Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Serious Alert (Big Words, Deep Thoughts, Possible Poetry) To Write the Hard Stories

Twisting in her seat, Beverly faced us. She looked at the class, but she wasn’t seeing any anyone.  She had that foggy look people get when they’ve flown away into old memories only they can see. I could tell she had gone away, remembering the day of her mother’s funeral. When she spoke, she sounded clinical and matter-of-fact.

“I don’t know what I expected. I thought maybe it would be like cigarette ash, but it wasn’t, and the urn was really heavy. I had to carry it against my chest, so I wouldn’t drop it.”

She paused and tipped her head. Maybe it was so she could see herself better as she remembered, as she remembered carrying her mother’s funeral urn or better to hear the water lapping against the wooden posts of the dock at the lake.

“It wasn’t like cigarette ash at all. I mean her ashes were coarse and kind of gritty, and there was stuff in it.”

I heard a few of the other students gasp as the question rolled through the class like a shock wave. What?  What was in your mother’s ashes? But they were too polite, too civilized to ask out-loud.  For all their pierced and tattooed bravado, they were just kids at the beginning of living. And this was, after all, a story about the mechanics of death at the end of living.

Beverly blinked and her eyes focused. She came back to us in that moment as if she sensed our curiosity and chagrin. She answered our unspoken question.

“Bits of bone and teeth, my mother’s partial, there were actual slivers of bone.”

The Brittany or Jessica or Ella girl that sat next to me pulled her long bare legs up into her body like a stork folding up for a nap. She hunched her shoulders. Several of the boys dropped their eyes to their notebooks or played at checking their watches—uncomfortable and squirmy. Young.

“You picture your mom’s memorial service as something out of movie, with music and touching slow motion moments.” She thought a minute and gave us a lopsided smile. “You sure don’t expect to get your mother’s ashes blown back in your face when you try to grant her last wish, you know? But the wind was blowing against us and when I went to pour her ashes into the water, the wind kicked up, like it does sometimes, like a mini-tornado. And bam, a cloud of my mother’s cremated ashes blew right back into our faces. I had them in my teeth, in my eyes. It stung like crazy.”

In Mr. McGuinnes’ creative writing class, Beverly was like me—one of those student clichés, an older woman with teenagers and enough trouble, real or imagined, to salt-n-pepper her thinning hair. Like me, she had enough unfamiliar lines on her face to make her wonder about the stranger she was becoming, about the girl who was disappearing.

To be fair, Beverly’s troubles were more immediate than mine. Her clichéd story had more chapters. Her desperation was a little more dire. Divorced and abandoned, she found herself back at school, trying to fill a schedule and a life fundamentally changed.

While I was trying to find a way out of the land of cliché and foregone conclusion, to have people see me as more than a cardboard cutout. To be fair, maybe I was trying to see myself as more than a cardboard cutout.

They say a college degree can do that for you.  So, Beverly and I had landed in creative writing class to brainstorm our lives, trying to turn our wrinkles and middle-aged gray into poetry.

“I don’t know what I expected,” Beverly said. “But it was terrible. And I wanted it to be so right . . . even though my mother is . . .” she stumbled over the change in verb tense that death requires, present becoming past. “I mean was, my mother was, or had
been . . .”

A drunk. A slovenly selfish drunk. It was a cold reality; a fact she had shared with the class before.

As the oldest daughter, it had fallen to Beverly to clean up, mop up, and sop up, after a mother who had lived her life never washing a dish until they were all dirty—every last dish—the everyday dishes, the stoneware, the yard sale finds, the heirloom china, the paper plates, the empty butter tubs and cottage cheese containers. All of them crusted with food and heaped in the sink until they toppled onto the kitchen counters or smashed onto the floor. Beverly would go and wash dishes for hours so that her mother could use them up all over again—her own version of Prometheus’s hell.

When her mother died, it fell to Beverly to wash all those dishes one last time and to try to bury her mother with some kind of respectful ceremony.

When Beverly told the story of her mother’s ashes in class, she made us see it. She brought an unruly wind into our classroom, blowing human ashes into our eyes.  She made us feel the burn of blinded eyes. She described how slowly human ash disappears, how it floats for the longest time. We could feel that unruly wind and taste the dust of death in our mouths.

The story she related was mesmerizing and messy, and before she was done, she cried—gently, almost under her breath. Her crying made a few of the students uncomfortable. I heard the nervous titter of embarrassment and tension. 

I recognized Beverly’s tears, however. I understood her story and it’s strange mix of love and hate. She was describing a dance I had grown up dancing. It was a fearful dance macabre that I knew all the steps to, where a child must perform all the parts—daughter, parent, enemy, but always child. For me it was a father, who expected tributes after spending his life smashing ketchup bottles against kitchen walls. I knew what it was to be chained to a rock and lose bits of myself—endlessly.

“There’s a poem in there, Beverly. You heard it. Right? The poem you should write; it’s all there,” I said. “And more than that, your heart was in what you told us.”

She nodded, seeming to agree and made a few notes on a piece of paper.

“Write your heart; I can’t wait to see it.”

Then she wrote a poem to fulfill an assignment.

It was a lovely generic ode, to some pastel mother who had never existed. There was nothing of what Beverly had shared in class, nothing of what had made us squirm in our seats, drop our flushed faces, or swallow hot tears. It was as if the women who had spoken of bones and teeth had disappeared, along with the mother who had burned holes in the arms of her lazy boy when she fell into a drunken stupor, cigarette still smoldering between stained fingers.

The story we had heard was gone as well, a victim of self-censorship and maybe wishful dreaming. The class clapped when she finished reading her poem. There were polite critiques. A few of the students rolled their eyes surreptitiously. No one cried, and no one felt uncomfortable.

Disappointed, I thought I understood Beverly’s wishful dreaming. Good daughters don’t shine lights on the burn marks, good daughters wash the dishes and pretend they are always stacked neatly—just so.  Good daughters make all A’s on every report card. They do not complain that ashes in their eyes, sting.

Disappointed and a little bit sad, I wanted to believe I understood, and eventually, I wrote a poem about the poem that Beverly could not write. Hoping, when my turn came to tell the hard stories of my own life, I would be able to find the poetry beneath the ashes.

Bones and Teeth

When the poet scattered her mother across the unsettled lake,
she expected cigarette ash—a light clean burning. We expected a poem
cobbled out of  rough wood—the salt and burn of splintered tears.
Instead, she gave us a poem about golden glass under a sun-kissed sky,
a hallmark poem, with words that floated just on the surface of the wet.

In class, when she talked it, she spoke of bones and teeth,
and finding mother’s partial in the dust of cremation,
how hard it was to throw mother away—into the wind.
She made us see, the way ash clung to clothes and hands,
how the wind brought mother back into nostrils and eyes—
how slowly mother disappeared beneath churning water
on a day of wind and nagging shadows.

When the poet wrote it, there was the softness of nothing,
pretty words on pastel paper, but when the poet spoke it,
she got down to the bones and teeth and tears, down to the bottom
of the lake where the muck congeals and the fish eggs wait.
The poet could not hear that in the telling was the poem,
and in the writing was the child—made to throw her mother
away beneath heaven’s seemingly indifferent sky.    






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