Saturday, April 30, 2016

Mom: Portrait

It is a little late for her birthday, but I have written a poem for Mom.  That is nothing new. I often have that inclination when those times of the year come around that make us reflect upon things past.  This poem is a bit different from others, though.   It is written in the style of a wonderful  poet named Brian Teare in his last book The Empty Form Goes All the Way to Heaven.   What is different about it – for reasons I don’t need to go into here – is that it can be read in more than one way.  It can either be read down as poems usually are or it can be read across.   The interesting thing to me in Teare’s poems is that if you read them both ways, first as a poem going down, and then as a poem going across, you really end up with two very different poems.  I don’t have Teare’s  skill so I’m sure how affective it is in this case, but I think it kind of works.  I also find it helpful in poems like this once I have read it silently to read it out loud (or at least out loud in my head).  In any case, here is the poem.  Let me know what you think.

Portrait: Mom

the ice-covered gate posts                                                 frozen in her memory
long gone                                                                         the South Dakota farm
will always be a part                                                         of her  youth
of her          but                                                                now instead of ice
she dreams of                                                                  the sunny California skies and
the days with children                                                       gathering gladiolas in the garden
singing in the car                                                              fill her head
on the way to church                                                        she remembers
when her hands were not                                                   lying motionless
wrinkled                                                                           soft gray sand on the beach
and the place she called home                                          so warm and welcoming
really was                                                                        full of life

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Mom's 95th

“If you lived in town in the 1930’s, your house probably had electricity.  In town, families started using electric stoves, coffee makers, waffle irons, hot plates, electric roasters and Waring Blenders.  But if you lived in a farmhouse in the country, you did not have electricity.
 Before the government hooked up farmhouse to electricity, farm life was very different and much more work. There were not electric lights, radios, air conditioners, washers and dryers, electric irons. Of course, there were no computers, televisions, microwave ovens, or video games.  In farm houses and barns, light came from kerosene lamps that were so dim you almost had to use a flashlight to see if they were on.
On the farm, men and women, boys and girls did work by hand: hauling water, milking cows, pitching hay, picking corn, and cranking the cream separator or corn shelling machines by hand. Farm women cooked meals on a stove that burned wood or corncobs. Families heated water on the stove to take baths and wash clothes. The family’s bathroom was outdoors, an unheated shack over a deep pit.”
                   -“Farming in the 1930’s”     (

Today is Mom’s 95th birthday.  It is hard to believe that she was born almost 100 years ago.  As time inserts itself between her death and the present, the memories that I have of her become increasing dimmer, but the earliest years of her life are something that I have almost no knowledge of at all.  The quote above gives a sense of what some aspects of  basic rural life were like in the 1930’s, and Mom’s childhood took place even a decade before that.  Rural South Dakota in the 1920’s was hardly in the forefront of cutting edge technology. 
            Rather than trying to remember what I no longer can, I am trying, sitting in my room here, to re-imagine what it might have been like for Mom when she was young.  In a certain sense, this might be a somewhat easier task for me than others since the house in which I am sitting was built in the late 1800’s.  The doors, window frames, old wooden flooring, basement walls made of slate from the river, and the remains of old fireplaces making stripping away some of the modern conveniences a little easier, but still, life would be radically different.
            First of all, there would have been no electricity.  Mom would have been doing school homework by kerosene lamp.  She would have had to use the same lamp to do chores in the mornings and evenings when it was still dark for long periods of the year. Bedtimes would have been earlier.  She would have also needed the lamp to make her way out to the outhouse at night – not a particularly pleasant prospect for those who are up and down to the bathroom during the nights.  This would include those nights in the winter when the temperatures got down to 0°. No padded toilet seats in rural South Dakota! Then, as Mom used to say, they used corn cobs for toilet paper.
            In fact, our whole modern heightened hygienic sensibility would have taken a hit.  Having to heat water up on the stove just to take a bath, not to mention having to take turns at the tub with at least half a dozen siblings would certainly have required a different concept of cleanliness.  Finding a proper skin softener or lip gloss was probably no high on Mom’s lit.  More the fact that with clothes being washed by hand, most of the family wore the same clothing for several days in a row and if, as Mom used to say, during winter they brought the baby pigs in the house to keep warm by the stove, the family was probably a great deal more tolerant of bodily odors. 
            Mom used to say that she and her oldest sister Lucille were hardier so did more of the outdoor chores whereas the sister between them, Elaine was more delicate and more of the inside work. Even so, Mom probably took part in the cooking.  With wood burning stoves, making meals were something that took up a much greater part of the day.  The variety of food available to them was probably fairly small in comparison with today. Particularly in winter.  The closest city to them was Aberdeen, but in winter probably not much variety was available even there.  The fruits and vegetables Mom ate during those times were likely from what the family had been able to can in fall and probably had just a few staple meals that they rotated.  
            Of course, this is all imagination constructed from the few things that Mom did say about the day to day life of her childhood.  Still, I think it is remarkable to think of how much changed during the span of Mom’s life.  She never got into using computers, but she definitely made use of microwaves.  I think there is a lot of  truth to  St. Augustine’s saying “Give me a child until he is seven and he is mine for life.”  Those early experiences of Mom’s probably did a lot to form her in ways that we can never really understand.