The Skinny Kid in the Corner

A Swift Current shares the writing of Gerry Sell, a good story told with an honest voice

Vuillard…At The Revue Blanche…1901…Guggenheim Museum New York

As Thanksgiving approaches, A Swift Current changes direction.

I have long hoped to share others’ memories and reflections, and now, for the first time, I am honored to share the writing of Gerry Sell.

Gerry Sell is a retired Mathematics teacher, and currently a resident of The Waters at 50th in Minneapolis. A participant in The Waters’ Writers Group, her essay Thanksgiving was originally published in Cardboard in Our Shoes, an Anthology of Reminiscences. The Writer’s Group meets twice a month, and over time their instructor Kathleen Novak observed that the group’s writings “…more and more centered around childhood and young adult memories during the tumultuous years of the Great Depression and World War II.” In the anthology, Novak writes, “they’ve culled the best for friends and family and all others who love a good story told with an honest voice…”

Here is one of those stories.

Thanksgiving by Gerry Sell

The note was on the table when I got home that night. “Mom, call this doctor at this number tonight! (underlined) Urgent! (underlined twice)”

I looked at the clock. It was after 11 PM. I looked at the name. I did not recognize it. The area code for the number was Chicago. I didn’t know anyone in Chicago. Why was a doctor from Chicago calling me? All kinds of thoughts ran through my mind. Did one of my Milwaukee relatives go there, get sick, and give my name as the contact? Was it someone calling from the university who got sick there?

I kept repeating the name. I didn’t know anyone by that name, yet I felt I should. I dialed the number. A woman answered. “I have a message to call this number,” I said.

“Oh I am so glad you called. I’ll get him. Please don’t hang up. He’ll be right here.” Now it was even more mysterious and the name kept gnawing at the back of my mind.

I heard the phone being picked up. “Hello Gerry. It’s Manuel. You remember me?” The voice was seductive, the pronunciation accented.

“No, I don’t think so.” I replied.

“Come on, Gerry. You have to remember.”

“I’m trying.” I said.

“Come on, Gerry. Think back along time ago.”

“I’m sorry,” I said again. Nothing was clicking.

“Think back a long, long time ago. “

“I’m trying.”

“Come on, Gerry. Don’t you remember? I was the skinny kid in the corner!” And, then, I did remember—yes, Manuel! He was indeed the skinny kid in the corner of one of my first college classes.

It was my first semester at Marquette, 1951. The class was zoology. The professor was an old man who was the department chair and who had written the textbook. He lectured by reading from the book, never looking up except to take roll.

We were all having trouble in that class. Not only were the lectures a waste of time, but the grad study for the lab was not a zoologist and had trouble distinguishing between male and female frogs.

The skinny kid in the corner was having more trouble than the rest of us. He was all of 5’4” and maybe 100-pounds. His English was reasonable, but he was struggling. One thing that he did know, as did the rest of us, was that without an “A” in that zoology class, there was no chance that he would be admitted into medical school.

Back then, there were no MCATS entrance exams. One did three years of pre-med, and based on grades in science classes and professors’ recommendations, one was admitted. Unless one was female. All scholarship money was reserved for MALE students.

His accented pronunciation interested me. I found out that he was from Belize. He worked on campus to pay his dorm fees. There were other students from Belize, but he was the only pre-med student and zoology threatened to make him a non-pre-med.

Another complication was that all scholarship students had to maintain a 3.5 GPA or they lost their scholarships. Manuel had to get an A in zoology for his GPA, because he was not getting an A in English.

I towered over him. Before I ever heard of “spinal compression”, I was 5’9”. My troubles were not academic but economic. I kept my coat on in class because I was still wearing my high school uniform. That didn’t matter to Manuel.

One day he very shyly asked if I would help him. So we started working together, sometimes a few minutes and sometimes two to three hours.

The day of the final exam, he looked so apprehensive. The exams were passed out and I saw him write at the top of the paper “AMDG,” Ad marjorem Dei gloriam—for the greater glory of God, which is the Jesuit motto.

I was the first person finished. I turned in my paper and left, but I just had to wait until he came out. When he did, he took my hand and smiled and said, “I answered every one and I think correctly. Thank you.”

“Good luck,” I said then asked, “Are you going home for the summer?”

“No, I cannot. I know I will have trouble in chemistry.”

The following year we were in different classes, but I saw him some. He had studied hard all summer and the textbooks were better.

He commented once that I wasn’t wearing my coat so much and that he hadn’t seen my blue jumper for a while. He also said he knew I was poor, but it was better to be poor here than in Central America.

At the end of my sophomore year, I had to quit school. My scholarships were for two years and my application for a third year was turned down because all the money was going to veterans. I tried to borrow one hundred dollars, but was told that the school didn’t give money to girls. They never paid it back.

I corrected papers for one of the Jesuit religion teachers, Father Maddigan. He was a Canadian who had served in WWI and reminded me of my dad. Even with his recommendation, I couldn’t get any money.

On the phone Manuel was now saying, “I got into Medical School because you helped me. And when I went to tell you, you were gone. My daughter graduated from Marquette and had the Alumni directory. I looked through every page until I found you.”

We had started talking about 1953 and what happened to us, how he had gotten into medical school and I was teaching first grade. He laughed. “Good it was first grade. High school juniors were older than you.” We talked about how each of us had married and had children.   He took a deep breath. “Gerry, I want to ask you something. Please don’t be offended. Your husband, he is a good man?”

“Yes, he is.”

“In the directory, it says he graduated Summa Cum Laude.” He is also a smart man?” It was a question that was also a statement.

“Yes, Manuel. He is so smart he married me.”

“Oh Gerry, I like that and I am going to remember it. I must go now. I want you to understand what I am saying. I am what I am because of your help. Without that A in zoology, I would not have been in medical school, and I would not be a doctor. It is 50 years, but it is never too late to say thank you. Promise me you won’t forget me.”

Through my tears I said, “I won’t forget.”

“Thank you again, Gerry.”

 

 

A Swift Current guest author Gerry Sell wrote Thanksgiving, a good story told with an honest voice

Author Gerry Sell graduated from Marquette University in 1957. This is her graduation photo.

Thank you to Gerry Sell for permission to share her story on A Swift Current.  All rights reserved.

Thank you also to Kathleen Novak, novelist and poet, who introduced me to her students’ writing. Their book of reminiscences is unfortunately sold out. However, Kathleen is the author of two novels published by Permanent Press: Do Not Find Me, a finalist for the 2017 Minnesota Book Award, and the recent, charming Rare Birds.

 

As we gather together for Thanksgiving, please remember this is a chance to share and record our stories.  Once again, National Public Radio’s StoryCorps is sponsoring “The Great Thanksgiving Listen“–providing the opportunity to interview an elderly loved one using the free StoryCorps app. StoryCorps even offers suggested questions.  Interviews become part of the StoryCorps Archive at the American Folk Life Center at the Library of Congress.  For more information, visit

https://storycorps.org/participate/the-great-thanksgiving-listen/

Listen. Honor. Share.

Advertisements

The Dark Has Its Own Light

A Swift Current The Dark Has Its Own Light

Elmer Bischoff– Figure at Window with Boat, 1964

As you come to this last page, there’s a sense of reaching out– for something that you can’t quite reach–that you can’t quite get. When you get to the top, you haven’t got it, but there’s a breathing out,

and accepting

that’s how it is…

It’s anything but a resolution. It’s not a reassurance either. It’s not that everything is going to be alright–nothing is going to be alright.

It’s just about accepting the way things are…

Words by pianist Paul Lewis about
Schubert’s last Sonata
The New York Times
August 2, 2016

Six years

after my mother’s death,

I have found

a certain peace.

It’s anything but a resolution;

it’s not a reassurance either;

and it certainly is not catharsis.

My mother is dead.

Her absence is an indelible part of me–

a space that cannot be filled—

nor should it.

Time does not heal;

I still long

for what cannot be–

but my grief

is tempered by

gratitude;

surprise;

even joy.

Six years

after my mother’s death,

I still shed tears

but I don’t fight them.

They are my silent– even welcome—recognition

of what I’ve lost and

what I live for.

Six years later,

she visits my dreams

with startling clarity–

pushing –prodding–

minding—mothering—

she makes her stand

in the dead of night.

Six years later,

I hear her voice

in my thoughts and

in my words — from

silly asides to

serious exhortations–

I am astonished to realize

she lives on

through me.

Six years later,

I look back;

I move forward;

everything’s going to be alright–

nothing is going to be alright.

As I come to this page,

there’s still a sense of reaching out

for something I can’t quite get;

for someone I will never see.

But there’s a breathing out—

accepting

the way things are.

My mother is dead.

I stare into the void

and

finally see.

The dark has its own light.

 

 

In a dream I meet
my dead friend. He has,
I know, gone long and far,
and yet he is the same
for the dead are changeless.
They grow no older.
It is I who have changed,
grown strange to what I was.
Yet I, the changed one,
ask: “How you been?”
He grins and looks at me.
“I’ve been eating peaches
off some mighty fine trees.”

~~ Wendell Barry

 

 

A Swift Current The Dark Has Its Own Light Corita Kent and Mickey Myers

As seen on a friend’s bookshelf…words by poet Theodore Roethke–print by Corita Kent and Mickey Myers, 1984

When I first read the interview with pianist Paul Lewis, his words stopped me in my tracks. In describing the final page of the slow movement of Schubert’s Sonata in B flat, Lewis helped clarify my then-muddled thoughts about my evolving grief.  Here is the link to the New York Times interview by David Allen: https://nyti.ms/2lDqDvd

A Meeting in A Part– copyright Wendell Barry, 1980 All Rights Reserved

Like Paul Lewis’s words, seeing the Corita Kent/Mickey Myers print at a friend’s home helped me think about loss.  Corita Kent’s artwork is the copyright of the Immaculate Heart Community All Rights Reserved– for more information http://www.coritaartcenter.org

Back to Black

A Swift Current Back to Black Hallie Swift's latest essay about our mother's decade of dementia

Vuillard The Artist’s Sister with a Cup of Coffee 1893 the Fitzwilliam Museum University of Cambridge

 

We only said goodbye with words

I died a hundred times

You go back to her

And I go back to

I go back to

us

 

I knelt by my mother’s side

But mama…

Her smoldering eyes

drilled right through me as

she unleashed a torrent of accusations;

every word

a scorching, vitriolic indictment of

me.

Her nurse put her arm around my shoulder

You need to leave. You do not deserve this.

But it’s my only chance…

You need to leave.

The nurse quickly led me to the back door

Go.

Now!

I stood

shaken and dejected

in the blinding glare of the Southern California sun.

This raw, tormented incarnation was a new twist

-at least for me—

in the trajectory of my mother’s disease;

I had never seen her

in the full grip of dementia’s vise.

I had grown accustomed to many aspects of
the disease—

dissolving memory,

fantastical stories,

even harsh diatribes;

but I had never witnessed

the searing black vortex

which enveloped my mama—

the dementia horror show.

But even though I saw it,

I didn’t accept it;

I did not try to understand the disease; and

I dared not imagine

what it was like for her.

I buried the actual words my mother said that day—

I cannot remember a single cutting recrimination that

stung so deeply and

caused her nurse to push me out the door.

Retreating to my own fantasy world,

I continued to discount the staff’s reports of

my mother’s increasingly volatile, aggressive behavior–

even when

they moved a roommate

for her safety;

or warned another resident’s family

about my mother’s fierce outbursts

against their elderly matriarch.

They must be exaggerating, I silently intoned;

in my mind, my mama was the innocent – always.

And I was incensed when another resident accosted me in the hall:

Is that woman your mother? She’s awful –she yells through the night and we can’t get any sleep!

My mother…is not awful–she can’t control—she has dementia—this is not her!

But it was her.

And again and again

I simply refused to admit

what was happening.

It would have been so much easier—for everyone

–for me—

if I had only accepted

the vicious truth.

But then one day

an exhausted charge nurse

pulled me aside—

that week,

she said,

my mother’s screams

had filled the halls of the nursing home

in the darkest hours of the night.

And with her revelation,

I could no longer deny

the stark,

surreal,

tragic force

of my mother’s disease–as

night after night

dementia took her

back to black.

Hallie, I need to know something…

did your mother lose a baby?

What?

Did your mother lose a baby?

Why?

Because every night, we give birth.

You—what–

Every night–your mother wakes up– screaming–she’s having a baby.

The nurses surround her.

Push Push
PUSH…

And every night,

her baby is dead.

Hallie, I need to know–did you mother lose a baby?

There was…um…between my sister and me…

Then that explains it. Your poor mother loses her baby
every night…

we’re trying to help, we’re doing everything we can– but
I hope—for everyone– this ends soon…

There.

There you have it.

That’s all you really need to know.

Dementia is a horror show.

I see it so differently now than I saw it then;

but then

and now

I didn’t want to know
any of this.

Then and now

I cling to

another memory of us–

we gaze at the view

from the nursing home garden;

we speak in silence as

the sun sets

red gold purple orange turquoise blue

across a glimmering city.

She even invented a word for

our dramatic evening skies–

Dinnerscapes, she called them

(and how did her demented mind,

I want to know,

capture with one word

the landscape of our dimming day)

A Swift Current Hallie Swift's latest essay about our decade of dementia

“I called them Dinnerscapes because they remind me of your art” Dinnerscape, a pastel by Mickey Myers, all rights reserved.

 

I cling to

our dinnerscapes–

but that’s the Technicolor version

of our story.

In the end

the horizon always fades to black.

And I must finally face

the one truth

I refused to accept

all those years.

My mama lived through hell on earth.

It was called dementia.

She was not awful,

except she was.

You do not deserve this.

 

A Swift Current Back to Black Hallie's Swift's latest essay about my mother's decade of dementia

Vuillard Woman Seated in a Dark Room, 1895, Musee de Beaux Arts Montreal

Opening lyrics from Back to Black Amy Winehouse and Mark Ronson composers, copyright 2006 Universal Music

Comfort and Joy

A Swift Current Remember the elderly at Christmas

My friend’s mom and the excitement of Christmas…

 

I have shared this story before. But any doubts about a reprise were erased when I received this card from one of my friends. Her mom picked out the photo and asked her daughter to include it with her greetings.

When I look at the expression in her eyes, my heart just melts.

I remember my mom’s nursing home at Christmas. The atmosphere virtually pulsated with anticipation. Holiday décor covered every available surface. Young schoolchildren sang carols. Unfamiliar visitors wandered the hallways.

The excitement—and tension–were palatable.

My mom’s fellow residents were lucky. The head nurse made sure everyone would receive a gift. Under her watch, no one would be disappointed on Christmas morning.

And so now, as we make our lists–and check them twice–let’s follow in the footsteps of my favorite head nurse. Please remember the elderly men and women in your community…

Here is our story:

Thank You For Remembering Me

A tall thin woman slowly edged her walker into my mother’s room. Her long silver hair was pulled in a braid, revealing bright blue eyes and high chiseled cheekbones

Are you Hallie Swift?

Yes, I’m Hallie…

She reached into her pocket, grasping a shiny gold lipstick tube

I’m Dorothy

She raised her arm high in the air;

giggling as she waved the lipstick back and forth;

her voice light, crisp, melodic

Oh Hallie, I just love my lipstick. Thank you for remembering me! Merry Christmas!

In her monthly newsletter

the head nurse had issued a plea—

she needed

Secret Santas

for residents with no families;

she wanted everyone in the nursing home

to find a present under the tree.

My friends and I discussed our gifts

…chocolates and sweaters and books with large print and stuffed animals and baseball caps and comforters and…

Lipsticks for the ladies!

Lipstick?

Yes, my friend urged

…after all, you never lose your vanity!

But let’s not give just one lipstick–

let’s get lipsticks for everyone!

So we asked friends coming to our Christmas party–

Please bring a lipstick for the ladies!

And with that, a tradition was born.

Year after year

we were showered with

Estee’s gorgeous reds, Chanel’s shimmering corals, Bobbi’s hot pinks;

small rectangular boxes adorned with bright paper and festive ribbons;

our own Christmas cornucopia.

We collected so many lipsticks;

I needed an extra suitcase for

the lipstick express!

On Christmas morning

each resident received

a beautiful little package.

A Swift Current Christmas lipstick for the ladies!

Lipstick! Photo by her granddaughter

 

The head nurse was effusive:

my residents are so happy–

And when my residents are happy, my nurses are happy–

And when my nurses are happy…

(her eyes glistened)

Well, girls, what can I say?

you made our Christmas!

But the truth is: they made ours.

For many of us, the trip to buy lipsticks became a defining moment of our holiday season. One friend told me she and the Bloomingdale’s saleswoman shed tears as they selected colors, then added every powder, polish and perfume sample in the department.

A Swift Current Remember the elderly at Christmas

Wayne Thiebald, Lipstick (detail), 1964 (the artist is now age 95)

A small rectangular box;

a simple gesture;

the electricity of Christmas morning;

a gift

under the tree–

bright colors;

big smiles;

Dorothy.

Silver braid

melodic laugh

waving her lipstick high in the air

Are You Hallie?

I just love my lipstick!

Thank you for remembering me.

MERRY CHRISTMAS!

 

A Swift Current Christmas Surprise-Lipsticks for the Ladies

Thank you for remembering me! Photo by her granddaughter


I was so moved when a reader in Arkansas took lipsticks last year to her local eldercare facility. She reports the staff was surprised and grateful for her gifts. She plans to do it again this year.

The beautiful women in the photos are the mothers of two of my friends. I deeply appreciate their permission to use these photos, which say more than I ever could.

The Heart of the Matter

A Swift Current Thankgiving essay and Storycorps The Great Thanksgiving Listen

Vuillard 1895

The things you push away the hardest when you’re young

You end up embracing when you get older…

  I just thought it was too claustrophobic

I had to get away

Now seeing the richness of it, the beauty, the connectedness…

 It moves me to tears…

                                                                                           ~Rosanne Cash

 

…And listen to this, Hallie. The professor said my paper was the best. It was so good–he put a copy in the library– he told the class everyone should read it!

Yes, mama, I know.

You know? How do you know?

You’ve told me that story before.

I have?

Yes, mama, you have…

He said my paper was…

…the best…yes, mama…I know.

We’ve all heard people repeat stories. Sometimes we smile and nod. Other times we change the subject. Often we sigh, stare, and simply

stop listening.

And when a person has dementia, the frequent repetition of unsolicited stories only seems to escalate.

My mother recounted her tales over– and over—and over again. Sometimes she would adopt a theme—the famous term paper but one example—and relive her triumph with every telling.

She could repeat a story for months; each time infusing it with unabashed excitement and exacting detail– as though it had just happened—

as though I had never heard it before.

And then one day, the story would simply disappear. To my great relief, I would never hear it again.

And now

I find myself digging into my memory–

desperate for details.

But I only find vague outlines –general topics, maybe—and the occasional catch-phrase. To my complete surprise, I need to fill in the colors–

what professor–which class—what topic?

But no matter how hard I try,

her stories are lost;

I will never hear them again.

I started writing A Swift Current with the hope that readers would glean insight from our experience. I have tried not to preach nor counsel nor advise. I want you to draw your own conclusions.

But now I am going to break my rule. I offer you one direct suggestion; in fact, it’s a command:

Grab your cell phone–find the “voice memos” app– hit the red button–

record!

And what better time to start than Thanksgiving?

Family stories were the heart of our childhood Thanksgiving dinners. My grandfather sat at one end of our table; my grandmother’s sister at the other. After the last morsel was consumed, my parents would bring out an old dog-eared cardboard box filled with fading family photos. And for the next few hours, we would hear stories of our ancestors– people whose appearance inspired both awe and amusement-what with their serious expressions, funny moustaches and large feathered hats.

…a ship captain on the Great Lakes…

…crossed the plains in a covered wagon…

…elected Sheriff of Tucson…in 1860…

1860?  Somebody write this down!

But we never would. We were lucky if someone scrawled a name on the back of a photo.

But I remember the catch in my grandfather’s voice; the faraway expression in my father’s eyes; the affection in Tia’s husky laugh;

And for a moment, the funny-looking people in the photos would come alive. I learned their names; studied their poses; heard about bravery and sacrifice and determination.

And then I would forget all about them, until the next Thanksgiving.

Every holiday is a double edged sword;

the older I get, the sharper the edge.

Today I cannot think about Thanksgiving without remembering the table of my childhood

and people who are no more;

what I would give to hear their voices again.

This time

I would listen;

this time

I would remember.

And it would not matter one bit that, in her last decade, my mother’s words could be sensible and articulate; fantastical and demented; or confused and redundant–

I would record her voice;

I would capture her stories.

During the last three decades of my mother’s life, she no longer hosted the big holiday dinner. A guest at other tables, she professed to be relieved to no longer bear the responsibility.

But after her death, among her few remaining possessions, I found scrap of paper in her small bureau drawer.

In her handwriting, a shopping list;

from her nursing home bed,

my mother was making plans.

A Swift Current Thanksgiving list found in my mom's last papers

Thanksgiving list-a scrap of paper found among my mom’s last possessions

 

Thanksgiving;

the richness, the beauty,

the connectedness…

There are some things I will never forget.

This is the story of how we begin to remember

 This is the powerful pulsing of love in the vein

After the dream of falling and calling you’re name out

These are the roots of rhythm and the roots of rhythm remain.

                                   ~Paul Simon

 

A Swift Current Thanksgiving essay-and StoryCorps Great Thanksgiving Listen

Pierre Bonnard Grande Salle a Manger Dans Le Jardin 1934-1935

THE GREAT THANKSGIVING LISTEN: As I was writing this post, I discovered that the day after Thanksgiving, November 27, 2015, has been designated the StoryCorps National Day of Listening. Or in their words, “Make history with us: interview an elder for the Great Thanksgiving Listen.” StoryCorps provides a special app; recordings made with the app will be housed in the oral history project of the Library of Congress. The StoryCorps website explains this project in detail, including sample questions. Here is the link: https://storycorps.me/ and https://storycorps.me/about/resources/ I am grateful to my friend Lora, who originally introduced me to StoryCorps a few years ago with the gift of a book called Listening Is An Act of Love.

Family History: I was not surprised to learn that family stories have real value for future generations. Children who know their family’s history, including hardships and failures, are more likely to be able to weather difficult times in their own lives. For more information, see The Stories That Bind Us by Bruce Feller, the New York Times, March 15, 2013 http://nyti.ms/17TFZmv

The opening quotation is from the singer/composer Rosanne Cash, interviewed by NPR’s Steve Inskeep– broadcast on January 13, 2014 with the release of her recording, The River and the Thread . I recommend entire interview: http://www.npr.org/2014/01/13/261398768/rosanne-cashs-mythic-southern-road-trip

The closing lyric is from “Under African Skies” by Paul Simon, copyright 1986 Paul Simon Music all rights reserved.

Interlude

A Swift Current Interlude Don't underestimate the value of Doing Nothing...

Woman in the Countryside by Vuillard 1897-1899 Private Collection

Don’t underestimate the value of Doing Nothing,

     of just going along,

listening to all the things you can’t hear…

                                                                  ~ Winnie the Pooh by A. A. Milne
 
 
 

During the last few weeks, several people have asked: Did you write this summer?

The answer is yes, and no.

I wrote– but not about my mom. Of course, I thought about her every day. Some memories brought smiles; some brought tears.

But I didn’t commit any of it to paper.

I gave myself the summer off.

When I started writing A Swift Current, I wanted to share my experience with dementia and the death of an elderly parent—personal revelations which, at the time, I hadn’t seen discussed in any other forum.

And so for the last three years and 40 essays, I have shared our story here– the ravages and grace of dementia; our renewed and strengthened bonds; my searing grief over the loss of her.

My grief shocked me. I had thought her death would be a welcome relief—she was, after all, 95 years old. She had dementia. But after her death, the numbness of the initial months blossomed into an unexpected anguish.

I missed her–dementia or no dementia.

And while the intensity of my emotions has evolved, I still stumble. Five years later, I feel an unrequited longing I never imagined. I frequently replay scenes from our lives-the teenage years; the career years; the dementia years—

I see it all so clearly now.

We have so many expectations of our parents. When we’re young, we want them to be different. When they’re old, we want them to be how they always were.

During my mom’s decade of dementia, I slowly grew in my understanding—and even acceptance– of her illness. Despite her confusion and fantasies, turmoil and anger, I still saw the core of my mother in her fading and fragmented being–even near the end of her life. I wish I hadn’t been so frightened of her disease in the early years. I wish I could have accepted who she was, and who she was becoming.

My friend Kathleen Novak captures my hard-won perspective in her poem Clarity, written when her father first began to show signs of confusion. As I resume writing future essays for A Swift Current, I offer you Kathleen’s thoughtful, generous, realistic view of an aging parent—with remarkable Clarity.
  

He is ninety after all, so

not everything is in bright focus, like a photo snapped mid-afternoon,

not everything looks as clear as that, for example,

he may not know whatever day it is today,

possibly a Thursday, unless that was yesterday

and today is Friday, or he may not know exactly

when he is to fly out to visit his son

though he wrote it down somewhere and he will find it

because he remembers having that piece of paper

along with the monthly bills and statements, the insurances and taxes

he has those written down too, the amounts paid and due

but there is this blur of dates and times, of numbers and facts

 

He is ninety after all, though

certain particulars still remain in bright focus, for example,

a great good game when he wins, the memory

of everything important that ever happened in any decade

and the way it all stacked up, the rises and falls, the girls

he left for other girls, the time he got meningitis in Africa

and later when his daughter smashed the car,

when his son became a doctor, the first time he saw his wife

and asked her to dance and the night his father-in-law died during a storm,

and years before, when he looked for the babies’ graves with his old mother,

 

there’s no blur when it comes to the pure blue of an afternoon sky

or the threat of snow again, those hovering white clouds,

who is true and who is not, whose heart is open and whose is not

at ninety you have a different kind of clarity

at ninety, after all that,

you know what you know.

      ~Kathleen Novak

A Swift Current Interlude

You Know What You Know…Madam Vuillard and Her Daughter by Edgar Vuillard 1893 Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art

Clarity, copyright 2011 by Kathleen Novak

Winnie the Pooh
, by A. A. Milne Copyright 1961 the Disney Corporation; original copyright Dutton Books

A Day in the Life

A Swift Current A Day In the Life--the power of the calendar

Beach Heart (a discovery on an otherwise ordinary day)– Photo by Hallie Swift


 

Every holiday– every birthday–

every year;

my mom was giddy with excitement.

In anticipation

I’d send a reminder to

cousins and friends;

her photo with a note:

hugs and kisses welcome here!

Year after year,

flowers and cards and visitors and candy

descended on the nursing home;

just the thought of it

made me giddy too.

 

A Swift Current A Day in the Life--the Power of the Calendar

They Say It’s Your Birthday–Photo by Hallie Swift

 

Now that she’s gone,

holidays and birthdays

stare at me

from the calendar page;

each promising to deliver

its own private havoc.

Standing in a checkout line,

(is it Mother’s Day already?)

I avert my eyes from

the greeting card display

but it’s too late.

I swat away tears

fumble coins

bungle amounts;

the customer behind me

sighs

with New York impatience.

I want to tell her

(this has never happened to you?)

it doesn’t take much to rattle me–

Father’s Day-

Easter baskets-

Valentines-

ENOUGH!

But

I know

I’m not the only one

upended by the innocuous.

(Facebook reminds me)

there’s no such thing as an ordinary day;

it’s always someone’s

birthday—

anniversary—

or even

death day,

for that matter.

And these extraordinary

ordinary dates

reverberate

on the page and

in our minds;

none of us escaping

the silent struggle

no one else can see;

more of us

in mourning

than you would ever know.

Recently

an ordinary,

unremarkable

winter’s day

was

(would have been)

my mother’s 100th birthday.

I proclaim her milestone

on Facebook

–the new village square–

a photo from our cross country drive

only months after my father died;

a widow at the age

I am now.

My mother turns toward the camera

a quintessential tourist pose,

the Grand Canyon behind her;

alone–

strong–

brave–

(or do I detect a rueful shadow in her half smile?)

Happy 100, Mama!

I hit post

and discover instantly

I am not done.

Suddenly galvanized

by the facts of her life,

I continue my exploration;

one by one

photo by photo

hour by hour

I recount the twists and triumphs

of 95 years.

With each addition,

a forgotten woman emerges,

my Mama.

And I realize:

until this day,

her last decade–

the decade of dementia–

had dominated my memories and

belied her life.

I had allowed the confusion, pain and grace of our final years

to become her whole story;

our whole story.

But she was so much more.

As I unbury my dead,

a chorus of cousins and friends

cheers my revelations–

helping me strike back

at a calendar filled with dread.

Dates loom large;

on the 100th anniversary of my mother’s birth

her story challenged my grief;

my sorrow finally tempered by

understanding,

pride,

and yes, even

giddy excitement.

That evening

my husband took me to dinner;

we raised our glasses high in the air

the end of an extraordinary ordinary day

Here’s to you, Mama

what a life—

happy 100!

 

nothing she did
or said

was quite
what she meant

but still her life
could be called a monument

shaped in a slant
of available light

and set to the movement
of possible music

(from “The Grandmother Cycle” by Judith Downing Converse Quarterly, Autumn)
 

 

A Swift Current A Day in the Life The Power of the Calendar

It’s My Birthday Too Yeah– Photo by Hallie Swift

 

They Say It’s Your Birthday, words and music by Lennon & McCartney, All Rights Reserved.

The excerpt from The Grandmother Cycle is from the opening pages of one of my all-time favorite books, The Stone Diaries by Carol Shields, which explores the life of an “ordinary woman”…