I like the quote from Mary Oliver's poem, "The Summer Day:"
Tell me, what is it you plan to do / With your one wild and precious life?
I'm not afraid to ask that question and not vague about my answer. If I have a personal goal, it is to be as free as possible so my inside life and my outside life are the same. If I have a creative goal, it is to write one good poem.
Family life was always secure. Here is what you could have heard at our 5:30 suppers together—the dynamics between Ma, Dad, my younger sister Ginny and me: Ted, would you look at that? Mrs. Wilcox? She's got fat as a pig! Ma, can I have corn privilege? I'll eat a real balanced meal tomorrow. Just this once... Ginny is a chubbette size. Is the gravy good? It's real good Ma. Your grandmother's has three inches of grease. You know, Dad, when I was at Granny's the last few times I didn't see Fluffy. There is a stone in your Grandmother's garden that says Fluffy on it. God, Ted. Did you have to say it that way? Ma, the principal is going to call... I smoked in the Girls Room. Your poor mother! How could you do this to your father and me? I think I won the Hartwell Biology award. It's going to be in tomorrow's Sentinel. I was saving it for a surprise. Ma, may I please be excused?
I remember planting maple tree seedlings in the lawn and Dad respectfully mowing around each little stone ring. Years later, when the neighborhood trees all died from Dutch elm disease, those maple trees provided shade on hot summer days. They still do.
Sometimes when Dad came home from work Ma would tell him I had been bad and needed a strapping. He would dutifully go get the black belt from the back of the bathroom closet door and while my mother supervised one stroke only and only on the thighs, I'd cry as neighborhood loud as I could muster while getting my whack. No punishment ever affected my behavior. My crime was usually hitting my sister harder than she hit me. I never physically started it, but did it psychologically until she responded in frustration.
To make Dad feel badly I cut the buckle off the belt. I knew I would never have been hit with that end. No one ever said anything.
Dad only wrote me one letter. During my heavy husband-hunting freshman year my grades were terrible and the dean contacted him. He wrote me: Dean Wilcox says you are flunking out of school. If you do it will kill your mother.
Dad worked in a factory. When he retired he helped convert his job to a computer. He could fix anything well. One year after he retired he was dead. I wrote this poem then:
As my father
From all the attention
Half my genes
Like a red stripe
On a new tin top
On the worn
To cries of
... Oh, Daddy.
My mother was the most significant person in my life... We'd read T.S. Eliot. She liked me to tickle her arm—I guess because she longed for touch. She would say your dad is a good father to you but not a good husband. I didn't want to hear that so I'd say why don't you leave. She would say I should know better than to talk to you. She lived alone until she was eighty-three and broke her hip falling from a kitchen chair swatting a ceiling spider. In the recovery facility she enjoyed that period when old age and infirmities make social distinctions irrelevant. She discovered the role of bright old lady, replaced negating and self-sorrow with living and became much easier to get along with.
Time to make the Sunday call
Is now no time at all.
My mother's missing voice
Cuts in as phantom pain.
Like light through
Frames of film
Flashes of her wistful looks
Proud or disapproving,
The gestures won't be still.
I was the first one to arrive back at my mother's home after she died.
SONG: "The Beginning"