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Remembering

This is for Megan. We had a conversation today about early memories. It reminded me of the following poem. I had the incredible good luck to be in a workshop with Denise Levertov and this came out of that.

ORPHAN

Longing began in secret
when I was a child
the feeling that stole my security
the pull of a distant world
intrigued and grieved me

It came from seeing a woman
more beautiful than my mother
but it had more to do
with hedges and backyards at nightfall

Oh, to be out under those stars
slipping through the hedges
running on the streets
bare feet slapping the still-warm pavement

an orphan

escaped from the burden of
complicated family love

Storytime Continues

Heeeer's the next one:



HOLY JUSTICE AND THE TRIUMPH OF THE OPPRESSED


Dear President Reagan;

My name is Dora Jean Ashley Craddock and I have a terrible problem I hope you can help me with. I am writing to you because my teacher said the Supreme Court Justices only listen to problems if lawyers bring them up. And I’m not a lawyer, at least not yet. I’m actually twelve years old and being deprived of my constitutional right to sleep in my own room. If you’re too busy for this will you please give my letter to Mrs. Reagan. She seems like a nice lady and I think Susan Margaret would listen to her, especially if she says you agree with her, but Mrs. Reagan might need to throw in the Pope or the Queen of England for good measure.

I know that sounds like a lot but you don’t know my sister. She hasn’t come out of our room in three days and I think she may have settled in for good. Like Emily Dickinson. I think that’s just fine actually. It’s just that she won’t let me in. She has thrown clothes out the door to me and then locked the door again. And my parents have just given up as usual.

My sister, Susan Margaret Carter Craddock is blaming me for what she calls the humiliation of her life and there is no way I can be considered to be in the slightest bit to blame for this admittedly unfortunate occurrence.

Here are the facts and I’ll let you (or Mrs. Reagan) decide.

Susan Margaret has always called me mean even when I’m just being playful. She is four years and three months older than me and that makes her the queen of the earth, she thinks. She always uses her VOCABULARY against me and loves to argue and then pretend I started it so she can be the mature one in the family. She is a Rainbow Girl which is a very secret club which she holds over me by saying if I’m not nice to her she won’t nominate me when I get old enough to join and she will BLACKBALL me if someone else nominates me. She is some color of the rainbow in the club which sounds pretty silly but that’s all I know about it. She doesn’t even have anything written down about it in her diary or in any of her things. I guess it’s all memorized. She said she wants to be a Worthy Advisor. And she got mad when I told her to watch out about the babies. It was a civic duty I was performing. All the Worthy Advisors in this town end up pregnant. I think it must have something to do with the job.

My sister always has to be perfect in everything. This makes me mad and so I can’t help a few little jokes now and then, like recording her and her friends when they had a slumber party and the old saran wrap over the john routine. But I had nothing to do with the terrible accident and she has no right to blame me.

As part of Susan Margaret’s club, she had the job of being on the Miss Sweetwater High committee. (And her job wasn’t to be a contestant, believe me! The men in our family get the looks.) Well, anyway, she was supposed to introduce the contestants and more or less run the backstage part of the contest. I was pretty impressed by it all so I decided to go to see the show. I honestly didn’t know anything was going to happen.

Even though Susan Margaret wouldn’t let me go with her, (She said she wouldn’t be caught dead with a pupa like me. She can be very insulting.) I got a ride with my mom who was good enough to drop me off at the auditorium so I could support my big sister. I applauded like crazy when she walked on stage and she smiled until she saw it was me. Then she narrowed her eyes, like she does, for a second and then smiled really big to the audience again and began her speech.

She was standing in front of the curtain and you could hear the contestants lining up behind, the click-click of high heels and swoosh of long dresses. Susan Margaret was talking about how each contestant had talents that were more than skin deep and all that and she introduced the judges who stood up and looked embarrassed or pleased or ready for a serious job. Susan Margaret had note cards and she checked them but she was really good at it. She didn’t look nervous at all. I was proud of her.

Then she ended the speech with, “And now the moment you’ve all been waiting for, our lovely contestants!” She swept her arm out toward the curtain and up it went. There must have been a hook or something in the curtain because it caught on Susan Margaret’s dress, and pulled it right off! There was a gasp from everyone present and then Susan Margaret screamed and I screamed. And then she just stood there screaming and covering herself with her arms but you could still see the Kleenexes in her bra and everything. I screamed out, “Run, Susan Margaret!” And she came to her senses and ran off the stage. Then everyone started to snort and giggle like at church or a funeral where somebody gets tickled and can’t help themselves. The next thing we knew people were holding their faces and hurting themselves to try to keep from laughing. Then all of a sudden, somebody snorted really loudly and the whole place just broke down laughing. The “most delicious pandemonium ensued.” That’s what Skeeter Carlson said at school the next day. But I didn’t stay to find out.

Like the good sister I am, I ran out of the auditorium and around back to find Susan Margaret. She was wrapped in an old costume cape, sitting in a lump, and crying her eyes out which any normal person would do. I came up and started to pat her on the shoulder. She jumped back and looked at me. “I’ll never forgive you for this,” she said between her teeth. And she ran out of the building.

When I got home the door to our room was locked. I called through it to Susan Margaret to ask her why she was mad at me. She yelled, “You laughed at me!” “I never did!” I yelled back which wasn’t completely true but I am human. “You little witch,” she screamed. “I heard you laughing at me! You started up the laughter. You were the goddam leader of the laughing people!”

You see how she talks to me? So, please Mr. President, tell her that I’ve got a right to stay in my own room. Tell her it wasn’t my fault. She won’t listen to me or Mom or Dad. And it’s the law she has to go to school isn’t it? Please tell her she has to come out. If it isn’t possible for you to order her to do these things, could you at least write and let me know you’ve read my letter? It will be a great comfort to me to know the President of my country knows all about my situation with my sister even if you don’t have an opinion about it.

Sincerely Yours,

DORA JEAN, the first

Story Time

Okay, folks, since the last entry was an essay about dreams, today's entry is a story that came from a dream. It got published once--I don't remember exactly where--some in-house literary mag at one of the schools where I worked, I think. They published it in the non-fiction section which is some kind of complement, maybe? Anyway, here it is:

BEAU’S FLOWERS

My brother, Beau, can sell anything. He has the gift. He’s always had it. Last year he bought himself and me brand new bikes with the money he made selling Christmas cards, and he was six years old. You name it, he can sell it. Not me; I have different qualities. As if anyone around here would notice. My parents think Beau is a god or something. And I’m just a regular person. I try to be special, too, but Beau won’t let anyone else have an inch of glory.

And it isn’t that he gets away with stuff that makes me mad. It’s like, well, for example, I have a passion for cooking. And I do it very well. I bake wonderful butterscotch squares. Mrs. Mc Donald who’s really picky even likes them. So, one day, about a month ago, I made a huge batch for the whole family. And just as I brought them in and everybody was saying how delicious they were, and even Mama was actually looking at me and smiling, Beau burst into the living room, grabbed a butterscotch square off the plate, and started talking.

The story was about some dream he had where Mama was a beautiful angel, Daddy was some big hero, and Aunt Elizabeth was singing some holy song or something. He had everybody included except me and he had everybody so enraptured by this dream that even though they were all chewing like cows, they forgot all about what they were eating and who slaved in the kitchen to bake it for them. I just shook my head and watched.

“Why, Beau,” my mama said, “what a lovely dream!” And she just floated on her wings out of the room. And the rest of them drifted out of the room savoring the picture and looking dreamy. It was disgusting. I glared at Beau.

“Wasn’t I in your stupid dream?”

“Why yes, Sister,” he answered all smiles. “You were holding my hand and telling me not to be scared of our mama having the wings of an angel. You were the most important one in the dream!” What can you do with a person like that?

It isn’t fair. For another example, Beau is always the last one in with one of us having gone hoarse calling, “Beau-oh-oh, din-in-er” to the four corners of the neighborhood. Beau runs in, washes his hands and then walks all the way around the table before he sits down. There are usually eight or so people sitting down: my mom, my dad, me, our little sister Sara, my grandmother, and maybe an aunt or uncle and a cousin or neighbor kid at the big oak dining room table. Beau walks slowly around the table, pausing at each chair to give a nudge or a pat or a touch. And, when he has made a circle of all of us, made us feel kind of enclosed together, he sits down. It’s odd, that he does that, that no one ever remarks on it. No one says, “Hurry up now; we’re hungry!” or “What are you doing young man?” We all just accept it. It’s part of the blessing. In fact, I think it is the blessing. The words are just for show.

And I have to admit he does liven things up. Like the summer when he was three and a half and he decided to water the backyard one morning. Then he decided to water Mr. Mac Donald. Mr. Mac Donald is our neighbor on the right. He has multiple sclerosis and has to use a wheel chair. Beau “watered” him through his bedroom window. Mr. Mac Donald and his wife thought it was funny because Beau was “so cute”! I would have been stuck in the corner for a week. Or worse. Now, to be fair, Beau doesn’t get away with everything. When we fight- even though I am “older and should know better”, we ˇ get sent to our rooms until we can “be civil to one another.”

I’ve often wondered how he does it. How he gets people just naturally to go along with his ideas and seem to think he’s doing them a favor when he sells them something. I mean, okay, it isn’t that I don’t get anything out of it. I always sell the most Girl Scout cookies of anyone in our town because Beau goes with me. And whenever I want anything, I get Beau to ask for it and Daddy always says yes.

I saw how Beau did it once. I wanted a scooter that I had seen at the JC Penny’s in town. I told Beau to ask for it. He went in a told Daddy he wanted an Electric car that cost $150. Daddy said we couldn’t afford it and then Beau said, “Well, then how about a scooter from JC Penny’s that only costs $25? And Daddy said, “I’d call that a bargain!”

I tell you, you can’t live with this kid or without him. Just yesterday, I heard him giving his pitch to my aunt who is visiting us from Wisconsin. It’s spring and Beau had been all over the neighborhood picking daffodils in the bit of woods next to our subdivision and stealing flowers from beds stuffed with tulips, hyacinths, and blue bells. Even Beau wasn’t going to try to sell people their own flowers--this time. So my aunt was the logical choice. “Oh Aunt Elizabeth,” he said, “won’t you buy these lovely flowers?” My aunt Elizabeth is younger than my mom and visiting us for a few weeks. She is getting married to a very nice man, Jim, and is spending time with us before the wedding. I’m sure she needs her money more than Beau does. But she didn’t give him all that much.

I could see through the screen door. Aunt Elizabeth sat down on the steps and began to weed out the crushed and fading flowers from the bunch. Beau put the coins in his pocket and smiled at her. Then I noticed his face change. It was as though he had been hit in the stomach. Seeing him, I felt a cold touch. I slipped through the door and picked him up. This was not an easy job since he is solid, so I walked just a few steps on the porch that covered the front of our house. I sat down and put Beau on my lap. I pulled his head to my chest and felt his tears soak into my shirt. I looked at Aunt Elizabeth, sitting on the steps, absorbed in her task of separating the flowers.

But Beau,” I said softly, “there are still plenty for a bouquet.”

Beau shook his head. In a choked little voice he whispered, “She’s just so beautiful.” I looked at my aunt, the sun on her face, her face in the flowers, and even I almost cried.

Next Installment

So today I'm posting an essay about my dad.

My Father in Dreams

When I was eleven years old, my mother had a baby, (my little sister Myra,) my grandmother was recovering from a broken hip she got trying to kill a cockroach, and, one morning, my father couldn’t get out of bed. This was a man who was no stranger to incapacity: he had been struck by lightning, lost the tip of his thumb to a car door, was paralyzed for a year from a car accident, and swelled up to double his size in a spectacular and almost fatal reaction to penicillin. For about a year, we thought his difficulty this time was caused by a back problem. His doctor diagnosed him with a “slipped disk” and he learned to hobble around with a cane while he got physical therapy and heat treatments on his leg where he had swelling and the sciatic nerve seemed particularly sensitive.

Then, after it was too late, we found out that the swelling was a tumor pressing on the sciatic nerve with the pain a cruel imitation of back trouble. By then the old tumor had started breaking up to spread to various parts of his body. The rather grisly result of a dozen major operations trying to get rid of the cancer while saving his leg,was a medically historic removal of his leg up to his waist. And he still fought to live for some time after that, living for a total of ten years after that first morning he couldn’t get up.

This illness and death traumatized the whole family and we all went nuts (to greater and lesser degrees) in our individual ways. That is to say, we grieved in our own ways. The real locus for my grief was in my dreams. For reasons not altogether clear to me, I wasn’t able to express my sadness even to myself except in the vulnerability of the dream state. And so I had a recurrent dream over many years about my father.

I would be somewhere with my father. He would be healthy, joking around as had been his style up to and including his last words, and then he would go into another room and I would have the awful realization that he was dead. Then I would sob and sob until the force of emotion woke me up, shaking. I would have this dream once or twice a month and would feel heavy and drugged by it the next day, and blue or irritable for a few days. That was the pattern.

Then one night, not too long after I had begun studying with my spiritual teacher, I had a different kind of dream. I dreamed of my teacher and my father walking toward me, my teacher looking as he normally does but my father dressed in the suit he wore for church or formal occasions, It hung on him loosely as though he’d grown quite thin. And his skin hung on him in a similar way. He took my hand and put it in the hand of my teacher. When I awoke and thought about it, I took this to mean that as my father had been responsible for my life, he was giving me over to my teacher, for him to be responsible for my spiritual life. When I spoke with my teacher about this he added that my grief was holding my father back (this was more than ten years after he died) and that it was time to let him go; he had other things to do.

After that I didn’t dream of my father in the same way. I remember one dream that brought the old series to something of a conclusion. It began similarly to the old recurrent one: I was somewhere where my father was (though from the beginning of this dream he was in that “other room,”) and I got a feeling of great confusion and said, “Something is not right. Father is in the next room and he’s fine and all, but I REMEMBER GOING TO HIS FUNERAL!”

The people in the room looked at me and nodded and shrugged, saying something like, “Yes, and what’s the problem?” like it was the most natural thing for a person to be dead and still be there. I woke up from that dream feeling great! I thought the dream was funny and chuckled to myself about it.

Except for one brief glimpse of my father in a dream a couple of years ago --he was standing at the back door of the house I grew up in, looking out toward the back yard, and turned to me and said, “So, you want to build a house?’ And I said, “Yes.”-- except for that, I’ve only had one dream of him since the one I found so amusing. This was an amazing dream and to understand why, you had to hear about all the others.

I’ve been writing these little essays for about six months now, and several weeks ago I began using them for an ESOL class I’ve been teaching a few times a week. Then I also had the opportunity to read the one called “Getting Up Hay” to a group of about 35 people two weeks ago. They seemed to like it and I was thinking a lot about what I’d write next when one night I had this dream:

I am at an office with several people I know doing different kinds of work when I finally settle down to work on my essays, I decide to write about my father and start describing what I want to write about to someone in the room. I tell her: “ I really want to write about him because it’s so hard for me to know if he is alive. He’s been in so many parts of my life and yet he’s also not there, I just can’t tell. And then I begin thinking about incidents of things I have done with him since he supposedly died, when we went places and did things together and then times I could feel he wasn’t there, as though dead and gone. And so, thinking all these things, I begin to write the mystery.

When I woke up, what I found so amazing was the fact that in the dream I was accessing memories of previous dreams and that the mystery of my father’s state was so real to me in the dream that I was able to explain it to others and then try to write about it. In the waking state there is no such confusion, but an inability to put into words the reality I felt and the strangeness of waking to a different but oddly equal reality.

A Story

Since I haven't been able to write anything lately, I thought I'd share this story I wrote some years ago.

THE FROZEN HAWK


I am a man with responsibilities. Though our children are grown, my wife and I both have people who need our attention. We work in education, she as a second grade teacher and me as a college dean. The other day a woman was in my office, one of the people I supervise. It is now summer and the students are all off having their youthful adventures away from campus and the office is kind of quiet. So when she started talking about visiting the home she grew up in, I didn’t look at my watch or fiddle with my pencil.

She was brought up in the tropics, South Florida, and she talked about missing the ocean and how seeing the old house brought back memories. Her father had been an invalid for many years, with oddly, invalid fathers in the houses on either side of her house. And in the warm fall evenings, the children playing as the darkness crept in would have to keep their voices down so as not to bother Mr. Black, or Mr. Larson, or her father.

What she remembered most, she said, was the house itself, with its terrazzo floors and jalousie windows. She loved the coolness of the stone floor under her bare feet in the summers when she would spend her days sucking frozen grapefruit sections and reading novels. As an English professor, she blushed to admit that her fifteenth summer was spent reading all the James Bond novels.

She had helped to nurse her father, bringing him food the cancer made unappetizing. She said he always joked to her anyway. He always tried to cheer everyone up, like cancer wasn’t so bad. He loved some pop song that was out where the only lyrics were, “It doesn’t matter; it doesn’t matter.”

But it had mattered to Ruth, that’s the woman I was talking to. She said that after he died she was mad at God for a long time, thinking her prayers for her father’s life hadn’t been answered. And then years later, she realized that maybe he had been supposed to die right away and maybe her prayers had been answered since he lived ten more years. Ten more years of smiling and joking and making other people feel better about his constant pain, ten years of trying to do what’s right for a family who couldn’t stand the pain, everybody’s pain.

It was about this point in the conversation that Ruth realized she had said too much about her family and she found an excuse to look at her watch and exclaim at the time. She thanked me for listening to her and hurried out before I could tell her. Of course, as it always goes, when someone speaks of their father and you can hear the love or the longing or the regret in their voice, you always think of our own father whether he was good, or the lousiest bastard on the planet. So, of course I began to think of my old dad.

It’s funny that she was talking about the tropics during her teenage years, and my mind went immediately to a moment that happened in the cold when I was a small child. I had to be less than five because we moved out of that house when I turned five. The house was a big, to me, old two story wooden house in New Jersey. This was in the middle of World War II. In the back yard my dad had made a little victory garden. We actually grew food that we ate back there. And behind the yard were the fields attached to a dairy farm.

One cold December day, when the garden was frozen down to nothing so we couldn’t dig around in it, my dad took me out for a walk in the field. I remember it was about that time that I stopped letting him hold my hand when we walked because I was a big boy now. But the field was rocky and uneven, so I lifted my hand up to his so I wouldn’t fall. It was bitterly cold and my jacket was getting too small for me so I leaned into my dad a little to try to keep warm in the wind.

Dad loved to take me out to “see what we could see” and I think I got my curiosity about nature from him. He would always point out a natural phenomenon and ask me why I though that had happened. “Hey Billy,” he’d say, “look at that tree. Why do you suppose it ‘s lost its leaves?” I’d think as hard as I could for an answer, “Maybe it’s going bald, like Grandpa.”

He’d keep a serious look while his mouth twitched a smile and he’s say, “Maybe so. Maybe so. But why....” and he’d be on to the next thing, teaching me to notice everything. So, since I was learning how to pay attention, I was the first one to spot the hawk. It was laying, huddled on the ground, frozen stiff.

“Look!” I said, “Is it dead?”

“I don’t know, son,” he said as he hunkered down to look at it. “It sure looks frozen.”

It was then my father grew quiet and didn’t speak again until we returned home. And I didn’t speak either. I watched in utter amazement as he picked up the hawk and tucked it gently in his coat. He held the coat closed and began walking again. Breathlessly, I stumbled after my father as he strolled through the field. Every couple of minutes he’d stop and nod toward a green leaf stubbornly pushing through the dirt or the skeleton of a small animal and I’d bend down and study it for a moment.

After we had gone on like this for about fifteen minutes, I heard a rustling and looked up to see motion under my father’s coat. He drew out the hawk, and held it carefully in both hands. The hawk’s head was moving, but slowly as if just waking up. Then my father’s hands dipped down and then threw the hawk into the air and off it flew. My father did that. To me it was like he was God.

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Writer's Block: That’s My Family!

What's your most memorable "that's my family" moment?

During the reception for my brother's wedding, the minister went around to the three siblings to console us about our brother's moving on to a new phase of his life. When he spoke to my sister, she said: "We are finally getting rid of him! I thought we'd never get someone to marry him!' Taken aback, the minister went to my little brother who said: "I finally get a room to myself!" One more try, the minister came to me and I said with a satisfied smile, "I look at it this way, I'm not gaining a sister, I'm losing a brother!" Poor man just shook his head and went for a refill of his champagne.

My Good Deed

At my school there is a coffee cart and the woman who runs it put up a bookshelf for people to have an exchange. The cart is closed for the summer but the bookcase is still there. I took a couple of books there last week and found one that looked interesting. It was a library book from somewhere in Minnesota and, at second glance, it didn't look like it had been sold from the library. I was curious so I googled the library and wrote an email to the contact address, asking if it was still in circulation or if they had sold or given it away. They wrote right back and said, "if there is a black line through the barcode, it was sold. If there is no black line, we'd like to have it back." There was no black line, so I went to the library--it's so nice to have a library where I work! (lots of books and I get to remember J and J!)- and asked the woman there if she could send it for me. She readily agreed. I got a nice message from the folks up north thanking me for my detective work! See all those Robert B Parker novels weren't for nothing.

Map

Interesting...

April is Poetry Month

Writer's Digest has the challenge again. I'm not doing all of them so far but here are the ones I've gotten done.


The Last First Time

I’ll be sitting in the damn wheelchair
With my teeth on the bed table
And you will appear in some human form
Striding strong and shiny
And I’ll think just before I die laughing at myself,
“Are you the one?”



Woke Up Too Soon

So I was watching this old star trek where the woman doesn’t know who she is until she bonds with her mate then she becomes who he wants her to be and I thought: there I am, that’s who I am and remembered when I settled with you but I had to guess what you would like... not the girl in the story, she just knew... but it turned out she had problems: she woke up too soon and connected with the captain instead of the man she had been promised to on the other planet and so she had to fake it with the new guy which she was really good at and I thought: there I am, that’s who I am.



Self-Destruct Button

Armor wasn’t part of the original package
And the invisibility cloak was shot
Then I found this button
Lodged in the recesses
Turns out I’d been pushing it for years
Not knowing what it was for.



About Love

Her instinct is to shield him:
let no one hear him try to sing
keep him from the mirrors of the
too-well groomed

She doesn’t think
when she puts out her hand
to stop him,
he's already held in by the seatbelt.

She proves she loves his faults:
is interested in the daily monologue
amused by
the stepped-over clothes on the floor

So when he’s dying
she spends all she has
to try to hear the words in his delirium
to pick up the pieces of him
scattered across the floor.



Absence


I think I may have hidden out too long
There is a shocking difference to the
Landscape-- the trees too tall to climb,
Flowers out of reach
Now I know
about as well as I know anything
the brevity of hours left to me

With choice always so hard,
chances to choose again rattle in my pockets
like a few pennies
What was that rush and glow that made me willing?
What was that pain that made me paralyzed?
It really is long ago
and far from who I am.
Too soon became too late
when I glanced the other way.


The Not Empty

The mountains in the distance are not yet blue
winter ‘s grey not yet overtaken
the room you lived in has not been cleared
the house not yet ready for the disassembly

Your books are not yet sorted
the ones not read not yet pulled from the others
I don’t yet know if they will tell me
Who you were, not ready to stay.