When Robert Lee Brewer handed out his challenge assignment this morning on Poetic Asides, I imagine his grin and his thoughts. “They’re gonna be all over this one. I can see it now.”
He was right, you know. We did stomp all over this prompt-of-the-day. Food is right up my alley, as my backside can attest. He wanted us to write about regional cuisine—either the food itself or some aspect pertaining to it. This was my response.
It sits, having conquered gravity
To reign over table and diners.
Six layers of diabetes, waiting
For consumption by the sliver.
Who’d’ve expected one pie
To feed twenty sugar addicts?
We wait, breathe held, for slicing
To begin so that we can let
Our portion melt, slither, find
Our centers to give that rush
To bodies needing Pilates more
Than three kinds of caramel in
Six stacked shells of doughy goodness.
© Claudette J. Young 2012
Meanwhile, over at Poetic Bloomings. I found In-Form Poet proceedings for the day. Poet Jan Turner invented a new form not long ago, which puts limits on some areas of form, while leaving others untouched. It goes like this.
Write a Tri-Fall poem:
- Three stanzas of six lines each
- Rhyme scheme of a,b,c,a,b,c
- Syllable count for each stanza: 6-3-8-6-3-8
- No specific meter
- Little to no punctuation
- Any subject will do
Since I was already subject oriented from the Poetic Asides prompt, I stayed on the subject of regional food, parked myself at Granny’s table, and wrote about what had been placed before me. My goal was to write a story in this poem. I’m hoping to capture a memory. You’ll have to tell me if I succeeded in telling the story.
Table long, groaning now
of platters, dishes, and elbows.
Ham, chops, eggs galore vow
to stay late
just to erase dieter’s woes.
Clasping hands for prayer
‘til men get theirs and kids do too.
Smells so good this home fare
“Where’s the cow?”
Utters late-comer with “moo.”
“Stayed outside,” replies Gran
“Sit and eat.”
all bowls cleaned, platters empty too.
Belt loose on a lone man
in laps of soft-talking moms.
© Claudette J. Young 2012
Writers are forever looking for material to use for a journal article or magazine, characters or plot fragments for stories, workable settings for novels that don’t require major research, and a niche to market their work.
During this past month’s blogging challenge, those writers who’ve managed to follow-through each day have also upped their A-game in material. Some of the challenged writers kept their posts closely related to those subjects that they’d already fostered on their blogs.
Others looked at the “relative” nature of their ordinarily chosen subjects, and either expanded on them or moved to relate them to additional topics that weren’t usually equated with them.
Either strategy was legitimate. Also, such strategies created new perspectives and approaches toward future writing projects. Any time a writer can pull that off is a good day.
Since I took the challenge literally, I came away with material for memoir, essays, poetry, stories, books, and the list goes on. The constant reliving of details and personal responses allowed me to find new characters that had stories to tell. Poetry flowed within each memory, whether as a retelling of it or simply as a visceral impression and emotional recapping of it.
It hadn’t occurred to me at the beginning of this assignment that I would have such a strong emotional reaction to those recollections from so long ago; recollections that were incomplete and, sometimes, beyond vague.
This learning experience has opened up areas of writing that I hadn’t seriously considered before. I might have toyed with an idea here and there, but I hadn’t pinned down those ideas with any certainty.
Suddenly, I was seeing plots, twists, character development and settings that had never occurred to me before. And if I wasn’t seeing fiction, the brain was in overdrive about poetry or non-fiction pieces that could go to this market or that one.
Some days I felt like a voyeur as I took note of how I approached a subject differently than I would have two months before, and how my style shifted with each person I chose to write about. Some style elements remained fairly constant, while others wavered or developed new execution phases.
Prior to this, I had only foggy understanding of how my style shifted and when. That’s cleared up for me now.
I finally set my future writing projects and knew what I would tackle in the months ahead. The projects haven’t changed, but how I handle them will change. I’ve already come to that conclusion.
This challenge has given me more than its creators could ever imagine. It gave me a closer look at myself and why I choose to write what I do and how. It gave me a clearer picture of what my future will look like and my place in it. And if gave me the ability to focus on one aspect of a project (each day’s post) to the exclusion of everything else around me for the time I was working on it.
All of these things have come from a simple writing challenge. In some ways it doesn’t matter what the prompt was. It could have been anything, as long as I could relate to it enough to accept the challenge and stay focused on it.
In other respects, because I chose to deal with personal family members and issues, I came away a winner, regardless of who finishes first or who writes the most, etc. I came away with intangible bits of myself that I didn’t know I was missing until now. I regained an ability to focus on one project at a time until it was complete. And I learned that I thoroughly enjoy writing in areas that I hadn’t concentrated on before.
I think that’s pretty good for one month of writing. Later tonight I’ll do one last post on this subject to finish out the month. I’m running a day behind right now. I’ll do one more post on family and how I define it and experience it.
Tomorrow my subject prompt will change. I look forward to seeing what it will be and I look forward to meeting new friends along this road of discovery called LIFE.
This entire month of blog challenge, dealing with family, led me to yesterday, today, and tomorrow. Obvious, I know. I knew that at some point I was going to have to speak seriously about my mother, and I knew how difficult that would be for me.
The stories I’ve written this month have taken me to places where emotions have near drop-kicked me on many days. This one will lay me out completely and I know it. I was going to write it yesterday. I just couldn’t force myself to do it. I wasn’t ready yet to drown in all of those feelings that had been swirling for a month, just under the surface where they would swallow me at the slightest provocation.
Let sleeping dogs lie is the old adage that covers this situation, and I’m about to begin poking that big brute that lives below the waves. That being the case, I’ll share a part of my mother that has less sorrow for me.
Mom loved kids and animals better than anything else in the world, family excluded, of course. She was a natural mother, who could sooth any child, tame just about any creature, and generally get along with the world regardless of circumstance.
From the time I was about thirteen or so, old bird cages, boxes, baskets, etc. shared Mom’s kitchen with us. Inside those cages, boxes, baskets, etc. were babies. Some were birds, some baby bunnies, or any number of other wild things. She definitely took after her mother in that regard.
There were orphans that stick strongly in my memory. I came home one day to find baby groundhogs nestled inside an old towel in a cardboard box on a chair beside the stove. They were two of the sweetest little creatures I’d ever seen; all brown and cuddly, rolled up into balls keeping warm against each other. Someone had found them abandoned and had brought them to Mom.
I don’t remember how long she had them before the groundhogs were released, and I don’t know that it matters now. I do know that there were few weeks during spring or summer when orphans didn’t come to our house.
Dad brought her the baby bunnies. He was mowing the yard and didn’t realize that one of the local cottontails had made her warren near the edge of the driveway. The rabbits were tiny things and terrified. Dad knew that the mother would never return to the nest warren after it had been disturbed.
On another occasion, a friend brought her a pair of silver fox babies to tend for a few weeks, until they were weaned. He bred silver foxes and needed a surrogate mother for them for a while. Mom did her thing and they soon went back to their rightful home.
One wet, cold spring day, Mom went mushroom hunting. Keeping her out of the woods during mushroom season was unheard of. Having her come home with a baby Great Horned Owl, though, was different. The wee thing had fallen/or been pushed from its next.
She heard it, found it, and scooped it up. It was in shock; its down feathers were soaked, and it couldn’t stop shivering from the cold. It was so young that its talons hadn’t completely hardened. She perched it on her shoulder, under her hood where it could get dry and warm. Mushroom bag in one hand, and one holding the owl in place, she returned to the house.
Peeper, named for the sound he made, sat on the rim of a half-peck basket in the kitchen when I came in. I’d never seen an owl baby before, especially up close. I fell in love with those big, sincere eyes. Mom just laughed. She had one convert.
Mom ended up with all of us vying for owl-holding privileges. He ate fresh ground beef, fresh fish, and chicken. Meat wasn’t difficult to get for him.
During his growth period, we all rallied to teach him how to be an owl, but Mom was the one he looked to. She was his mother. Dad could teach him to hoot. All of us could help teach him to fly. We could all help to teach him to hunt on the fly and catch his prey.
But Mom was the one to whom he returned the next spring to show off his new mate. She was the one’s whose approval he needed before leaving for his adult life.
When I think about all of her orphans, Peeper and Jim, the crow, stand out as the most like family members. Jim was the orphan who remained with her to the end, the one she grieved for when his curiosity and trust turned fatal.
Jim gave her more delight than all of her other orphans. He lived in the house with us. He went on our outings. He talked to us, but he held conversations with her. And his laughter rang through the air from the roof of the house. Jim was a character that enlivened our lives and made us smile.
I try to keep these memories to the forefront of my mental file cabinet. They help push back the later ones that center on her excruciating pain and life cut short. These orphan memories carry their own tears, but they don’t taint the rest of the day with sorrow.
And these, above all, portray Mom as she was to us more than any others; loving, generous, willing to take in any orphan as a new family member.
Crinkled brows, eyes shifting from side to side, estimating, evaluating; finally a bark of laughter erupts and a lead card is thrown onto the table.
“We have you now,” shrieks a female voice.
“Maybe,” replies a male opponent as a second card meets the first.
A third card, higher ranked, joins the small pile, and a fourth. The trick is taken by the opponent.
“Always expect a holdout,” the man’s voice advises.
The aroma of strong coffee and one of Mom’s baked wonders tantalizes nostrils and stomachs of those present. It’s always the same group; couple vs. couple or men vs. women. The game might change from Euchre to rummy or to Pitch, but the night would leave everyone relaxed and satisfied.
Mom’s sister had a great deal to do with that feeling of hilarity. She loved playing the fool during card nights and did it very well. Some nights she was more boisterous than on others, but she seldom turned serious when games were in play.
My younger brother and his counterpart cousin generally watched TV during card night and then settled down to sleep. My older cousin and I watched the game in the kitchen as interested by-standers. We didn’t play. If Euchre was being played, we definitely were not allowed to play. In our part of the country, that game was a gambling game, even when not played for stakes. No children need apply.
None would ever consider the two women as not being family. My mom resembled my aunt in coloring and hair style. Their builds were nearly identical. Both were natural artists and could turn almost anything into a piece of art.
My mother worked in paint and clay or metal and findings from the forest. Her sister worked in paint and fabric, for the most part. Both loved antiques, but my aunt could have been a dealer. The knowledge she had was gleaned from years of scouring antique shops, auctions, and estate sales.
Most of all, both women loved the outdoors and nature. They’d grown up in the country. Their mother had taught them a deep love and respect for what grew wild or by design. They each enjoyed growing food for their tables as much as gathering from the wild.
With all of these commonalities, they managed to remain individuals who stood apart from each other.
Auntie was more playful than Mom. Mom had better rapport with children and animals. Auntie desired a house full of antiques and a spotless home. Mom liked things tidy, but she preferred a sense of home and comfort to fill rooms meant for living.
Aunt and Uncle often took Grandma and my cousins on trips away for a weekend to see other relatives. Mom didn’t bother. Her sister took great pleasure in that part of mother-daughter time; leaving Mom to do the Sunday home visits for family time.
Sisters, friends, companions, champions, confidantes; each filled those roles for the other. They talked in person or on the phone every day, without fail. Close didn’t begin to describe their relationship. They could have been twins for all the difference there was between them.
Except, of course, at the card table. Auntie bantered nonsense, trying to throw off the opponents. She’d accuse her husband of stacking the deck if he wasn’t her partner, and encourage him to throw better cards her way during the deal if he was her partner. The poor man couldn’t win an engagement with her either way.
Mom would go along with the gags, kidding, nonsense, and laughter, all the while keeping herself unaffected by it. I figure that for her it was like being at one of the old carnivals. A person heard the barker calling out to those passing by, but that didn’t mean that the person had to pay the quarter to see the Freak Show.
It was the night’s total atmosphere and camaraderie that Mom enjoyed, and much of that atmosphere was created by her sister. Auntie was a one-woman show and didn’t need much encouragement. That was how she liked it, I think.
There are times when I think back to those nights just to listen to that laughter and to see again the absolute joy on my aunt’s face when she’d pulled off a really good card play. It’s been a nearly thirty years since she left us, but I can still smile at her antics, knowing that she entertained us as much for her own sake as for any other reason.
Before I finish out this month’s blog challenge, I’d like to take a few moments to talk about something to which most of us can relate.
When I was growing up in the 50’s and 60’s, my parents and grandparents taught us lessons. Some of those lessons came at the end of a parent’s arm, in the form of a solid hand landing on a padded behind. That was before the days when self-expression was encouraged and corporal punishment was banned as being barbaric and cruel.
I’m just making a point about the differences in society between then and now.
One of the big lessons taught in our household, and in many other homes as well, was that there were places in the world where people went hungry on a daily basis, and that we should be grateful for what was placed before us on the table.
I think everyone between the ages of 45 and 100 has echoing voices in your heads right now that testify to that piece of instruction.
My family was considered slightly poor by the standards of children raised in town, whose folks worked in a shop, for IBM, or the university. My dad was blue-collar, and we lived in the country. Those were big considerations back then, too. I didn’t know any of that until high school.
We didn’t go without food, clothing, shelter, fun, a good car, or the rest of the material things that “mattered.” Most of those living in the country had as many or, in come cases, more of their needs taken care of, than those in town, without our mothers having to work outside the home.
We knew we had it good. It was understood. We learned by example when Mom took the time and effort to feed those who came to the door and asked for food and something to drink. Hobos were common in those days.
Our country culture demanded that we provide sustenance to those in need. It never occurred to her to turn someone away without at least a meal and clean, cold water to drink. Usually she gave them iced tea and whatever was leftover from dinner the evening before.
All of which brings us back to the question of that hunger lesson. I know that there are thousands of children all over the U.S. who go to bed knowing real hunger. I was never one of them, thank God, but I’ve known my share of them over the years.
I got to thinking about that this afternoon, and the admonition drilled into children to this day at the dinner table. Children cannot relate to something they’ve never experienced or seen first-hand. Unless the child who lives in the well-kept house, with all the toys scattered unthinkingly throughout, actually sees the consequences of hunger, it’s impossible to get the lesson across.
I’m tempted to wager that the majority middle-class and upper-lower-class citizens have never known hunger in this country. They haven’t gone a few days without something to eat and decent water to drink. If they had experienced real hunger on a regular basis, I doubt it would not exist in the country for long.
The realization of this difference between my generation and those coming up blazed across my mind. My generation was taught how food got to the table. Kids worked in the garden to help with the family harvest. They felt the soil with their own hands, pulled tomatoes off the vine and ate them while the red beauties still held sun’s kiss. They also knew the price of having a vegetable crop fail to thrive due to drought or too much rain.
We lived closer to the earth in those days and were thankful for that. Buying groceries—staples—in a store was a family outing experience. We saw and appreciated how much money crossed palms across the counter to purchase flour, coffee, tea, baking soda, or laundry detergent.
When neighbors knew that a family was in need, they pitched in to help that family over the rough patch. A neighbor might stop by the house with a dozen fresh eggs, a couple of gallons of milk, and several ears of fresh corn. A discussion would ensue; the neighbor would ask if someone in the household would take these food items in trade for a couple of hours helping to herd sheep or to can jams and jellies for the winter pantry.
Negotiations were done in a way that left everyone’s pride intact and still got a job done and a family fed. Many in today’s city-oriented world don’t have that option or will ever know the joy of helping each other over the trouble spots of life. People fall through the cracks, and some go hungry within shouting distance of a grocery store that tosses vegetables into a dumpster at the end of the day’s business.
I wonder what it would take for us to see all of the hungry in our country. How much of a personal burden would it be to feed all of those people? Would it do any good if those with well-fed children required them to see those who aren’t? Would the lesson stick in the mind a bit better from the experience?
I’d like to think that families could return to those values and personal economies that taught us the cost of another’s hunger and the price we pay for ignoring it. Whether we can rediscover the country culture that required us to care for each other as we would ourselves remains to be seen.
Perhaps we can all take a look at the problems we can help relieve in our pursuit of happiness and come to a family understanding that teaches all its members.
My little brother isn’t so little. He stands 6’4”, though lean with long fingers extended from bony hands; pianist’s fingers. I tended to envy him his hands, and his leanness.
Nearly three years younger, he had the same training as I, the same family, and the same mental abilities. He was the one who followed in Dad’s footsteps. He was the one who accidentally tried to kill me.
Oh, yes, he did. I sat on the floor in front of the TV. The Lone Ranger was flickering across the screen, struggling to subdue the bad guy, when my sweet little brother brought his pearl-handled pistola butt down onto the crown of my head with all the force his scrawny three-year-old body could muster. Back then these toy guns were made of metal, not plastic. They were heavy. Excitement at what was happening on-screen had temporarily relieved him of any sense of reality. I was knocked out completely.
I know what you’re thinking. He was just a baby. I’m sure I heard that argument when I came to and tried to throttle him. I know that I heard that argument throughout the years afterwards when the subject and memory came up.
Of course, he did make up for it several years later when he kept me from becoming sow chow. The sow took objection to my being in the stall with her piglets and rushed me when my back was turned. I almost didn’t make the age of nine. Brother dear, who wasn’t supposed to be at the barn, shouted a warning and got me out the gate before sow connected with my backside.
Yep, I did him a favor later. I encouraged his strength training by having him pull me in his little red wagon, between the rows in the corn field, while we were picking up dropped ears after the picker when through. All that loose corn would help fatten up those piglets. My mother wasn’t pleased with my interpretation of a self-improvement course for him. I got punished, I think, for working him too hard. I never knew if my dad knew about that little episode.
As a sidebar, I got to be the one who went to the top of the tulip poplar tree one summer afternoon to bring his happy self down to earth. Mom was not pleased with his antics. For once, I wasn’t the bad guy in the scenario. Dad did find out about that one.
When I learned to swim the summer of my 13th year, I proved that I could retain lessons and excel at trajectory in the water. Mom had us down at one of the local creeks, along with her sister and at least one of my cousins. Brother ran a ways ahead against Mom’s admonition to stay close.
Before anyone could prevent it, he ran into real trouble. Creeks carve out deep holes in bends of the watercourse. He’d run himself off into one of those holes and promptly commenced to drowning.
Mom shouted for me to go save him. ME!? I was a dozen yards behind her and the rest and he was that far or more ahead of her.
Until that day, I didn’t know that I could sprint while running in ankle to knee-deep water. I kept my eyes on the spot I’d last seen his hand come up and dived when I got there. I found him with no difficulty. Getting him to the surface was the tricky part.
He kept trying to drown me until I finally got myself positioned where I could get my feet into the small of his back and kick him toward the shallows. It might seem unconventional, but it worked.
Brother got solid purchase with his feet and his panic subsided. I took a few more minutes to make it to his new position. By that time Mom and the rest had arrived to check him out. He was fine, of course, though a bit waterlogged and sputtering. For the first time in memory, I actually saw relief wash across someone’s face. Mom wouldn’t bury a child that week.
But that’s how our relationship was. He saved me. I saved him. We got along.
I would take him to the movies with me. He’d loan me his prime condition ’57 Chevy so that I could go cruising in town. We loved each other and weren’t afraid to say so. That love took some interesting paths to expression sometimes, but it remained true.
We’re enough alike, yet enough different, to make good sibs. I can’t see that changing.
We don’t get to see each other very often. Usually when I have the spare time and money to travel back to the Midwest, we spend a bit of time together. It’s never long enough; but we, like most families, make do with what we can have, when we can have it.
Though our interests and lives have separated us, he was one of the first to validate me as a writer. When I visited last winter, he gave me a brand new notebook computer “because every writer deserves to have one while on the road.” He may never fully appreciate what that gesture meant to me.
As soon as I was born, comparisons bombarded my parents. As a newborn, later as an infant, and on to school, everyone in the family talked about how much I resembled my father’s youngest sister. In fact, my first infant picture and hers were nearly identical.
With normal aging and family life came more comparisons. I was as stubborn as she was. I wouldn’t stop until I accomplished whatever I put my mind to. I could argue with the best, and so on.
She was the baby, the one who stayed at home the longest, the first one to scandalize her father for wearing shorts. I was the oldest, the one who demanded my hair to be cut because of the heat and almost gave my father heart failure. Yep, she was my heroine supreme.
After all, how could I go wrong? She was lovely, athletic, hard-working, fun, and generally a role model. She was the closest in age to me, though not by much.
Her honey-colored locks explained my own blond curls as a child. We looked alike, acted alike, and considered things in the same way. We were ageless bookends.
Like all of the “girls” in the family, my young aunt could stand up to what life threw her way. Two marriages, widowed twice, and two children didn’t dampen her spirit. She could take care of herself when need arose and proud of it.
Like her sisters, she had talents. She could sew beautiful clothes. I remember one summer when I was visiting, she was making a double-breasted jumper for one of my cousins. I fell in love with that jumper. Of course, it was too small. I asked if she could make one for me.
As soon as she finished the one she’d started, she took out extra fabric that she had. I was confused when she picked up the newspaper. I asked what she needed that for and she said that she had to make a new pattern for my jumper and would use the newspaper for that. I paid special attention to her hands and what they did. I listen as she explained the process of the task.
A few hours later, I had my own jumper; the prettiest blue with white banding that I’d ever seen. It was something no one else could do for me, and it was special. I was in junior high or high school at the time. Many years later I would emulate her process to make tank tops for my best friend. Knowledge should never go to waste.
My aunt was the kind of woman who would allow my brother to ride the milk cow because he wouldn’t stop pestering her. Even when she told him that he could get hurt, that he’d be thrown, he wouldn’t let up. Finally, she said go ahead.
She held the halter and waited for him to slowly move from the top of the stall wall onto the cow’s back. A second later, that cow exploded out of the stall, brother hanging on and playing cowboy, until ten feet later when he flew off the cow and landed on his back on the barn floor. Auntie looked down at him, asked if he was hurt, and said something like, “Do you still want to ride the cow?”
So much has happened in both our lives since those days of simple sewing and tending to chores, and watching foolish boys learn to fly over cows. Like her sisters, she has grandchildren and a few great-grandchildren. Some days her body aches. Many days she tends to the needs of other older women who need help at home.
Granny taught her daughters the habits she valued, and service to others was one of those habits. And the baby of the family spent more time with Granny, having her as a constant companion in her last years. That bright, willful, hard-working lady whose baby picture could have shown my twin will always shine as an example for me; a mirror image in many ways.
For all our similarities, we do diverge in habits, aspirations, and lifestyle. She stayed near home, while I live at a distance. She married and had children. I remained single. I work to build another career and future. She is content to enjoy retirement.
We both still know how to play. Don’t ever challenge us to a game of Rook. You’ll lose.