Eternal summer: memoir poem

with thanks to Jennifer Guyor Jowett for the Open Write invitation on Ethical ELA today: “Share your summertimes with us, whether it’s within the memories of your childhood or the place you are in right now. Take us there. Include sensory details to evoke the spirit of your summer.”

I have written lot about my childhood summers. Today I try a bit of reframing and recapturing the magic…

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Eternal Summer Reigns

Daughter of Eve from the far land of Spare Oom where eternal summer reigns around the bright city of War Drobe, how would it be if you came and had tea with me?

—Mr. Tumnus to Lucy, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe

I live it every day of my life, summer.

By some great magic I am still a child
returning to my grandparents’ house
so deep in the country some people say
it’s at the end of the Earth

for me, ever the beginning

a place of woods, holding their secrets close
a place of enchantment, outside of Time
a place of belonging, of sacrifice

where ghosts of the past live again
in Grandma’s stories

there’s her Papa, tending bees
never getting stung
her Mama, picking cotton
and dipping snuff

her brothers and sisters
(eight in all)
playing softball
or piling in the goat-cart
to be pulled by a white mule
named Jenny

there’s my grandfather and his brother
courting my grandmother and her sister
gathering at friends’ houses
singing and make taffy

my father, being born
in a tenant farmer’s house
—Cotton-Top, they call him,
for the color of his hair
when he is a toddler

babies born into the family
some stillborn
(Daddy’s voice…Would have been
so interesting to see
what my double first cousins
would have looked like
if they’d lived)

—I live them every day,
the stories.

I am the stories.

Every day I am a child
unpacking my suitcase
for the summer
welcoming the ghosts
walking the old dirt road
eventually covered with gravel
from phosphate mining rejects

bits of ancient history
crunch beneath my feet:
shark’s teeth, some tiny and sharp,
some as big as my small palm;
coral skeleton, white chunks
embossed with lacy flower designs;
whale eardrums, curiously curved fossils
—with these, whales heard
their own stories, too
now, they are 
part of mine

and above all, above all
from the surrounding woods, bending near
keeping their secrets close
the crescendo and decrescendo
of cicadas

the true song of summer
and the sun
and living
and dying

and returning.

By some great magic I am still a child
still listening, still living summer every day
and forever
in that sound.

My grandmother in the summer of 1959, years before my birth. This is the setting of my idyllic childhood summers to come, beginning a decade and a half later. I would stay for a couple of weeks each year and never wanted to leave. Grandma fostered my love of reading, writing, and story. She drove me to the tiny county library at the beginning of my summer visits and helped me haul out the armloads of books I selected. She saved magazines, Mini Pages, and National Enquirers all year long for me.

We walked the old cemetery in the clearing diagonally across from where she sits in this photo and the graveyard of the church around the bend, where her parents are buried. As we read the stones, the blazing sun casting our shadows across them, Grandma told me the stories.

The fossils in the gravel of the poem were real. I found handfuls of them in the road here when I was a child.

Cicadas are an ancient symbol of immortality and resurrection. I write of them often because of their connection to this place. Their loud, rattling chorus was ever-present in the background of my childhood summers; the sound remains one of the most comforting on Earth to me. It’s a call of the sun, love, belonging, and home. There’s a myth about the goddess of the dawn, Aurora, asking Jupiter to grant immortality to her lover, which he did, only the goddess forgot to ask Jupiter to also grant her man eternal youth. Her beloved continued aging until Aurora finally turned him into a cicada. If you look closely at depictions of Aurora, you will see the cicada. Why tell this story here? This morning, before the dawn, before the cicadas woke to sing, I saw Jupiter shining high beside the moon. Then I sat down to write to this prompt of summer celebration, reliving halcyon childhood moments with my grandparents at their home, a place where my generational roots run deep in the earth, where my father grew up…an old, far place in the east, named Aurora.

For me, ever the beginning. Eternal summer reigns.

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thanks also to Two Writing Teachers for providing a place to share our stories – for we ARE our stories

An ancient alchemy

One day at dismissal while I was monitoring the hallway, i.e., preventing a stampede, a fifth-grade girl approached me:

Mrs. Haley, I have been working on a story. I was wondering if you could give me some tips?

Of course! Is this an assignment for class?

No, it’s something I’ve been thinking about for a while…

Even better. Have you written any of this story yet?

Yes, a little, but I’m stuck. C. told me how you helped him last year and he said youre the one to ask…

And so it was arranged that the student would come to meet me in the morning, story in hand.

She brought a friend. Another fifth-grade girl.

I began to sense that this was either a business conference or a council of wizards… maybe both.

The student read her story (a fantasy) and explained that she needed help with where to go next.

We discussed the strengths of her introduction and how to create a hook. The friend’s eyes glistened.

I asked several questions about the characters and their problem-solving adventure (i.e., plot). The story-writer answered aloud, expanding her own thinking. When I made a suggestion or two, both girls’ faces took on an otherworldly light.

Most of all, my young apprentices (I really didn’t say ‘my young apprentices’ — I only thought it as I spoke), if you’re going to have magic in this story, you have to stick to the rules you put in place or you’ll lose your readers. Does that make sense?

Oh yes, said the friend, nodding sagely. It still has to be believable.

And off they went, leaving me marveling in their wake about codes and spells and the power of one’s own mind to imagine the unimaginable, of idea-dust drifting through the atmosphere to settle upon whomever it chooses for bringing forth the story that wants to be told.

For, in a time and place when writing workshop is out of vogue and crafting responses to texts is essentially all the writing the present educational Powers That Be can imagine, what could be more magical than a child desiring to write a story for the sheer pleasure of it?

Nothing, I think. Nothing. It’s an ancient alchemy.

Go forth, young crafters.

Your stories await.

So do I.

So do we all.

John Steinbeck on Storytelling. Jill Clardy. CC BY-SA 2.0

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Special thanks to Two Writing Teachers for the weekly Slice of Life Story Challenge…supporting student writers starts with supporting teacher writers.

Story love

My family loves to tell stories.

Mostly on each other.

At every gathering, my husband and our two sons continually try to one-up each other with their own versions of stories, all of which are calculated for maximum comic effect followed by boisterous laughter.

My granddaughter Scout, age six, is used to this now. She smiles, shakes her head, sometimes smacks her forehead with her palm, and sighs: “C’mon, Franna, let’s play.” She doesn’t have to ask me twice…

Micah, five months old as of today, is just beginning to take notice of conversations by shifting her gaze from speaker to speaker. She’s probably wondering the baby version of These are my people??

It so happened at a recent family gathering that as I was telling a funny story about Grandpa, I noticed little Micah, sitting with her dad on the couch, watching me with rapt attention.

I paused. “Goodness,” I said, “look how Micah is listening!”

“Oh yes,” said my daughter-in-law, “she loves a story.”

I had a sense, then, of something meaningful in the making. Something of great significance. Something being recorded deep in Micah’s baby brain, before she even has words for it, long before images and moments become archivable memories. She may not understand quite yet that I am Franna, her grandmother; she hasn’t yet learned words and attached meanings; but she could tell by the cadence of my voice that I was communicating something. She watched me intently, absorbing it.

It made me mindful.

It also reminded me of her dad’s little brother, who, before birth, stopped moving around whenever the piano was played at church. He’d kick back up afterward. He’s listening to the music, I told his dad at the time.

And he was. He’s our musician-mortician son. He’s loved music all of his life and can play anything he wants on the piano and guitar. Without sheet music. The patterns and chords are all in his brain.

Which brings me back to his baby niece, who bears a strong resemblance to him in many ways, especially in this serious manner of absorbing of things.

Micah loves music, too; we’ll see how that plays out…

What I know for certain is that, at five months, she loves story before she knows what story is.

I predict she’ll be the greatest storyteller of us all.

Micah with her preacher dad, my oldest son, while he works

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