Inspiration, Poetry, and Grandmas

I dedicated Wading through Lethe to my grandmothers, possibly the two most influential people on my life. My grandma Katherine Black was a schoolteacher who wrote poetry and lived in a log cabin in the woods. My grandmother Jackie Guerin was a watercolorist who lived on a lake and whose favorite city was Venice.

Both women embraced their identities as artists and were encouraged by their families. From an early age, I saw that creativity was a valuable activity in and of itself. Perhaps more importantly, I saw the hundreds of practice paintings my grandmother had set aside, and all the strikethroughs as my grandma searched for a better word. Patience and process.

Grandma Black and me

In Wading through Lethe, the girl in the beginning becomes a woman. At the end of the first section, she is changed by the loss of the family matriarch and goes in search of her own identity. In section II she goes to school, travels, and learns about love. In the final section of the collection, she returns home to face the ghosts of the past as well as to measure her own growth against the once-familiar landscape.

Several poems in Wading through Lethe are directly inspired by my grandmothers. However, it isn’t always clear which poem is about which grandma. As with many of the poems, a poem may be “true” even if it isn’t fact. That is, maybe things didn’t happen exactly as described (poetic license and all that), but they represent a feeling or a moment that is best conveyed another way.

Grandmother Guerin and me

My grandmother Guerin died my first semester of college, during finals week. She was the first person I’d ever lost, and the night before I’d heard the news, I dreamed about her. One of my regrets is that I didn’t go to her funeral. I still had a couple of exams to take, and I didn’t know it was okay to ask for an extension.

My grandma Black died five years later, on the anniversary of my grandmother’s death. I was in graduate school studying for a final exam when I got the news. She had been very ill, and I had already said goodbye, but I wish I had been by her side.

When they died, I knew so little. How many times I have wished for their perspective! How many times I have wished they had seen a version of me that was better, wiser.

My Grandmother Guerin always had a tin of a homemade sweets for guests, my favorite of which were her lemon bars.

A week before she died,

I ate one of her lemon bars,
thinking nothing of holding
something so delicate
it lost its shape in my hand.

I spent the night before my First Communion with my Grandma Black. Unlike in the poem below, it didn’t rain that night, but there were many rainy nights sleeping under her tin roof that I thought the world really was ending. She did scold me for my nail polish.

First Communion

The night before, Grandma made my pallet
on the couch with faded blue flowers.
Across the room, the iron-barrel stove loomed.
We learned not to touch it.

At midnight I woke. I’d never heard rain on a tin roof
and was sure what Revelation promised was true–
dark horses had come. In church we’d learned
about the foolish virgins with their oil.

I had not confessed my sins. Everyone else slept—
or were they gone? Then the rain let up.
The dark turned dim. I chopped the polish
from my nails, ashamed they were not bare.

Sometimes writing poetry is a way of dealing with regret. Sometimes it’s a search for closure. Sometimes it’s an attempt to bring the person back. Sometimes I just want to keep learning from people in them.

Publication credits:
“A week before she died” first appeared in Epiphany.
“First Communion” first appeared in Sixfold.

Family Christmas and funeral

On November 5th, forty-two members of our family gathered for an early Christmas celebration. From her hospital bed in the living room, Dianna instructed the young children (as she was so well-known for doing) in the rules of dirty Santa.

Everyone cried when it came time for the carols, but she was enjoying the singing so much that we managed through the tears.

It was a tiring day for her, but it actually left her energized. For our part—the immediate family—the day left us feeling loved and supported, both by the family who drove hours to be there and by the dozens of people who brought dishes for the meal.

Less than two weeks later, Dianna slipped from us, or as I keep reminding myself, was released from her suffering.

The funeral service was beautiful—she received the honor she deserved; and in the church packed to standing-room only, we shared in laughter and catharsis.

As our procession left the church, a man walking down the road paused and took off his hat.

The drivers sharing the road, however, were not so solemn or respectful. Though we had a funeral escort, and though our procession stayed in the right lane of the freeway, a large truck tailgated our car for several miles and then floored it around us. I would say the driver was oblivious, but our vehicle was directly behind the hearse, which was directly behind the escort with flags.

We did not have a police escort for one of the traffic lights. The escort leading the procession drove through the intersection, and a few cars later the light turned red. Rather than allow the rest of the procession through, cars began honking and trying to cut off the procession.

I guess they had somewhere to be, and fast. But, if anything, pausing for the mourners of the dead is a reminder of where we’re all headed, and how little the cares of today really matter.

flowers-sunset

HOMELESS MAN

After the graveside service, the family gathered for a meal in a church across town. The church door was propped open as a gesture of welcome. Incidentally, the homeless man who had taken off his hat two hours earlier was passing by and asked if he could use the restroom. When he walked in to find our family eating, he was clearly embarrassed and tried to leave without being seen.

Of course, someone stopped him and told him to fix a plate. He declined, again embarrassed, and tried to back toward the door. We assured him, however, that it was what Dianna would have wanted.

He made a plate and sat at a table away from everyone. We couldn’t allow that. Instead, one of the people who had prepared the meal asked him to sit at their table, and it seemed he had a good time. One of the church elders and his wife quietly went around to each table and took up a collection to help him on his way to Colorado, letting him know the gift was in honor of the great lady whose life we were celebrating that day.

Two hours earlier, this man took off his hat to our funeral procession having no idea that across town he would be sharing a meal with us. He showed more respect for our family than the other strangers sharing the road, and I could not help but think of him as a man who, in spite of whatever difficulties had led him into homelessness, had not forgotten something important about our human condition.

Life is strange for us right now. We have a void that simply cannot be filled. But we do have stories, and in every act of kindness given or received I think of Dianna.

dianna-bane-flowers