with thanks to Katie at #verselove on Ethical ELA yesterday. She inspired poets to look around the room for an object of great personal significance, followed by a brainstorming process for finding the object’s own voice and characteristics: “Now that you have stilled this object in order to distill it in a piece of art, it’s time to bring it to life. Listen to it, and once you are ready, consider: If it were a character…and say something back.”
when the harmonies rang and people sang songs by shape note
now more of a reliquary
with touch-memory of her hands on your beloved keys
they don’t forget
somewhere in that high-backed mahogany cracked prized-possession frame
amid your hammers and strings and octavian dreams
surely you must hold her dust alongside mine skin cells of the child I was
relics of bygone days side by side just as we used to be on your bench, of a summer night in pale lamplight
singing of the sweet by and by when we shall meet on that beautiful shore
in the meantime despite your need for tuning and your wonky key
her great-grandson stirs the slumbering chords again the dust the strings the house the blood in our veins pounding out the glory of the old, old story
blood does not forget
she’d be overjoyed with my boy
as you must surely be
as you whisper to me
in high-backed mahogany cracked corners where silence aches
The piano dates to pre-WWII days, possibly the 1920s. My grandfather bought it secondhand for my grandmother. I spent many hours beside her on the bench as she played and sang alto to my soprano. In her last years she moved in with my aunt and finally the nursing home. She gave the piano to me: “It’s my most-prized possession, you know.” I never learned how to play but my my youngest son grew up loving old gospel songs. He’s a magnificent pianist who graduated from college with a music ministry degree; not a day passes that I don’t think of how elated she’d beto know this.
Next-to-the last day of March. Early morning. Still dark. Chilly.
I sit at my laptop, sipping coffee, catching up on my Slice of Life blog comments. The neighborhood rooster across the street crows for all he’s worth.
My husband comes into the kitchen: “Is she up yet?” he whispers.
He means our granddaughter. She spent the night. We stayed up way late watching Frozen II (again). We watched her dancing to the ending credits soundtrack, performing her own astoundingly artistic interpretation, cheeks pink, blue eyes glowing…followed by punchy laughter before the crashing.
“Not yet,” I whisper back. He retreats to his study to work on sermons.
Shortly, though, she here she comes, a gift of the dawn, Aurora’s child, barefoot in a blue flannel gown, cloaked in long, disheveled hair, ethereal smile of joy illuminating the semi-dark kitchen. Favorite lines of a Billy Collins poem come to life:
But tomorrow dawn will come the way I picture her,
barefoot and disheveled, standing outside my window in one of the fragile cotton dresses of the poor. She will look in at me with her thin arms extended, offering a handful of birdsong and a small cup of light.
My radiant dawn-child climbs into my lap. I let her read my post about Dennis the dachshund and his toy moose. At five, she reads with exactly the right inflection in exactly the right places, decoding beyootiful without batting an eye.
“That rascally Dennis!” She laughs aloud.
My husband returns, his own face alight at sight of her. “There she is!” he exclaims. “I’ve been waiting for you, Sugar Magnolia.”
He sings the opening line of the Grateful Dead song:
Sugar Magnolia blossom’s blooming…
Just so happens that our granddaughter’s middle name is Magnolia. A nod to her Louisiana heritage. A native tree here in North Carolina, too.
I think how, less than two years ago, my husband wasdead, until EMS and CPR brought him back. I think of all he’d have missed…
What matters is that we’re here together now, today, in this moment. The Grateful Alive.
Sugar Magnolia, in one of Grandpa’s hats
When we are dressed for the day, she asks: “Can I pick out your earrings? And your necklace?”
She picks the magnolia. She and my son gave it to me for my birthday last year.
She hands me the necklace, watches me clasp it, smiles with satisfaction.
She will look in at me with her thin arms extended, offering a handful of birdsong and a small cup of light…
Just beyond the bedroom door, from the windows in the foyer, birdsong.
I waited for them all of March, in vain. Then, here at the very end, within the space of these last twenty-four hours, a nearly-complete nest rests on my front door wreath. More on this tomorrow, when I write with the Spiritual Journey gathering on the first Thursday in April…for now all that needs to be said is that the finches always come to my door, every year except this last one. They vanished without warning, without a trace, during COVID-19. Now they’re back, making their home in the wreath.
The magnolia wreath.
Front door wreath and nest-in-progress
Magnolias, magnolias, everywhere…
They are tougher than they look. The oldest flowering plants on Earth. A symbol of love, longevity, perseverance, endurance.
It’s that word that captures me: Endurance.
It is the end of March.
We’ve endured the COVID pandemic for a whole year.
We’ve endured the reinvention of life as we knew it, school as we knew it, teaching as we knew it.
My family has endured distance, isolation, individual private battles…and we all get our second round of vaccinations over these next two days.
My husband has endured. He is alive.
My granddaughter has endured. She is the light of our days.
The finches have endured. They have returned to resume nesting.
This is my last post for the Slice of Life Story Challenge; for thirty-one consecutive days, I’ve endured. My writing has endured.
I wrote a lot of memoir in the Challenge, for memories endure. I wrote of a walled garden and roots and the need to get out of the comfort zone; I did that with some of my writing. I think now of my magnolia metaphor and look back at its deep roots in my childhood. Southern heritage. My grandmothers, steel magnolias (although they wouldn’t have thought it of themselves). Women who endured wars, deprivation, unspeakable losses. The stand over the landscape of my life like the old magnolia trees near their homes, their churches. They were the encompassing, protective shadows against the burning sun and sweltering heat, the solid coolness of the earth under my feet, where lie the curious, fuzzy seedpods of my existence, my remembering, my gratitude, my faith. From these branches waft the eternal fragrance of sacrificial love and forgiveness; nothing on God’s Earth smells as sweet.
One final curious image—it persists, so I have to figure out if and how it will fit here: When I was very small, I spent a lot of time with Grandma, Daddy’s mother. She and Granddaddy lived nearby in city apartments until he retired and they moved back home to the country when I was six. In this scene, I am around four, I think:
I am waiting in the hall for Grandma. She’s turning the lights out; we are getting ready to go. She calls my name from another room. I call back: “I am here.” My voice keeps bouncing, off the walls, off the stairs going down, down, down, into the darkness; we have to go through it before we can get to the door and the sidewalks and the sunlight outside.
“Grandma!” I cry. More bouncing voice, hollow, strange.
She’s there in an instant. “What’s the matter?”
“What is that sound?”
“Oh, honey, that’s just your echo.”
She calls out, “Hello”…her voice bounces, just like mine.
“Echoooo…” I call. Echooo-ooo-ooo, says the shadow of my voice, rolling down the stairwell.
And I am no longer scared, because now I know.
What does this have to do with magnolias?
Only that we are on our way to the park, where she would offer me bread to feed the ducks, which would come to eat from my hands, from my little extended arms…and where the magnolias still grow in abundance. The memory is a cup of light I carry with me, just as the echo of her voice remains, just as I find myself echoing her, for we are always echoes of the ones we love most. As blood circulates in our veins, so do remembered light and beloved voices, long past shadows and silence. These are things that endure.
Grandma’s homeplace was named for the dawn, by the way. She’s literally Aurora’s child.
But tomorrow dawn will come the way I picture her…
“Stand right there, honey. Let me get your picture by that tree,” I tell my granddaughter, on our first trip to the park.
It’s a different park. A different tree.
But still, and always, a magnolia.
Our Sugar Magnolia, by “her” tree.
With abiding gratitude to the community at Two Writing Teachers during the annual Slice of Life Story Challenge, which concludes today. It was a joy to write alongside you every day in the month of March. Thank you for every cup of light you offered; I will savor the echo of your voicesfor many days to come.
Warning: I am sorry for what you are about to read. I was sorry I lived it, at the time.
When my grandparents moved “back home” to the rural countryside after Granddaddy’s retirement, they began converting a bedroom to a bathroom in the house where they raised three children in the 1940s and 50s. I was around six when this particular event occurred. I couldn’t imagine a house without a bathroom (or a phone, but that comes later). My dad told stories of growing up without a bathroom: everyone took turns bathing in a tub by the heater in the living room, behind a blanket hung from a string. So, up to this point, there was an outhouse in use; I have no memory of that, but…
The perfectly beautiful, modern bathroom was soon finished at my grandparents’ home, although they occasionally referred to the toilet as “the pot” throughout the remainder of their years. I can’t recall seeing the chamber pot ever again. Thank heaven.
The annual Slice of Life Story Challenge with Two Writing Teachers is underway, meaning that I am posting every day in the month of March. This marks my fifth consecutive year and I’m experimenting with an abecedarian approach: On Day 16, I am writing around a word beginning with letter p, which could really have gone in a number of directions here…
Special thanks to Kim Johnson for the invitation to write a vivid childhood memory this week on Ethical ELA, inspiring this poem.
For Grandma and Grannie. With all my gratitude and love, always.
They stood beside each other at the hospital’s nursery window on the evening I was born. For one I was the first grandchild. For the other I was the first granddaughter, following five boys. The other stepped back so the one could see me better.
I inherited the middle name of one. I inherited the brown eyes of the other.
One had the name of a red jewel. Ruby. The other had the name of a white flower. Lillie.
One was born the day after Christmas, in the year of the Lusitania sinking. The other was born at Eastertime, in the deadly third wave of Spanish flu.
While a young teen, one lost her father to suicide. While a young teen, the other assisted her midwife mother in delivering babies.
One graduated from high school at sixteen. The other didn’t finish school, but completed home health certification when I was a child. I attended her pinning ceremony.
One was married at twenty. She had three babies in three Octobers across nine years. The other was married at fifteen. She had six babies by the time she was twenty-two.
One outlived two children. The other outlived four.
One’s marriage lasted sixty-two years. The other had three marriages. Although she didn’t believe in divorce, she divorced a violent man. She was widowed twice.
One held me on her lap and read to me. The other let me open all the bottles in her spice rack to inhale the fragrances.
One held me in her arms when I was a baby laboring for breath—rocking, singing, weeping, until my asthma subsided. The other brought 7-Up when I was a schoolchild home sick with stomach flu, vomiting all day.
One learned how to drive under the instruction of her twelve-year-old son (my father). The other learned how to drive in her fifties, as did her daughter (my mother).
One wrote me letters and kept diaries. The other took me shopping when I needed shoes.
One played the piano. I sat beside her, harmonizing on all the old hymns in musty, well-worn books. The other carried only Aigner purses. She bought my first one, as well as my first birthstone ring.
One gave me her prized antique locket. The other gave me her mesmerizing floating opal.
One shielded her fair skin with a straw hat and long sleeves all summer. The other’s olive skin just browned more in the sun.
One lived deep in the country, in a little white house that will forever seem to me a corner of Heaven. The other lived in town, in a big house of mysterious angles and shadows, once nearly destroyed in a fire. Both houses are gone, now.
One could make any flowering thing thrive. In the garden, the orchard, the African violets in her window. So could the other. She resuscitated more than one of my houseplants.
One made the best collards I ever tasted, although the smell while cooking would knock you down. The other made a glorious rum cake for holidays, although that first whiff upon removing the Tupperware lid would knock you down. Both made killer potato salad.
One sent me money to buy an Easter dress every year until I was in my thirties. The other randomly surprised me with things like satin boxes of Valentine chocolates and by coming to my school plays.
One went faithfully to church. So did the other.
One told me I was a good mother and that she was so proud of me. So did the other.
One battled dementia for a short while. The other had open-heart surgery and battled diabetes and dialysis for years.
One died three days shy of her ninety-first birthday, in a nursing home. The other died at eighty-one, in a hospital.
They sat beside each other one summer afternoon long ago, at my wedding. They taught me everything about sacrifice and survival. They walk with me for as long as I live.
Fashioned and faceted, I am who I am because of one and the other.
My grandmothers, Ruby and Lillie, at my wedding.
The annual Slice of Life Story Challenge with Two Writing Teachers is underway, meaning that I am posting every day in the month of March. This marks my fifth consecutive year and I’m experimenting with an abecedarian approach: On Day 7, I am writing around a word beginning with letter g. “Grandmothers” came immediately to mind.
A few days ago, I happened upon this captivating tweet:
I am well on the way to becoming a tree myself. I put down roots. I sigh when the wind blows. My sap rises in the spring and I turn towards the sun. Which tree would I be? Definitely a walnut tree.
-Roger Deakin, journal entry for April, quoted by writer Robert Macfarlane, Twitter, 04/04/2018
Macfarlane then asks: “Which tree would you be and why?”
That was my immediate thought.
After all, one of my favorite scents is Fraser fir (the predominant Christmas tree in North Carolina). I vacuum the stubby needles at holiday’s end and try not to empty the canister for as long as possible, because the fir fragrance fills the air with every subsequent use. The trees of my childhood are dogwood, pine, live oak, magnolia, sweet gum. I have early memories of sun-dappled sidewalks covered with “helicopters”—one-winged seeds, or samaras—that spiral down from maple branches. I tossed the helicopters again and again, as high as I could, to watch them swirl like propellers. Crape myrtles lined my grandparent’s yard; I climbed their smooth trunks, sat in the crooks of their branches, countless times.
Why does cypress come to mind first, then?
Poets and writers, you know when an image appears so vividly that it holds some significance begging to be explored . . . .
For starters, my image is of Taxodium distichum, more commonly known as a bald cypress, or, my preferred name, a southern-cypress tree.
It’s rooted in the swamps of the southern United States, where my roots are. A tree at home in water, in rivers. I grew up in a place called Tidewater, entered the world in a hospital named for its proximity to water: Riverside.
My first recollection of the word cypress was my grandparents’ reference to a place on beyond where they lived, where the little dirt road curved past canals and thick woods that had grown to obscure stately houses: up Cypress Swamp, they’d say. Grandma’s best friend from first grade, who grew up to marry Grandma’s brother, was from Cypress Swamp. As a child, standing on the dirt road, looking through the treetops, if the sun was right, I could glimpse a bit of one old, abandoned house—a roof of cypress shingles.
The word sounded poetic to me even then: cypress. Like a whisper. Like something inviting. Maybe magical.
Although, through the ages, a cypress was usually associated with funerals and mourning. My affinity for the tree is clearly fused to my eastern North Carolina heritage, a reminder of the generations that have gone before me. My family tree, so to speak. It is ancient. Maybe nothing encapsulates that so well as this passage from Our State magazine, in which the author chronicles his boat journey on a river through a cypress forest:
Many of the trees here must have witnessed those long-vanished species. They would have nodded over Native Americans in dugout canoes. They would already have been tall when the Lost Colony was lost, when the Mayflower sailed, when Attila the Hun was on the move. A few might have stood when Christ was born.
-T. Edward Nickens, “In Search of Methuselah,” Our State, June 8, 2016.
They live for so long, cypress trees, due to their ability to withstand storms; they thrive despite adverse growing conditions. Cypress wood is hard, strong, water-resistant—hence those shingles on the old country houses still standing as a forest grows up around them. Those hand-hewn shingles sheltered the life therein. Like Noah’s ark, made of gopher wood from an unknown tree that some researchers speculate to be . . . cypress.
I cannot say the adversity, the storms, in my own life are any greater or worse than those weathered by other people I’ve known. I can only say that I’m still here. I view the cypress not as a funeral tree but one that preserves, celebrates, and affirms life; that, ultimately, is the whole reason why I write, why this blog exists at all.
On a fanciful note: Earlier I mentioned the word cypress sounding magical. When I was a child I loved the Chronicles of Narnia. I still do. In these books, C.S. Lewis borrowed from Greek mythology to depict dryads and hamadryads, the spirits of trees that took the form of young girls with their particular tree’s physical characteristics: a birch-girl dressed in silver, another with hair like long, willowy branches. Does a cypress call to me, then, because I am tall (5’8″ in bare feet)? That’s taller than the average American woman (5’4″) but not dramatically so. There must be something more, then, as to why the cypress chooses me, something unique to the tree and to me, other than our having southern roots in watery regions.
In cypress forests, knobby projections stick up from the water. Theory has it that those “knees” help the tree breathe, enabling it to take in more oxygen. I don’t know how much truth lies in that theory, but I can tell you this: For my entire childhood I suffered from asthma and the only way I could sleep at night, the only way to breathe, was by curling up in a ball with my knees drawn up under me.
So, yes, my knees helped me breathe.
In the old places
where the water stands still
they live on
holding all their stories
With every breath
drawn on their knees
—if I were a tree
“When we are present in each moment, the past gently rolls up behind us and future slowly unravels before us.” echoroo. CC-BY
The boy has always known exactly what he likes and doesn’t like, what he wants and doesn’t want. There are no proverbial shades of gray with him. He loves dogs. He loves music, especially old gospel songs. I joke that he was born seventy-five years old and he has never disagreed. When he fell in love with Cadillacs at age six, it was forever.
He began collecting Cadillac memorabilia, knew all the latest models and years. He knew the old ones, too.
“Ma-Ma and Pa-Pa say the Cadillac goes to me when they’re gone,” he said, his big brown eyes aglow, around age ten.
The de Ville was, at that point, twenty years old.
“I’m glad they want you to have it,” I tell him, even as I think Buddy, by that time the old car won’t be worth having . . .
Pa-Pa, a jolly, larger-than-life Scotsman, took meticulous care of his Cadillac, but after his death in 2014, it just sat in the driveway. Undriven. The seasons came with their ravages, year after year: summer’s blazing sun, autumn leaves gathering layer upon layer, winter’s snow and ice, spring’s thick coating of pollen.
Ma-Ma died last fall. We began cleaning out the house, my husband’s childhood home.
Our boy said, “It’s time to get the Cadillac.”
My husband and I looked at each other.
We looked at the de Ville.
It looked forlorn, awful.
But, to honor Ma-Ma and Pa-Pa’s promise to their little grandson long ago, we decided to see what could be done.
We had the car towed to the place where Pa-Pa bought it almost thirty years before. With a new battery, it fired right up, despite four years of sitting completely idle. It got new brakes, new fluids, new tires, and a much-needed bath.
The service rep called my husband: “You’re not going to believe it’s the same car. Everyone here thinks it ought to be in the showroom.”
We were skeptical . . . but the rep was right.
The boy—now a man—drove his father and me to the dealership to get the Cadillac, to bring it home.
It sat in the service area, waiting, gleaming, as if age and time had no meaning.
Touching the hood lightly with his fingers, our son whispered, “I wish Pa-Pa could see it.”
He took the wheel. His dad rode shotgun beside him.
I followed behind, marveling, as my son, at last, drove his shiny blue Cadillac down the country back roads into the setting sun.
Somewhere over the rainbow
skies are blue
and the dreams that you dare to dream
really do come true.
I note that when Judy Garland sings this line in The Wizard of Oz, she’s leaning on a big wheel.
On the de Ville’s front grille is a medallion with the Roman numeral VI. Our son learned that this is a Heritage of Ownership emblem given to Cadillac owners for each vehicle.
“In this place, time is not measured by weeks, or months, or years, but by deep human experiences . . . .” -Woodrow Wilson, 1915
By Christmas, she’s too weak to get out of bed. She listens to him singing carols with the children in the front room by the fire, his resonant bass filling the house. If the pain would stop, she thinks, I might could play a song or two for them . . .
The piano stands silent as she drifts in and out on the sound of his voice.
He peers in at her. How strangely frail she is, birdlike, lying there with her black hair spread like wings over the pillows, skin as white as the sheets, dark circles around her eyes. Until the lost baby in September—poor, stillborn thing—she’d been tireless, out in the cotton from dawn to dusk, all the while keeping an eye on their three children at the edge of the fields.
Her strength hasn’t returned, but she’s alive. He is grateful, for he walked the valley of that shadow once before, fourteen years ago. Just down the dirt road, over the canal footbridge, under a stone on the land his father gave for the building of the church, lies his first wife. Nineteen years old, buried in her wedding dress, holding the infant who never had a name to inscribe on the stone:
a place made vacant
in our home can
never more be filled.
A place now filled by a woman who’d been twelve at the time of her predecessor’s passing.
She opens her eyes. Huge, black eyes that look straight through him, making him shiver.
“Francis. Go get Mama. Please.”
Turning back to the front room, he kneels with the children—ages six, four, and two—and gathers them in his arms. “Listen to Papa. I’m fetching your Grandmama. Stay close by Mama, hear?”
The older girl and boy nod. The two-year-old squirms against him. He hands her to her big sister. “Mind her. Keep away from the fire. I’ll be right back.”
The six-year-old regards him with solemn eyes, big and dark, so like her mother’s. “Yes, Papa.” She grips the little one’s hand, tight.
He grabs his coat and cap. The children watch him through the frosty window, hearing the echo of his boots running over crunchy patches of snow.
They file into the bedroom where she lies with her face turned toward the other window and the winter white world beyond.
She moans as the pain in her middle cuts like a knife and the whiteness deepens to gray. I am turning inside out. If I didn’t know better, I would think . . .
Then the darkness swallows everything.
Day blends with night, it all runs together, until a cry shoots through him. He bursts into the bedroom, blue eyes wide with shock.
There, in the quivering circle of red-gold light cast by the kerosene lamp, stands his mother-in-law, her face shining with perspiration. Before he can take it in, she crosses the creaking floorboards to hand him a wriggling, wailing bundle.
How can this be? How can this be? pounds his heart. The baby was stillborn nearly three months ago!
His wife, smaller, paler than ever, watches from the bed, black eyes glittering in the lamplight. “Merry Christmas, Papa, one day late,” she grins. “It’s another girl.”
Who is very much alive, crying for all she is worth, here in his arms.
His instincts kick in. He jiggles the infant and begins to sing, softly, tears spilling down his cheeks.
The newborn and her mother both drift away on the sound of his voice: “Sleep in heavenly peace, sleep in heavenly peace.”
“So, you see,” says Grandma, “I was a twin.”
“How can that happen? Having a stillborn twin but not the other for almost three more months?” I’m hanging on her every word as she makes up her four-poster bed. Through the window of her room, with its tongue-and-groove walls painted a cheery pastel pink, I can see her homeplace just on the other side of Granddaddy’s garden. The tin roof gleams bright silver in the morning sun. For a second, I see it in the icy December of 1915 . . .
She shrugs. “It’s rare, but it happens sometimes, even with animals.”
“But how did she not realize she was still expecting for that long? She’d already had three children, not counting the one she lost!” My great-grandmother went on, in fact, to have a total of eight children, all of whom I know. Not counting the lost one, of course. Grandma’s twin.
Grandma shakes her head. “There’s no telling. Women didn’t go to doctors like they do now. When she lost that baby, it came early. She just didn’t expect there to be a twin remaining, I guess. Women lost babies all the time. My sister had stillborn twin girls. I was there and saw them. They looked like tiny dolls, not quite finished . . . ”
She says this with a matter-of-factness that I cannot comprehend.
“It’s so mysterious, that you were still born after all,” I say after a bit, following her to the kitchen, where she ties on her apron.
“Oh yes,” she says, flouring the spot and croaker that Granddaddy caught in the creek. “Life is full of mysteries, that’s for sure.”
“You’re kind of a Christmas miracle, then, aren’t you?”
Grandma chuckles, placing the fish in the frying pan where they sizzle and pop, sending up a fragrance that makes my stomach growl.
“Just one day late,” she smiles.
She goes about her work as usual, while I drift away on the sea of her stories, filling in the minor details that have been obscured by time, envisioning these great-grandparents who died before I was born, sensing the tenor of their daily lives, yearning to know more. I halfway expect, as I go out on the back steps to gaze at the empty homeplace, that I might see them in one of the translucent windows, waving to me in recognition.
I have to stop myself from waving back, in case anybody else happens to be watching.