Summertime poem

with thanks to Abigail, Betsy, and Soshi for the invitation to write on this topic for #verselove at Ethical ELA today (who’s not longing for summer right now?!).

Here’s why summer has such a special pull for me.

For Day Nineteen of National Poetry Month

Summer Second

Sunny afternoon
blue sky
bit of breeze
faint sound of a radio
from a neighbor’s yard
I can’t discern the song
it just sends me into 
reverie
for a second
conjuring
hot sand
under my bare feet
Coppertone in my nose
salt on my tongue
If everybody had an ocean
across the USA
then everybody’d be surfin’
like Californ-i-ay…

snatches of conversation
cresting and dipping
on the breeze
mighty waves of memory
crashing on the shore
my father’s big black sandals
flip-flopping to the old navy-blue Ford
the battered brown Samsonite
suitcase in his hand
the ride is so long
so long
the city gives way
to pastures, meadows
horses
fields
that go on and on, forever
plowed furrows running
like long crazy legs
to keep up 
with the Ford
as we zoom past
until at last
the lonesome highway
comes to a fork
on the left,
the tiny church
where my ancestors
sleep under stones
we veer to the right
turning 
onto the dirt road
my heart beats faster
Daddy drives slower
stirring clouds of dust
and I am already
grabbing the door handle
as Granddaddy’s lush garden 
comes into view
with just a glimpse of 
Grandma’s white angel birdbath
circled by orange marigolds
through the laundry 
lazily flapping
on the clothesline
and there they are, 
walking across
the green, green grass
and I am out of the Ford
before it’s hardly stopped
and in their arms
in the blinding sun
as the forest stands tall
all around
with its cool
dark mysteries
where the rattling cicadas
crescendo
vibrating on and on and on
through my soul
I can’t discern the song
it just carries me
through eternity
in this one
bright second

Snowball

Is there a childhood toy that stands out in your memory? For me, that’s Snowball.

He’s one of my first experiences with loss.

*******

Kindergarten. Show-and-Tell. It is my favorite part of the day and today I am especially excited: I’ve brought Snowball, my toy dog. He sleeps with me every night, he eats with me, he does everything with me except take a bath, because Mama says that will ruin him.

This is Snowball, I tell my friends, sitting in a circle on the rug for Show-and-Tell.

I hold him up.

Oooooos and aaaahhhhs, because Snowball is so beautiful. His yellow ears and tail are made of ‘real’ fur. One ear has a little bit of ketchup on it from falling into my plate while I was eating fries. His stuffed body is woolly white, which is why I’ve named him Snowball.

I tell my friends: I saw him on a shelf at the store and Grandma bought him.

They all want to hold him and stroke his silky ears.

When recess comes, I decide to take Snowball out to the playground.

We have a really tall sliding board on our playground. It’s red and silver, not so shiny.

We take turns. I hand Snowball to a friend and climb, climb, climb to the top of the slide. Whoosh! It’s almost too fast, but SO fun. I make sure to hold my feet high for sailing over the mud puddle at the bottom, that worn-out place made by many, many feet landing there.

An idea: Snowball should have a turn.

Hey, Snowball wants to slide! I say.

My friends hop up and down. Let him slide! Let him slide!

Susan E. is standing beside me. When I climb up and I let him go, you catch him for me, I tell her.

I will! says Susan E. She moves toward the bottom of the slide.

I walk around to the tall, tall ladder. You will LOVE this! I tell Snowball. I give him a squeeze.

I climb, climb, climb, hanging onto the rail with one hand, onto Snowball with the other.

At the landing, I call down to Susan E.:

Are you ready?

Yes! She leans over the puddle with her hands held out.

I’m gonna count to three and let him go!

Okay! Susan E. shouts up.

One

two

three…

here he comes!

I release him.

Snowball slides so fast, so much faster than me…bumpity-bump…

Susan! calls a friend from the sandbox.

Susan E. turns her head.

—Susan! I cry from the top of the slide.

But it’s too late.

NOOOOOO!

With a soft splash, Snowball lands in the mud puddle.

—SNOWBALL! I slide down like a crazy person, scrambling, clawing…

Susan E. stands there, frozen. Then I’m sorry! I’m sorry!

I lift Snowball out of the puddle. He’s soaked through. His woolly white body is gray-brown; dirty water drips from his beautiful silky ears. They’re flat against his head, silky no more.

Sobbing, I carry him back to the classroom. I wrap and wrap him in paper towels. I cry the whole walk home after school.

Mama, I think. Mama will fix him.

When I get home, I pull the wet paper towels off to show her Snowball’s mushy, muddy body.

Honey, I can’t fix him, she says. He is ruined.

ruined

ruined

ruined

—Can’t you just put him in the washer and dryer? I am crying so hard that I can hardly speak.

It is my fault.

my fault

my fault

She shakes her head. He’s not meant to be washed that way. He’d probably come apart.

She says we have to throw him away.

I beg, I cry, but Mama says there isn’t any choice. It has to be done.

I wrap Snowball back in the muddy paper towels. I hold him close one last time, shaking with terribleness. I am sorry, Snowball. I am so sorry. I will always love you.

I lay him in the trashcan.

I cry in my bed all night long. Snowball is not there, will never be there again, to comfort me.

*******

Is it childish that, five decades later, writing the memory, I still cry...

I once drew him for students during writing workshop, when they asked if I had a picture. Even the ketchup on his ear.

*******

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 19, I am writing around a word beginning with letter s.

Childhood loves: memoir poem

If there were a portal
from Now to Then
and I passed through
where would I find myself
what would I do

what would I see
of my childhood me

raggedy white blanket
satin trim pulling loose
rub rub rubbing
my silky string
between my fingers
and over my nose
as I suck my thumb

Pa-Pa pumping a spinning top
reds pinks blues swirling
like rainbow smoke
—it’s playing music! Like an organ
—what is that song what is that song

I can play Grandma’s organ
shiny pretty red-brown wood
with curved legs
she presses my fingers on the white keys
— 5653 5653
that is Silent Night
oh and I am supposed to be holding
the white C button down

I can drive my little red car
along the sidewalks
in front of the shops
by pumping pedals
while Granddaddy watches
from the bench

sometimes he calls me Duck or Pig

I do not know why

but it is good

Daddy’s buying a house
I do not like the way it smells
like old old coffee

except that a neighbor kid shows me
that there’s a door in the side
of the cement back steps
when we open it
an even older smell comes out
past dangling cobwebs
on strange cool air
—there’s a game under here, in a box
soft with forgottenness for so long
pictures of ghosts mildewing on the top

a roly-poly scurries away in the dust

there’s a lot of kids to play with
and we run
and run and run and run
around my new backyard

—oh no, Daddy’s going to be mad
we snapped his little tree
—here, help me hold these two parts together
while we pray for God to glue them back

it didn’t work

but it’s not so bad

except for the little tree

Mama’s friends bring their skinny black dog
named Thing
yeah I know Thing on The Addams Family
it’s just a hand in a box

Thing digs a hole in the backyard
my sister and I make it bigger
and bigger and bigger
it’s a giant crater
we pull out a giant smooth white rock
maybe a dinosaur’s egg

I smell the clay, orange, gray
feel its slickness between my fingers
while we dig to the other side of the world
China

Ding-dong, Avon calling
look at all these tiny white tubes of lipsticks
they smell so clean
—can you believe there’s perfume
in this bottle made like a tree
—see when you take off the green top
and push the bluebird’s tail
it sprays

Bird of paradise bird of paradise
my own made-up song
I sing it in the tub
while the white hunk of Ivory soap
floats in the cloudy water

At Grandma’s house in the summertime
I find a stack of old records
I put them on the record player
while I dig through a tall wicker basket
of dresses
fancy ones
the pink one is satin covered with tulle
but the blue one is my favorite
with the rows and rows of lace on the skirt
reaching almost to the floor
when I put it on

I’m a princess

singing

I’ll buy you a diamond ring, my friend
if it makes you feel all right
I’ll get you anything my friend
if it makes you feel all right
‘Cause I don’t care too
much for money
Money can’t buy me love

and when I am tired of that
and when the long day is done
I’ll sit by Grandma here in the floor
where she spreads the newspaper open
on the braided rug
I’ll read the funnies
or the The Mini Page
or maybe even Reader’s Digest

Granddaddy comes over
freshly-shaved, in his pajamas
for me to hug his neck
and give him a kiss
on his smooth Old Spice cheek

while outside in summer dusk
cicadas sing
and sing and sing, so loud
and never stop

now I lay me down to sleep
my childhood loves to always keep

Magic find on Etsy: Vintage Avon spray bottle with Her Prettiness Enchanted Cologne Mist.
Not so sure how enchanting the scent would be after all this time…
that this still exists, however, is surely evidence of one powerful spell.

*******

Thanks to Ruth Ayres on SOS: Magic in a Blog for the invitation to return to childhood loves, to linger there for a while, and to bring something back.

Thanks also to the Poetry Friday-ers and to Mary Lee for hosting this week’s Roundup.

Oh yeah and thanks to The Beatles for the song “Can’t Buy Me Love” — and all the others.

My Thanksgiving song

Thanksgiving Day, 1987.

My boyish husband and I have come to eat with my parents. There’s a lot on my mind as I carry dishes from the kitchen to the dining room table. My father’s voice drifts from the adjoining living room, mingling with the Macy’s parade-babble on TV. He’s conversing with my husband, who’s planning to enter the ministry. Beyond the old lace drapes of the picture window where I sat so often as a child, the November day is like a sepia print. Browns of dead grass and leaves, oyster sky, skeletal trees bathed in pale, unassuming sunlight.

Then…another voice.

Singing.

Coming from the television.

I turn to face it, spellbound. I cannot move. I stand stone-still, between portals, as everything else fades away…there’s only that voice. Almost too pure to bear. It wrenches something inside of me, twists and pierces so that tears spring to my eyes… a man singing “God on high, hear my prayer, in my need, you have always been there…”

He sings of protection for a young man in troubled times, afraid, resting nearby. Of summers dying, one by one. He is willing to die for the young man— “he is only a boy”— if God will let him live and “bring him home.”

I stand, tears flowing, aching to the core of my soul, not wanting it to stop, knowing that I am somehow irrevocably changed.

******

The singer was Colm Wilkinson, portraying Jean Valjean from the Broadway musical Les Misérables. The song “Bring Him Home” is a prayer for young Marius, who’s fallen in love with Valjean’s adopted daughter, Cosette. Valjean watches over the sleeping Marius at a barricade during the June Rebellion, or the 1830 Paris Uprising. Broad view: On top of harsh economic times, crop failures, and food shortages, a cholera epidemic killed over 100,000 across France. The poor, especially in the city of Paris, were devastated; they blamed the government and retaliated.

I learned much later that the song was especially written for Wilkinson’s tenor voice—a profound marriage of artistry. And revision. Lyricist Herbert Kretzmer struggled with the English translation. He completed it seventeen days before the show opened. Upon hearing its first rehearsal, the cast was blown away. One member, playing the Bishop, said:“You told us at the beginning that you couldn’t keep God out of the show. But you didn’t say you’d booked God to sing this song.”

My husband eventually took me to see (to hear?) Les Misérables on Broadway. My awe has never diminished; so many songs are hauntingly beautiful, meant to pull on the soul with deep themes of loss, love, faith, sacrifice, death…and, above all, redemption.

I’ve been thinking of Thanksgiving in the time of COVID, how life and gatherings— and parades—are changed in ways we couldn’t have imagined. We are not allowed to sing at school, for fear of spreading the virus.

But some things never change. We never really know what is to come in a day, a week, a year…or the next moment.

Like Valjean, I grow older, with my heart turned toward the next generation in prayer for preservation. For their peace and joy. My own boys, now grown… the firstborn followed his father into the pastorate. The youngest is a worship leader. A musician and singer. Yes, how soon the summers fly, on and on…the boys weren’t even born yet on that long-ago Thanksgiving when I stood before the TV screen in my childhood home, transfixed by a cloaked Irish tenor in the streets of New York City, as snow began to fly…

God on high, hear my prayer
In my need, you have always been there

It remains my Thanksgiving song, every day.

Always.

God on high, hear my prayer
In my need, you have always been there
He is young, he’s afraid
Let him rest, heaven-blessed
Bring him home
Bring him home
Bring him home

He’s like the son I might have known
If God had granted me a son
The summers die, one by one
How soon they fly, on and on
And I am old and will be gone

Bring him peace, bring him joy
He is young, he is only a boy
You can take, you can give
Let him be, let him live
If I die, let me die
Let him live
Bring him home
Bring him home
Bring him home

Songwriters: Alain Boublil/Claude-Michel Schönberg/Herbert Kretzmer

Scattered light

When I was a child, I looked forward to seeing the dentist.

His name was Dr. Job. Like Job in the Bible, long o, not as in “teaching is a hard job.” I could not understand this when I saw his name on the office door: Why do we say ‘Jobe?’ It says Job! J-o-b. That’s not right. It should have an ‘e’ on the end. J-o-b-e …

It irritated my father: That’s how his name is pronounced. He knows how to spell it. Now stop.

Dr. Job had white hair and a white coat and to be honest I wasn’t happy to see him.

No.

I wanted his rings.

After each visit—usually for a filling—Dr. Job reached into some magical cabinet and brought out a box. With a big smile, he opened it before me like a hawker on the city streets selling watches out of a car trunk.

The box was full of rings, set in foam rubber, as if on display at a fine jewelry counter.

“Which one would you like, hmmm? You’ve been a good little patient!”

Of course I was good … there were rings for the taking! How they glittered. All different colors, sizes, shapes. It didn’t matter which one I chose as they were adjustable; their metal bands were split to be widened or narrowed to fit.

One day I looked and looked it—had to be the best ring—until Dr. Job finally cleared his throat: “Ahem. You need to pick one, all right?”

I settled on a ring with a pale purple stone cut in facets like a diamond. I put it on the ring finger of my right hand (not my left, that was for getting married someday). Feeling like a princess, I said: “This is alexandrite, right?” (so … as a child I was fascinated by birthstones and pored over them in mail-order catalogs. My own is emerald. To me, at the time, this pale purple was prettier. June’s birthstone. Point to ponder: How many kids today know about birthstones? ).

Dr. Job looked at me and blinked. He closed the case and returned me to my father.

The main reason I remember that ring is because of a scene in a different office. Plagued by allergies, I had to get weekly injections in both arms. Sometimes I had reactions, rashes or big knots that burned. While I sat waiting, waiting, waiting at the doctor’s office, before and after the shots, I read all the children’s books and magazines—I loved Highlights. Then I read the grown-up stuff, like Reader’s Digest. One afternoon I was too tired to read. I sat sideways in the waiting room chair, leaning against the wall in the late-afternoon shadows. I reached up to rub my sore left arm when waning light from the window caught my “alexandrite” ring. A dozen tiny rainbows appeared on the wall beside me. Mesmerized, I move my hand this way and that, watching the rainbow-spots dance, vanish, and reappear. I forgot the time, forgot my swollen arm; I was too busy scattering the light.

This whole story returned to me as I was continuing my containment cleaning and sunlight caught my ring (diamond, on my married finger) just right.

Scattered light. Tiny rainbows. On a day, incidentally, when Highlights became a destiny…

Ethereal moments call for an etheree, don’t you think.

Time

waiting

in shadows

sometimes brings gifts

otherwise not found.

Like seeing little things

that remind us how it was

to be children full of wonder

scattering light everywhere we go,

making bits of rainbow dance on dark walls.

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.

When I was death

Seems it’s time for some fun … here’s a memoir initially drafted and revised over several days in front of fifth graders, who chose the topic from several I gave them. Today I dust it off with an appreciation, greater than ever, for the power of improvisation …

*******

Mom hung up the phone. “That was Diane’s mom. There’s a costume party at church and Diane asked if you want to go.”

“YESSSSS!” I shouted.

“That’s what I just told them.”

I loved dressing up. I used to do it for book reports in my fifth-grade class. Once I was Aslan from The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, which was really fun, except that my tail kept falling off. How exciting to have another opportunity to be someone or something else! What will I be? Maybe I can talk Grannie into taking me shopping for a gypsy costume, or maybe a cowgirl …

“Here’s the thing,” Mom went on. “They’re coming to get you in about an hour.”        

“Oh, no!” I cried.  “I don’t have a costume! What will I wear?”

Mom smiled. “We can think of something.”

She had improvised before. When my sister and I were maybe six and eight, we went trick-or-treating dressed as a little old lady and a little old man. Mom found a flowery dress for my sister and suspenders for me. She drew wrinkles on our faces with a brown eye pencil, dusted our hair white with baby powder, and even sketched a little mustache above my lip. When I saw the photos later, I didn’t recognize us; I even asked, “Who are these short old people?”

Now Mom went down the hall to the linen closet. She came back to the kitchen with a white sheet.

“M-o-m-m-m,” I moaned, “that’s lame. I don’t want to be a ghost.”

“Who said anything about being a ghost?”

She somehow twisted the sheet around me until it looked like a long white robe. She pinned the part around my arms so that I had long, floppy sleeves. She followed me to the bathroom where I looked at myself in the mirror.

“What am I supposed to be?”

Mom said, “You figure it out.” 

She walked off and left me there.

“MOMMMMMM!”

I could not go to the party like this. I didn’t look like anyone or anything; I just looked silly. This was worse than being a ghost.

In the mirror, I contemplated my long brown hair, which came to my waist. What I could I do with it?

Suddenly I wanted to look really creepy. I grabbed Mom’s comb and hairspray. I teased my hair until it was wild and looked like I’d never combed it a day in my life. Kind of cool, but not enough. I fetched my watercolors from my room. Back at the bathroom I painted big, black circles around my eyes. Better, but I still didn’t feel finished yet.

Mom came back to check on me. “How’s it going?”

“Ok. I need something more. I don’t know what.”

Mom studied me for a minute, then disappeared from the bathroom. She returned with a bottle of white shoe polish. “This might do the trick!” She proceeded to sponge my arms, hands, face, and neck with the shoe polish. The thick white liquid dried fast and started cracking. My skin looked like old plaster beginning to flake off. It was awesome, like a zombie or something.

My sister came to investigate. “What in the world ARE you?”

“You better watch out,” I said in a raspy voice, holding my hands up like claws in the air. “I am DEATH.”

“Whatever.” My sister rolled her eyes. “All I can say is you look better than usual.”

“Get out of here!” I snapped.

Right then, the doorbell rang. I ran to throw it open: My friend Diane, of course, looking very beautiful in a fancy Snow White costume. She even had short black hair like Snow White with a red bow tied in it.

She stared at me for a minute. “What ARE you?”

“Death,” I replied. “Bye Mom!”

When we got to the fellowship hall at the church, I saw princesses, cowboys, astronauts, cheerleaders, football players, Superman, and a mummy. All night long these characters came up to me, asking, “What ARE you?”

“Death,” I said.

“Coooooool,” they all nodded, except for the mummy. He said, “That’s weird. Death is something that happens. It’s an event. Not a person. How can you be Death?”

“You’re a mummy,” I told him. “You figure it out.”

I had fun creeping people out with my wild hair and my crackly skin, which someone said looked “ancient.”

Then some grown-ups worried that the shoe polish might not wash off.

Uh-oh. I hadn’t even thought of that … had Mom? How long would I be stuck looking like this?

I was worrying about it near the end of the party when my name was announced for having the best costume. Unbelievable! No one but Diane knew that I had slapped this together at the last minute, without any kind of plan. You never know what you can do until you have to. Then I went bobbing for apples and not only did I win that contest, I set the record for the fastest time: one second! I held my breath, dunked my head in the freezing water, pinned the apple to the bottom of the tin tub so I could get my teeth in it, and came up with it so fast that my long hair flung cold water across the crowd, making all the costumed characters scream and laugh.

“Hey, Death, hey, Death,” they called, “your scary face just got washed away!”

I was just me again.

And secretly glad.

Photo: Ghost (cropped). TCtroi. CC BY-SA

The kitten’s song

My favorite teaching moments are those when classroom teachers have invited me in to model the writing process. This occurs a lot less than it used to, as writing workshop in my district has been replaced by a curriculum with embedded writing. I’ve been remembering those moments lately. I miss walking in with a list of ideas for students to choose from. I miss drafting and revising in front of them while they ask questions and make suggestions regarding artistic or stylistic choices. I miss hearing the flood of their own ideas, their own experiences … and sharing mine with them through writing. Perhaps that’s what led me to go back and reread those mentor texts.

The writing of this one was, to me, the most memorable. I wrote it over several days for a fifth-grade class studying memoir. I explained that one way to make memoir come alive is to pick a moment of strong emotion and pull the readers in so that they feel it, too. I asked if they wanted me to write about a moment from my life when I was happy, sad, embarrassed, angry, or afraid.

They were tough. They said: “A time when you were sad. Make us cry.”

Okay …

They chose, from the topics I gave them, ‘the sick kitten.’

And so I walked back into my memory, and wrote.

Here’s “The Kitten’s Song,” with a bit more polish at every writing (for revision is never really over, is it).

*******

Free kittens – take one.

I saw the sign propped on a chair at the entrance of my college cafeteria. A disheveled guy—another student, I guessed—stood there holding a cardboard box. I hurried over to look inside:

One dark little ball of fur.

“Is that the last kitten you have?”

“Yeah,” he replied. “No one wants her because of her tail.”

“What’s wrong with her tail?”

The guy scooped up the kitten and showed me her backside. She didn’t really have a tail. Just a stump.

“What happened to her?”

“She was born this way. The only one in the litter like this.”

The tiny black creature sat looking up at me with big yellow eyes. She meowed.

Poor little unwanted baby.

There was, of course, only one thing to do:

“I’ll take her!”

I named her Moriah after a magical black cat in a wizard story, The Forgotten Beasts of Eld.

When she was nine months old, Moriah had seven kittens. Some were solid black, like her; the others had gray and white stripes. The three boys had long tails but the four girls had stumps like their mother.

All of the kittens were beautiful to me. The day after they were born, my mother and I were admiring them when we realized something was wrong.

In the bed I’d made out of a low box lined with a soft blanket, Moriah lay nursing her babies. The smallest kitten, the runt, had been pushed away by her bigger brothers and sisters. This tiny ball of gray and white fuzz rested at the side of the box by herself. When I picked her up, I saw a big open sore where her tail was supposed to be.

“Mom!” I cried, showing her the raw place. “Look at this! What happened?” A horrible thought entered my mind. “Do you think something did this to her? Did Moriah —would Moriah — bite her kitten’s tail off?”

Mom shook her head. “Gracious, no. I think the kitten was just born like this and we didn’t notice until now. Looks like her tail never finished forming. Could be spina bifida. It happens to human babies sometimes, when their spines don’t seal all the way. It’s probably because of Moriah’s tail defect, as she’s passed on to her daughters.”

“Will it it heal?”

“It might. We’ll have to keep an eye on it.”

“Poor little thing,” I mourned, stroking the kitten’s head with one finger.

I tried to help. I put the kitten in the pile of her brothers and sisters so she could get to the milk. They still pushed her away. I moved the biggest kitten, who loudly complained, and put the runt kitten in his place, but she didn’t try to nurse.

“What are we going to do, Mom? If she doesn’t get any milk, she’ll die.”

Mom said, “Bring her to the kitchen. I’ll get a medicine dropper.”

I came to the kitchen and sat at the table, holding the kitten. She weighed no more than an egg, just a soft warm spot in my hand. Her day-old eyes were still closed. Mom washed the medicine dropper we used when we had earaches, then she took some milk from the refrigerator and warmed it in a pan on the stove.

The kitten purred in my hand, a pleasant little vibration, and I suddenly felt that she needed a name.

If I name her, maybe she’ll get well and strong.

I was trying to think of a name when Mom handed me the dropper filled with milk.

“Feed your baby,” she said.

The dropper seemed too big for the kitten. When she opened her pink mouth, my heart leaped with hope, but she only made a cry, the tiniest cry I have ever heard in my life, so small that it was hardly a sound at all.

“Mom, I can’t do it.” By now my hands were shaking.

“Give her to me,” said Mom.

My mom could fix anything. Once she rewired our oven all by herself. She made a lot of our clothes and took in sewing for other people. She could mark patterns on fabric, cut it to precision, and every piece turned out exactly right. As I watched that tiny gray-and-white kitten in my mother’s capable hand, I was sure Mom could get her to take the milk.

I remembered a song then, from a movie I watched with Mom when I was little. The movie was her favorite, The Sound of Music, and this the song I loved best:

 Edelweiss, edelweiss,

every morning you greet me.

Small and white, clean and bright

You look happy to me.

Blossom of snow, may you bloom and grow,

bloom and grow forever …

It’s about a little flower that grows on the Alps of Austria where the movie is set, but for me, in that moment, the kitten became Edelweiss. It was a perfect fit. As Mom tried to get the kitten to drink from the dropper, I sang the song over and over in my mind like a prayer:

Blossom of snow, may you bloom and grow,

bloom and grow forever …

The milk only ran down the sides of the kitten’s face. When I looked at Mom, her mouth was set in a straight line. A tear rolled down her cheeks like the beads of milk on the kitten’s.

After a minute, my mother said, “She’s already gone.”

“NOOOOO!” I wailed. “Keep trying!”

“It wasn’t meant to be, honey. She was too sick.”

We held her for a moment and cried.

I wrapped Edelweiss in one of Daddy’s white handkerchiefs and buried her in the backyard. I found a nice rock in the yard with a flat surface and painted a little white flower on it. I put it on the grave and cried there a long time, for Edelweiss, for everything that has to die. Moriah came to sit on the ground beside me, a warmth at my side, purring deep and strong. She looked up at me with winking yellow eyes and all I can imagine is that she was saying Thank you.


Many years later, I wonder about that rock, if still sits in its special place, if the sun and rain have erased my painted flower. In my memory, the kitten named Edelweiss hasn’t faded. She stirs whenever I start thinking life’s not fair. I remember how she purred. You look happy to me … I don’t know if that is strange or not. I just know that Edelweiss, who only lived a day, is somehow part of me, always.

Whenever I hear her song, I remember.

*******

Photo: Kittens 001. Bryan Price. CC BY-SA

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

The bullet

 

Bullet

“Dodged” a bullet. John Spade

I don’t often get reader requests for posts here on my blog, but after sharing an exercise on writing about your past —”When you look back at your life, what do you see?”— a phrase about my childhood home stirred some curiosity and I promised to tell the story behind it.

So if you read Dust motes and asked about “Bullet in the living room rug, in the floor, if you know where to look,” today’s post is officially dedicated to you.

To recollect these details, I had to submerge a good while in Long Ago. When this event occurred I was around eight years old. That part’s blurry.

The rest, however, is all too vivid . . .

Mom lifts the curtain again but there’s only blackness beyond the picture window. I know by her sigh that the street is empty. No sign of Deb. She has never been this late before. She’s usually here before supper but tonight we had to go ahead and eat, hours ago. Baby Aimee—Deb’s baby—is fussy because she’s ready to go to bed and can’t settle. Mom holds her on one hip, says “Shhh, shhh, you’ll be going home to sleep soon.” Something icy glitters in my mother’s black eyes as she looks out of the window into the night.

Aimee’s eyes are almost as black as my mother’s. Big and round. They make me think of Looney Tunes characters when they’re sad, how their eyes go all huge and dark. Baby Aimee’s eyes always look like this, huge and dark, even when she’s standing in the playpen staring up at me in the daytime when I get home from school. She can stand without holding on now but isn’t really walking yet because she’s only one year old. She hangs onto my mother, her cheeks pink and watery, her big eyes shiny.

Mama,” she cries over and over. “Mama.” And she buries her face in my mother’s shoulder.

I am sorry for Aimee because she’s little and doesn’t understand things yet. I am starting to feel sorry for Mom because it’s not easy to take care of someone else’s baby while they work all day and then don’t show up and you don’t know why . . . 

“Mom! What if something has happened to  . . . “

She turns on me, her mouth a tight line under those icy-hot eyes. “Shh!” she nearly spits.

And I know, I know why.

Mom’s afraid.

Just then headlights shine through the window. Mom snatches back the curtain. Her body softens like a flower in a glass of water. 

“Thank God.” 

She squeezes past the playpen—it takes up the most of our living room floor spaceand goes to open the front door.

I hear Deb’s laughter before I see her.

Someone is with her.

They come in.

Deb is short with shoulder-length reddish hair and glasses. She dresses in what teachers at my school call “mod.” Sometimes short skirts and boots or chunky shoes, sometimes vests and bell-bottoms. Deb smiles a lot but tonight she can’t stop laughing about something. Even when she says to Mom, “I am sorry it’s so late, had some car trouble…this is Ab. My boyfriend.”

Ab, standing partly behind  Deb, is very tall. His face is thin and white, his hair black, curly, reaching past his shoulders. He’s wearing a long fur coat. I’ve never seen a man in a fur coat before. He nods to my mother when Deb introduces them but he says nothing. 

Mom looks at me, hard. “Go to bed now.”

I know this really means “I’ve got things to say that you don’t need to hear” and so I head down the hall without a word—

—BANG—

—a flash of light, the loudest sound, thunder in the house, like a car hitting it, shaking it, rattling the windows—

a scream, not sure whose, my mother’s or Deb’s—

baby screams—

I run the few steps back to the living room.

There’s a funny smell, something smoky.

Pieces of brown fur, hundreds of pieces, floating through the air. 

Deb’s crying now, her screaming baby in her arms. Ab’s face is whiter than before. I stand, frozen, as my mother demands the gun he has in his pocket, or the pocket he had a minute ago, before he blew it to smithereens.

HOW DARE YOU bring a gun into this house, around other people, around children! To stand here with your finger on the trigger…Give. It. To. Me. NOW.”

And Ab places the handgun in my mother’s open palm.

As her hand closes around it he hurries out of the door, away from her, back into the night.

*******

After Deb and Ab were gone—and after she vacuumed up all the fur—Mom ran her fingers over the rug. She found the hole and the bullet lodged in the hardwood floor beneath. For as long as we lived in that house, I could find the bullet, too.

The house still stands, so as far as I know, the bullet remains there to this day.

I can’t recall what became of Deb and her beautiful baby, Aimee, or how quickly after the bullet they quit coming to our house. I changed their names in case they’re still alive out there, somewhere. I wonder if they are. And what their stories are. And if I could stand knowing.

I really wonder about Ab.

All I know is that my mother kept his gun a long time. I’m not sure she ever gave it back. Or where in the house she hid it. Somewhere far away from children…

I think a lot about the darkness of that night, of a baby’s big, frightened eyes, of being completely at the mercy of others and their choices, not just sweet baby Aimee, long, long ago when I was still a child…but my mother, who didn’t drive, who babysat for many years to make ends meet, who accommodated other people’s schedules and whims, who was dependent on others to go anywhere or get anything she needed. Some might say powerless.

But they didn’t see her take a gun away from a strange man who towered over her, a man who, as far as I know, never darkened our door again.

I did.

The moment reverberates in my mind still. Lodged deep, so deep in my memory, lying there all this time, covered by layers and layers of stuff …

The power remains, if you know where to look.