Poem for Mother’s Day, in Defiance of Alzheimer’s

Mother holding me in 1952

She Knew the Names of Things

She knew the names of things, knew them by heart.
Not just the farmwife flowers of the yard,
But the wild ones in the hidden woods.
And in the woods, she knew the names of trees.
She knew quaint sayings about country ways.
“That’s no sign of a duck’s nest,” she would say,
Defying explanation even then.

She knew the names of birds, common and rare:
The Red Wing, Meadow Lark and Mourning Dove,
Brown Thrush and Gold Finch and sad Whippoorwill.
She knew them by their call as well as sight.

She knew the names of lonely widowed aunts,
And she knew dates and anniversaries,
And surely, she recalled that doleful day
When the son who called her “Mother” was fished
By divers out of San Diego Bay.
For grief, she never spoke of it again.

And though she’d barely gone to school, she
Had sense enough to hang a dishrag up,
She knew her Whitman and her Bible well.
And when the door-yard Lilacs bloomed she paused
Amidst the sweet perfume, breathed, and recalled
The poem and soft fragrance that she loved,
Sweet messenger of spring—but not too sweet,
Not like the syrupy Petunias
That she also loved, but differently.
She always favored the modest flowers
That had a tinge of tragedy and loss
Like Lilacs and Lillies of the Valley,
Named for the suffering Savior of mankind.
She knew the things she loved, and she could name them.

But winter of the mind came drifting in
And names of things were slowly covered up,
As when the snow erases hue and shape
And leaves the garden white, formless and blank.

The soaring Hollyhocks were overcome,
Begonias, Honeysuckle, Marigolds,
The Morning Glories high atop the gate
Were covered, as was Aunt Minerva, too,
(Whom she loved like the mother she had lost),
And cousin Gene undone at Normandy,
And buried there amidst a cross-white field.

Peonies bowed their heavy heads beneath
The heavy snow and disappeared away.
So too, the old folks’ graves that she adorned
With their bouquets each Decoration Day.

Wild Lady Slipper too did not escape,
Entombed beneath its own soft shroud of white
With Buttercup, Catalpa, Trumpet Vine,
With Thistle, Jimsonweed and Columbine.
And covered too were Maples, Elms and Oaks,
The Willow tree we started from a branch,
The stately Cottonwood that soared above
The old farm woods, completely covered up.

And covered too were barefoot childhood days
On Clear Creek growing up carefree, before
Her still-young mother died of Spanish Flu,
And left five other kids for her to raise.
Those days she loved them, and she knew their names:
Hayward, Walden (though others called him Joe)
Jesse, Vivian, and the youngest Bill.
All these names buried and forgotten now.

Gone was her motto written out longhand
Held by a magnet to the old icebox
With wise and frugal counsel: “Use it up
Wear it out. Make it do, or do without.”

Old photographs stuck in a musty book
Assembled even as the blizzard blew,
A vain attempt to thwart the mounting snow,
The names obliterated anyway
By endless pitiless nameless white.

I walk now through the fiery leaves of fall
And ponder piles of faded photographs,
Repeating names I learned so long ago,
Recalling things and places I have loved

In hopes this recitation will forestall
My own impending blanketing of snow.
Perhaps my winter will be mild—or not.
Perhaps I will become snowbound as well.

But I shall say the names of things ’til then
And recall her who taught them first to me.
Remembering, turn my face to winter’s blast,
Defying it to dare to land a blow.
For I shall sing the names of things until
I lie here frozen stiff beneath the snow.


(2019)

NOTES: The poems I learned at my mother’s knee employed meter and rhyme. So it’s only natural that I’m most comfortable with forms like ballads and sonnets. They speak my heart language. I’ve long agreed with Robert Frost that writing in free verse is like playing tennis with the net down. It may do wonders for the self esteem, but it’s hardly sporting.

But lately, I’ve had the itch to write something longer than a sonnet, or something more ambitious than eight lines of rhyming couplets. After digging around, I settled on blank verse, which sticks with meter, but dispenses with the need for thyme. Sort of like playing tennis with the net lowered a couple of feet. I suppose if it was good enough for Marlowe and Shakespeare, it should be good enough for me.

My mother died several years ago after a protracted siege of some type of dementia. It may have been Alzheimer’s Disease, but it was likely some other variant because it dragged out longer than usual for that particular form of dementia. We never had a formal diagnosis.

I hope the poem speaks for itself and provides a fitting tribute for Mother’s Day.

P.S. Extra note for poetry nerds: The last 14 lines came the easiest for me. Only when they were completed did I realize that they were almost a sonnet. However, the lines were not rhyming, except for one rhyme at the end. I guess old habits are hard to break.

 

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Poem for anyone sick of winter (or who has ever lost a love)

Grey weeds withered beside a roadside ditch

That Bleak Season

That bleak season the cold creek ceased to run,
Grey weeds withered beside the roadside ditch,
Flat leaden clouds obscured a sullen sun,
Winds lashed ice-lacquered leaves without a twitch.

Field stalks bowed down to winter’s weary weight,
The world conspired to pile pang upon pang,
Even the crusted snow cried, “Much too late!”
Caged by a skeleton hedge, no bird sang.

That bleak season love went the way of leaves,
Good green seeming, but poised to take the fall,
First frost stunned then assailed by windy thieves,
Some futile few sought stubborn to forestall
The impending end ’til a fell gust cleaves
Asunder with only a scrawny squall.


(2017)

Notes: This endless winter has reminded me of the poem above, written not too long ago, but inspired by events in another time, in another life.

Robert Frost once said:

Ah, when to the heart of man
++Was it ever less than a treason
To go with the drift of things,
++To yield with a grace to reason,
And bow and accept the end
++Of a love or a season?

The comfort I can offer is only this: Love, like spring will surely bloom again.

Winter Walk

Frozen moon through grey trees

The Yuletide lights are packed away,
+++++Grey leaves creep down the street.
The trees at dusk are shades of grey,
+++++Grey sky makes grey complete.

The old man mutters as he scrapes
+++++His trash can to the curb.
The trees complain and sway their shapes
+++++As gusts their peace disturb.

Thin clouds scud past the frozen moon,
+++++The distant highway drones,
Debris from windy storms lies strewn,
+++++The path gives way to stones.

A solitary sparrow picks
+++++A solitary seed
Out from the desiccated sticks
+++++To slake its piercing need.

We’ve reached the nadir of the year,
+++++The time when flowers sleep.
No wish can make them reappear
+++++From their repose so deep.


(2019)

NOTES: Winter can be dreary in the Northwest. The days are as short as they are long in summer. It rains incessantly. Storms roll in from the Pacific and wreak havoc with trees and electrical power grids.

I know. I know. This may sound wimpy when my friends back in Minnesota are staring at temperatures in the 20s below zero Fahrenheit this week. It’s true that we enjoy a Marine climate here on the Puget Sound. It doesn’t get that cold, and I’ve shoveled snow exactly one time since I moved here 25 years ago.

But winter is long, and  I’m eager for the page to turn and the return of the crocus and the robins.

I’ve noticed that walking without earphones or music stimulates the poetry center of the brain.  I think it’s because I hear what’s going on around me.  As I walked this past week on a windy evening, I noticed the tall evergreens making a perceptible swishing sound, back and forth, back and forth.

Read the second stanza aloud and see if you can hear it, too.

Winter Haiku

Hummingbird

Lone hummingbird comes

to poke our dying blossoms.

All the rest have gone.


NOTES:  This summer we were visited daily by dozens of hummingbirds. We have four species native to Western Washington: Anna’s, Rufous, Calliope, and Black-Chinned. At first I was quite concerned for our persistent cold-weather guest, but I have since learned that the Anna’s Hummingbird is the only one of the four that does not migrate south for the winter. So apparently he knows what he is doing.

I wish I could take its picture, but I have neither the camera nor the skill to catch it.  So an old print will have to do to illustrate today’s haiku.

Honeymoon sonnet

Honeymoon epiphany

Epiphanies

We come now to the winter of our years
(Where did the autumn with its pleasures go?)
Our roof will all too soon be cloaked with snow,
So, come, let’s stoke our fire against the fears.

It seems another life ago, my dear,
That full of grace you pilgrim sat aglow
Enkindled so this prodigal would know
That grace was free and grace was very near.

Midsummer’s eve brought more epiphanies
Of spotless bride adorned, redeemed, in white,
Too ill for customary liberties,
So wan, yet still for these sore eyes a sight.
Then! Over Lake Champlain the full moon sees
A railway sleeper car rock through the night.


(2013)

Notes:

When love is good and it lasts, it can be tempting to idealize its beginnings.

But, the very first time I saw my wife, she was glowing. I kid you not. Sitting in the second row of a darkened auditorium listening to the Chaplain of the U.S. Senate, there she was — surrounded by a golden aura.

At the time, I was a reporter for a small suburban weekly paper, and was there on assignment. I had a camera, but was so befuddled I failed to get the shot. (Of the Glowing Girl, that is.) You might argue I was imagining things, but I don’t think so. I’m not given to visions nor hallucinations. I’ve never witnessed anything like it before or since.

I kept my eye on her while I got my story. But at the end of the program, she went right up to the speaker. I figured she must be with the group of important people who had accompanied him from Washington, D.C.

So, I put The Glowing Girl out of mind and tried to forget about her.

Fortunately for me, she turned up again a couple of weeks later at church. It turns out she was a friend of a friend, who introduced us and immediately left us alone. I didn’t let her get away a second time.

I think the whole experience was a special gift for a fellow a bit slow on the uptake, who needed a sign to notice a good thing right under my nose.

That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.

We were married three years later at Midsummer. She was sick and only made it through the festivities with the help of cold medicine. The next morning we flew out of town to New York, and the very next night, took an overnight train to Montreal.

I’ve been a fan of railway travel ever since.

Late Winter Haiku

Crocus blooming in late winter

Late winter warm spell,
tree frogs in love calling out
“Cro-cro-cro-crocus!”


NOTES: Unseasonably warm weather this weekend in the Pacific Northwest.  When I went to the mailbox I heard the tree frogs for the first time this year.  They are awake and most certainly in love.

Winter Haiku

Royall Lyme after shave

Even in winter
one whiff stirs a remembrance
of spring long ago.


Notes: I’ve heard that the sense of smell is the strongest trigger of memories. I’m not sure that is a scientific fact, but anecdotally it sure seems so.

The odor of a particular janitorial product can transport me back to the polished hallways of Southeast Grade School. A hint of Lily of the Valley can put me right back in the shoes of the little boy who was me tending a flower garden with my mother.

The smell of fresh baked bread lands me in my grandmother’s house, playing with my cousins, anticipating the first bite of that still-hot bread, smeared with homemade butter and smothered in honey from the comb.

And the smell need not be pleasant. Step into a campground outhouse, and I’m right back on my childhood farm.  We weren’t the poorest farmers in the county — we had a two-seater.

And that reminds me. The smell of burning paper brings back the recollection of the out-of-date Sears & Roebuck catalogs, kept along with a box of kitchen matches in that old outhouse as a sort of forerunner to the modern room deodorizer.  You just rip out a page, roll it tight, and light it.  Everything smells much better than before!

Last month while on vacation, I was delighted to find a fragrance from the past at an Brooks Brothers outlet mall store. The bright green of the Royall Lyme bottle caught my eye almost immediately.

The heavy metal crown-shaped lid felt the same.  The faux-Old English font looked the same. And when I sprayed on a bit of the fragrance, I was taken back to the mid 1960s again.

The high school speech and debate club had boarded a school bus and driven to Kansas City for a weekend field trip.  The stated educational rationale was to take in a film or two that were not available in my rural hometown. But it was really pretty much a junket, a good excuse to get out of town and hang out in the big city.

Some of the details are fuzzy, but I think we stayed at an old Howard Johnson’s out on I-70 and Noland Road. Then the next day, with our teacher, Mr. Washburn, driving the bus, we ventured into the city.  I think the big movie most people wanted to see was Cat Ballou, which would most likely date this event in the spring of ’67.

We had no way of knowing it, but that summer in San Francisco would see the “Summer of Love,” with the full flowering of the hippie subculture. This was the era of “be-ins,” sex, drugs, and rock & roll.

But that was all to come later. Back in Kansas City, we caught a matinee, which I remember nothing about.  We ate at the Italian Gardens, at its old location on Baltimore Avenue, my first experience with ethnic food. The spumoni was redolent. It must have been soaked in some type of booze, which I had also never tasted before. A classic spumoni in an old school Italian restaurant can sometimes take me back in time.

But the most memorable experience happened when we stopped into a fancy men’s clothing store. I didn’t have a lot of spending money, so I couldn’t afford the clothes. But I found a bottle of Royall Lyme cologne in my price range and bought it.

I had a crush on a girl, and there were signs she liked me too. We sat next to each other on the bus ride back home. I wore the lime-scented fragrance.

As I walked home from the school building by myself, I recall humming Simon and Garfunkle’s 59th Street Bridge Song, with its signature line, “Feelin’ groovy.”  (From the first album I would buy for myself, incidentally.)

The sun was warm. The birds were chirping. My feet floated above the sidewalk. God was in His heaven. Everything was right with the world.

And all was infused with lime.

Speaking strictly for me, I could have died then and there.

As for peak experiences, this may seem fairly tame. But when you think about it, how many times in your life seem absolutely perfect?

I can only think of a handful.

The perfection was fleeting, of course. It always is. We went back to classes on Monday. The school year ended soon. The puppy-love romance fizzled. The summer was spent detasseling corn and bucking hay. Come mid-August and we had to endure the grueling two-a-day football practices. School started up again. I caught a cold. The entire football season I sat on the ice-cold aluminum bench as a third stringer.

Everything was not groovy.

But that one springtime, lime-soaked day was a glimpse. A foretaste of something pure and good and innocent and perfect.

My generation would try, just a couple of years later to take the Summer of Love to the next level and seize that innocence by force.  At Woodstock, half a million young people would head to Yasgur’s Farm and try to “get back to the garden,” but would wind up wallowing in trash and mud instead.

I read about Woodstock in TIME magazine. I wanted to believe in it. But I had just been blessed with indoor plumbing and central heating a few years before. Something about the filth and the litter and the discomfort just didn’t jibe with what paradise was supposed to be like for me.

Then, in December of 1969, all the false hope of the Summer of Love and Woodstock would be slammed shut at the Altamont Raceway Festival Free Concert. While the Rolling Stones played Sympathy for the Devil, a fight broke out.  And while they played Under My Thumb, a Hells Angels security guard stabbed a stoned-out and unruly concert-goer to death.

Although I didn’t realize it at the time, the counterculture had peaked, and I had pretty much missed it.

We were a long way from “all  is groovy.”

By the time I would head  off to college in 1970, eager to plunge into the counterculture, it had already been exposed as a false hope and an empty dream. I felt vaguely cheated, like I’d arrived late at the party.

In 1973, Van Morrison would capture the contradictions and the corruption of the hippie movement in his song The Great Deception on the album Hard Nose the Highway:

Did you ever hear about the great deception
Well the plastic revolutionaries take the money and run
Have you ever been down to love city
Where they rip you off with a smile
And it don’t take a gun

— by Van Morrison

But the idea of paradise persists. And the scent of limes still brings it back.