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, with Overt Biblical and Literary Themes

The Grapes of Wrath

Grapes of Wrath

Once I loved a Jewess,
Tenderly and fair.
I was her gentle gentile,
She my queen with raven hair.

She fed me cheese and crackers,
We followed mountain streams.
We slept outside on winter nights,
And traded smoky dreams.

We cried outside a movie —
Our comfort caused us shame —
Mascara stained my sweater black,
I whispered close her name.

But when I loved another Jew,
She could not understand.
She thought he’d died in Palestine
When Romans ruled the land.

I sometimes think I see her still
Though many years have passed.
A glimpse of black hair in a crowd
Still makes my heart beat fast.


(1979)

Notes:  I’m not sure when I first noticed the new-fangled way to refer to B.C. and A.D. as Before the Common Era and Common Era.  Wikipedia tells us that the expression was used as far back as 1615 (A.D.), to emphasize secularism.

Harrumph.

Strictly for me, “B.C.E” and “C.E.” have always seemed like just one more feeble attempt to be politically correct. And political correctness gives me hives.

But, no matter. I have my own ways of marking time.  I have a B.C. and A.D. of my own.  One cold February day in 1972 marks that dividing line for me. I guess if you personalized them with my name, you could call them “B.B.C.” and “B.A.D.”

I also observe another, alternate. personal calendar that revolves around a different landmark of my life, that being when I found my wife.  There is “Before Jan” (B.J.), and “After Jan” (A.J.)  If you’ve been following this blog and reading the poems, you understand the significance.

This poem is definitely a B.J. era poem, and it straddles my personal B.C./A.D. divide. It has been consigned to a dusty old notebook for decades without seeing the light of day. In the midst of a recent guileless moment, I recited it to my wife.  She encouraged me to publish it.

While the drama in this little poem was a big deal at the time, I must say that I’ve pretty much made my peace with it now.

Love Sonnet

Orson Welles pitching Paul Masson wine

“We’ll Sell No Wine”

“We’ll sell no wine before its time,” we’re told.
The fat and famous spokesman made it clear,
Each vintage has its period of gold.
(You must assess the pressing and the year.)

So, likewise, for each vintage comes a time
The point past which there’s no return at all.
Decay and oxidation work their crime,
And turn your sweetest nectar into gall.

So come, my dear, what are we waiting for?
Our cellar holds a few more bottles still.
Pick one and brush away the dust before
Time turns its contents back to must — time will.
Cast off our caution and our clothes and pour,
And drink with joy until we’ve had our fill.


Notes:  The news lately has been filled with dreadful reports:  mass shootings in Las Vegas, bombings in far-away lands, vile behavior by the powerful of Hollywood.

Because I know that mankind is fallen, I have no confidence in “human nature.”  But my innate positive outlook this week has been shaken.

When the week began, I learned that the son of a friend and former colleague had been one of the wounded in the Las Vegas mass shooting.  He had been a law enforcement officer for over 20 years and had never been shot, nor shot anyone in the line of duty.

And then he was shot in the neck and shoulder while he was attending a country music concert.

Thankfully, he survived and is on the mend today, and should be okay.

Then, the news about the Hollywood sexual abuse scandal broke.  My Facebook feed has been filled not only lurid stories of the rich and famous, but heartbreaking firsthand accounts from women I know who have suffered in silence from heinous actions of abusers.

The sheer amount of #me too is overwhelming.

Evil is real and more common than we want to admit.

One particularly poignant series of posts has made me reassess my own hometown experience.

I’ve written glowingly about my childhood and my hometown and my education.

As I have processed the new information, I must admit that — depending on where you stood — my hometown could have been more Twin Peaks than Mayberry RFD.

There was stuff going on back there that I had no idea about.

So, in the face of horror and dread, I will resort to a place of solace and peace.

I will celebrate love, and marriage, and monogamy.

I will seek to find meaning and comfort in order and rhyme and meter.

When the society and the culture seems to be disintegrating, I will look to the good examples I have in my life and celebrate faithfulness and honor and love.

I really don’t know what else to do.

Historical note:

I’m old enough to remember when Orson Welles became a television pitchman for a sort-of-good American wine.

Welles had been the genius who panicked the nation in 1938 with his faux-documentary radio broadcast, “War of the Worlds.” In 1941, he directed and starred in “Citizen Kane,” considered to be among the best — if not the best film of all time.

By the late 1970s, Welles was making commercials. His Paul Masson spots are still classics.

“We will sell no wine before its time,” was a magnificent slogan.

Father haiku

Dad's last bottle of Old Spice

Amidst the clutter,
Dad’s last bottle of Old Spice.
I’ll wear some today.


NOTES:  One of the most precious mementos I found as we prepared my parents’ home to be sold a couple of years ago was a bottle of my father’s after shave lotion tucked away in a bathroom cabinet.  He must have purchased this particular bottle just before he went into the nursing home because it was still nearly full.

Dad had been an Old Spice man as far back as I could remember, and the rich fragrance stirred up a host of memories.  You see, this last bottle dates back to the 1980s and it smells completely different from today’s weak sauce sold under the Old Spice brand.

Proctor & Gamble bought the Shulton company in 1990 and started changing things.  I noticed that the glass bottles gave way to plastic.  The grey stopper changed to red.  But worst of all, the new owners messed with the formula of the lotion itself.

When I found that old bottle of my Dad’s and took my first whiff, I was shocked at how much stronger and complex it was compared to the modern recipe.

I hadn’t smelled that classic fragrance for decades, and there is something powerful about the olfactory sense that connects us with the past.

Dad had taught me how to shave lathering up his Old Spice shaving mug and soap and brush.  I scratched off my thickening peach fuzz using his heavy-duty razor, the kind that took the old style disposable blades.

Of course, I nicked myself and he had to show me how to staunch the bleeding with an alum stick.  Thank goodness he didn’t use a straight razor.  I probably would have bled to death.

Dad taught me how to change oil and change a tire.  And though he was a master mechanic, he never was able to get me beyond the most basic level of automobile repair.  My fault, not his.

Dad taught me more important things, as well.  Things like keeping your word and doing an honest day’s work.  Things like owning up to your mistakes and saying you’re sorry.

Although the Great Depression short-circuited his education and forced him to drop out of high school to earn a living, he never stopped learning.  He left behind a robust collection of books including the writings of ancient historians and early church fathers.

He took his faith seriously, and didn’t make it too complicated.  The most worn of all his books was his Bible.  It was literally falling apart from use, held together with duct tape.

Of course, as a teenager, I was much too smart to go for my father’s myths and legends.  It was only after pursuing my own path and hitting some rough dead ends that I wound up pretty much where he had been all along.

It was amazing how much wiser the Old Man seemed to me when I was 28 than he did when I was 18.

He taught me perseverance in hard times.  When his one foray into business failed when I was in grade school, he swallowed his pride, got up the next day and went to work for someone else to support his family.

When my brother Bill died in a scuba-diving accident leaving a wife and 3 young kids, my Dad flew halfway across the country to handle matters.  In the midst of what must have been his own inconceivable grief, brought that little family back with him and took care of them until they could get back on their feet.

The most poignant lesson Dad taught me was about faithfulness as demonstrated by how he treated my Mother.  Theirs was not fairytale romance.  When they got married in the depths of the Great Depression, Dad was working on a farm crew for a dollar a day.  He had to talk his boss into giving him Saturday off so he could have the whole weekend for a honeymoon.

They started out dirt poor, and only very gradually worked their way into what might be called the lower middle class.  It was a great day when we moved to town and got central heat and indoor plumbing!

But, to me, theirs was a great love story.   Dad always treated Mom with affection and respect.  There was never any question about his loyalty to her.  And, when Mom eventually began her long slide into dementia, Dad cared for her personally.  And when she finally had to enter a nursing home, he visited her every day and spoon fed her lunch.

So, a couple of times a year, I pull out that grey stopper from Dad’s last bottle of Old Spice and splash some on my face in his honor.  All day long I catch whiffs of bay leaf and clove and cinnamon, and I’m reminded of what it means to be a good man.

 

Hometown haiku

Raymond Ball with a 1940 Ford

Father, when you spoke
I believed you, for you spoke
with authority.


NOTES:  In many ways, my dad was a simple man.  Farmer.  Mechanic.  Forced to drop out of high school to work during the Great Depression, he never had the opportunity go back to school to pick up his education again.

He never travelled to Europe or learned a foreign language.  He never made a lot of money, or tasted the luxuries of life.

But he knew what he thought and what he believed.  And when he talked about his beliefs, his strength of conviction came through his voice.

Often he was expressing his belief in the products of the Ford Motor Company.  He was a confirmed Ford man.  He claimed he had seen the insides of enough cars and tractors to know how each one held up, and which ones were made out of cheap materials.

He would just utter a phrase like, “The Ford Model T …” and let it hang there and resonate in the air.  He said it with such reverence that those who heard it just knew that the Ford Model T had not only been a great automobile, but a miraculous product of a genius.

He could inspire similar feelings of reverence with exclamations like, “President Abraham Lincoln,” or “Old Thomas Edison.”  You just knew these were great men.

We  didn’t have pastors or full-time clergy in our tiny little Church of Christ congregation.   The leadership was handled by laymen like himself.  When he would stand up on Sunday mornings to “wait on the communion table,” he would recite the words by heart from the King James Version of Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians:

“That the Lord Jesus, on the night he was betrayed took bread, And when he had given thanks, he brake it, and said, Take it, eat: this is my body which is broken for you.  This do in remembrance of me.”

Hearing him say it, you had no doubt that this was just the way it had happened.

Perhaps the most convincing and poignant expression of his conviction came many years later, as his wife lay in a nursing home, long lost to dementia.  “Your mother,” he said, “was the best.  I never met another women like your mother. Never.”

And you just knew it was true.

Civics Haiku

First Presyterian Church, Marshall, MO
Let me not forget
my dual citizenship,
and which one will last.


Notes:  Pictured is the First Presbyterian Church of Marshall, Missouri.  Known as “The Rock Church,” it is the most beautiful church building in my hometown.