A Poem for Remembering

Aunt BessWe all have special people in our lives. Folks who have an impact on us–whether fleeting or long term. I’ve been thinking lately about how many of those people in my life are gone now–Grandma Burla, Aunt Bess, Dusan & Marsha, Aunt Dorothy & Uncle Willis, Smutt & Anna, Grandma Ginny . . . the list goes on.

But maybe, since I carry a little bit of each one of those folks with me, they’re still here in a way. As long as I remember . . .

So here’s a poem for Aunt Bess who shaped my life and the person I am in ways I’m still discovering.

TRUE LOVE

Sometimes love has no motive.
Sometimes love sprouts wild
between the rows of corn,
string beans, and tomatoes.

At 95, Aunt Bess took her cane
and walked me round—
down to the mailbox,
over to the swimmin’ hole,
past the garden where she
remembered her only son
shooting a groundhog the day
he died of scarlet fever.

At 98, she sat me down
on the porch and held my hand.
She talked about Uncle Celly who
appeared like a ghost for dinner
and drew pictures of the Devil.

At 101, she laughed with joy
to see me through the screen door.
She sat in a patch of morning sun,
pulled a kitchen chair close,
asked about people whose deaths
slipped her mind. We resurrected
them there, in that old house,
and they were as good as alive to us.

Always, she cupped my face in soft,
bent hands and said, “You are
so dear to me. So dear.”

At 102 I gave her eulogy, told how
she loved me for no good reason
and how I loved her just the same.

Appalachian Thursday–False Spring

While folks living further to the north have no illusions about winter being over and folks further to the south rarely get the full-on winter experience, we here in the middle–the Appalachians–are suffering that in-between season.

We just had a major hit of snow and while we KNOW spring is a long ways off today is . . . warm. It’s downright mild. The sun’s been shining, the snow is mostly gone, and those fool robins keep dancing around in our yards.

It’s enough to give a person hope. At least for a minute.

FALSE SPRING

The yard is full of robins.
Fat and quick they flutter
like snowflakes falling before
the storm really arrives.

Just enough to draw my
attention—to make me look.

A frog is awake in the pond
below the house—he sounds
like a chicken clucking, like
children squabbling, like spring.

Just enough to turn my head—
to make me listen.

A neighbor works in his yard,
moving rocks and dirt and sticks.
He stirs the soil like plowing, like
planting the first promise of the year.

Just enough to tickle my nose—
to make me breathe . . . again.

But the calendar doesn’t lie the way
a day in February can. Those tips of green
will soon send their regrets and bow down
under the weight of stillborn hope.

And the robins will scatter to the wind.

Happy WV Day (two days late)

WV flagSaturday was West Virginia Day. Don’t worry, gifts aren’t expected. (Although one of those little black bears carved out of coal is always nice.)

We had friends over for dinner and served food seasoned with WV sea salt (no, it’s not a joke–check out JG Dickinson Salt Works.). There was a bouquet of rhododendron (the state flower) on the table and we listened to a Kathy Mattea CD (she’s a native). The shortbread peach cobbler was baked in a cast-iron skillet and, yes, I did sing, “Oh Those WV Hills,” much to my husband’s mortification.

But we West Virginians are nothing if not loyal to our home state. I’m astonished to realize that I’ve now lived in the Carolinas longer than I lived in West Virginia, but once a hillbilly, always a hillbilly. And proud of it.

I’ve shared this poem before, but in honor of my home state’s birthday, here it is again. An ode to the Mountain State, previously published in Now & Then: The Appalachian Magazine.

MOUNTAIN MAMA

There is truth in the trailer park
and honesty in the car on blocks.

Starvin’ Marvin and “as seen on TV”
live cheek by jowl with the likes
of handmade quilts and apple butter;
old-time music and the oral tradition.
Some folks say it isn’t True,
isn’t the way things used to be.
But lose a grandfather to the mines,
an uncle to the war, your mother
to a cancer that gnaws at her soul—
lose a child for no reason you can see.
Then you’ll find the fragile beauty
in the never-ending yard sale.
You’ll learn to love the tourists
who buy corncob pipes, coonskin caps,
and lumps of coal carved like bears.

When the giant timber companies
run the local sawmill out of money
and Aunt Eunice can’t remember your name—
when your best friend moves to California
and minimum wage is doing alright, man.
Then you’ll find the potent wisdom
in workers’ compensation, food stamps
and tonight’s lotto number—
dear God let me win.
A one in a billion chance is better
than watching the land your ancestors
cleared wash away . .  . no wish away
on the promises of strip mines
and a future you can’t afford to wait.

At night, the lights from Wal-Mart glow
like the promise of a better tomorrow.

Appalachian Wednesday–Cleaning Ditches

RainA state crew came out not long ago and re-ditched our road. It was badly needed in several places, but I have to say I wasn’t impressed with the finesse of large equipment. It worked great along the steep hill and in several other areas, but more than one stretch needed a more, shall we say delicate, approach.

My dad has long been a ditch maintenance artist. It’s an important job along country dirt and gravel roads where water washing across the roadbed can cause major problems. He often went out while it was raining because that’s the best time to see how the water will run. I also have a sneaking suspicion he liked being out in a bit of rain when he had could have the world all to himself.

I’ve run this poem before, but it’s been a couple of years and seeing the ragged, machine-made ditches reminded me of it. Hope you enjoy!

RAIN DAY

When it rained and the fields
could not be worked, my father
would take a shovel and walk
the muddy byways.
He watched the ditches
for clumps of leaves—little dams
forcing the flood across
the rutted road and one by one
released pent-up eddies of dirt
and debris. Maybe it was the need
to be doing, to be busy even as
nature went about the business
of watering the farm. Or maybe
it was the peace of walking
through a world narrowed down,
where the rain limned
each leaf and twig and stone,
where he could see his problems
in a glut of filth pried loose,
giving way, washing free
down the side of a mountain.

Getting Sentimental About a Bookcase

The BookcaseI’ve loved words, paper, books for as long as I can remember. Dad claims I learned to read because he had a habit of falling asleep while reading to me and I wanted to finish the stories. I “pretend wrote” before I learned my alphabet, filling pages with scribbles that looked kind of like words to me.

Once I could read I had a book with me all the time. And after working through the stack of library books I was sometimes forced to find something else. So I’d go to the bookcase at the end of the hall and see what I could turn up. This is where I discovered the poetry of Wendell Berry. Short stories by Ray Bradbury and Alfred Hitchcock. Essays by Andy Rooney.

It was an eclectic mix tucked away there by my parents and it taught me to be willing to try just about any book that was at hand. Something I’m still happy to do–although I’ve learned not to finish them if they don’t suit me.

This week, Dad brought me that very bookcase. It’s now situated in the back bedroom and I’ve finally gathered up the loose, homeless books scattered all over the house and given them a permanent home. And there’s still room. Heaven.

The bookcase isn’t an especially beautiful piece. It has some simple carving and feet that raise it up off the floor. It had doors once a long time ago, before my family knew it. The holes for the hinges are still there. It could stand to be refinished and there’s some dust in the cracks. But I want it just the way it is. Just the way I remember it when it was my ticket to other worlds, new ideas, and a love of reading that has served me well.

Favorite words from The Word

The Bible“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”

Now that’s a great first line.

When it comes to writing there are quite a few authors worth emulating–worth studying and learning from. Among the very best, of course, is the author of creation. He has some fantastic lines and ways of using language. Here are a few that standout for me:

From Luke chapter two – “And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord.”

I will ALWAYS volunteer to read this scripture at Christmas. And please let it be in the King James. There’s a rhythm to it–a building of suspense that releases with “Christ the Lord.” It’s a ta-da scripture.

Then there’s the 23rd Psalm–another bit I prefer in the poetry of King James. It has lovely imagery, a dark moment, redemption and a happy ending. All in six short verses. Commit it to memory–it’s a great bit of scripture to carry in your heart.

And how about the love chapter from I Corinthians–chapter 13? “When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put the ways of childhood behind me.” This passage is so logical and linear while still keeping the cadence of poetry. We should all write so well.

And don’t forget the whole first chapter of Genesis. Not only is it an amazing story told well, it has style. I particularly like the way it repeats “And there was evening, and there was morning—the first day.” Then a bit more story, “And there was evening, and there was morning—the second day.” And so on right up until the last verse, “God saw all that he had made, and it was very good. And there was evening, and there was morning—the sixth day.”

An excellent way to end a chapter–since we KNOW there are seven days. I mean, you’ve got to read on and find out what happens on day seven–in chapter two!

And the really great thing about looking to the Bible for literary inspiration is that it pretty well covers all genres. Romance? How about Queen Esther or the Song of Solomon? Drama? Try the building of the ark and the destruction of the world. Mystery? Well, there’s always Revelation.

But it’s not just great stories–it’s great stories told well. And that, after all, is what all authors are after. Perhaps even the author of . . . everything.