An Inheritance Bereft of Poetry

All day we packed boxes.
We read birth and death certificates.
The yellowed telegrams that announced
our births, the cards of congratulations
and condolences, the deeds and debts,
love letters, valentines with a heart
ripped out, the obituaries.

We opened the divorce decree,
a terrible document of division and subtraction.
We leafed through scrapbooks:
corsages, matchbooks, programs to the ballet,
racetrack, theatre—joy and frivolity
parceled in one volume—
painstakingly arranged, preserved
and pasted with crusted glue.

We sat together side by side
on the empty floor and did not speak.
There were no words
between us other than the essence
of the words from the correspondences,
our inheritance—plain speak,
bereft of poetry.
~Jill Bialosky from The Players

The box of over 700 letters, exchanged between my parents from late 1941 to mid-1945, sat unopened for decades. The time had come.

My parents barely knew each other before marrying quickly on Christmas Eve 1942 – the haste due to the uncertain future for a newly trained Second Lieutenant in the Marine Corps. They only had a few weeks together before she returned home to her rural teaching position and he readied himself for the island battles to come.

I’m now half-way through reading them in chronological order. I’m up to March 1943 when my father received orders that he would be shipped out to the South Pacific within days. They had no idea they would not see each other for another 30+ months or see each other again at all. They had no idea their marriage would fall apart 35 years later and they would reunite a decade after the divorce.

The letters do contain the long-gone but still-familiar voices of my parents, but they are the words and worries of youngsters of 20 and 21, barely prepared for the horrors to come from war and interminable waiting. Much of the time they wrote each other daily, though with minimal news to share and military censors at work, but they speak mostly of their desire for a normal life together rather than a routine centered on mailbox, pen and paper.

I’m not sure what I hoped to find in these letters. Perhaps I hoped for flowery romantic whisperings and the poetry of longing and loneliness. Instead I am reading plain spoken words from two people who somehow made it through those awful years to make my sister and brother and myself possible.

Our inheritance is contained in this musty box of words bereft of poetry. But decades later my heart is moved by these letters – I carefully refold them back into their envelopes and replace them gently back in order. A six cent airmail stamp – in fact hundreds and hundreds of them – was a worthwhile investment in their future and ultimately mine.

The Coiled Shell of Their Lives

Needing them still, I come
when I can, this time to the sea
where we share a room: their double bed,
my single. Morning fog paints the pale
scene even paler. Lace curtains breathing,
the chenille spread folded back,
my father’s feet white sails furled
at the edge of blue pajamas.
Every child’s dream, a parent
in each hand, though this child is fifty.
Their bodies fit easily, with room
to spare. When did they grow
so small? Grow so small—
as if it were possible to swell
backwards into an earlier self.


One more year, I ask the silence.
Last night to launch myself
into sleep I counted their breaths, the tidal
rise and fall I now put my ear to,
the coiled shell of their lives.
~Rebecca McClanahan from “Watching my Parents Sleeping Beside an Open Window Near the Sea” from Deep Light: New and Selected Poems.

My parents have been gone now for some time, my father over 25 years, my mother now over 10 years. Their dying was a long process of counted breaths and pauses. I witnessed their bodies curling into themselves, shrinking smaller, worn down by illness and age.

I still miss them, reminded of them by the events of my own life, still wanting them to take me by the hand as I navigate my own daily path.

After mom’s death, those possessions not distributed to family members have remained packed up and stored in our barn buildings. I know it is well past time to deal with their stuff as I become keenly aware of my own greying and aging.

Untouched in the bookshelf of our bedroom is a sealed box of over 500 letters written by my mother and father between 1941 and 1945. I know the letters began as they were getting to know each other at college, then going from “pinned” to “engaged” and continue for three and a half more years after a hurried wedding Christmas Eve 1942. By mid January 1943 my newly minted Marine officer father shipped out to spend the next three years of his life on the Pacific Ocean, fighting on the battlefields of Saipan, Tinian and Tarawa, not to return again to the states until late summer of 1945. My mother wrote her letters from a rural eastern Washington community, living in a “teachers’ cottage” with other war wives who taught school while waiting for their husbands to return home – or not.

It has taken me a decade to find the courage and time to devote to reading these letters they treasured and never threw away. Yesterday I sorted them unopened by postmark date into some semblance of order and sat down to start at the very beginning, which, of course, is my beginning as well. Only sixty letters in, I open each one with some trepidation and a lump in my throat about what I might find written there. I worry I may find things I don’t want to know. I hope I find things that I desperately need to know.

Most of all I want to understand the two people who became my parents within the coiled shell of their forty years together, though broken by a painful divorce which lasted a decade. Having lived through that awful time with them, I want to understand the origin of a love which mended their cracked shell, glueing them back together for five more years before my father died.

As I read their words over the next few weeks, I hope I too can cross a bridge back to them both.

Sorting Laundry

Given over to love,
she un-balls the socks,

lets fall debris of days,
leaf litter, sand grain,

slub of some sticky substance,
picks it all for the sake

of the stainless tub
of the gleaming new front loader.

Given over to love long ago, when her own
exasperated moan bounced off

the quaint speckled enamel
of the top loader

vowing: she’d do this always and well.
She fell in love then, she fell in line—

in a march of millions, you pair them,
two by two, you marry the socks.

~Heid E. Erdrich “Laundress” from Curators of Ephemera at the New Museum for Archaic Media

Settling into the straw, I am grateful for a quiet moment after a 12 hour workday followed by all the requisite personal conversations that help mop up the spills and splatters of every day life. My family verbally unloads their day like so much stored up laundry needing to be washed and rinsed with the spin cycle completed before tomorrow dawns. I move from child to child to child to husband to grandmother, hoping to help each one clean, dry, fold and sort everything in their pile, including finding and marrying each stray sock with its partner.

Not to be outdone, I pile up a little dirty laundry of my own as I complain about my day as well. My own socks are covered in burrs and stickers and resist matching.

I’m on “spent” cycle so I retreat to the barn where communication is less demanding and requires more than just my ears and vocal cords.   Complaints are meaningless here and so are unmarried socks.

In this place a new foal and his vigilant mama watch my every move.

This colt is intrigued by my intrusion into his 12′ x 24′ world. His mother is annoyed. He comes over to sniff my foot and his mother swiftly moves him away with a quick swing of her hips, daunting me with the closeness of her heels. Her first instinct insists she separate me from him and bar my access. My mandate is to woo her over. I could bribe her with food, but, no,  that is too easy.

A curry comb is best. If nothing else will work, a good scratching always does. Standing up, I start peeling sheets of no longer needed winter hair off her neck,  her sides, her flank and hindquarter.  She relaxes in response to my efforts,  giving her baby a body rub with her muzzle, wiggling her lips all up and down from his back to his tummy. He is delighted with this spontaneous mommy massage and leans into her, moving around so his hind end is under her mouth and his front end is facing me. Then he starts giving his own version of a massage too, wiggling his muzzle over my coat sleeve and wondrously closing this little therapeutic triangle.

Here we are, a tight little knot of givers/receivers with horse hair flying in a cloud about us. One weary human, one protective mama mare and one day-old foal, who is learning so young how to contribute to the well being of others.

Given over to love, to do it always and well.

It is an incredible gift of trust bestowed on me like a blessing.  I realize this horse family is helping me sort my own laundry in the same way I help with my human family’s load.

Too often in life we find ourselves in painful triangles, passing our kicks and bites down the line to each other rather than providing needed relief and respite. We find ourselves unable to wrench free from continuing to deliver the hurts we’ve just received.  What strength it takes to respond with kindness when the kick has just landed on our backside. How chastened we feel when a kindness is directed at us, as undeserving as we are after having bitten someone hard.

Instead of biting, try massaging.  Instead of kicking, try tickling. Instead of fear, try acceptance.  Instead of annoyance, try patience. Instead of piling up so much dirty laundry of your own, try washing, folding and sorting what is given to you by others, handing it back all clean, smelling better and ready for the next day.

And even if the socks don’t match exactly, marry them anyway.
Just give them over to love.

Packed and Unpacked

Holes in the shape of stars
punched in gray tin, dented,
cheap, beaten by each
of her children with a wooden spoon.

Noodle catcher, spaghetti stopper,
pouring cloudy rain into the sink,
swirling counter clockwise
down the drain, starch slime
on the backside, caught
in the piercings.

Scrubbed for sixty years, packed
and unpacked, the baby’s
helmet during the cold war,
a sinking ship in the bathtub,
little boat of holes.

Dirt scooped in with a plastic
shovel, sifted to make cakes
and castles. Wrestled
from each other’s hands,
its tin feet bent and re-bent.

Bowl daylight fell through
onto freckled faces, noon stars
on the pavement, the universe
we circled aiming jagged stones,
rung bells it caught and held.

~Dorianne Laux “My Mother’s Colander”from Only As the Day is Long: New and Selected Poems.

Many of my mother’s kitchen things, some over seventy years old, are still packed away in boxes that I haven’t had the time or the emotional wherewithal to open. They sit waiting for me to sort and purge and save and weep.

But this kitchen item, her old dented metal colander, she gave to me when I moved into my first apartment some 40 years ago – she had purchased a bright green plastic colander at a Tupperware party so the old metal one seemed somehow outdated, overworked and plain. It had held hundreds of pounds of rinsed garden vegetables during my childhood, had drained umpteen pasta noodles, had served as a sifter in our sandbox, and a helmet for many a pretend rocket launch to infinity and beyond.

It still works fine, thank you very much, for all intended and some unintended purposes. It does make me wonder what other treasures may surprise me when I finally decide to open up my mother’s boxes. She died ten years ago, but her things remain, as if in suspended animation, to be rediscovered when I’m ready. They wait patiently to be useful to someone again, touched lovingly and with distinct purpose as they once were, and be remembered for the part they played in one woman’s long and faith-filled life.

Maybe, just maybe, it will feel like I’ve unpacked Mom once again as well.

To infinity and beyond…

Where All is Unentangled

And this, then,
is the vision of that Heaven of which
we have heard, where those who love
each other have forgiven each other,

where, for that, the leaves are green,
the light a music in the air,
and all is unentangled,
and all is undismayed.
~Wendell Berry “To My Mother”

To think how a mother’s love is strengthened
by the experience of a life and light within her,
moving, stretching, hiccuping, listening

~already forgiven: this is heaven where all is grace~

the tangles we have made of our lives
unraveled, straightened and smoothed,
without worry or dismay over mistakes we’ve made

I only hope I have loved well
<those three I carried within>
as I was so well loved



Please Call Me When You Get There

Vigil at my mother’s bedside

Lying still, your mouth gapes open as
I wonder if you breathe your last.
Your hair a white cloud
Your skin baby soft
No washing, digging, planting gardens
Or raising children
Anymore.

Where do your dreams take you?
At times you wake in your childhood home of
Rolling wheat fields, boundless days of freedom.
Other naps take you to your student and teaching days
Grammar and drama, speech and essays.
Yesterday you were a young mother again
Juggling babies, farm and your wistful dreams.

Today you looked about your empty nest
Disguised as hospital bed,
Wondering aloud about
Children grown, flown.
You still control through worry
and tell me:
Travel safely
Get a good night’s sleep
Take time to eat
Call me when you get there

I dress you as you dressed me
I clean you as you cleaned me
I love you as you loved me
You try my patience as I tried yours.
I wonder if I have the strength to
Mother my mother
For as long as she needs.

When I tell you the truth
Your brow furrows as it used to do
When I disappointed you~
This cannot be
A bed in a room in a sterile place
Waiting for death
Waiting for heaven
Waiting

And I tell you:
Travel safely
Eat, please eat
Sleep well
Call me when you get there.

Smoothing Out the Rough Edges

What does it feel like to be alive?
Living, you stand under a waterfall…
It is time pounding at you, time. 
Knowing you are alive is watching on every side 
your generation’s short time falling away 
as fast as rivers drop through air, 
and feeling it hit.
I had hopes for my rough edges. I wanted to use them as a can opener, to cut myself a hole in the world’s surface, and exit through it.
~Annie Dillard from An American Childhood

Mothering can feel like standing under a waterfall barely able to breathe, barraged by the firehose of birthing and raising and loving one’s children, so much so fast.  Few rough edges remain after child rearing — all becomes soft and cushiony, designed to gather in, hold tight, and then reluctantly and necessarily, let go.

I’m well aware, even after my children have grown and flown, my rough edges still manage to surface, like Godzilla from the primordial swamp, unbidden and unwarranted.  I want the sharpness gone, sanded down by the waterfalls of life, and smoothed to a fine finish.

My children continue to polish me, now from afar.  Time pounds away at me.  I can feel it hitting, each and every drop.