Walking poem

Today on Ethical ELA Leilya Pitre invites teacher poets to “walk to your place of comfort.” The idea is to take a break, rest, relax, maybe noting things that capture your attention when you’re on a walk, or maybe walking back in time, through memories, or recalling a personal revelation that occurred on a walk. Just walk, poetically.

I love walks and have written of many… today, I meander back through memory to a place of comfort.

Walking with Granddaddy

Sunday afternoon
sidewalks aren’t crowded
no rush hour traffic
clogs the street
just a few cars
stopped at the intersection

can’t walk over to Rose’s
at the corner today
to buy a toy 
like my Slinky
or click-clacks, 
glass amber spheres
suspended on a string
to pull back and hear
that loud CLACK CLACK,
or a powder-blue
sachet ball made of satin
decorated like a lion’s head
with blue googly eyes
and an aqua feather-tuft mane

no, Rose’s is closed today

so is the drugstore
at the end of our row
no chocolate-covered cherries
or Peppermint Patties
or those caramel creams
that you love so

no, today we walk
hand-in-hand
across the street
while cars wait
at the lights

past the fire station
round back of the 
Baptist church

to the playground

you let me climb
the big sliding board
not letting go
of my hand
until I am sitting at the top

you are there
at the bottom
when the sliding stops

you push me in the swing
until my feet touch the sky
I am a bird 
flying so high

until the shadow
of the steeple-cross
grows long on the grass

hand-in-hand again
I watch our feet pass

back over the pavement
crossing the street
each step measured in time
of heart-to-heart beats

—oh, how yours to mine
still talks
so long after
our Sunday walks 

Granddaddy and me on his 61st birthday.
I am two and a half.

Thirty years later:
Granddaddy with my boys and me, on his 91st birthday,
a year and a half before he died.

He is gone, but never far away.

Until we meet again

Today I write in memory of my grandfather.

His name was Columbus St. Patrick Brantley.

He was born in 1906 “up the swamp” in coastal North Carolina. Farming was in his blood. He married my grandmother during the Depression and worked as a sharecropper. My father was born in a tenant house. Just before WWII, Granddaddy went to Virginia to work as shipwright. He tried farming and house painting after the war but “couldn’t make a go of it,” so he went back to the shipyard, where he was still working when I came along. For the record: the whole family said I looked exactly like him when I was born.

He didn’t work on Sundays; that became our day together when I was small.

He retired when I was six. He and my grandmother moved back home and thus began my many journeys to the little white house nestled in the bend of an old dirt road, where the woods had grown up all around, taking back house after house where people lived no more.

In his later years Granddaddy recorded stories of his life on audiocassette to give to his family. He could remember seeing his first Model T at age three or four. He said that mail was delivered by horse and buggy; farmers ordered chickens that were delivered in cages. He had a whole string of pins awarded him for perfect Sunday School attendance at the little Methodist church. He loved listening to the Grand Ole Opry on the radio. He spoke of his nine siblings, including a sister, Peaney (Penelope), who died of diphtheria at age four. He outlived them all. He lived to see both of my children. He could remember an ancestor speaking of Dublin.

Near the end of his life, I gave him a framed print of an Irish blessing. It hangs by my front door now:

The last time I saw him, he was dying of lung cancer at ninety-two. It was springtime. He’d grown weak but was fully dressed, sitting in his recliner by the door; he tried to coax my two-year-old to sit in his lap, like I did when I was little. I sat by his chair on a stool and held his old, wrinkled, work-worn hand.

Do you remember how we used to go to the park on Sundays?

I do, Granddaddy. We took bread to feed the ducks.

And the old locomotive?

I can just remember climbing in it together…

He was tired, always a man of few words. We sat for a long time together, not speaking at all.

When it was time to go, I kissed him on his forehead.

I love you, Granddaddy. God’s got you safe in His hands.

That’s the best place to be. And I love you.

He held tight to my hand.

It’s been twenty-three years. You can’t imagine all I have to tell you, Granddaddy. There’s been another pandemic. Wars and rumors of wars. Your great-grandsons are grown. The little two-year-old you tried to coax into sitting with you at that last visit plays piano and guitar; he loves singing the old-time songs that you loved. His brother’s a pastor with a baby girl; he tells me almost daily that something about your great-great-granddaughter reminds him of you. God remains faithful from one generation to the next. It’s almost springtime again, the fields are so green…

Until we meet again, Columbus St. Patrick.

I love you.

*******

with thanks to Two Writing Teachers for the Slice of Life Story Challenge every day in the month of March.





On September and scuppernongs

September in North Carolina means the return of the scuppernong grape.

It’s the state fruit. I first tasted scuppernongs as a child, standing with my grandfather under his arbor, thick leaves waving in the breeze, benevolent sun intermingling with cool shadow. The plain appearance of these grapes is misleading; the taste is divine. Richer than anything on Earth. Those thick, humble hulls contain ambrosia. And seeds; Granddaddy said just spit ’em out. It’s worth it.

Today’s his birthday. He’d be 114. As long as I live, he is, the scuppernong is, inextricable from September…

Every year, I await the return.

And savor it.

September, sovereign whose
Crowning glory is not of gilt but of
Unassuming mottled orbs,
Pendulous bronze-green
Pendants strung on knotted vine.
Elysian fields, perhaps, this black earth where my
Roots run deep, where my ancestors sleep.
Noble edict, “Be fruitful and multiply,”
Obeyed here to an extent only by divine design.
North Carolina’s soil stirred, responded, produced—
God alone infused the foretaste of heaven in its grapes.

With deepest thanks to the friends who know and bring me these offerings from their families’ old vines.

Thanks also to the inspirational Poetry Friday gathering at Radio, Rhythm & Rhyme and to Matt for hosting.

What is literacy?

Museum of the Navy

Quarterman shipfitter looks at blueprints, 1943. Museum of the U.S. Navy

“Literacy is the ability to identify, understand, interpret, create, compute, and communicate using visual, audible, and digital materials across disciplines and in any context.

The ability to read, write, and communicate connects people to one another and empowers them to achieve things they never thought possible. Communication and connection are the basis of who we are and how we live together and interact with the world.” 

International Literacy Association, 2018

On the eve of the New School Year, I contemplate my role in the scheme of things. In the face of changes in staff, in curriculum, in differing perspectives on literacy instruction.

I am defined by literacy. I’ve loved reading and writing all my life. My professional work is literacy: As a coach, I collaborate with teacher colleagues across grade levels on how to best teach English Language Arts in ways that meet the needs of all students.

When it comes to defining literacy, I rely on the International Literacy Association, for no two dictionaries, and hardly any two people, seem to have the same idea of it. Some believe it’s just reading and writing. But it’s so much more . . . .

In the ILA definition several things jump out at me, beginning with

the ability to interpret

in any context

I think of my grandfather.

Over a hundred years ago, my grandfather left school to work on his family’s little North Carolina farm. He married during the Great Depression. When tenant farming, sharecropping, and other odd jobs like painting houses weren’t enough for him to “make a go of it,” Granddaddy rode with men from his hometown to Newport News, Virginia, in hopes of landing steady work at the shipyard.

Granddaddy became a shipwright, responsible for helping build the keels of ships, less than a year before Pearl Harbor. When America entered World War II, production continued around the clock with the invention of a new thing: aircraft carriers.

He made his living; he took care of his own. He retired from the shipyard when I was five. He and Grandma moved back home and there I spent my childhood summers.

In the evenings he sat in his recliner while Grandma and I sat on the living room floor. She spread the newspaper out on the carpet, handed me the “funnies” section, and then she read the rest of the paper in a loud, clear voice to Granddaddy—his years around industrial equipment in the Yard had made him hard of hearing.

I eventually asked:

Why do you read the paper to Granddaddy? Why doesn’t he just read it?

He can’t, Dear. 

Why? Is something wrong with his eyes?

No, no. He just never learned to read, not much, really. He quit school in the fourth grade to help on his family’s farm, you see . . . .

I was stunned. This was the first time I’d known of anyone who couldn’t read.

It hurt my heart for him.

But I later learned that he could read intricate blueprints and build to those precise measurements. That’s what he did at the shipyard all those years.

It’s something I can’t do.

 the ability to identify, understand, interpret

using visual

materials across disciplines

and in any context

My grandfather was always a farmer first; he read the days, the seasons, the weather.

He read nature. When he and I came across strange worms gliding over his front sidewalk, he couldn’t identify them but instinctively knew to leave them alone. Decades later I researched them (land planarians) and learned that if he’d tried to crush or chop them up, every piece would have replicated and they would have destroyed the good earthworms that kept his garden so abundant and healthy.

Signs, symbols, meanings, he understood. Not in or from books, but from life. He possessed visual-spatial acuity. Keen intuition. He read the times in which he lived, comprehended that the way of life he and the generations before him had known was passing forever. He reached for better things. He worked hard. He collaborated with a lot of different people. The shipyard management eventually asked him to be a supervisor, and that’s where his courage ran out. It required regular paperwork. He declined the position.

My heart ached again, deeply, on learning that.

The ability to read, write, and communicate connects people to one another

and empowers them to achieve things

they never thought possible.

That belief is behind everything I do with teachers and students.

The greatest man I’ve ever known indirectly taught me, years ago, that reading and writing are the keys to opening doors of possibility and opportunity. He also taught me that literacy is so much more, long before this digital age.

We have to be able to read words and ascertain their meaning, but our survival depends on more. We must be able to read the times, read people, read what we see, what we are creating. And make sense of it. We must interpret. That’s the entire, inherent value of reading and writing in the first place.

We must communicate well with one another, recognizing that each of us possesses different strengths, all of which are valuable to helping each other. Communication is the keel on which all good relationships are built. We must speak, but we must listen more, absorb more, understand more.

Communication and connection are the basis of who we are

and how we live together

and interact with the world.

My grandfather survived—his family survived—because of his clarity of vision and sense of purpose.  He knew he lived through unique times. In his last years he preserved his life experiences for future generations not by penning a memoir but by recording his stories on a set of audiotapes. I don’t think he ever knew just how unique, how extraordinary, he was. In my mind I see him now—thick white hair, plaid shirt, gray pants with a black belt, black shoes, his big, wrinkled, work-worn hands folded in his lap, leaning back in his recliner listening to my grandmother reading. In addition to the nightly newspaper, she read the Bible through to him each year.

And so, on the eve of the New School Year, I contemplate my role in the scheme of things. I think of the constant adaptation of teachers to the times and the changing tides of literacy instruction; of students, each of whom has strengths and gifts that may not be obvious at first. I think of their futures and know that clarity of vision and a sense of purpose are vital to their learning and well-being. To all of our well-being. I think of my grandfather reading complex blueprints and going forth to build something previously unknown in a vastly changing world. I think about life literacy as well as literacy for life. How we live together and interact with the world.

For, in truth, we are building the world.

*******

Here’s the story of Granddaddy and me encountering those unknown worms long ago: First do no harm.

Happy St. Patrick’s

Happy St Pat's

Happy St. Patrick’s Day. Hailey E. HerreraCC BY

Last year on this day, I wrote about being St. Patrick’s granddaughter.

My grandfather, born in 1906 in the far reaches of Beaufort County, North Carolina, was named Columbus St. Patrick. (Read the post if you like).

You’d think our family would be Catholic, celebrating this day with the best of them, but we aren’t and we don’t. What a mystery, his having that name. Legend has it that his grandfather came to America from Ireland, but records are sketchy. One of these days I’ll have my DNA tested by Ancestry.com to prove how green my blood really is (it’s metaphorical, Mr. Spock. Although being related to you would be . . . fascinating).

I love Irish things. My wedding band bears a Claddagh. Hearing an Irish tenor takes my breath, stirs my soul, fills me with an ache, a longing. Whenever I visit New York City, I have to stop by St. Patrick’s Cathedral; I could stay inside indefinitely, savoring the profound beauty, the grandeur, the reverent hush. It’s one of my all-time favorite places. I adored Frank McCourt and met him years ago when he came to speak at North Carolina State University—it was snowing that night. Magical. I have a shamrock growing in a pot on my kitchen table and I even had an Irish Setter once. His name was Dublin. I grew up eating Irish potatoes grown by my grandfather or from the potato sheds of his farming community; Granddaddy’s pronunciation was ishe (for years I thought he was saying ice) potatoes. I’d love to visit Ireland.

I thought, to commemorate this day, that I’d post a lovely quote from St. Patrick and reflect upon it, maybe in verse.

This, however, is the quote I found, and for the life of me (remember the Irish keen sense of humor), I can’t find another one to top it at present.

So, Happy St. Patrick’s Day, one and all—with a special nod to Harry Potter fans:

Do you suppose it’s true, that St. Patrick was a Parselmouth, and his Muggle friends never knew?

~David J. Beard (1947–2016), tweet, 2012 March 17th

saintpatrick

 

Red rubber boots

red-rubber-boots

It is Sunday, the day my Granddaddy is off from work at the shipyard. It is the day we usually walk to the playgrounds behind the churches across the busy city street, my small hand clasped in his large one, as we wait for the traffic light to change. Today it is raining and we can’t go out. I sit by his recliner on the braided rug beside his feet – he wears black lace-up shoes every day – and sigh.

“What’s the matter, Duck?” he wants to know. Sometimes he calls me Duck, sometimes he calls me Pig. I do not know why. He just does.  It makes me feel warm inside.

“Granddaddy, the girls in kindergarten have red boots to wear when it rains. I don’t have boots.”

“Oh, I see. I guess you been wanting some of those boots?”

I nod my head and crawl up into his lap. “Yes, Granddaddy. For a long time.” His black leather cap is on the side table by the recliner. I pick it up and put it on my head. It smells like him. A little Vitalis and a lot of goodness.

He wraps his arms around me. “Tell me about these boots, what they look like.”

“You can pull them over your shoes … ” I begin.

He got them for me, of course, those red rubber boots that I proudly wore to school and stored on the bottom shelf in the cloakroom, beside the boots of the other girls.

At the time he got them, I did not know that his retirement was imminent, that within the year he’d move back home to the far reaches of eastern North Carolina, three hours away. I would only see him a couple of times a year from then on.

I grew up. I had children of my own. When I went to visit Granddaddy, I sat on the stool by his recliner, as close to him as I could get. He patted my arm. We sat this way for a long time, without any conversation, just being together.

“You remember them red rubber boots I got for you?” he asked eventually. His blue eyes twinkled at me. Every now and then, across the decades, he’d mention those boots.

“Oh, yes, Granddaddy. I remember. I loved them so much.”

He chuckled, patting my arm with his large, wrinkled hand.

He was retired for thirty years, living to be almost 93.

I had nearly forgotten the red rubber boots when I happened to see a pair at the store a year or so ago. They were so like the boots he gave me when I was five.

“Ah, Granddaddy,” I whispered. “You’re never far away.”

I bought them.

They protect me from the rain; they keep me grounded, connecting me to the earth that my grandfather loved, for he was a lifelong farmer even though he had to find better-paying work to provide for his family. The color brightens the gloomiest day. I wear my boots with deepest gratitude for a humble man who knew about sacrifices, great and little, fiercely proud that his blood flows in my veins.

I remember, Granddaddy. I always will.

slice-of-life_individual