempt a didactic cinquain:

Bottle
Antiquated, weather-worn
Eroding, cracking, enduring
Poured out for healing
Elixir

Or maybe a double reversed etheree:

Empty of that for which you were fashioned
vessel of life-blood for veins long ceased
drawn from roots to nourish my own
cold glass clasped in hands now still

spooned in mouths now silent
elixir fully
poured out, consumed
every drop

gone
cast off
forgotten
swallowed by earth
kept year after year
without ceremony
lying silent, eroding
enduring seasons, weathering
cracking but enduring, determined
to remain clear with your story obscured.

—oh, little bottle.

How I wish you could speak.

Signs of the times

A friend wanted to know if my family would like some face masks.

She is making them.

She sent us pictures of the fabric—she has bolts of it—for us to choose the prints.

Yesterday she and her husband pulled up in our driveway to drop off the masks. My husband and I went out to meet our friends, offering our thanks only in words, no hand-grasps or hugs … a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing … a few weeks back, we were all sitting around the dining room table here in the house, laughing and telling stories after a lasagna dinner. It seems long ago.

When will we be able to do so comfortably, again?

When I look at these masks, I see all that they represent. Shields in time of trouble. A friend channeling inertia into something productive, a practical means of battling an unseen enemy. Self-care spreading out like a blanket to cover others. Homemade love. Colorful patterns against the dark backdrop of our days.

These masks are artifacts of our times. Symbols of our story as we live it. And nothing connects humanity as much as story.

As I walked out to the driveway to receive these gifts, my grandmother’s voice echoed from across the years:

You won’t believe it, but where these woods are now used to be houses and farms, up and down this little road … when the Spanish flu came, it hit all but a couple of them … twelve people died in one week … Mama made pots of soup and Papa would carry it to their doors. He wouldn’t go in, of course …

Grandma wouldn’t have had living memory of this. When the influenza pandemic began in January 1918, she was only two. But she knew the stories. If my own memory serves me correctly, as I walked the tiny country cemeteries surrounding her homeplace, listening to her narratives of the people resting there—for she knew all their stories, and how they were connected— there was an unexpected commonality.

A death year. 1917.

That was before the Spanish flu.

Grandma nodded. There was a sickness before: They called it hemorrhagic fever. People would bruise and bleed from their noses and ears and eyes … a lot of people who tried to take care of the sick caught it and died, too …

She was hardly more than a baby then, a girl born and raised in a hard place in hard times, but here she stood, by the weather-worn stones under a cloudless blue sky, telling the stories seven decades later.

Because of story, these events are lodged in my memory a hundred years after they happened.

My father was Grandma’s first child, born during the Great Depression. Flour companies made their sacks with patterns and bright colors so people could make clothes out of them … look at my handmade face masks and tell me they aren’t reminiscent. A second child, my aunt, arrived with the war. Granddaddy moved the family from North Carolina to Virginia; he found work in the shipyard, where production increased to the point of cranking out ships in less than a third of the time it normally took. How can one not compare that to the scramble for mass production of ventilators today …

Grandma said: It was so hot that summer. I was miserable, being pregnant. I’d sit by the upstairs window and watch the iceman delivering blocks of ice to grocers … companies stopped making refrigerators … everything went into the war effort. I just cried. I’d have given anything for some of that ice … then we had ration cards and could only get certain things at certain times … once my sister Jack and her husband pooled their gas ration cards with ours and we all went on a trip to Massachusetts … it was so beautiful and so cool there …

I look at these masks and that is what I see.

The story of overcoming. Of determination. Of resourcefulness in time of scarcity. Of finding a means to be a good neighbor, a good friend, a real and present help in time of need, even if from a safe distance. Sharing so that everyone has enough. Acts of service, gifts of love. Sacrifice.

The story of surviving.

It’s a collective one.

Spittin’ image

Memoir is probably my favorite kind of writing.

It’s like small moments on steroids. When I write myself back into childhood, scenes, conversations, little forgotten details are pumped full of meaning, for I have the advantage of understanding so much more than I did then . . .

This event occurred when I was seven or eight. As I write, I think of how we don’t know all that children are experiencing or how they’re trying to navigate life. Families don’t make perfect portraits. There are so many reasons why.

We are our stories.

With that in mind I’ve opted to change family names here. It gives me the final shot of courage needed to share “Spittin’ Image.”

*******

We are going to visit my grandfather.

Not my Daddy’s daddy, my Sunday-afternoons-in-the park Granddaddy who bought me red rubber boots when I started school because all my kindergarten friends had them and I wanted them, too.  We are going to see my Mama’s daddy.  I don’t know him very well. He came to visit us once, sat in our living room chair with his hand stuck out so that when I ran by, not paying attention, not being careful, his cigarette burned me.

Mama says he lives in a hospital.

I don’t know why anyone would live in a hospital. I don’t want to go see him, don’t know why we have to go.

My mother gets snappy: “He’s your granddaddy—you’re going!”

My aunts are taking us because Mama doesn’t drive. She doesn’t know how.

“Last time I seen Daddy, he was looking better,” says Aunt Bobbie, who’s driving us in her maroon Ford LTD, a Marlboro sticking out from the first two fingers of her right hand on the steering wheel. I see her mouth in the rear-view mirror. There are little pucker lines around her lips. “I believe he’s eating good. Acted happy to see me, too.”

Aunt Imogene—Genie, I call her—is riding shotgun in front of me. She takes a long drag on her own cigarette. I slide over so I can see the thick white smoke pouring out of her mouth and how it all goes right up her nose, like a waterfall in reverse. It’s neat to watch. About ten minutes pass before she speaks; Genie never does anything fast.

“Waaaay-yelllll…” says Genie, stretching the word well into four or five syllables, “at least we know he’s taken care of at the Home.”

Beside me in the backseat, Mama puts a Salem Menthol in her mouth and flicks her lighter, inhales. She doesn’t do fancy stuff with her smoke. She is quiet.

She is often quiet.

The ride takes forever. Finally Aunt Bobbie says, “We’re here,” and we pull into a parking place bordered by pine trees.

Mama drops the butt to the ground and grinds it into the gravelly dirt with her sandal. This is my grandfather’s Home, I guess, but Mama told me it was a hospital, so I’m confused. When we go in there are many small rooms but no bright lights, no doctors in lab coats, no nurses wearing white dresses and little caps. There’s a lot of wood paneling. The Home makes me think of a really big cabin but the people here don’t look like campers. Some are in wheelchairs, some are standing. Some are in pajamas. Not all of them are old. They stare at us as we go by and I don’t like the feel of their eyes.

Aunt Bobbie leads the way, down a hall, around a corner. I peek in one room and see a man with long white hair lying in bed with his mouth open, but he’s not asleep.

I want to run out of here.

Genie says, “Waaaay-yelll, hey, Daddy.”

He’s sitting in an armchair in a little living room area, holding a lit cigarette in the first two fingers of his right hand. All of his fingers have yellow stains. His nails are brown and long, and the ashes on that cigarette are the longest I’ve ever seen; why don’t they fall?      

Genie hugs him. Aunt Bobbie hugs him. He says “Hey” to them in a high, raspy voice. He doesn’t have much hair. His face is long, kind of yellowish, kind of gray, with brown spots. His clothes have spots, too, except that they’re actually small holes. From dropping cigarettes. Or ashes.

Mama is hanging back but Aunt Bobbie pulls her over.

“Daddy, look who come to see you. Beverly Ann.”

“Hey Daddy,” says my mother, bending to hug him, then stepping back. “How are you doing?”

My grandfather looks at her, his daughter, my mother, and I can tell he doesn’t know her.

Next thing I know, she’s yanking on my arm.

“I brought your granddaughter to visit.” She tugs. “Come on, give your granddaddy a hug.”

I do not want to.  I don’t move. I just look at him.

Genie pokes me from behind.

“Go and see him,” say my aunts. “He’s your granddaddy.”

I already see him and he sees me. For a minute I look into his eyes—they are big, green like moss—and the emptiness there makes me think of a hole in the ground that has no bottom. Or the time Daddy was holding me when he opened the medicine cabinet and its mirror reflected into the mirror over the sink. Mirror, mirror, on the wall . . . it became a mirror, mirror, mirror hall, reflected mirrors going on and on and on, growing tinier and tinier, like a never-ending nothingness. I’m frightened of my grandfather’s eyes, frightened that he’s looking at me with them, that something about them makes me think of my mother.

Then they light up. He knows me! He holds out his hand—not the one with the cigarette, I have my eye on that one—and calls to me:

“Beverly Aaaannn…” he says, drawling like Genie does.

“No, Daddy,” says Aunt Bobbie, “this is Beverly Ann’s daughter. That,” she points to Mama, “is Beverly Ann.”

He keeps right on staring at me.

He doesn’t get it. He thinks I am my mother. When she was little.

I hug him because I have to, because the sisters, his daughters, are making me. His skin is cool and frog-like. When I pull away, he’s still looking at me.

 Am I supposed to love him? I don’t know him. And he doesn’t know me.

We don’t stay long. As soon as we’re outside, Genie bums a light off Mama, who’s shakily firing up another Salem. Genie sucks deep, does her dragon-smoke thing, nods at me.

“I’ve said it a thousand tiiiiiimes, you are your Mama’s child, that’s for sure. Spittin’ image.”

“Ain’t she though?” agrees Aunt Bobbie.

I walk beside Mama. The aunts move ahead of us. Hoping they won’t hear, I whisper: “Why did he think I’m you, Mama?”

“His mind’s not right. Never has been,” she says, taking a drag, looking off in the distance at nothing in particular. “I really wasn’t around him much. I was a little girl when he left home.”

“Why did he leave?”

She turns her eyes on me. Dark brown eyes, like mine, and for a second they have that bottomless look. She’s slow to answer but not in the way that Genie is slow to do things. She takes another long drag.

“Grannie sent him away because he tried to hurt her.”

“Were you sad?”

“No.” Then, softly: “I was scared of him.”

Aunt Bobbie cranks the maroon LTD; Genie is getting in the front passenger side. Mama looks back at the Home and I wonder what she’s thinking. As I reach for the door, I catch my reflection in the backseat window. I glimpse the pines and the cloudless blue sky behind me. Crows fly overhead, cawing loudly. Yes, I do look a lot like my Mama. Even I can see that.

I feel shaky, too. I lean in to look closely at my own eyes, hoping to God I never find them so empty.

Remnants

Some time ago, I came upon a giant Ziploc bag filled with disposable cameras and rolls of film I’d gathered and promptly forgot about.

I really need to take these to be developed, I told myself.

And I set them aside.

And life kept happening.

And time went by.

Until I wasn’t even sure anymore how old the film was and who’d taken pictures of what.

Last summer I finally found a shop that still does same-day printing on site (do you know how hard that is to find now?). I took my film—thirteen rolls.

When I returned for the pictures, I learned that some of the film had nothing on it. The rolls hadn’t been used or they’d been exposed and the images were lost.

Many of the pictures that did come out were weirdly double-exposed. Scenes of my children when they were little, superimposed over each other, over other people.

Ghostly. Tricks of light, of time.

In the shadows, my grandmother sits with her arm around my younger son. He was three.

Eighteen years ago.

Suddenly my father’s grinning right at me from the childhood room of my older son, who’s twelve and seated beside him on the foot of the bed, playing Nintendo 64.

Daddy’s been gone for sixteen years. Died the month after my youngest started kindergarten. But this photograph turned out clear and bright; Daddy looks happy.

Fragments of life, preserved here and there, telling our stories a piece at a time.

Kind of like Grandma’s quilt.

I left the photos and went to pull it from where it’s safely stored.

Grandma made a quilt for each of her five grandchildren. In mine many of the squares are leftover scraps of material from clothes that my mother and grandmothers wore. The brown-and-white swirled pattern was once a vest and slacks, the silky coral-and-pink floral fabric, a blouse—all made by my mother. These remnants were painstakingly stitched together by my grandmother. Random parts forming a pattern, making a whole.

This old film, this quilt. Tangible memories. Remainders, reminders, of long ago. Pieces of my life, of who I am.

Kind of like DNA.

One of the things I learned with ancestry testing is that everyone can trace their maternal haploid group, because everyone has an X chromosome from their mother. When I read the narrative of my female forebears’ migration thousands of years ago, surviving the Ice Age (for, clearly, some of them did), and who knows what else . . . it was nearly overwhelming. To think of each one going before, through the ages, on and on, all the way to my being here. That even now we are trace-able patterns of each other, a virtual, long-reaching quilt, connected, continually replicating and unfolding through time.

Not being male, however, means that I have no Y chromosome haploid history to trace. This knowledge left me bereft at first. I have no brothers, my father is gone, and with him his Y-history, which forms half of my own, the migratory story of which I cannot know. Like my old film, it is obscured forever.

Yet I carry remnants of them all within me, those ancestors, male and female. I am their remnant, a whole stitched from their infinite parts, the conveyor of their continuum, the next chapter of their narrative.

And so are my children, superimposed over us all.

Like layers of memory upon memory.

As life keeps happening.

As time goes on, and on, and on.

The locket

She stands at the counter, admiring the jewelry. If  Papa were here, he’d get a necklace for me, she tells herself. I know he would . . . I’d keep it in the jewelry box he gave me for Christmas. 

But Papa was gone. Back to the hospital, again. She knew he feared going and she feared it for him, not knowing exactly what treatments he was being given, only that his face was whiter, more hollow, on every return, his blue eyes sadder. 

Her own eyes blur. Wiping away the tears, she finds her uncle, the store owner, leaning over the back of the wooden counter.

“Hello, dear. You like the jewelry, don’t you?”

She nods, tries to smile.

“Tell you what—I’ll give you a piece. Choose the one you like best.”

Her tears flow in earnest then. 

She chooses the locket.

*******

She was fifteen. The year was 1931. A year later, her beloved Papa would commit suicide on his sixtieth birthday, just weeks before she graduated from high school.

I wonder if she wore the locket as she sat by his casket in the living room overnight, or to his funeral.

When I was fifteen, she gave the locket to me:

I open the locket to find a black substance on the left side.

“I thought you said there was a picture of you in here!”

“It’s so old. That picture has turned darker and darker over the years,” she explains.

The image is completely obscured. 

“What did the picture look like, Grandma?” I ask, mourning the loss of it.

“It was a school picture. I had wavy blonde hair. It was pretty.” She smiles slightly as she picks the decayed photographic material out of the locket with Granddaddy’s pocket knife. She rubs the locket with a cloth until it gleams, and then she places it in my hands. 

“I know you’ll take care of it, my dear,” she says. 

As I clasp it, she draws me into her arms. I lean against her like I did when I was smaller, breathing in the light fragrance of her Avon cream sachet. 

The locket is around 87 years old now. It’s made of brass, remarkably shiny, unmarred, despite its age. The front surface is finely etched with antiquated swirls and flowers, and if you look very closely, in the center there’s a house with a little fence and mountains in the background along the horizon.

Grandma, what a prophetic symbol for you, in so many ways.

The Great Depression was a year underway when her uncle gave her the locket. In 1936, my grandmother married my grandfather. My father was born ten months later. To me, the house on the locket represents their rural North Carolina homeplace;  it’s where Grandma’s heart was when Granddaddy, unable to “make a go of it” with tenant farming, sharecropping, and odd jobs, found employment almost two hundred miles away at the Newport News shipyard and moved his family. He was working there when Pearl Harbor was attacked.

Grandma was expecting her second child that year:

We stayed in an upstairs apartment and it was so hot. I could look through the window to see the ice truck making deliveries. People couldn’t get refrigerators because of the war; if you had one, it didn’t have a motor. We used them like iceboxes. I’d stand at that window thinking,  I’d give anything for a piece of that ice right now . . . . 

And she longed to go home.

Those mountains on the locket’s background symbolize numerous obstacles, hardships, trials, everything from the loss of her father to the Depression and the war (her brothers served in the Army and the Marines) to the ten years she did live back home, raising the children while my grandfather commuted from the shipyard on weekends. It was hard, all of it. She endured. The brass locket shines almost like gold—beyond the things of home, beyond every mountain to be scaled, hope always shines bright, not dimming over time. My grandmother’s faith would be challenged; she’d outlive two of her three children, but her faith would hold.

Home, endurance, overcoming, hope, faith, love. All of these are her legacy to me.

And the stories.

All old things have a story. Grandma’s locket is a tangible reminder of the stories she lived and told to me. It even opens like a book for pictures or tiny mementos to be placed inside; pictures of my two boys when they were babies are in it now.  The locket is the story of who I am, where I have come from, where I am going. I like to think that as the generations rise and fall, the locket will be passed down again and again, and that our stories will go on, and on, and on.