Memory is…is not

with thanks to Susan Ahlbrand for the invitation to write a “this but not that” poem based on an abstract noun over at Ethical ELA’s Open Write today

Memory is a blanket
of new-falling snow
over barren ground
where nothing would grow

Memory is not static
it is ever-changing
reinventing itself day by day
ever so slightly
around the edges

Memory is sparks
crackling and popping
from the inner fire
in the grate

Memory is not reliable—
it goes its own way,
its own consummation
and consumption,
ashes stirred to life
rolling in the breeze

Memory is a river
life-giving, sustaining, sacred
flowing free until obstructed
necessary and nourishing
yet potential danger for drowning
—you cannot live there, submerged

Memory is not tomorrow
or yesterday

Memory is now

Memory is not a book,
a record carefully preserved

Memory is written in disappearing ink

happy snow. tamaki. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

September = scuppernongs

I write about them every September: scuppernong grapes.

A dear lady in my church picks them from an old, old vine that belonged to her mother-in-law. She brings the grapes to me, knowing how I love them.

It’s not just the divine sweetness. That’s only part.

In these thick, green-gold husks are memories as rich and sweet as the fruit itself.

I pop a scuppernong in my mouth, whole, splitting the thick skin against my teeth. Inside the hull lies a cool primordial pulp, a velvety experience…

It is the taste of my childhood, of my grandfather, whose vines grew lush and thick by the ditch bank of his country home. It is the taste of belonging, love, sacrifice, survival. Of wars won, losses mourned, marriages that endured. It is the taste of reward. Of dirt roads, tin roofs, earth as black as night, crops in the fields, glittering with morning dew. Of dense forests, timbered yet returning denser, again and again, still retaining their secrets, bearing silent witness to generations rising and falling. It is the taste of seasons, centuries, epochs in their turning.

I grow older, savoring my children’s children, the sweetest thing I have ever known.

September. The month of my grandfather’s birth and my father’s death. The month of scuppernongs, ever a reminder of my Carolina roots and my heavenly home.

Lingering

with thanks to Ruth for the inspiration at Sharing Our Stories: Magic in a Blog:
“Invite the reader to linger and feel unexpected emotions.”

There was a time, before COVID, when we lingered. Not endured, not withdrew, not withstood…lingering did not mean an unshakeable cough, unshakeable fear, unshakeable uncertainty.

We lingered because we wanted to make the moments stretch and last. With purpose, holding onto goldenness before it melted away in lengthening shadows, desiring just to be, to savor, to breathe, without words for naming the why, unaware except in the deepest part of subconscious self that everything is temporal. Everything is always imperceptibly changing. We change, the people and creatures we love change. They leave us, in one way or another. In certain moments before the leaving, be it theirs or our own, we linger, suspending the faint ticking of the clock on the wall of our existence.

Tonight, I lingered.

I discovered that winter lingers even on the cusp of July. Not like the witch’s enchanted Narnia (“Always winter but never Christmas; think of that”). My granddaughter wanted to watch a Christmas movie. Why not? And so we did. The hour was already late but in summer bedtimes do not matter as much (for her, anyway. I fight the good fight). Winter scenes rolled across the screen before us…an era long past, row houses standing dark in the evening, nightfall coming early, deserted streets coated in ice…for a few seconds, I was in that place, feeling the bitter bite of frigid air, the crunching under my feet, the barrenness settling into my bones. I remembered being a child in winter, walking outside, wondering at the stillness, the delicious desolation. Winter has a scent, a taste. A cleanness. A sharpness, unlike the crispness of fall. Both bracing and tiring. A paradox. Winter is halflight, chiaroscuro in gray, white, blue, and black. The stars shine crystal-bright in winter, nearer than ever.

—all this in a few seconds watching a Christmas movie on a lazy, balmy night, the last of June, when rabbits are sneaking from the woods into my yard to nibble their fill of fresh clover.

My granddaughter remained wide-eyed throughout the movie while I lapsed in and out of dreams. Then with the going-to-bed ritual of my reading her a story, she just so happened to choose a book in which the word lingering appears on the last page…

That is the magical way of that word.

Both beckoning and reminding.

For memories linger far longer than moments…

A winter night. Mourner. CC BY 2.0.

Word-association poem

with thanks to Allison Berryhill for this inspiration on today’s Open Write at Ethical ELA: Look around the room. Let your eyes rest on an object. Let that be your first word. List a word associated with it, then another…keep going until you’re ready to stop and “poetically connect the brain’s chain of associations.”

My word list:

pitcher
pour
tea
sweetness
childhood
sugar

Drinking Deep

I remember the pitcher
in my grandmother’s hand, mid-pour
tea flowing like memory
me drinking deep of the sweetness
a childhood steeped in dinner-stories
Daddy saying Slide up to the table, Sugar.


The pitcher that sparked the associations. It’s just decor; didn’t consciously think, in the moment, about the milk glass creamer and sugar bowl being my grandmother’s.

Treasure hunt poem

with thanks to Allison Berryhill for the inspiration on today’s Open Write at Ethical ELA, inviting participants to walk outside and collect objects for writing a poem

The Treasure

In the backyard
by the fence
it lies half-buried

sun-bleached
pristine white
glowing with 
ethereal light

holy relic
enshrined in earth

beloved remnant
of a creature
who carried it
in his kingly jaws
who stretched out
his golden body
this ivory scepter clutched
in big leonine paws

a treasure left behind
for me to find

monument
to lazy afternoons
when he was
here

so full of love
unwritten
in stone

yet still
resounding
abounding
surrounding
the bone

The funnies

I bought Sunday’s paper, first time in years. As in an actual paper paper. Saw it on the rack while checking out groceries, a giant headline about the state’s plans for moving forward with education in light of pandemic setbacks. As educators themselves (particularly those in the trenches in actual schools) are often the last to know, I thought perhaps I should read it…

Opened it up in the car only to have my attention captured by the comics.

How could I have forgotten?

All those childhood Sundays of sifting through the heftiness of sections and fliers to pull them out, that colorful layer beckoning amid the grayness of the world’s ponderous deeds and opinions.

The poring over every one, the laughter, the ink-smell… a preschool recollection of my grandmother showing me how to flatten Silly Putty over a panel to peel it up and find the image lifted, then stretching poor Charlie Brown’s round head every which way…understanding later, in school, what “newsprint” paper really was when blank sheets were distributed for drawing… often sketching pretty good replications of Snoopy and especially Woodstock in margins of random notebook pages… a fleeting recollection of two strips I cut out and taped to my bedroom door (one, I think, was Shoe and the other eludes me now; I can only remember loving it for its hilarious rhyme).

All this in one nostalgic flash, just finding the funnies in my hands again after so long.

For just that moment, I am child again, and everything is all right.

*Update: Finally remembered the other strip taped to my bedroom door: The Briny Deep.

Whip-poor-will aubade

He sings alone
just before light
Farewell, farewell
beloved night

Summer is nigh
yet again keep
echoing hope
—all do not sleep

Whip-poor-will in the woods behind my home about an hour before dawn. Such longing and long-ago in the sound, for me. When my oldest boy was three, our family moved from Virginia’s Eastern Shore to the North Carolina Piedmont. We lived in a parsonage beside a little church high on a hill. It was June. All that first summer, when dusk settled in and I put my boy to bed for the night, the whip-poor-wills began calling. Over and over and over. Usually just one. The sound carries; it echoes through the darkness from the woods across the ponds and pastures, from old and deep places, affixing itself to the listening soul. I rejoice in its returning.

Eastern Whip-poor-willtcmurray74. CC BY-NC 2.0

Of racehorses and old roads

As I write, the National Anthem’s being sung at Churchill Downs for the start of the Kentucky Derby.

I’ll be pulling for a horse not favored to win.

His owner grew up in eastern North Carolina on a little stretch of road in the country. It’s paved now, but people have living memory of it being dirt… and I have an affinity for old dirt roads in these far reaches.

Once upon a time, I was a child who stayed in a little house on a dirt road in the summertime. I swung from a tire swing that Granddaddy hung from the pecan tree all studded with woodpecker holes. I swung to the deafening rise-and-fall rhythms of cicada-rattles, alongside the old dirt road across from the clearing where timeworn gravestones stood over people my grandmother knew when she was a child. I swung back and forth, round and round through the dappled afternoon, singing a favorite folk song from my father’s Peter, Paul, and Mary album…

Stewball was a racehorse
and I wish he were mine
he never drank water
he always drank wine…

The song goes on to say how the speaker bet on the gray mare and the bay, when:

ahead of them all,
came a-prancin’ and a-dancin’,
my noble Stewball.
The hoot owl, she hollered…

This past week, early one morning, I recorded a hoot owl (barred owl) hollering from the pines behind my home.

Memory runs so deep, so strong.

And so I pull for the horse named Barber Road, whose odds keep going down in these remaining moments before he gets to the gate.

Here’s to my own beloved road by another name in eastern North Carolina, and childhood, and belonging, and ol’ Stewball who wasn’t favored to win, either, but did, and to the hoot owl, the stories, the songs, and overcomings.

And here’s to you, Barber Road.

Run on.

Thoroughbred racehorseMIKI Yoshihito. CC BY 2.0.

Update: Barber Road finished 6th. By now the world knows that Rich Strike, the least-favored horse (80-1,) took the Derby in the second-biggest upset in its 148-year history. Secretariat, the first racehorse I remember, and who still fills me with awe to the point of tears, holds the record.

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.