Saturday, May 30, 2009

My Brother's Face: a Villanelle

My Brother’s Face

The gentle ghost that wears my brother’s face
stares out from the grey-toned photograph;
an absence full of grief usurped his place.

They sit so calmly in that shaded space
beneath the tree: young boys, fresh-combed and dressed,
the ghost that wears my brother’s gentle face.

Three brothers the faded photo shows, three mates—
the two I know, and one whose eyes look past
the absence full of grief that took his place.

His look is peaceful and yet penetrates,
meets my curious searching, fears of death.
The gentle ghost that wears my brother’s face—

did he know too much, too soon, as to displace
far younger lessons on his short path?
An absence full of grief usurped his place.

Brother of mine, had your days spun on apace
what shared secrets, told or untold, would we have?
O, gentle ghost that wears my brother’s face,
an absence full of grief usurped your place.

Note: The story of how I came to write this poem is told in the previous post, "Remembering my Brother". I wrote the poem based on my memory of this photograph. Now that I see the real photo again after many years, it seems a happier moment than my poem depicts. But then, having never known my brother, my primary experience of him is through absence and family grief, and that surely colors my memory of the photo.

Remembering my Brother

Today, May 30, would be the "real" Memorial Day, the traditional (even if not the original) day for remembering and honoring fallen veterans. It also was my oldest brother's birthday, May 30, 1942.

Perhaps that is why my mother, now aged 90 and still remarkably fit though with failing memory, remarked several times last week that she didn't like the way Memorial Day has been moved around and was happening "a whole week too soon." For her, Memorial Day was also Dicky's birthday, firmly fixed on May 30.

I never knew my oldest brother. He died on Thanksgiving Day, 1949, just seven and a half years old. He had been born a "blue baby" with a congenital "hole in his heart," or that's how I remember it being described when I was a child. It's the kind of impairment that would now be straightforwardly repaired, perhaps even in utero, or most certainly in infancy. But in 1942, from the day Dicky was born, my parents knew that he would not likely live a very long life and that he wouldn't enjoy a vigorously active childhood.

I remember my brother mostly from a few photographs. His short life and his death weren't talked about, but his name was mentioned every night of my early childhood when my father said bedtime prayers with me (and, I'm guessing, with my sister, as perhaps he had done earlier with my brothers). 

"God bless Mummy and Daddy and Dicky and David and Jonny and Peggy and Sukie and everybody." That's how it went. Was it right after he recited the Lord's Prayer? Did I say the prayer along with my dad, or did I just listen? I'm not sure.

Several years ago I used to meet fairly regularly with my friend (and former high school classmate) Patty. As she was working on an MFA in Poetry and had lots of poems to write, I tried to ride the coattails of her motivation in order to write poems of my own to bring to our cups of tea. At one point she was working with the discipline of poetic forms--sonnets, villanelles, etc.--and she challenged me to write a villanelle before our next get-together.

(I had written one villanelle in a college poetry class. It was about rowing, or watching the crew of an eight-oared shell, first carrying the boat and then rowing on a calm river. A villanelle has two lines that repeat in a specific sequence throughout the poem, and I still remember those two lines: "Now on their straining shoulders raise it high" and "The river mirror wobbles back the sky.")

You may be wondering why I've digressed so drastically in this post, so let me return to the villanelle I wrote four or five years ago. It was about my brother, and more specifically about a photograph of my three brothers, probably taken in the summer before Dicky died. That photo, and one other of Dicky alone, were my primary access to my brother whom I never knew and whose death, I can only intuit, so deeply impacted my parents and my family before I was ever born. The photos both fascinated and haunted me.

You will find the poem in the next post. When I am able, I will post a copy of that photograph of Dicky and my brothers.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Half a Gardener

In the years after we first moved to Maine, I got smitten with gardening. Our first summer I watched where the sunlight fell in the yard and for how many hours, and then I spent many winter hours perusing garden catalogs for appropriate plants. Before long I had learned by osmosis and repetition the Latin names of numerous perennials, and I had the beginnings of a pretty good garden book collection.

When I was pregnant with Anna (that would be seventeen years ago), we were ready to dig and plant the first of our perennial beds. David did just about all of the double-digging, as my late pregnancy size and shape made it pretty difficult to dig. The planting was awkward enough, but I did it!

Other beds followed in subsequent years, until I had created more gardens than I can reasonably keep up and still have time for other endeavors, including new interests like painting. 

Or maybe it's just that I've always liked starting gardens more than maintaining them. I figure that makes me half a gardener. Half a gardener, but a whole garden lover and admirer. 

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Watching Anna Row

Today I got to watch Anna rowing as part of the Waynflete School crew. This was my first chance to see her row in a race, as I was in Washington, DC the last time she had a race. Having rowed for several seasons in college, it was fun for me, not only from a parental point of view but also as a former rower, to watch and to be in the midst of the launching of boats (with the lingo and cadences unique to crew!) for six different races, the cheering on of rowers, and the returning of crews to the riverbank. 

I thoroughly enjoyed myself, standing around on the mucky, grassy bank of the Fore River, a tidal river that empties eventually into Portland harbor. In one direction, beyond the finish line, stood a classic white New England church and a modern medical office building; in the other,  just below the starting line, were a highway bridge spanning the river and a depot of oil tanks. Most of us spectators stood about halfway down the 1500 meter course, with mature trees behind us and a steep path up to higher ground.

The setting was pleasantly fresh and green, the weather cool and cloudy. But nothing matched the thrill of seeing Anna's boat row past, neck and neck with a competitor from Yarmouth. It's different watching as a mother!

Angles and perspective can be deceiving in crew (as you know if you have ever watched a rowing competition in TV coverage of the Olymics), but it looked as if Waynflete started to pull ahead as they passed the spectators. These mostly novice rowers had only raced once before this season and had finished next to last. This time, they won, pulling ahead by about a boat length at the finish! A third boat finished far back, having suffered mechanical troubles.

OK, I confess--I got a little choked up and couldn't see through the binoculars for a few seconds. It was a great morning. 

(Photo courtesy of David. Anna is rowing in seat number two, second from the right in photo.)

Thursday, May 21, 2009

A Morning Blessing

I woke this morning earlier than usual, around 4:30 I think it was, an hour before our alarm. I'm not sure if it was the two tufted titmice tossing their loud songs back and forth not far from our window, or the warm scented morning air that woke me. Whatever the cause, I was mostly awake and had a chance to take in the morning slowly.

Two of our bedroom windows face southeast (more or less), and through one window against a milky blue sky I noticed the moon. A pale creamy yellow crescent, not too thin, tipped a bit to one side, it hung there like the waning grin of the Cheshire Cat with no cat body in sight. 

Over the minutes that I was awake, then tried to catch a bit more sleep, then was awake again watching, the moon's cock-eyed smile traveled across one small window pane until it had left my view entirely, lost behind the foliage of an oak tree. 

Though I might have wanted that last hour of sleep, it was a rather lovely way to start the day, soaking up a slightly crooked morning blessing from the moon.

Monday, May 18, 2009

I Celebrate Myself

Seeing that today is my birthday (fifty-five, in case you're wondering), and because Walt Whitman has been in my mind since David's post about lilacs and more a couple of days ago, I'm summoning the spirit and the words of Whitman to celebrate the day:

I CELEBRATE myself, and sing myself,
And what I assume you shall assume,
For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.

I loafe and invite my soul,
I lean and loafe at my ease observing a spear of grass.

I plan to make some time for leaning and loafing and observing today. And later on, a small celebration with three of my favorite people in the world: David, Bekah, and Anna.

Image: Collage for a website, 2009

Friday, May 15, 2009

Reality Bites

Well, there I was sitting on the back step blogging rapturously about spring, and my dog caught and killed a chipmunk. Just like that.

I don't think he "meant to"--I think he so enthusiastically grabbed in his jaws the not-so-bright chipmunk, and that was that. A far faster and more merciful death than a cat might inflict, although with cats (and well-timed human intervention) the chipmunk sometimes manages to get away and live.

So, there we are. A bite of reality about the bite of reality. Poor unsuspecting chipmunk. Not sure why he/she kept making so much of noise calling attention to his/her whereabouts. That's what got Digory interested. 

I think Digory was kind of mystified by the whole thing--he set the chippie down on the ground, witnessed its last dying twitches, and then really didn't seem to know what to do. Just kind of sat there by its side, a little hang-dogish. I trust his Corgi-psyche won't be wracked by self-recrimination or shame. He is still and always, fully and only a dog, after all.

Juice and Joy

"Nothing is so beautiful as spring--
       When weeds, in wheels, shoot long and lovely and lush;
Thrush's eggs look little low heavens, and thrush
Through the echoing timber does so rinse and wring
The ear, it strikes like lightnings to hear him sing;

. . .  What is all this juice and all this joy?"
--Gerard Manley Hopkins

It's hard to improve on Hopkins at a time like this, and what follows in not an attempt to improve, only to add my two cents.

Having driven from spring to summer and back again last week, I am glad not to have missed the slow (yet still so fast!) unfurling of spring in Maine. There's nothing quite like the lacey stage, followed by the frothy and frilly stage, the miniature leaves in all sorts of colors (none really green green) ornamenting branches still visible like the lines of lead in a stained glass window, providing both structure and pattern. While the leaves are still small, sky color and cloud color show through too.

In Washington the greens were fewer and of a narrower range of hue and shade. Driving through Connecticut and Massachusetts, I noticed all the more how many different shades and tints and tones make up a spring landscape--yellow-greens, yellow-green tending toward ochre, yellow green tending toward rose and rust and peach, lime, mango. . . you get the idea!

Meanwhile the weeds indeed are long and lovely and lush. Some days I'm happy just to watch them grow.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Two Cool Things

I get the New York Times' daily headlines via email each morning. I am not exactly consistent in my reading habits, but I usually at least glance at the headlines and the short summary sentence beneath those that interest me and peruse the topics of the op-eds and editorials. Sometimes I don't get that far.

One of my favorite features of the Times on line is the list of the top ten favorite articles and editorials that appears when you click through to read an article. The list is neatly arranged by categories: "emailed, blogged, searched." I usually look down the list of favorite emailed stories, and sometimes one story leads to another, and . . . well, you know how the internet is. What I like most about this is that it gives me a chance to catch a great story I might have missed because I was too busy, or because it was in a section of the paper I don't usually read.

This morning, for instance, I found two cool stories! One, from yesterday's paper, about the recent discovery in Germany of a "new" Venus figure sculpture that's about 35,000 years old (that's 11,ooo years older than the famous "Venus of Willdorf" figure). So . . . such sculptures of large breasted and large buttocked, (presumably) fertile women go back even earlier than thought. This new figure is only about 2.5 inches tall--good for holding in your hand!

The other story that really intrigued me was about a new movement (also in Germany, how funny!) to create car-free suburbs. Just imagine--no driveways and garages! A few, very few co-owned or rented cars for exceptional trips. Plenty of places to walk and play outside, and no worries about balls running under passing cars and kids following after. Things within walking distance. Public transportation. Lots and lots of bikes. Basically a whole new meaning to the word "suburb"! 

My world got bigger, more intriguing, and more hopeful in a fairly short amount of time. Of perhaps I should say with a bit of Times

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

A Hummingbird Poem from years ago

Sometimes I forget that I can legitimately call myself a "published poet," having had two poems published in the Christian Science Monitor several years ago. Yesterday's post about mother's day and hummingbirds at the fuchsia and the feeder reminded me of one of them, published in 1998 (for a guess).

My Neighbor Complains

My neighbor complains about his bee balm,

that scruffy plant with multiple identities:

ordinary bee balm one day, aristocratic

bergamot the next, whose oil

was favored by the umpteenth Earl of Grey.

And then there’s Oswego tea, and the name

preferred by botanists—Monarda.

It spreads too fast, he says.

It’s taking over

the garden. 

Ah, but I have watched

those mop-haired clowns and

wondered if the hummingbirds love them

the way the experts say they do.

And even while wondering, even

in the act of walking by, wondering,

I’ve seen a flash and blurr,

a tiny jeweled body, wings purring;

have seen it rise from among the red

untidiness, pause,

descend again to sip,

then disappear.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Mother's Day Hummingbirds

The one inviolable mother's day tradition at our house revolves around Bekah, Anna, and David giving me a hanging fuchsia plant which goes outside our kitchen door, providing food for hummingbirds and beauty for us to enjoy. Over the years I have also made time on mother's day to get the hummingbird feeder out of the closet, wash it out, make new sugar water*, and fill the feeder. Some years the first hummingbird arrives in a few hours, sometimes it takes a few days. Last year I believe it was almost a full week (and that had us a bit worried).

Yesterday as we four settled down for a lunch of Standard Baking Company croissants, scrambled eggs, strawberries, and apple slices, David spotted a male hummingbird resting in our unkempt Rosa spinosissima just off the back deck. The fuchsia had been in place for less than an hour! As the bird rested and looked around, his ruby throat flashed in the sunlight.

Not long after a female appeared. (Sometimes the males seem to be advance scouts, with the females arriving after.) Each visited a few more times during the afternoon and found the feeder, too. This was a record-setting mother's day for hummingbird visits. Maybe they've been in the neighborhood for a while just waiting for the Curtis-Healds to get their act together.

*To make hummingbird food sugar water: stir 1/4 cup white sugar into 1 cup of water in a small saucepan. Bring to boil and cook 1 to 2 minutes. Let cool before pouring into the feeder. That's all there is to it! (Except changing the food and cleaning the feeder at least once a week in cooler weather, more often when it gets hot.)

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Travels with GPS Lady

I learned a lot from my two days of traveling alone with GPS Lady. We didn't always agree. There were times when I knew which way I wanted to go, and it was not the way she thought I should go. So I would ignore her advice and then endure her earnest, repeated attempts to steer me her way. 

In the process I was reminded that although I often rebel at doing what I'm told, I have a fairly low threshold for "disappointing" another--even  just a computer! (Didn't I really detect a note of disappointment and disapproval in her voice, as she declared "Recalculating" in response to my every insubordination?)

As I got attuned to her ways, I even started warning her when I knew I was going to disobey her directions. "Sorry to disappoint you, but..." When she would finally readjust her bearings and come round to my chosen route, I pumped one fist with a "yes" (while the other hand stayed safely on the wheel of course)! 

GPS Lady saved my skin once in a big way, when I deliberately ignored her instructions and then made a too-quick wrong move when faced with an unexpected choice at highway speed. A wrong move that I didn't recognize as a significant error until it was way, way too late to fix simply by turning around. I really needed help, serious directional help.

So I threw myself on her mercy and wisdom, told her that I was counting on her, and pledged my faithful obedience, at least this time. She got me where I needed to go, and I thanked her.

I did notice that sometimes GPS Lady had a hard time waking up in the morning. I suppose it might have had something to do with her having been hunkered down over night in an underground garage, but I couldn't help wondering if she had been out carousing in the city and needed some caffeine to help shake it off. There was nothing to do but wait while she pulled herself together.

In the end I have to say that while GPS Lady can really help sort things out, she's not always quite precise enough or quick enough with her spoken directions. And besides, there's nothing quite like having a human companion to read a map and road signs. Not to mention the conversations you can have and the laughter (even if the aforementioned do cause you to miss an occasional exit, sending you almost into the bowels of Newark Airport--which then requires solving a puzzle together by your own collaborative human ingenuity). 

After many hours and miles of GPS Lady on Saturday,  Bekah finally declared: "We're shutting you down, Lady; you've screwed us over too many times!" By then we really did know which way to go anyway, and we were eager to get home. 


Thursday, May 7, 2009

Road Trip

I'm on a rare road trip by myself, headed to Washington, DC to pick up Bekah (and her stuff) from college. I left home early yesterday morning, and driving south I couldn't help but notice and enjoy the progression of the season in roadside trees and blooms. From the barest, most delicate early spring green froth and frills in Maine to the almost mature leaves and late spring blooms of dogwood and woodland wildflowers in Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania where I spent the night. If I had remembered to bring the download cable for Anna's camera, which she graciously let me borrow, I could even post photos on the way. 

But honestly, I often forget to take photos. I notice things in abundance but rarely think to get the camera out. More often I take mental notes, even drawing or painting mental notes--trying to remember a juxtaposition of colors, or the pattern of leaves and tree trunks, or some other odd shape that catches my eye. Sometimes--though not when I'm driving, I assure you!--I get out my small traveling sketchbook and draw something.

This morning before I head south to DC I am going to visit the Brandywine River Museum, home of lots of Wyeth paintings of at least three generations: N.C., Andrew, Jamie, and assorted other siblings, cousins, in-laws, friends. 

More later. Remind me to tell you about my conversations with my traveling companion, GPS Lady, on loan from a friend (thanks, Ellie!).

Saturday, May 2, 2009

May Morning

Really, this isn't an image of a May morning, but today is a May morning. This is a collage from origami paper that I did several days ago (way back in April!) after a walk at the beach. But it's not really of the beach. It kind of evolved from a sketch of a big, thick quahog shell (I can't tell you how many ways I tried spelling quahog before I found it in the on-line dictionary!). But it's not really a "portrait" of the shell.

Actually, I intended to blog on April 30 in honor of my mother's 90th birthday. And then I thought maybe I'd do it on May Day, just a day late and a wonderful day it its own right (and one that reminds me of our family's trip to Ireland six years ago, which included May Day, or Bealtaine in the Celtic calendar--Bealtaine may mean something like "bright fire," referring to the sun, I believe, and I see a certain unintended fire/flame-like aspect to my collage. Cool!). 

But as you can see, it's now May 2. Anyway, here's an image for the second morning in May.