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.

Death calls

Subtitled The morgue, part 2. A slice of memoir.

And so it was that the house for the dead became a house for the living. If there were any ghosts of soldiers or prisoners lingering in it for over twenty years, perhaps a three-month-old baby’s cries and the acrid odor of diapers drove them on.

Even I wouldn’t be there long. The shadow of death falls like a blanket; the living must keep moving out from under it.

My memories of the house are fragmented, all in black and white. A living room with plain white walls. A window with pale curtains likely made by my mother. The black slats of my crib. Years later my mother said there were little black footprints on the wall from where I pressed my feet through the crib slats. She didn’t have the heart to wash them off. My grandmother wanted to know why I’d been put to bed with dirty feet.

I had a white blanket with satin trim. I sucked my thumb and rubbed the satin against my nose with my forefinger; eventually the satin pulled away from the blanket. I’d rub it between my left thumb and fingers while sucking my right thumb. A soothing rustle, rustle, rustle. I called it my Silky String.

That is almost all I can remember for myself of the old house that was once an Army hospital morgue.

Pa-Pa was the reason we came to live here; he was the reason we had to go. He owned the house. When he died suddenly from a heart attack, his children took over his property. We were the stepfamily. Grannie had to leave the big house next door. My father, mother, baby sister and I had to leave this first house of my remembering. It was March. I was not yet three, when the long shadow sent us searching for a place to be.

When death calls, the living must answer.

*******

All these years later, I watch the news. Tanks, warships, airstrikes, destruction. A hundred and nine empty baby strollers placed in Lviv’s central square today, commemorating the children killed in the invasion of Ukraine.

I think of morgues.

And of the mothers. And little footprints left behind.

And people being driven from home. That is what wars do. That is what death does.

My son, in his mid-twenties, comes in as night falls. Dressed in suit and tie. I know he’s tired.

“Long day, wasn’t it?” I ask.

“It was,” he answers. “Maybe I won’t get called out tonight.”

For a minute I see him at age five, pulling out the church directory every time a member passed away. He’d grab a pen, cross out the person’s photo, and write the word Died.

Funny how these things come back to you. Memories are ghosts.

And life is circular; all things are connected.

My boy eats supper, collects Dennis the dachshund, goes upstairs to rest and, I hope, to sleep. Unless his phone should ring in the night. If it does, he’ll be back in suit and tie, leaving home to pick up someone. He’ll transport them to the house waiting to receive them, where he’ll begin the preparations for their burial or cremation. Got a death call, he’ll say, if his dad and I are still up. If not, he just goes quietly into the night, a mortuary emissary.

For when death calls, the living must answer.

Window in the living room of the house that was originally an Army hospital morgue.
I lived here from about age three months to almost three years.

*******

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

The morgue

a slice of memoir

By 1949, the Army base where a million and half people were processed for service in WWII stood deserted. This had been the last stop before boarding ships for western Europe. All branches of military personnel, not just Army, passed through here — even some civilians on secret missions. Surely these young people made time for the cantina, laughing and maybe dancing to big band music, or for a show in the base’s theater before they left American soil, maybe for good… how many wouldn’t return to see the wooden arch bearing the message WELCOME HOME at the camp’s entrance, erected over the wide road cut through the forest? And how did the Axis POWs feel, seeing this sign on their arrival? Did they wonder what welcome awaited them here in an Allied prison? They would be put to work; they would also be given their own canteen.

All that remained four years after war’s end were empty buildings, ephemeral fliers, yellow canteen coupons occasionally spiraling in the wind, and weeds growing tall in their eagerness to swallow it all, to satisfy the hungry forest.

A local man overheard talk that the decommissioned land was being sold and if you had a way to move a building, you could buy one cheap.

He had a way of moving a building. He had a place for it, on his own land right beside his own house. He signed the papers and took his building.

It made for a nice little home, he thought. It had a concrete floor with pipes running through for radiant heat. Solid. It would need a little paint, a little work here and there. He could do it. He was pleased with himself. He would rent it it out, make a little money…

Quite some years later, a young man came to ask about the house: We can’t stay in the apartment where we are anymore. It’s not working out… he and his wife had a baby. They wanted to be in a safer place.

The older man, now gray-haired, pursed his lips for just a moment before agreeing.

And that is how I came to live in the house which was once part of a bustling World War II Army base at a port of embarkation.

That was my dad and mom who needed a place to live.

That was my step-grandfather, Pa-Pa, the sometime opportunist who’d moved the building. He’d married my mother’s mother.

I, of course, was the new baby.

This house is the first home I remember. In this place, my memories would first come into being while I watched the interplay of light and shadow on the walls. Here I would dream my first dreams and cry out in the darkness until my father came to settle me back to sleep, sometimes holding me in his arms all night when I suffered asthma attacks. Here I would begin to recognize the distant rattle and whistle of trains, long before I first crawled on the warm, warm floors in wintertime or knew the cold and silvery moon.

I wonder if this is where I first came to understand the word ghost.

The little white house with the heated floors was, after all, the Army hospital morgue.

Photo: Shocking Wonder. CC BY

*******

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

Rambling autobiography

I was born in a state named for a queen, by a river named for a king, and in a hospital named for the river. I adore books, words, wind chimes, church bells, birdsong, the crying of gulls at the shore, ocean waves crashing, the utterance of my newest name, Franna, in my granddaughter’s voice, the aliveness in my son’s fingers dancing over the keys of my grandmother’s piano until the house and my soul burst with his music, and silences. I bought a white flannel nightgown and sheets with bright red cardinals on them at Christmastime because Grandma loved cardinals and Christmas, it is the season of her birth and her death, she is nearest then, so now I lay me down to sleep in heavenly peace. I have her wedding band; I wear it every day. I never dreamed of being a teacher. One of my sons became a teacher, too, then a preacher, like his father. When I was eight or nine, I had an imaginary black cat; one time after climbing from the backseat of Grannie’s car, I flung my hand out to keep the imaginary cat from escaping and Grannie slammed the door on my fingers (no one ever knew about the cat…sorry, Grannie, it wasn’t your fault). My favorite place is out in the middle of nowhere along an old dirt road where my grandmother then my father then I played as children, where cicadas in the woods sing as loud as Heaven’s choir about being born, living, dying, and the Resurrection. I can still smell Old Spice in the cool of those evenings when Granddaddy leaned down to offer me his clean-shaven cheek to kiss, Good night, I love you, see you in the morning. I dated the handsomest black-haired man I’ve ever seen for just three months when we decided to get married, thirty-seven years ago. I fainted at a funeral one summer afternoon but not from grief. I gave my real black cat to Daddy when I got married because I couldn’t take her to the tiny apartment that would be my new home. I once had a yellow parakeet; Daddy got it for my sixth birthday and it lived until I was twelve, dying one summer when I was at Grandma’s playing on the old dirt road — such a mysterious balance, the giving of things and the living of them. I am a grandmother now. I want to have a good dog as long as I am alive and to see my granddaughters grown into all their beautiful becomings before the cicadas sing me away to the riverside where I shall meet the King, at last.

If I take the wings of the morning
    and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea,
even there your hand shall lead me,
    and your right hand shall hold me.

Psalm 139:9-10

*******

with many thanks to Denise Krebs for the inspiration. Here are Denise’s starters (borrowed from Linda Rief) for a rambling autobiography:

I was born…
I adore…
I bought…
I have…
I never…
One of my…
When I was (age)…
My favorite place…
I can still (sense)…
I dated…
I fainted…
I gave…
I once had…
I am…
I want to…

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

Ghost-memory poem

with thanks to Glenda Funk for the Open Write prompt on Ethical ELA today: “I invite you to think about the ghosts who appear to you and the ways you learn from and celebrate the lives of those who have passed on, those who now visit us in our memories.”

In the Night

When I crawl into bed
to rest my weary bones at last
I have a sense of her

the way she tucked me in
heard my prayers
kissed my forehead 
in successive repetition 
soft as wing-flutters

I hear her voice
when the lights go out
and darkness first envelops:
Don’t worry, Honey
in a minute
your eyes will adjust
you’ll be able to see

and I see her
in the night
a drifting wraith
in her thin pale gown
bathed in silver moonlight
floating into Granddaddy’s room
where I sleep 
on the little cot by his bed
listening to the rhythms of 
his mighty snores

for she always rises
in the darkest part
to check my coverings
sometimes caressing my head
or patting my leg
before drifting back out
to her own room
where snoring 
cannot reach

she is never far
even now
and for all the brightness
she brought to my days
she is near, so near,
in the night.

Pedagogy poem

with thanks to Glenda Funk on Ethical ELA’s Open Write today: “What do you owe to pedagogy? Today I’d like us to consider this question and compose a poem in which we explore an idea related to pedagogy, the methods by which we teach, the methods by which we learn. The poem does not necessarily have to be about school. Simply think about teaching and learning as a global phenomenon.”

This is the poem that came today, in reflecting on what I owe to pedagogy… of course, it’s a story-poem…

The Heart of Pedagogy

Little boy in the shop
at Christmastime
spends his money
on a gift for his mom

a matted illustration
of a bird holding a primer
encircled by a flowery heart
and these words:

A teacher
in wisdom and kindness
helps children learn to do
exactly what they thought
could not be done

-Honey, it’s beautiful!
I love it, says his mom,
even though
I am not a teacher

Little boy grins
in his snaggletoothed way:
Yes you are, Mama

She sees the bright belief
there in his face

she cannot bring herself
to diminish it

for maybe she would be a teacher
if only she had finished college

which she does, many years later.

The boy can’t attend
to see her walk across the stage
because he’s taking final exams
at the university
where he’s a history major

-What are you going to do
with that degree?
everyone asks him
-are you going to teach?

No
He’s emphatic:
I do not want to be
a teacher
No

which is, of course,
the path that immediately opens
leading him right back
to the very classroom
where he was a student
where he finds
his old AP history exams
stashed in the cabinet.

The summation of the matter:
we’ve both done
exactly what we thought
could not be done
haven’t we, Boy

for in the end
as in the beginning
teaching is about believing

then in finding
a way.

The Boy’s gift has remained on my bookcase for over two decades. He was in high school when I returned to college. The verse became the foundation of my teaching philosophy as I obtained my degree and additional certifications. It applies even now to the coaching work I do with teachers. As for the Boy: he was a beloved high school history teacher and soccer coach for several years before entering the seminary for divinity degrees and the pastorate. In awe, I watch him teaching his young daughters…and remember.

Dirt road

On Ethical ELA’s Open Write today, Kim Johnson invites teacher-poets to compose poetry from paint chip colors. She happened to have “Dirt Road” in her own list.

As soon as I saw that name, it was over. I would have to take Dirt Road. Its pull is too strong for me, calling me back to a place I write about often.

So today I write a memoir poem, although I did incorporate a few paint chip names along the dirt road: Oyster Shell, Turtle Green, Pink Blossoms, Dreamy Memory, Forever Fairytale, Summer Sunflower.

Maybe tomorrow I’ll try whole new paint chip poem away from Dirt Road.

This is where the name led me today.

Dirt Road

I watch the highway
and my heart beats fast
when I see it coming
just around the bend

old dirt road

off to the right
threading through the trees
past Miss Etta’s tiny turtle-green
screened-porch house
where she dips snuff

past the homeplace
standing like a dreamy memory
white paint faded to tired oyster shell
sunlight gleaming
on the tin roof

Grandma was born here

past the tangle of sunflowers
planted by her brother
who still lives here alone
something is different about him
I don’t know what
it’s in his long face
he never says much
but he did give me some quarters
once

just beyond the sunflowers
Granddaddy’s garden
looks like something
an artist painted
in watercolor greens
in perfect rows
he grows collards 
and little round peppers for his vinegar
squash, cantaloupe, snap beans, 
Silver Queen corn, crowder peas,
and butterbeans, 
speckled pink and white
when I help shell them
from their furry green pods

then the grape arbor he built
laden with scuppernong vines
big leaves waving Hey
big brown-gold grapes
won’t be ready yet
and they aren’t even pretty
but to me
they taste like Heaven itself

then the row of crape myrtles at the curve
bright pink blossoms nodding their heads
sometimes shedding, rolling on and on
smooth forked trunks
where I like to climb and sit
and make up songs
thinking in forever fairytale

the house
bright white
black shutters

and I can’t think now
about the tire swing 
hanging there in the pecan tree 
studded with woodpecker holes
or the tiny cemetery with its ghosts
across the old dirt road

because Grandaddy and Grandma
are coming across the yard
straw hats shielding faces
lit with smiles
bright as the summer sunflowers
ever turning toward the sun

Daddy pulls off 
the old dirt road
into the yard

we’re here
we’re here

I am out of the car 
before it stops
running toward
open arms

and I never
want to leave.

My grandparents and my oldest boy on the old dirt road, a long time ago

*******

with thanks to Kim Johnson, Ethical ELA, and Two Writing Teachers for the weekly Slice of Life Story Challenge. Writing is but half the magic. Sharing is the other half.

Unexpected poem

with thanks to Araceli, Deanna, and Michelle at #verselove on Ethical ELA today, for the invitation to write about someone who’s influenced your life, incorporating sensory details. My first inclination is to write of my grandparents – as I often do – but today, my aunt came to mind. I expect she’d be so surprised.

I am.

This one’s for her.

On Day Twenty-Two of National Poetry Month

A Poem for Earnie 

I didn’t expect to write of you today
but here I am, remembering
of all things, the tape recorder
your ready, set, go!
the click of your finger pressing play
and singing for all we were worth,
you, my little sister and me:
Wherever you go,
wherever you may wander in your life
Surely you know
I always want to be there…

one of us flubbing the words
all of us cracking up
you saying, I’ll rewind
let’s try it again

I think of your laughter
wild, free, contagious
your raucous humor
trailing you like an ermine robe
rich, resplendent, priceless
cloaking loneliness
I may not have perceived

The only one of my mother’s sisters
never to marry or have children
which didn’t keep you from giving advice
pressing Mama’s buttons
like no one else on Earth
yet she went and named her youngest daughter
after you

Then there were the wigs on
the featureless disembodied heads
sitting on your dresser
you could pick whatever 1970s hair you wanted
each day
how cool was that?

I can’t recall a thing you ever cooked
only that you loved eating
Mama said you were picky
you didn’t look it
Mama said that’s why you weren’t married
so picky that you didn’t get got

I wondered why you never really left home
living with Grannie most of your life
you’d break away for an apartment once or twice
but would always go back
like you needed to be
within the borders
of her shadow

Perhaps it will surprise you
that I recall the ceramics class you took
and the Pepto Bismol pink statuette
of Hotei, the Laughing Buddha
god of happiness and contentment
that you made for me
his hands thrown high to the heavens
Rub his big belly for good luck
each day,
you said
and I could hear the pleasure in your voice
only much later did I flip him over
to find your inscription of love
on the bottom of his pedestal

Funny how the dress you wore to my wedding
was Pepto Bismol pink
I am glad I asked you to be my wedding director
at Mama’s prodding
I remember the books you ran out to buy
to do the job well
for me

Of course there’s Jenny…
a love of your life
Siamese as picky as yourself
who’d curl in my lap
purring
That’s rare,
you’d say

Jenny who lived twelve years
who died in the fire
when you woke in the middle of the night
choking on the smoke
phone in your bedroom
hot to the touch
calling 9-1-1 for the first time
because it was
a brand-new thing
I don’t know how you roused
Grannie and Papa G in the other room
nor how any of you climbed out of the windows
onto the roof
into the freezing midnight air
and safety
as the firemen arrived
but you did it

in my mind, Mama’s voice:
It took three firemen to hold her
from going back in
for Jenny.
They found her
the next day
under Earnie’s window.

I hear your anguished sobs
even now
in those wee hours when you
arrived at our house to stay
reeking of smoke
so that the fur coat you wore
would have to be destroyed

I remember the clothes
you bought for my first baby
in bright, beautiful colors,
expensive
so lovingly chosen

You didn’t live to see my youngest
never knew of his gift for music
how you’d have loved it
I can see you right now,
tape recorder in hand

As the disease took your lungs
and reached its insidious fingers
into your brain
I recall the peculiar shine in your hollowed eyes
against the yellowing of your face

when you asked:
Are you still writing?
Have you published anything yet?

Yes and no, Earnie.
I am still writing, yes.
Long, long after we laid you to rest
in your pink dress
(Grannie had your nails painted to match)
and this isn’t really published
but it’s for you
I didn’t expect to be writing of you today
or singing Olivia Newton-John all of a sudden
after all these years,
but here I am
and here you are,
wherever I may wander
in my life
snatches of song, rolling laughter
here in my morning
here in my night.

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.