Twenty years

September, When Grass Was Green

Try to remember the kind of September
When life was slow and oh, so mellow
Try to remember the kind of September
When grass was green and grain was yellow…

(T. Jones/H. Schmidt, 1960)

I remember
our last conversation
in September
twenty years ago

you said you’d
been cutting the grass
and that maybe
you’d overdone it
going back and forth
with your mower
making a pretty pattern
—you thought your chest muscles
were sore from the turning

it worried me

—you were worried
about other things

but happy to be retiring
in two weeks

the thing about last things
is that you don’t know
they’re the last

I remember promising
to come celebrate your retirement
and how we spoke of you
having more time to spend with
your grandchildren

I remember getting the news
a week later
as soon as I walked in from shopping
with the retirement card I just bought
still in my hand

I remember that September day:
so glorious, cloudless
sky so blue it hurt
all the trees still green, sharp-edged,
clinging hard to the light

never again will September
be as bright

or kind

I remember coming home
for the last time

to speak at your funeral

to thank you,
my duty-minded, dedicated
father

twenty years
come this twenty-fifth day
of September

don’t you know
the grass is still oh so green
and Daddy, you are still
in the scent
of its cutting

Yesterday’s sunrise

with thanks to Susan Ahlbrand for the Do You Remember prompt with musical inspiration on Ethical ELA’s Open Write earlier this week. Susan remembered her own father’s passing with Earth, Wind & Fire’s “September”. I chose “Try To Remember” as a frame instead. The song predates me; I recall hearing it on my father’s radio when I was very small.

I still have the retirement card I bought for my father on the day that he died, with three workdays left to go. The card mentions that it’s a great time to be alive.

Twenty years, and that remains the great dichotomy of late September.

News poem

On Day 12 of National Poetry Month, Susie Morice invites teacher-poets to scan the news for crafting poems on VerseLove at Ethical ELA. Susie writes: “Use the news piece as a launch for a poem that conveys your concerns that this news arouses. Let us see the claws of your rage, feel the scratch of your worry, taste the saffron of your affection. Let it take you to wherever it takes you.  We want to hear your voices.”

This local news caught my heart two days ago. I find that I cannot add to it. The facts speak for themselves.

Fallen Officer

He died
in the line of duty

tracking an armed robber
who opened fire

the funeral home
got a call
asking if
they can
“do this sort of thing”

they say they can

surely a service 
with full honors

for our fallen hero

named Major

age 3
German Shepherd
K-9 Officer

God forgive
us all

Thanks K. for being such a great help and a friend. Whitewolf PhotographCC BY-NC-ND 2.0.
Major was a beautiful black German Shepherd

Thanks also to Two Writing Teachers for the weekly Slice of Life Story Challenge

Carry on

The bird at the roadside sat
day after day after day
by the body of his lifetime mate
after she passed away

The naturalist saw him there
day after day after day
’til finally with some rotting meat
she lured the bird away

You must carry on, old boy
carry on carry on carry on
a marvel, how you honor your mate
when she’s carrion carrion carrion

Dedicated to the local buzzard who mourned his dead partner by the roadside. Until this story reached me, I didn’t know that turkey buzzards mate for life. I’ve since learned that they lack vocal organs…they cannot call or sing or cry. They can only grunt and hiss as they go about the humble work of cleaning up carcasses…but not, apparently, those of their mates.

Photo: 11 Turkey Buzzard Pittsboro NC 9425bobistraveling. CC BY 2.0.

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with thanks to Two Writing Teachers for the Slice of Life Story Challenge every day in the month of March. This is my sixth year participating.

Ashes

a combination Slice of Life & Spiritual Journey offering

I grew up hating ashes.

They were a part of my everyday life.

My parents were smokers. Salem menthols. When their friends came over or when some of my mother’s family gathered at our house, smoke hung in the air, thicker than fog, like some conjured ghost constantly materializing, encompassing, lingering…

Sometimes I was given the chore of cleaning out the ashtrays. A debasing job. Dirty. Ashes are pervasive. Everywhere and never really gone, no matter how hard you try. Even now, remembering, the stench is my nose, the metallic taste on my tongue…

It would be a long time before I’d learn the seeming incongruity of ashes as the main ingredient of an age-old cleansing agent. Lye. Which was also used to make hominy and that Southern staple, grits. In spite of my heritage, I never learned to like them.

It took me longer still to understand ashes as symbolizing something holy. Ash Wednesday and Lent weren’t part of my Protestant church or family tradition.

I got the humility part early on, however. From stories. First there was Cinderella, named for the soot that clung to her skin and her clothes from ashes that she (too!) was relegated to cleaning. Ashes are pervasive… then the Bible. Job, stricken with boils, scraping himself with broken pottery, sitting in the ashes. The repentant king of Nineveh mandating sackcloth and ashes after revival preached by the pouting prophet Jonah. Eventually, the vivid image of Tamar placing ashes on her head, sobbing, in utter humiliation and grief after the assault by her half-brother. Priests were commanded to change out of their sacred garments before disposing of burnt offering ashes.

Ashes are pervasive…

At fifteen I stood outside watching flakes falling from the sky in late May. Not snow at that time of year, in the southeastern United States. Ash. From the eruption of Mount St. Helen’s on the other side of the country. The volcano’s side exploded with such force that plumes of ash rocketed skyward for miles. The snowlike flakes settled across the nation and parts of Canada. I caught these curiosities in my hands. They didn’t melt. They looked to me like flakes of human skin.

I thought of war.

I think of war now. As I write, scenes are all over the TV. Bombs. Destruction. Death. What once was, now in ashes.

I think of the gorgeous churches of Kyiv.

I think of the dead.

My second son is a recently-certified crematory operator. Traditional burials are steadily giving way to cremations now. One day I went with him and watched while he placed someone’s ashes in an engraved box urn. These ashes are different from other kinds. Pale powder, fine as talcum. One of the most reverent acts I’ve ever witnessed, my boy tenderly packing that human dust.

The ancient Romans had a saying, Memento mori. Remember that you die. It is the same idea behind Ash Wednesday rites: Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return, echoing God’s words to Adam in Genesis 3:19, after the Fall.

I’ve never had a cross of ashes placed on my head by a priest, but I understand the call to repentance. It echoes deep in my bones. I know the desperate desire for holiness in the face of raging unholiness. The need for wholeness. I believe in repent and believe. I do. I repent. I believe.

I believe there’s an eventual reckoning.

Ashes are pervasive.

Volcano ash man. @Doug88888.CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.

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with thanks to Two Writing Teachers for the Slice of Life Story Challenge every day in the month of March. This is my sixth year participating.

Thanks also to my Spiritual Journey writing friends and to Ruth Hersey in Paraguay for hosting on the first Thursday in March. Ruth chose the theme “ashes” in connection with Ash Wednesday (which is why my post is going up a day early this month).

The field

The field at the end of my street
where cotton used to grow
where morning glories of purple and pink
bloomed in tangled profusion
where the autumn sun
burnished the treetops
where myriad insects would chorus
all summer long

is cleared
is being bulldozed
for houses

I will never again see the cotton
stretching out like snow
or the morning glories
rioting in the grass

the trees will be obscured
if they are allowed to remain

and the great insect choir
of quivering magic-sounds
is forever silenced

I cannot imagine how the field
is feeling

but I
am forlorn

Cotton from my lost field

Threads

While National Mental Health Awareness Month (May) is still weeks away, the COVID-19 pandemic has called greater attention to the need for support. Youth.gov explains the purpose of the national focus: “Mental Health Month raises awareness of trauma and the impact it can have on the physical, emotional, and mental well-being of children, families, and communities.” 

I note that children are mentioned first. They are at the mercy of the grown-ups, and when the grown-ups in their lives are suffering, children suffer. They often don’t understand or have a framework for understanding, not for years to come, or maybe ever. To a child, your norm is your norm. You have little to no power of your own. Think of how long the Turpin children suffered, before one managed to escape and get help.

Last month, in the neighborhood of the school where I work, a little girl was found dead with her mother in an apparent murder-suicide. I didn’t know this child; she wasn’t one of our students. But I have mourned her, mourned for whatever she suffered in her short life, mourned that a mother, unable to cope with whatever lies in her untold story, would resort to taking the life of an estranged partner and then her child.

People speak of unbreakable bonds, of the ties that bind. Sometimes those threads are very, very fragile.

Some of the threads running through the background are beautiful and bright, even as the family portrait bleeds away from the canvas. 

Sometimes destruction doesn’t come all at once, but by a long, slow unraveling.

Threads 

This morning I trimmed the threads off of my patchwork writing journal.

As I balled them up to throw them away

I realized the tangle of color in my hand.

They spoke to me: Remember?

Oh yes, I used to see you all over the floor when I was a child.

Rolling lazily across the hardwoods when we walked by

or nestled in the frayed carpet of the living room.

Fragments of my mother’s handiwork

vestiges of the artist she was

crafter of clothes we wore

tailor for many more.

Who’d have believed that such a creator

could destroy so completely?

A family of threads, each one its own vibrant color

in seams ripped apart

scattered far and wide

drifting on

and on

and on.

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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 20, I am writing around a word beginning with letter t.

The poem has been sitting as a draft for exactly two years today while I pondered publishing. I wrote the original draft as a participant in professional development for literacy coaches, of all things. I can’t remember the prompt now, only that we were to share our poems with a colleague.

My colleague wept.

I share it for the children.