Happy Birthday, Mom

I was up at 5:30 this morning, fretting about the political scene, finally getting out of bed and stumbling to my writing desk.

I finished the review I’ve been trying to write for months, revised a poem, and queried one more agent, regarding my mystery novel. I was typing today’s date, 10.8.20, when I remembered that today is my mother’s birthday. Or, as we say when someone has passed, today is the anniversary of her birth.

Since Mom’s death, on October 12, 2018, I’ve written a lot of poems that seem to be about her. Even this week, writing about two great blue herons on a dock, I was drawing from the memory of a walk I took after visiting Mom at her skilled-nursing facility. The poem felt shot-through with her presence.

Mom and I had a lot of differences. Setting up her apartment after she moved from the farmhouse, I would set out her knick knacks and pictures so they were asymmetrical. I like triangles, staggered lines, angles. She would come behind me and straighten everything to be evenly balanced and straight across.

Mom was proud of  me, I think, but she didn’t understand my choice to become educated and we could never talk about it. She thought being a teacher was a good thing. But I had overdone it, getting a Ph.D. in literature. It seemed like a waste of money to her that we were saving for our daughters’ higher education. “College has ruined your mind,” she said to me once.

We were at opposite ends of the political spectrum. Or it felt as though we were. So were the rest of my family of origin. (My daughters think this is hilarious: “You’re like their black sheep.”) It was God’s grace that I was able to set aside those differences during the years of caring for Mom in her decline.

But we shared things, too. We both loved mystery novels. I was a little more hard-boiled about it, but I was perfectly happy to spend evenings with her watching the light-hearted mystery-comedies that she loved: Monk, and Murder, She Wrote. After her stroke in 2014 she was no longer able to follow a television program and I brought home her DVDs. I never watched them. Watching the shows with her was the whole point.

It means a lot to me that I was able to read a chapter of my murder mystery to her before her death. Did she take it in? I’m not sure. (“That woman!” she said.)

Here’s a poem from a 2018 notebook that I recently stumbled across. I had forgotten that I wrote it:

Pilgrimage

After her death
I would wake
in the night,
my heart tender
as a bruise,
the night room purple
in moonlight wavering
like the surface of
a pond. The room
was a pond,
or a chalice, water
like satin, familiar
as thirst or hunger.
What communion
was this, where there was
no sorrow now
and no more longing?
I had reached the end
of the journey I made
with my mother,
the quest of her final
ten years, the quest
of my whole life
in company with her,
ushered to a close.
Waking, I drank
from that cup.
I ate the bread.
I waited for the benediction
to bless me as I walked on.

Happy birthday, Mom.

Jed Myers

Photograph copyrighted by Rosanne Olson

WATCHING THE PERSEIDS, Jed Myers. Sacramento Poetry Center Press, 1719 25th St., Sacramento CA, 95816, 84 pages, $15 paper, http://www.sacramentopoetrycenter.com/.

Speaking of independent bookstores, I purchased Watching the Perseids at BookTree in Kirkland, Washington, after attending a workshop and reading given by no other than Jed Myers himself. The poems are about Myers’s father, but they are also about memory and families and music and baseball and our desire to revisit the ineffable past.

Here is the title poem:

Watching the Perseids

The broadcast’s breaking up in static–
solar flares, snow, ozone
fluctuations, I don’t know.

Should I care? I can still play the message
my phone captures one year back–
No Time for Love“–he sings

the refrain in that same boyish tone
I’d heard come out of him over a steak,
or climbing the bleachers to our seats,

my hand in his, before
a night game at Connie Mack. Even
on his way out in the cold in the dawn

to catch the train, singing whatever
he said–his brisk See ya lat-er!
down the steps. See ya to-night!

Singing the tireless dance of his life–
he left no time in it for the quiet
closeness of watching the Perseids

or the river from its banks, the fire’s
sparks disappearing into the dark….
Not until it was near the time

for hospice, to never again know
where he was. Those last hours on his own
bed, I’d lie beside him and we’d sing

whatever old tune came into either
one of our heads. Quiet.
Like watching the tide.

Now, his music is drowning
in surf-sound. My brain’s magic
receiver is shorting out. Or is it

the train I hear, him on it, still
singing, voice going remote
in the clatter and hiss? Has he lifted

the ticket out of his coat pocket,
handed it over to the conductor,
and sat back, softly sounding out

Lullaby of Birdland? I can wonder,
try to hear his voice in the white noise
between my ears, while he travels

like the seasoned commuter he was
to that city past the meteors, out
past the planets, in the stars.

 

Carol Levin

AN UNDERCURRENT OF JITTERS, Carol Levin. Moon Path Press, P.O. Box 445, Tillamook, OR 97141, 2018, 96 pages, $15 paper, http://moonpathpress.com/.

I’ve crossed paths with Carol Levin many times over the years, often at It’s About Time, a reading series that meets on the second Thursday of each month in Ballard, Washington. Levin is also an editor with Crab Creek Review, so I’ve encountered her at Seattle Arts & Lectures, as well. But her accomplishments throughout the Northwest arts scene goes on and on, and we have mutual friends. I thought I knew her rather well. Then she invited me to visit her and her husband, Geo, at home, and it was as if I’d dropped through a trap door into another level of an amazing and rich life.

That’s exactly the experience one has reading Levin’s fifth book of poems, An Undercurrent of Jitters. In her brief introduction she explains how she was “catapulted” by writing one poem — about not knowing “what my mother wore at her wedding…” — into writing a book of poems all about weddings and marriage.

With so many weddings postponed amid the Corona Virus ban on gatherings, these poems seem especially poignant. They also remind me of something I was told, before the onset of my own 35-year marriage:

“The wedding is just a big party–the marriage should be the real celebration.”

THE MOST IMPORTANT THING TO SAVE WHEN THE HOUSE IS BURNING DOWN

Save George. Save the way he says bow wow
as he greets his crush of dogs.
Save how he rolls on the floor, three dogs
clambering over him licking his beard.
How he laughs and how all four of them
make those snuggling noises.
Save George when he is excited
and lifts his heels bobbing
off the floor, sometimes
drops of spittle sparkle in the corner
of his lips while he tells stories
and can’t talk fast enough.
His cut hands calloused,
raw from working wood.
Save the way he looks at them and shrugs.
Save George who never looks at dirt,
the worst person to clean house.
You can save him regardless–
as you follow him around to find
what messes he misses–
but watch, he can’t pass
the coffee table without setting
each item in the spot
he insists it must be. Methodically
he moves the Deco birchwood box
an eighth of an inch, straightens
the album, exacting edge to edge.
Don’t forget
to save the way he walks room
to room brushing his teeth.
Even if you find the toothbrush
abandoned on the kitchen counter or top
of the dresser, save it.
He is a hugger.
That is the most important thing to save
when the house is burning down.
Save his hugs and how, when he hugs,
he says–that’s nice
I needed that.

 

 

A December Miscellany

Where should I begin? (Where does anyone begin?)

This year I’m awash in memories of Christmases past. My three daughters showed up on Sunday to make cookies and help us pick out a tree — just my girls and no boyfriends, which is rare! I always enjoy seeing the whole noisy bunch of them, but it was a joy to see my trio hanging out and talking together. Then — they were gone, leaving a completely naked tree standing in the living room, and a million memories of their younger years bumping around inside my heart. (I decided to feel grateful and happy instead of bereft.)

I’ve also found myself awash in memories of my childhood. For years I’ve wanted to write a Christmas story to share with my family — something about the Port Orford cedar that stood in our front yard. This is me, setting a marker.

And I really, really want you to read this poem, “Christmas Mail,” by the phenomenal Ted Kooser.

Besides, I just spent an hour making one of my favorite quotes pretty so I could share it with a group — and now I can share it with you, too.