Sunday, October 21, 2012

Message from a Homeless Poet

Message from a Homeless Poet

She was wearing red and yellow argyle socks, but I remember little else about her – not even her name – except that she looked like the street person she was – unkempt, dressed in an assortment of used clothing and ill-fitting shoes. Most of us would consider her nobody. Yet I will never forget her.

The season was fall, probably late 70’s. We were working that night at a soup kitchen in the basement of a church in a seedy section of Boston. I had been asked to bring my banjo and sing some folk songs as part of the entertainment that would follow supper. After a few acts that had been arranged in advance to get things going, anyone who wished to perform for the crowd was invited to take the stage. Well into the program, the woman of the argyle socks presented herself to recite a poem she had written. I later learned that she wrote poetry regularly on an old typewriter she was given the use of at this church. Her poem was brilliant and I would give much to have a copy. I cannot begin to do it justice, but I will give you what I remember.

The gist of the poem was about people in a boat. A large number of poor, homeless, hungry men, women, and children occupied one end of the boat; rich, comfortable, well dressed people were in the other end. Due to the larger number of poor, their end of the boat rode low and was shipping water. The poor bailed as fast as they could, while they called for help from those in the other end. But the rich, who were high and dry, fat and happy,  replied with a refrain that ran throughout the poem, “Why should we help? Our end of the boat’s not sinking.” Some verses described the struggles of the poor and their pleas for help, and the voice of the rich kept repeating at the end of every verse, “Our end of the boat’s not sinking.” Other verses described the lives of the rich. “Why should we worry? Our end of the boat’s not sinking.” The poem told of the gap in the middle of the boat that separated the two groups; the poor couldn’t get across the gap, and the rich chose not to cross it. “Our end of the boat’s not sinking.”

“Our end of the boat’s not sinking.” The refrain still beats in my heart, as cogent in today’s world as it was in the past. It is to our peril that we continue to believe, “Everything’s OK. Our end of the boat’s not sinking.” But Ah, my friends, and Oh, my foes… we are in this boat together.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Remembering Megg's Birth Day

During Kathi’s pregnancy with Megg, Dad-To-Be, Steve, said that he hoped the baby would be a boy. In those days, no one knew ahead of time whether the awaited babe was a girl or a boy. Once we knew they were at the hospital, we waited eagerly for the phone call announcing the birth. Finally Steve called in the wee hours of the morning of September 10th. The bedroom phone was on my side of the bed, so I got to take the call. “Mom, it’s a girl! I didn’t know I wanted a girl until I saw her! She’s just perfect!” He was positively bubbling with joy – and relief that Kathi, following a long hard labor and a C-section was fine.

We went to the hospital the next morning to congratulate the new parents and meet our new granddaughter, Meghan Jean. She was a big baby at over 10 pounds and we laughingly called her Mega Baby. I held this beautiful new child and thought, “Wow! I’m a grandmother!” Terry held her and I thought, “Hum-m-m! I’m married to a grandfather!” Steve, engineer that he is, took her and demonstrated all her newborn reflexes, saying, “It’s amazing when you consider the level of complexity!” Indeed! And almost as amazing to me, mother that I am, was that he was proud to be the first to change her diaper!

Every year on September 10th, I enjoy remembering and celebrating Megg’s birth. And I remain grateful to the romantic, glowing Christmas tree in the bay window of the bedroom in Natick that led to the equation: 1+1=3!

Happy Birthday, Megg!
Congratulations, Steve and Kathi on a job well done.

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Gramma's Strange Finger

Laura, our second granddaughter, noticed the middle finger on my right hand when she was four. I lost the tip of that finger in an accident that happened shortly before my sixth birthday. There is still a fingernail, but it is thickened and horn-like. What remains of the first joint widens at the tip, so it is a bit bulbous. And instead of being the longest finger on my right hand, it is the same length as the index and ring fingers, giving my right hand a stubby appearance. Laura sometimes took my hand and studied the deformed finger, feeling it and examining it carefully. Then she would say, "Gramma, tell me the story about your finger." I told other stories more interesting than this one (at least to my way of thinking), but this was Laura's favorite. So we sat together on the couch and I would begin:

When I was five years old, my parents (your great grandparents) bought a pony for my brothers and me. You know my brothers, Uncle Ed and Uncle Jim. (Laura nodded knowingly). The pony's name was Dubbs. She was an Indian pony. That means she was bigger than a Shetland pony but smaller than a horse. Dubbs had a soft gray coat and big brown eyes. Her mane and tail were almost black. In the middle of her forehead she sported a white star. I am convinced that she was the gentlest, most loving pony that ever lived.

Laura always sighed over my description of Dubbs, and I was reminded how much she wanted a pony of her own. Really, it was a horse she wanted, but a pony would have sufficed. She sometimes told me that she didn't understand why her mother would not let her have a horse. "It could live in the garage," she told me, perhaps remembering that her great grandfather had built a stall for Dubbs in one half of our two car garage.
"Ginger, my pretend horse, lives in the garage now," she said. 
"But a real horse would need a field," I told her.
"Well, we do have a yard," Laura countered, "and it has a fence around it. Did you have a field for Dubbs?"
"No, but there was a vacant lot across the street where Dubbs grazed after she finished the grass in our yard. Besides, we lived on the edge of town, near farms. You live in the middle of town."
"It's not fair,” Laura assured me. I agreed that life is not always fair.
"Maybe you can have a horse when you're all grown up," I suggested. "Yes, when I'm grown-up, then I'll have a real horse." Laura decided. This digression taken care of, we returned to the story:

We had an old Western saddle for Dubbs, complete with a saddle horn, like the ones cowboys use when they're roping cattle. I loved watching my mother saddle Dubbs, who had her own special pad and blanket that went under the saddle to protect her back. After the blanket was on, my Mom lifted the saddle into place. Next the right stirrup was thrown over the top so the saddle girth could be brought under Dubbs belly, fastened, and pulled tight. It's the saddle girth that keeps the saddle on the pony.

One October afternoon when I was riding Dubbs over by Boyetts' cow pasture, my mother called me to come home. She was going to drive to school to pick up my brothers and didn't want me riding the pony while she was away, even though Memaw, our grandmother, was at home to keep an eye on me. Mom removed Dubbs' bridle and replaced it with the halter. Then she fastened a weight to the halter by a length of heavy chain. This allowed Dubbs to move around the yard to graze. She could drag the weight, but it kept her from wandering very far. I begged to be allowed to stay in the saddle, and my mother agreed. It wasn't as good as riding around the dirt roads in our neighborhood, but at least I could pretend I was riding. When one of my friends came into the yard, I asked her to hand me the chain so I could pretend to have reins. So... the chain was looped around the saddle horn when the saddle girth broke. The saddle fell to the ground, taking me with it. I would have walked away from this mishap unharmed, except that the tip of my right middle finger got crushed between the saddle horn and the chain.

"Did it hurt?" Laura broke in. "Was there lots of blood?" She wanted to be sure these important details were not left out. 

There was very little pain at the time, but my finger was bleeding – a lot! I ran into the house and asked Memaw to put a bandage on it, but please not to use iodine." She wrapped it carefully, using the widest roll of gauze bandage from the bathroom cabinet. Then she wrapped my hand in a clean rag torn from a worn out bed sheet. A neighbor drove me to the school, turned me over to my mother with a brief explanation. She waited at the school to take my brothers home home. I could not understand what all the fuss was about. I thought I just needed a bandage.

Our first stop was at Dr. Foster's office. Lewisburg was a small town and had no hospital. Emergencies were cared for on a walk-in basis, letting the regular patients wait. Dr. Foster gave my finger a thorough examination. "The wound is ragged and there are some crushed bones," he told my mother. "The finger will have to be amputated at the first joint."

Fortunately another doctor had recently moved to town, so my mother decided to get a second opinion. Dr. Foster did not approve, but that did not stop my mother. She whisked me out of his office in a hurry! Our second stop was Dr. Dishroom's office. I remember sitting on my mother's lap in a white room that smelled of antiseptics. Dr. Dishroom spent a long time cleaning and studying my finger, which by now was beginning to hurt. He thought that with daily care and careful removal of bone splinters, he could save the base of the nail and give me a useful finger. I liked Dr. Dishroom and his nurse, who spoke in a voice barely above a whisper and always wore her stockings wrong side out (stockings had seams down the back in those days). But I hated having the dressing changed and my poor sore finger probed for slivers of bone every  day. I even had to go to this dreaded appointment on my birthday. To my great surprise, Dr. Dishroom gave me a beautifully wrapped birthday present before I left his office that day. It was a big box of assorted chocolates! I had to share them a little bit, but I got to eat most of them myself – just not more than two at a time and only after a meal! So the box lasted a long time.

Well, that's the story of what happened to my finger.  As you can see, Dr. Dishroom was true to his word. He was able to save what was left of the tip of my finger. It looks different, but it is a perfectly useful finger. At the end of the story, Laura always re-examined my finger, feeling it gently, as if it were fragile. When she was fully satisfied, we moved on to other activities. But I could be sure she would ask for this story again the next time she came to play. And she would not allow me to omit a single detail! Her fascination with Gramma's strange finger lasted several years. In fact, it may continue to this very day.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Nickerson Camping Trip 1995 - Chapter 3

The third part of the story of camping at Nickerson has to do with the raccoon I mentioned in the last post. We’d been camping for years and should have known better, but the very first night we left the big plastic box of food sitting on the ground at one end of the picnic table and the bag of trash (chock full of good things like steak scraps) at the other. Naturally, a raccoon came by, chewed through the trash bag, spread its contents over a large area, and ate all the yummy bits. Then he clambered up onto the table, wiped his paws on the paper towels and moved on. Fortunately he failed to notice the big box full of food.

The next night he returned to find the food and trash safely locked away in the car. He checked out a metal box that smelled like bread, but couldn’t get it open. He left the box on its side, covered with little sandy paw prints and grumbled a complaint as he waddled past the corner of our tent.

Perhaps what happened the following night can be blamed on the full moon and the fact that Grampa did not light the lantern. I put the bag of trash in the car, but forgot about the plastic box of food at the far end of the picnic table. Our raccoon started by climbing onto the table, where he found a bowl with three plums. He took one bite out of each, then followed his nose to the big box of food. The lid came off easily and there before his eyes was a veritable cornucopia: boxes of cereal, English muffins, chocolate chip cookies, marshmallows, and more! Where to begin? He ate four and a half English muffins, a whole bag of Chips Ahoy cookies, and sampled several boxes of cereal on the spot. He dragged the bag of marshmallows to a near-by tree and devoured the entire contents. Feeling fat and happy, he wandered off, leaving the remaining food strewn around on the ground. After we replaced our ravaged supplies, we were more vigilant about locking them in the car at night!

On the very last morning of our vacation, I went to the cooler for some juice. But the cooler was gone! Later Grampa found it behind some trees a short distance away. Several Sam Adams beers, a few Bud Lites, and two wine coolers were missing. Everyone thought teenagers getting into Friday night mischief had stolen the cooler. But I think somewhere out in the woods there was a raccoon with a hangover as the result of one last raid on “Crook’s Getaway” and a party to celebrate all the food we provided for him!

Monday, August 13, 2012

Camping at Nickerson on Cape Cod, 1995 – Take Two

Besides losing and finding the girls (see previous blog), I have other memories of that camping trip at Nickerson State Park. One night Megg and Laura stayed with Gramma and Grampa to tell tales around the campfire while Mom and Dad went out to buy a new air mattress. Their mattress had developed a leak that we were unable to find and repair. Megg laid and started our fire (with a little help from Grampa) to demonstrate the campfire building skills she learned in Girl Scouts. I suppose we would have toasted marshmallows had they not been eaten the previous night by a raccoon. (More about the raccoon later.)

After Megg gave us an account of the plot of a book she had just read, Laura announced that she had a story too. She proceeded to tell an elaborate and detailed story that she prefaced with the information that it was the most celebrated legend of an Italian town whose name I no longer remember, but which she supplied at the time, and that the people there were still telling this tale. The complexity of the story, the amount of detail, and the vocabulary struck me as unusual for a six year old. Steve and Kathi read to the girls regularly, so I assumed it was from a book they had read to her. After we put the girls to bed and their parents returned, I asked about this story. Neither of them had ever heard it before, so at breakfast the next morning, I asked Laura where she had learned the legend she shared with us around the campfire. “I read it in a library book.” she replied, going to her tent and returning with the book. I knew that she read on a rudimentary level, having completed kindergarten, but as I looked through the book it hardly seemed possible that a child who had not yet started first grade was reading at this level! She had even read an introductory note that preceded the beginning of the story, explaining that it was the most celebrated legend of this Italian town and was told and retold there to this day.

So I remember this camping trip as the time when I was amazed to discovered how far above grade level Laura was reading and comprehending. She’s been immersed in books ever since. So has Megg, but it is Laura who I remember never leaving the house, even for a short run to the grocery store, without a book to keep her company.

Friday, August 10, 2012

Adventure or gut-wrenching fear? ­ It all depends on your point of view!

In August 1995, Gramma and Grampa went camping in Nickerson State Park on Cape Cod with Steve, Kathi, Megg (11), and Laura (6). This was the trip when our girls and two other children from a nearby camp site disappeared into the woods, their whereabouts unknown for what seemed an eternity. I don’t remember how long they were gone, but it was long enough for many campers to get the word and start looking; long enough for Steve to go to the office and call the police; long enough for the police to arrive and join the search. It was long enough for discomfort to turn to fear; long enough for fear to turn to terror.

Many people walked the trails calling the girls names again and again. No response. Finally I got in our car and drove to an adjacent circle of camp sites. I parked in an empty site; just as I got out of the car, the girls appeared at the head of a trail leading into the site. When they saw me, they turned and started back into the woods. “You girls come back here this minute and get in the car or you will be in really big trouble,” I shouted in a tone of voice Megg and Laura had never in their lives heard come out of Gramma’s mouth. They slunk back and got in the car. But the other two girls, who didn’t know me, high-tailed it back into the woods. Calling to them was of no avail.

“But Gramma, we were having an adventure,” they told me in self defense. I drove them back to our camp site and showed the other set of parents where their daughters were last seen. Eventually we found them, but it took awhile. You wouldn’t think they could disappear again so fast.

The police wanted to see and talk to the girls to verify that they were really accounted for and OK, and to admonish them about the dangers of secretly wandering off. Our girls by this time had disappeared into their tent. Megg came out and talked to the police, but Laura remained inside with a pillow over her head, weeping. The police stood at the tent door and asked her to come out. No deal. Laura was firm in her intention to hide from the law. We finally coerced her out from under her pillow and the protection of her tent. She did survive her interview with the police, but not happily!

All four girls steadfastly maintained that they never heard anyone calling them. They just went on an adventure in the woods, the highlight of which was the following of trails and marking where they had been. A few rocks here, a pile of twigs there, a stick pointing the direction at a fork, etc. I’ve never been able to believe that they really didn’t hear us. I suspect it was all part of a game of evading pursuers. They felt perfectly safe, so why should the big people worry? However, they scared about ten years off our lives that day and I do not intend to let them forget it!

Saturday, July 28, 2012

The Misunderstanding

Many years ago, on our wedding anniversary, I gave Terry a card that said, "He who chooses an owl for a companion must put up with a certain number of dead mice."  I picked out this particular card for him because I was grateful that he had chosen me for a companion in spite of my foibles. I knew I was not easy to live with, so the saying seemed humorous and to the point.  He especially loved that card.  It's probably still around the house, stuck in a book somewhere, although I doubt if we could find it.  We hardly need to: We took the saying to our hearts, and it became part of our repertoire. 

We have a volume of witty remarks, clever sayings, punch lines from jokes, and cartoon captions in our heads.  We use them in situations that may or may not be similar to the origin of the line.  It's our own personal brand of humor - like a secret language between us.  Sometimes in a group we'll catch each other's eye, see suppressed laughter, and know we are thinking of the same punch line.  We've used "He who chooses an owl..." in this way from time to time... not needing the whole sentence, but just the opening phrase that we know the other will mentally complete like the closing of a synapse.

For some reason the line came up recently in a conversation over dinner, and Terry commented that it still applies.  I thought I'd improved with age, so I replied, "I know I'm still an owl, but I'd hoped that I leave fewer dead mice on your doorstep than in earlier years."  A funny look came over his face.  "But I'm the owl..." he said.  "That's why I loved the card so much; because you chose me for a companion and have been willing to put up with more than a few dead mice!"

When we stopped laughing, I set him straight on who I saw as the owl when I gave him the card. After all these years, I'm glad we've finally cleared up this misunderstanding!