Sonnet Upon Reading Old Letters

Pile of old letters

The Old House Sure is Quiet

The old house sure is quiet since you’ve gone.
Mom can’t get used to cooking just for two.
You won’t believe how much weight we’ve put on.
We’d hoped to get a note by now from you.

These letters now are half a century old,
Confirm I was a most neglectful son.
No matter how I wish the tale retold,
That page is turned. That episode is done.

And so I write this meager note to you,
Dear Father, only parent I have left.
Your fondness for your prodigal issue
Outlives their fondness, who left me bereft.
May you this orphan never leave alone,
May your fire find and melt this heart of stone.


(2018)

NOTES: Reading old letters is not for the faint of heart. I’ve been going through a box that includes the letters my parents wrote to me during my freshman year of college.

I am older now than they were then, and I am definitely identifying with them in this story.  I was the youngest of their children (by a long shot) and they had become empty nesters after having had children in the house for nearly 40 consecutive years. They were pushing 60, still working hard to make ends meet, and now suddenly living by themselves.

They wrote me several times a month, usually on Sunday evenings. They each filled both sides of a full sheet of paper.

The message that comes through, again and again, is: “Please write and let us know how you are doing.”

I have no idea how many times I wrote them back, but from the plaintive tone of their letters, it couldn’t have been very many.

And that figures. I was off on the Big Adventure of my youth.  Determined to grow up and become my own person and form my own beliefs. Remember, this was 1970.  Maybe not the peak of the counterculture, but you could see it from there.

I recently read an article about the attitudes of college freshmen over the years. The subject being investigated concerned the students’ desire to work towards a good job with security.

The year that scored the absolute lowest was–you guessed it–my year, 1970.  And I was pretty typical.  Despite my long-suffering father’s most excellent advice to “study something practical,” I thought my purpose was to discover Truth, Beauty, and Love.  I remember heading off to school with the express intention to NOT study anything practical that would lead to a regular job. (And I certainly succeeded at that! When I finally graduated five years later with a B.A. in philosophy and classics, I was fully qualified to be a fry cook, and that was about it.)

It took several years and going back to school before I developed any marketable skills.

But back to my folks.

They were such faithful correspondents. They diligently reported news they thought I would be interested in.  Like who they ran into up on the square … which of my old schoolmates were married and having babies … news from the high school.  Who was crowned homecoming queen–that was big news. And they faithfully reported the high school football scores each week.

I didn’t realize how much they had enjoyed going to my games, and although I was no longer playing, they would occasionally take in a game, or at least listen on the radio or read the local newspaper, and they would report the scores to me.

But of course, I was pretty much over all that.

Those days are sort of hazy for me, but I know I was finally off on my own and trying out everything I had refrained from doing in high school for fear of getting kicked off the football team.

My folks were lonely, to be sure. But beyond that, if I may project a little, they were being faced with their own mortality, and their own sense of purpose and meaning.

The more well-off set of their generation cashed out of their suburban homes and headed for Florida or Arizona and retired to a life of relative leisure. And who could blame them? They had put their lives on hold to save the world during WWII, then they had come back and built the greatest economy the world had ever seen.

But my parents weren’t quite in that class.  They had raised 4 boys, helped take care of a handful of grandkids, and now that I was gone, they weren’t sure what to do next. Except they had to keep on baking pies and driving busses and fixing tractors. Retirement really wasn’t an option. Meanwhile, the whole society, as reported in TIME magazine, seemed to be turning upside down all around them.

And then, when their prodigal son finally deigned to write from college, he babbled about crazy things. I was studying impractical subjects. I was planning to go to Mississippi to register voters. I was learning yoga and wanting to have serious conversations about serious subjects.

Neither of my parents had been able to get much of a formal education, yet they were patient with their insufferable son. My mother didn’t even get to go to high school because her mother had died during the influenza epidemic early in the last century, leaving her as the eldest daughter (although she was just barely a teenager) to run the household and raise all her younger siblings. My father came of age smack in the middle of the Great Depression, and was forced to drop out of high school to start earning a living, working as a farmhand for a dollar a day.

We had a bit of a generation gap.

And yet, my parents’ hobbies belied their lack of education. My mother read poetry. From an early age, she would recite the verses she loved to me from her beloved volume of the most loved poems of the American people.

She read the American classics of the time: Wordsworth, Emerson, Eugene Field, and even that new fellow, Frost.  Some of my earliest memories are of her reading to me from “The Duel” (aka “The Gingham Dog and the Calico Cat,”) “Lil’ Boy Blue,” and “Hiawatha.”

She would dutifully clip poems out of the Capper’s Weekly and stuff them into the letter she sent to me each week.

My father, meanwhile, was a serious student of the Bible and ancient history. He would order Bible commentaries and translations of ancient writers such as Josephus and Philo to supplement his Bible reading.

Looking back with the perspective of time, I see a couple of very intelligent people who had their potential abbreviated by circumstance. I also see I was a very lucky kid who was in grave danger of pissing away great opportunity.

And most of all I see a clueless teenager who had no idea of the hopes and fears and heartaches of his parents.

Many years later, when my own children played their last high school games, graduated and went off to college … when they were thousands of miles away in another country and didn’t check in as often as I would have liked … only then did I have a glimpse of what must have been running through my own parents’ hearts so many years ago.

 

 

 

 

 

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Poem Against Alzheimer’s

My mom as a young mother

Ice Age

Dear gentle woman grown so early old,
You’ve all but left us on our lonesome own.
Now after many years to spirit sown,
A creeping glacier scrapes your memory cold.

You, greener days ago, recited verse,
And planted hardy seeds of simple song
That rooted deep, perennial and strong,
To flourish in the shadow of the hearse.

Today your weathered hands no longer know
The jonquil from the mum, nor how to weed.
Today you prattle on without the seed
Of sense, that for so long you toiled to grow.

So now for you I pick this small bouquet
Out of the garden patch you used to tend,
Now choked with worldly weeds from end to end,
In need of hands to cultivate its clay.


NOTES:  This month, my mother would have been 106 years old.  She died nearly 30 years ago, but she began to leave us several years before that as she fell under the spell of some type of dementia.

She was my first poetic champion, instilling a love for poetry from an early age.  This poem was written back when she was still alive, but unable to communicate with us.

So, let me say that I hate Alzheimer’s and all its ilk.

I recently paid the fee and spit in a test tube to have my DNA read by the smart folks at 23andme.  I learned that I do not have the classic Alzheimer’s gene, so there is some good news there.

But I am well aware that no man knows his time and we’re all going to die of something.

I had a brother who joked he wanted to die at age 100 being shot by a jealous husband.  He didn’t quite make it, though through no lack of effort on his part.

I can think of a lot of better ways to go than wasting away for years after having lost your mind.

Mother was forced to drop out of grade school when her mother died in a flu epidemic.  She was needed at home to care for her younger brothers and sister.

Her tastes were simple and traditional, with a leaning towards folksy American poets, like James Whitcomb Riley and St. Joseph’s own Eugene Field.  But she also like Robert Frost and Wordsworth.

We really only had one book of poetry in the house, a leather-bound volume entitled One Hundred and One Famous Poems, published in 1929. It contained remarkably robust collection of poems, and she read them aloud to me often.

There were selections from Shakespeare, Emerson, Poe, Kipling, Byron, Keats, and even Whitman.  In the back of the book were some bonus classics of English prose including the Gettysburg Address, the Magna Charta, the Ten Commandments, and the Declaration of Independence.

I daresay, I got a better education from that one book than I received in four years attending a semi-prestigious liberal arts college during the self-absorbed 1970s.

Mother’s Day Poem

My first poetic champion

ICE AGE

Dear gentle woman grown so early old,
You’ve all but left us on our lonesome own.
Now after many years to spirit sown,
A creeping glacier scrapes your memory cold.

You, greener days ago, recited verse,
And planted hardy seeds of simple song
That rooted deep, perennial and strong,
To flourish in the shadow of the hearse.

Today your weathered hands no longer know
The jonquil from the mum, nor how to weed.
Today you prattle on without the seed
Of sense, that for so long you toiled to grow.

So now for you I pick this small bouquet,
Out of the garden patch you used to tend,
Now choked with worldly weeds from end to end,
In need of hands to cultivate its clay.


NOTES:

My mother loved poetry.  Her own mother died when she was just a girl, so she dropped out of school to help raise her younger siblings.  She never got to go to high school, but she loved the music of English words artfully strung together.

She read the American classics of the time: Wordsworth, Emerson, Eugene Field, and even that new fellow, Frost.  Some of my earliest memories are of her reading to me from “The Duel” (aka “The Gingham Dog and the Calico Cat,”) “Lil’ Boy Blue,” and “Hiawatha.”

She filled a buffet drawer scraps of paper bearing homespun verse she had copied by hand, or clipped from the pages of Capper’s Weekly.  After her death, I found her Bible.  It was worn out and held together at the spine with pieces of packing tape.  Tucked amongst the hand-scrawled Bible verses and sermon notes was a tiny piece of paper where she had written this fragment from John Greenleaf Whittier:

Of all sad words of tongue or pen
The saddest of these, it might have been

In her 70s, Mother began a long, slow journey with Alzheimer’s.  At first we thought she was just getting forgetful, but, in time, we realized she was losing her faculties.  She forgot names and nouns.

Early on, she devised clever strategies to trick us into helping her fill in the missing blanks.  “I’m going to the, um, you know,” she would offer, hoping one of us would bail her out by supplying “the A&P,” or the name of some other destination that had eluded her.

But, in time, she lost the ability to play Guess the Word with anyone.  She slipped away from us and never came back, even though she lived for years neither speaking nor, as far as we could tell, understanding anything spoken to her.  She lived so long probably due to some diligent care at the county nursing home in our small Missouri town, and to the fact my father visited her every day and spoon fed her lunch.

I wrote her a poem, which I read at her funeral.

Poem for my first poetic champion

My first poetic champion

Ice Age

Dear gentle woman grown so early old,
You’ve all but left us on our lonesome own.
Now after many years to spirit sown,
A creeping glacier scrapes your memory cold.

You, greener days ago, recited verse,
And planted hardy seeds of simple song
That rooted deep, perennial and strong,
To flourish in the shadow of the hearse.

Today your weathered hands no longer know
The jonquil from the mum, nor how to weed.
Today you prattle on without the seed
Of sense, that for so long you toiled to grow.

So now for you I pick this small bouquet
Out of the garden patch you used to tend,
Now choked with worldly weeds from end to end,
In need of hands to cultivate its clay.


Notes:  This month, my mother would have been 105 years old.  She died nearly 30 years ago, but she began to leave us several years before that as she fell under the spell of some unnamed type of dementia.

She was my first poetic champion, instilling a love for poetry from an early age.  This poem was written back when she was still alive, but unable to communicate with us.

Mother was forced to drop out of grade school when her mother died in a flu epidemic.  She was needed at home to care for her younger brothers and sister.

Her tastes were simple and traditional, with a leaning towards folksy American poets, like James Whitcomb Riley and Eugene Field.  But she also like Robert Frost and Wordsworth.

We really only had one book of poetry in the house, a leather-bound volume entitled One Hundred and One Famous Poems, published in 1929. It contained remarkably robust collection of poems, and she read them aloud to me often.

There were selections from Shakespeare, Emerson, Poe, Kipling, Byron, Keats, and even Whitman.  In the back of the book were some bonus classics of English prose including the Gettysburg Address, the Magna Charta, the Ten Commandments, and the Declaration of Independence.

I daresay, I got a better education from that one book than I received in four years attending a semi-prestigious liberal arts college during the self-absorbed 1970s.

 

 

My war hero … and a classic poem

Frederick Nathaniel Ball
My great grandfather was wounded at the Battle Cedar Creek. If he had not survived, I wouldn’t be here.

Through accidents of timing and draft lotteries, the last person in my direct line to fight in a war was my paternal great grandfather, Frederick Nathaniel Ball.

His last battle happened to be memorialized in a famous poem. I’ll tell you more about that in a moment.

Frederick was a Yankee. He was just a young man from Connecticut, who found himself serving in Colonel Phillip Sheridan’s Union Army during some of the most decisive action of the Civil War.

Sheridan’s orders were to take Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley in order to stop the Confederates from using it as a base for attacks into the North. He was further ordered to render it useless as a source of provision for the Southern army.

This meant commandeering livestock, destroying railroads, burning barns, mills, and crops. Sheridan executed his orders so thoroughly the campaign was called “The Burning” by Southerners.

The scorched earth tactics used by Sheridan foreshadowed the more extensive March to the Sea through Georgia by Gen. William T. Sherman.

The turning point in the Shenandoah Campaign came at the battle of Cedar Creek on Oct. 19, 1864.

The battle started out as a complete rout by the Southern troops. The Yankees had been surprised at dawn by Jubal Early’s Confederate veterans.

Sheridan was returning from Washington and had spent the night in Winchester, several miles away from the front. When his troops were attacked, he heard the artillery, and raced on his horse to get to the fight.

Colonel Phillip Sheridan arrives to save the day at the Battle of Cedar Creek
Colonel Phillip Sheridan arrives to save the day at the Battle of Cedar Creek

Legend has it that Sheridan arrived just in time to rally his soldiers and turn the tide. This legend was amplified in a heroic poem by Thomas Buchanan Read called “Sheridan’s Ride.” The poem helped made Sheridan a hero in the North, and is even said to have helped Lincoln win re-election.

My great grandfather was right in the thick of this battle, and his experience has served as both a point of pride — and a cautionary tale — in my family down through the decades.

As the story has been handed down, Frederick was shot through his side. He stuffed a rag in the bullet hole to staunch the bleeding and managed to crawl back to safety. In this time before antibiotics, the odds of surviving a serious war wound was not great.

Frederick was one of the lucky ones.

In a few months the war would be over. He would head west to seek better prospects and cheaper farmland in Iowa. He married, raised a big family, which included my grandfather. Eventually the tribe drifted down into Missouri.

I can still remember my parents taking the book “One Hundred and One Famous Poems” down from the shelf and reading classics by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, James Whitcomb Riley, and Eugene Field.

And whenever we came to Thomas Buchanan Read’s poem, my father would repeat the story about our ancestor who was on the scene, and who survived. As he said, “if that Rebel soldier had been an better shot, none of us would be here.”

My taste in poetry has changed a bit since those days when I sat enthralled listening my father read Thomas Buchanan Read’s poem. But it’s a good example of a panegyric ode and it tells a rip-roaring good tale.

Here, for your edification, is the complete text of “Sheridan’s Ride.” They just don’t write poems like this anymore!

Sheridan’s Ride
by Thomas Buchanan Read

Up from the South, at break of day,
Bringing to Winchester fresh dismay,
The affrighted air with a shudder bore,
Like a herald in haste to the chieftain’s door,
The terrible grumble, and rumble, and roar,
Telling the battle was on once more,
And Sheridan twenty miles away.

And wider still those billows of war
Thundered along the horizon’s bar;
And louder yet into Winchester rolled
The roar of that red sea uncontrolled,
Making the blood of the listener cold,
As he thought of the stake in that fiery fray,
With Sheridan twenty miles away.

But there is a road from Winchester town,
A good, broad highway leading down:
And there, through the flush of the morning light,
A steed as black as the steeds of night
Was seen to pass, as with eagle flight;
As if he knew the terrible need,
He stretched away with his utmost speed.
Hills rose and fell, but his heart was gay,
With Sheridan fifteen miles away.

Still sprang from those swift hoofs, thundering south,
The dust like smoke from the cannon’s mouth,
Or the trail of a comet, sweeping faster and faster,
Foreboding to traitors the doom of disaster.
The heart of the steed and the heart of the master
Were beating like prisoners assaulting their walls,
Impatient to be where the battle-field calls;
Every nerve of the charger was strained to full play,
With Sheridan only ten miles away.

Under his spurning feet, the road
Like an arrowy Alpine river flowed,
And the landscape sped away behind
Like an ocean flying before the wind;
And the steed, like a barque fed with furnace ire,
Swept on, with his wild eye full of fire;
But, lo! he is nearing his heart’s desire;
He is snuffing the smoke of the roaring fray,
With Sheridan only five miles away.

The first that the general saw were the groups
Of stragglers, and then the retreating troops;
What was to be done? what to do?-a glance told him both.
Then striking his spurs with a terrible oath,
He dashed down the line, ‘mid a storm of huzzas,
And the wave of retreat checked its course there, because
The sight of the master compelled it to pause.
With foam and with dust the black charger was gray;
By the flash of his eye, and his red nostril’s play,
He seemed to the whole great army to say:
‘I have brought you Sheridan all the way
From Winchester down to save the day.’

Hurrah! hurrah for Sheridan!
Hurrah! hurrah for horse and man!
And when their statues are placed on high
Under the dome of the Union sky,
The American soldier’s Temple of Fame,
There, with the glorious general’s name,
Be it said, in letters both bold and bright:
‘Here is the steed that saved the day
By carrying Sheridan into the fight,
From Winchester-twenty miles away!’