Memory, like morning (on the day of a friend’s funeral)

with thanks to Denise Krebs who shared the hay(na)ku form on Ethical ELA today.

First draft:

On waking before dawn on the morning of a beloved friend’s funeral

Memory
Like morning
Shimmers with light

Gathering
For Christmas
Across the years

You
Playing Santa
Giver of gifts

Laughter
Colorful, bright
Exquisite as snow

Stories
Like wine
Better over time

Dinners
Savored moments
Ending too soon

Envisioning
Your eyes
Always Christmas-bright

Awe
At love 
Given so freely

Embracing
Many others 
Ever-widening circle

Gathering
Together today
In your memory

Celebrating
Your life
Colorful, bright, exquisite

Testimony
To faith
In Lord Jesus

Returning
your body
to your homeplace

Earth
Where our
Young selves walked

Gathering
For Christmas
Across the years

Now
In springtime
Oceans of flowers

Bloom
Like promises
Around your grave

Friend
No good-byes
Only more homecomings

Rising
From darkness
In heaven’s embrace

Memory
Like morning
Shimmers with light

In the grass (a snapshot poem)

with thanks to Susan Ahlbrand who invited writing around an old snapshot today for #verselove at Ethical ELA.

A tribute to my grandmother, who had six children by age twenty-two, during the Depression. She outlived four of them. One baby boy died a few years before this photo was taken.

For those of you who read my poem for Earnie (my aunt Earline): she’s second from right, the child snuggled closest to her mother.

A pantoum for Day Twenty-Four of National Poetry Month

In the tall, tall grass
a mother’s determined love
covers a multitude of sins
revealed in time

A mother’s determined love
surviving day by day
revealed in time
burns at the roots of deprivation

Surviving day by day
her feisty, firebright glow
burns at the roots of deprivation
before the brokenness shows

Her feisty, firebright glow
covers a multitude of sins
before the brokenness shows
in the tall, tall grass

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.

I didn’t know I loved poem

with thanks to Barb Edler who posted the prompt for #VerseLove on Ethical ELA: “Consider the challenges you’ve overcome, the celebrations you can rejoice, the way you may miss something that you never realized you missed”…as inspiration for a “things I didn”t know I loved” poem.

When I returned to college later in life, after having had a family, I was asked to write an essay on “My Most Memorable Teacher.” I’d never thought about this before and was unprepared to write on the teacher who came immediately to mind…but I did write.

I had to.

On Day Nine of National Poetry Month, I give it to you in poem form.

For Mrs. Cooley

You terrified me, you know
looming large
an immovable mountain
in pearls and heels
casting your dark shadow
over my fourth-grade days

The topography of your years
etched deep on your face
your eagle eyes
piercing my very existence

The fear and trembling
of math drills—
Dear Lord
save me
from subtraction!—
I look up 
and there it is 
in your expression:
You can’t squeeze blood
from a turnip

I did not know
that many years later
when I’d be asked to write
of my most memorable teacher
that you’d spring to mind
clear as day
overshadowing all others

and that what I’d recall
is how you read 
Charlotte’s Web to the class

I did not know
I could love a spider so

and then how you read us
Old Yeller

My God my God
I almost died with 
that dog

I did not know
that you were the one
who made me love reading
for there is a difference
in being able to 
and it being the air you breathe

I could not believe
how worried you were
when I fell on the playground that day
how you cradled my distorted left arm
all the way to the office 
and waited with me
‘til Daddy came

I never dreamed
you’d come see me at home
when I had to stay in bed
propped with pillows
ice bag on my cast

I saw you
and the tears came—
I am missing the last two weeks of school
I won’t pass the fourth grade

I did not know you could CHUCKLE
that your sharp blue eyes
could go so soft
and watery
and I never heard that phrase before:
flying colors
you pass with flying colors

Would you believe
I am a teacher now
it isn’t what I planned
but here I am

I never knew until Daddy told me
years ago
that you’d passed
how much I’d long
to see you again
to ask you a thousand things
maybe even to laugh

but more than anything
to thank you
with all my heart

so I do that now
in hopes that you
and Charlotte
and Old Yeller
know that
my love
lives on

Photo: Girl reading. Pedro Ribeiro Simðes. CC BY – reminds me of young me

*******

Thanks also to Tabatha Yeatts for hosting the Poetry Friday Roundup

Grandmothers

For Grandma and Grannie. With all my gratitude and love, always.

They stood beside each other at the hospital’s nursery window on the evening I was born.
For one I was the first grandchild.
For the other I was the first granddaughter, following five boys.
The other stepped back so the one could see me better.

I inherited the middle name of one.
I inherited the brown eyes of the other.

One had the name of a red jewel. Ruby.
The other had the name of a white flower. Lillie.

One was born the day after Christmas, in the year of the Lusitania sinking.
The other was born at Eastertime, in the deadly third wave of Spanish flu.

While a young teen, one lost her father to suicide.
While a young teen, the other assisted her midwife mother in delivering babies.

One graduated from high school at sixteen.
The other didn’t finish school, but completed home health certification when I was a child.
I attended her pinning ceremony.

One was married at twenty. She had three babies in three Octobers across nine years.
The other was married at fifteen. She had six babies by the time she was twenty-two.

One outlived two children.
The other outlived four.

One’s marriage lasted sixty-two years.
The other had three marriages. Although she didn’t believe in divorce, she divorced a violent man.
She was widowed twice.

One held me on her lap and read to me.
The other let me open all the bottles in her spice rack to inhale the fragrances.

One held me in her arms when I was a baby laboring for breath—rocking, singing, weeping, until my asthma subsided.
The other brought 7-Up when I was a schoolchild home sick with stomach flu, vomiting all day.

One learned how to drive under the instruction of her twelve-year-old son (my father).
The other learned how to drive in her fifties, as did her daughter (my mother).

One wrote me letters and kept diaries.
The other took me shopping when I needed shoes.

One played the piano. I sat beside her, harmonizing on all the old hymns in musty, well-worn books.
The other carried only Aigner purses. She bought my first one, as well as my first birthstone ring.

One gave me her prized antique locket.
The other gave me her mesmerizing floating opal.

One shielded her fair skin with a straw hat and long sleeves all summer.
The other’s olive skin just browned more in the sun.

One lived deep in the country, in a little white house that will forever seem to me a corner of Heaven.
The other lived in town, in a big house of mysterious angles and shadows, once nearly destroyed in a fire.
Both houses are gone, now.

One could make any flowering thing thrive. In the garden, the orchard, the African violets in her window.
So could the other. She resuscitated more than one of my houseplants.

One made the best collards I ever tasted, although the smell while cooking would knock you down.
The other made a glorious rum cake for holidays, although that first whiff upon removing the Tupperware lid would knock you down.
Both made killer potato salad.

One sent me money to buy an Easter dress every year until I was in my thirties.
The other randomly surprised me with things like satin boxes of Valentine chocolates and by coming to my school plays.

One went faithfully to church.
So did the other.

One told me I was a good mother and that she was so proud of me.
So did the other.

One battled dementia for a short while.
The other had open-heart surgery and battled diabetes and dialysis for years.

One died three days shy of her ninety-first birthday, in a nursing home.
The other died at eighty-one, in a hospital.

They sat beside each other one summer afternoon long ago, at my wedding.
They taught me everything about sacrifice and survival.
They walk with me for as long as I live.

Fashioned and faceted,
I am who I am
because of one
and the other.

My grandmothers, Ruby and Lillie, at my wedding.

*******

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 approachOn Day 7, I am writing around a word beginning with letter g. “Grandmothers” came immediately to mind.

Trebek tribute

I love writing to photos. I often do so here on Lit Bits and Pieces (some of my recent favorites: Old Red Barn, Dancing Ghosts, and from earlier this week, High In the Sunlit Silence). Today’s prompt on Sharing Our Stories: Magic in a Blog is writing to a photo, taking special note of the background.

Ordinarily I’d comb through my nature photos for a chance to let the background reveal its secrets, capturing impressions in light of what they seem to be saying to me… but this week a person looms large in the foreground of my mind and so I write to these images instead, out of gratitude, remembrance, and mourning…

-Alex Trebek from the retro run of Jeopardy! when taping ceased this summer due to COVID-19. Alex became the new host the year before my husband and I were married. As young newlyweds, my husband and I competed against each other, keeping tally mark scores (which were occasionally disputed…). Our children, from babyhood onward, knew Alex Trebek. As a toddler, our oldest pronounced the surname “Tra-jeck.” He’d announce along with Johnny Gilbert: “And here’s the star of our show, Aaaa-lex Tra-jeck!” Alex eventually asked to be introduced as the host; he said the show belonged to the contestants, for they are the stars.

As time passed, our oldest accrued his own set of tally marks and eventually wiped the floor with his dad and me. We were hardly competition for him. He took the Jeopardy! test a few years ago and didn’t become a contestant; we urged him to keep trying… these days, his brother, eight years younger, who looked at the rest of us with a sort of reticent fascination and maybe concern over our addiction to Jeopardy! through the years, regularly whips his parents.

And so, across four decades, Jeopardy! marked family time. It marked learning. With it we watched our children come into their own. It marked our personal friendly, sometimes fierce, but always fun, competition, all presided over by Alex like a modern-day oracle, a witty human version of Apollo or Odin, the holder of knowledge, wisdom, mysteries, trivia…

We grieved when Alex shared the news of his pancreatic cancer last year. We marveled at his spirit, his courage.

I’ve watched several interviews since his death last Sunday. These lines stay with me:

How do I want to be remembered? As a nice guy… I never went out of my way to malign anyone…

While looking at this photo of young Alex I can’t help noting the red and blue background in the context of 2020, hearing his voice echo: I never went out of my way to malign anyone…

We still have so much to learn.

Speaking of voting…

Silver fox: Another shot from the retro summer run. In 2018, Alex let viewers vote on social media for him to keep or not to keep his beard. Results were never exactly determined, as apparently Alex’s wife said let it go. That was enough for him.

In September our youngest gave his dad Alex’s autobiography as a birthday gift. At the outset, Alex says he’s not a writer, that he isn’t comfortable writing about himself.

But he did it, for us to know “Alex Trebek, human being” a little better.

This self-avowed “non-writer” writes:

I’ll be perfectly content if that’s how my story ends: sitting on the swing with the woman I love, my soul mate, and our two wonderful children nearby. I’ll sit there for a while and then maybe the four of us will go for a walk, each day trying to walk a little farther than the last. We’ll take things a step at a time, one day at a time. In fact, I think I’ll go sit in the swing for a bit right now.

The weather is beautiful—the sun is shining into a mild, mild looking sky, and there’s not a cloud in sight.

His family was with him when he passed.

Mine mourns. On receiving the news, our four-year-old granddaughter wept. “Who will be the host now?”

Just one more answer
Elucidating, eloquent, as an era ends.
Our minds can hardly contain the vast
Potpourri of knowledge showcased.
Alex, your legacy to generations
Remains like the ultimate
Daily Double—
You enriched our lives, exponentially.

He is a permanent figure, there in the background of the story of our lives.

Final words—the back dust jacket of Alex’s book.

If you want to write in community, SOS: Magic in a Blog invites you to share your heart.

Lines of remembering

Fatherhood

I would write this as a letter but there is no point
as you would not receive it, would not read it, would not respond,
so I write it as verse instead because I want to talk to you

and because poetry, like love, transcends.

It’s dark and gloomy today, steady rain
tossing itself against the windows, not at all
the crisp, bright day it was, that fall
eighteen years ago.


The weather’s playing havoc with my Internet connection
but then, so few things are connecting anymore
as they should, in these dark and gloomy times

you can’t imagine, even though you lived your own.

One of my favorite stories about you: Little boy,
running hard as you could down the old dirt road,
bursting into the house, “Mother! Mother! I just heard on
Grandma’s radio—President Roosevelt is dead!”

She couldn’t believe it, could she, but soon enough,
everyone was wondering: What will happen to
our country now? Who will lead us out of war?
Is it ever going to end?
Is there life beyond?

If you were here, would you recognize our country now?
Eighteen years have come and gone (I think you’d love a GPS
and texting, so much better than e-mail you’d just learned to use)
in the interim of our lifetimes, this last one, an accordion of implosion.

Did I ever tell you I once had a dream
that you and I were standing on a ridge looking out
over a barren land, as if an apocalypse had occurred,
leaving us as the only living things
?

You tried to explain but I couldn’t make out the words,
couldn’t understand, but I knew that you knew why and I wasn’t

afraid, mostly just surprised and curious, looking over that desert wasteland
—I ponder now: Is now what I was seeing then?

Although you aren’t here anymore to say, to lead by example
of unfailing duty, to give insight and wisdom, and perhaps courage

I do wonder if you ever thought of yourself as courageous, despite
your saying that a smart man would have gotten further in life.

No one is smart all the time and how I long to hear
what you have to say, now more than ever, never mind that
I am grown and my children are grown, for I find myself yearning,
returning, to the arrow of the compass that you were.


If I could write the letter, I’d say I miss you, you’ve missed so much,
the boys are well, you’d be so proud. I’d say I took
a corner of your protective cloak and wrapped it
over them for as long as I could, the way you did for me.


If I was granted a wish for changing one thing
in the past, it would be for more carefree times
like the day you raced me on the beach when I was little
and I knew you let me win.


We only did it that once, you running between me and the tide,
your shadow hopping over shells and disintegrating sand castles,
dipping in small hollows, until you swept me up into your young arms,
laughing there with blue eyes, blue sea, in the sunlight.


Yes, that’s what I’d wish, the freedom, the light, the salt, the joy,
the time to play, for it was rare and I doubt if you’d even recall
these moments that stay with me like an old photograph,
fading, becoming fragile, curling up at the edges.

But I still hold on, gently, feeling the pulse of memory
while seeking silences where I can sort
the images and collate them in some semblance of order

when I need it most, and when you seem most near.

These lines won’t bring you back and I don’t wish it, I just trust that
my words, beating like memory, like the waves on the shore,
will ripple on into infinity to the place where our circles coincide,
where you still guide, running between me and the tide.

*******

Just a draft, on the anniversary of Daddy’s passing, September 25th.
Shared for Poetry Friday with thanks to Jone Rush MacCulloch for the invitation to “bring poetry goodness to the world today.”

Photo: Fatherhood. Giuseppe MiloCC-BY

On September and scuppernongs

September in North Carolina means the return of the scuppernong grape.

It’s the state fruit. I first tasted scuppernongs as a child, standing with my grandfather under his arbor, thick leaves waving in the breeze, benevolent sun intermingling with cool shadow. The plain appearance of these grapes is misleading; the taste is divine. Richer than anything on Earth. Those thick, humble hulls contain ambrosia. And seeds; Granddaddy said just spit ’em out. It’s worth it.

Today’s his birthday. He’d be 114. As long as I live, he is, the scuppernong is, inextricable from September…

Every year, I await the return.

And savor it.

September, sovereign whose
Crowning glory is not of gilt but of
Unassuming mottled orbs,
Pendulous bronze-green
Pendants strung on knotted vine.
Elysian fields, perhaps, this black earth where my
Roots run deep, where my ancestors sleep.
Noble edict, “Be fruitful and multiply,”
Obeyed here to an extent only by divine design.
North Carolina’s soil stirred, responded, produced—
God alone infused the foretaste of heaven in its grapes.

With deepest thanks to the friends who know and bring me these offerings from their families’ old vines.

Thanks also to the inspirational Poetry Friday gathering at Radio, Rhythm & Rhyme and to Matt for hosting.

You are my song

After walking together, one evening.

 

You were a long time in coming

a long time absorbing the world

and deciding to smile

I know the shadows stretch long

in your young life, but 

if you never knew until now,

You are my song,

you are my song.

Noticing patterns in everything

hearing the music before you knew words

It was always a part of you,

the very heart of you

Just as you are my song,

you are my song.

Life’s a composition of

bright major and dark minor chords

The most beautiful timbre, your voice

in your gentle soul I rejoice

For you are my song,

you are my song.

  At the end of the day, know that 

I love you

You’re heaven’s light shining on me.

The tenor of my life,

a smile on the world.

You are my song

you are my song.

Always, forever, my sweet son

—you are my song.

 

Circle of light

Good fairy

The Fairy Queen. Shayariel TeardropCC-BY

I have a colleague, mentor, and friend who retired a few years ago but who remains tirelessly dedicated to supporting teachers as writers. I was about to describe her here as a small, lively lady but those words don’t do her justice; she’s a vivacious dynamo. Her bright blue eyes always sparkling with energy, she’s mission-minded, a visionary, able to discern and speak hard truths with grace, even humor.

This past summer, as we co-facilitated a teacher-writer institute in our district, my friend was constantly thinking of ways to empower our attendees: “You know, if we need additional assistance, she would be wonderful; she knows so much about teaching young writers,” or “We need to think about a way to get them to share their experiences as writers; more teachers need to hear this!”

Listening to her one afternoon, as she made more suggestions on how colleagues could maximize their strengths, an image formed in my mind: My friend garbed as a fairy, walking a twisting path through an ominous, dark forest, wand held aloft, casting a welcoming light, seeing the good that’s hidden, calling it to her.

“You’re like a good fairy,” I told her, “the way you see people and empower them to find and use their gifts. It’s amazing how you’re always drawing more people into your warm circle of light, no matter how dark the path might get.”

“Oooh, I love that!” laughed my friend. “With a frog on my shoulder!”

“You know I will have to write about this,” I warned.

“Okay, just don’t forget the frog,” she said, eyes twinkling, moving on to a table to give feedback to a teacher who was just beginning to see herself as a writer. I watched as tears flowed down that teacher’s radiant face.

I thought about how I wouldn’t have been here at this institute, wouldn’t have had numerous opportunities as a literacy coach and writer if it hadn’t been for this friend who tapped me almost immediately for the work. Nearly from our first encounter, she encouraged me to use my voice, to seize moments, to inspire others, to keep pressing on, and, above all, to WRITE.

How thankful I am for her circle of light, that she drew me into it. Greater than any candle, torch, or wand, the light of inspiration passes from one to another as we march onward in the journey of life, with its inevitable twists, unexpected turns, obstacles, and darkness. Sometimes we cannot see further than our own immediate, wavering circle of light. That’s when it’s most important to look ahead, to recognize those going before us like beacons, vibrantly carrying on. Whatever comes, my friend will always be there, shining bright, holding her light as high as she can to make the circle larger . . . her little frog riding on her shoulder.