Before

Genealogy gives us a way to celebrate “Before They Were Mothers” Day. My sister Mary Boucher’s delightful and precise genealogical history brings a young Marjorie Warnick into focus.

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During her high school years in La Grande, Oregon, she was a marvel: Secretary-Treasurer of Associated Girls Students, President of the Spanish Club, and editor-in-chief of the yearbook.

After graduating in 1926, she followed what she loved best-art. She studied at Portland Art Museum’s School of Art and with Sydney Bell, the English portrait painter. These early experiences had to give her a greater thrill than setting up booths for St. Mary’s church bazaars.

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Marjorie Warnick worked for the interior decorating firm of House of Franks-Child Inc. and then became the fashion artist for Olds, Wortman & Kings. No wonder that later she collected Vogue patterns and House Beautiful magazines. No wonder she had an affinity for dotted Swiss and silk fabric. One of my favorite photos is a Christmas card sent out by Olds & King with Marjorie among her colleagues. Just looking at her makes me smile. Oh, how my imagination soars: my mother, at the easel, my mother, Portland’s Coco Chanel.

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As much as I treasure my mother as nurturer and caregiver, I love the adventure, mystery and youth that slips through our family history. I want to claim her, not only as mother, but as the young girl in the pink hair bow and the swim-suited woman at the Neskowin coast. To Marjorie Warnick Kennedy and to those who have tended to us, and who remain with us whether in body or in spirit, Happy “Before You Were a Mother” Day.

Mind Games

When media words—fake or otherwise—blare from angry people, I find myself reciting poetry. Four years ago, long before the swampy political landscape, I decided to fill my mind with loveliness. Even my carved cat looks like a poetry lover, mulling over my collection. My initial motive for memorizing poems was not all that pristine. I had a vision of myself in a few years, dressed in housecoat and pink slippers, wandering hallways, yelling at aides, spewing vitriol. Maybe, while my mind is still clear, I could memorize a few poems.

Where to start? The answer for me was not a favorite title, but speaking the words, hearing the cadence, rhythm, and at times, that old-fashioned technique called rhyme. I read aloud poem after poem. The first one in my book is Elizabeth Bishop’s “Sonnet,” where she tells of her need of music, a song to soothe her anger,

A song to fall like water on my head. . .

Now my notebook contains 30 poems I know by heart. Each allows a scene to rise from the page and fill my mind’s space with beauty. And oh, those words. So, hopefully when I’m trundling along in my pink slippers and housecoat, I’ll have something nice to say.

Next on my list?

Natasha Tretheway’s “Rotation” and that luminous first line:

Like the moon that night, my father. . .

Must Love Dogs

Mississippi’s heat, bugs, and Humane Society gave me an unforgettable 2005 Hurricane Katrina adventure.

The adventure looks far on a map, but nowhere near as far as the actual 2700 mile drive from Portland, OR to Hattiesburg, Mississippi.

In the barn, I was part of a team responsible for 50-60 dogs. The Humane Society got help from FEMA, the Park Service, Firefighters, volunteer veterinarians, and the rest of us dog-walkers and cage cleaners.

With humidity off the charts and the temperature at 95 degrees, both dogs and humans needed a daily splash.

The Sheltie was such a sweet dog, but mats big as baseballs meant he needed to be shaved.

There’s nothing like manual labor to scrub the spirit clean.

When the last dog was placed in the truck heading north, I had a chance to drive down to New Orleans to see for myself the devastation of Katrina. Hit with too much sadness, I passed up The Big Easy. Instead my trip took me west to Natchez and north to Vicksburg. No more Humane Society campgrounds or walking frightened pit bulls. No more love-bugs mating in mid-air. Still, the Mississippi ran red at sundown and the Deep South remained inescapable: plantations, tree branches from which hung memories of a thousand sorrows, a museum that held its own version of the Civil War, confederate flags flying, and monuments all intact. 2005: twelve years and a lifetime ago.

Vantage Points

Tale #1: I’m a teenager in Pendleton, Oregon, land of wheat–as far away from coal country as you can get. I turn on the 45 RPM and sing along with Tennessee Ernie Ford:

Some people say a man is made outta mud
A poor man’s made outta muscle and blood
Muscle and blood and skin and bones
A mind that’s a-weak and a back that’s strong
You load sixteen tons, what do you get?
Another day older and deeper in debt
Saint Peter don’t you call me ’cause I can’t go
I owe my soul to the company store
I was born one mornin’ when the sun didn’t shine
I picked up my shovel and I walked to the mine
I loaded sixteen tons of number nine coal
And the straw boss said “Well, a-bless my soul”

I snapped my fingers and sang the words, but so blissful in my ignorance.

Tale #2: Sister Helena Brand, SNJM, taught me literature in 1965 and introduced me to Emile Zola’s Germinal. I lived inside that book with Etienne and Catherine, immersed in the brutal injustices, unbearable poverty, and vivid passions, but most of all, the black, suffocating life underground.

Tale #3: Forty years later, a miner guided us through the Cape Breton Museum, into the cage, and down into the mine. He spoke of his years underground. He showed us a tiny greenhouse measuring three feet by three feet where the men had installed a light and enclosed a flowering plant. “We wanted a reminder of something living, growing green in all this black dust.”

Tale #4: In Sault Ste-Marie we knocked at the door of a bed-and-breakfast and the man who answered the door stood no taller than 4 feet ten–the tiniest man I had ever seen. Over tea he spoke of years spent in Britain’s coal mines and of the inexplicable poverty that kept him small. “I never tasted milk until the age of twelve.”

Tale # 5: The pit ponies, beloved animals of the miners, hauled heavy carts of coal eight hours a day. Born and bred in the shaft mines, stabled underground, the ponies came to the surface only during the colliery’s annual holiday. I wondered, How would you ever get them back underground after they breathed in clean air and felt grass under their feet?

Tale #6: I keep alive the vision of Gerard Manley Hopkins:

The world is charged with the grandeur of God.
    It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;
    It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil
Crushed. Why do men then now not reck his rod?
Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;
    And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;
    And wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell: the soil
Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.
And for all this, nature is never spent;
    There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;
And though the last lights off the black West went
    Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs —
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
    World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.

Contentment

The contemplative creature peeking out from the leaves is not the twelve-week-old puppy I brought home nine years ago. My first month with Angel—all twelve weeks old—meant taking her out at 2:00 a.m.and then hearing her little yap two hours later, eager to leave her crate and play. Weary, I decided to set my CD alarm a few minutes before 4:30, hoping that maybe Angel would link Mozart for Meditation with wake-up time. Over a period of two months, her rising time stretched from five, to ten, and then to fifteen minute intervals. On a winter morning, just after 7:00 a.m., I opened an eye to check on her. Chrysanthemum face uplifted, inky eyes wide open, Angel sat silently. I smiled to myself. Oh, my goodness, she’s waiting for“Flute Concerto.”

Classical music became part of her waking, sleeping, and time-alone. By six months, Massenet, Elgar, and Brahms had serenaded her. Schubert and Mendelssohn sang her to sleep. Mozart and Chopin awakened her. I learned soon enough that not all classical music soothed her. If violins rose in frenzy, if trumpets blasted in triumph, she dragged her orange orangutan into another room.

She still prefers the mellow adagio and lullaby.

Tonight, with her black snub nose and alert, furry face, Angel watches me strum my dulcimer. Sometime during the Welsh classic “All through the Night,” she turns onto her back, relaxed and trusting. Contented. Sleep my child and peace attend thee, all though the night. Guardian Angels God will send thee, all through the night. After her walk, kibble-meal, and play-time with her stuffed owl, she’s ready to nestle among those jasmine leaves or curl up on her pillow, sure that Mozart’s flute and oboe will arrive any moment now to sing her to sleep.

Cityscapes

The tales of Portland can be told in strokes of pink and orange, but that is only part of the story. The homeless couple sleep in Keller Park and wash themselves in the fountain. Young men in scuffed shoes haul bags full of cans and bottles. Down the block from the KOIN, Bridgetown bakers prepare my favorite pumpkin muffins and at PSU Mark readies his cart to sell smoothies. Dogs rise with their owners for the morning walk and both Yorkie and Great Dane mark trees outside City Hall.

 I had planned to re-read Charles Dickens’ David Copperfield this year. Instead, I find myself in a classroom, teaching A Tale of Two Cities. Dickens makes sure that 18th century Paris and London have their own stories—tiny ones of self-important lawyers and frightened seamstresses, tales of protectors like Miss Pross and Mr. Lorry, and heroes like Dr. Manette and Sydney Carton.

 What remains a constant with Dickens and me is the city. For this one term at St. Mary’s Academy, I rise with the dawn, walk Angel, relish my muffin and coffee, and watch light spread. Then it’s time to go to work. No more gazing from eight stories up. My walk is not only through literature, but on asphalt, part of the bustle and grime, the excitement and sadness that exists side-by side in the heart of any city in any century.

 

Carvings

Woodcuts

At twilight, sand, sea, and driftwood open
like a workshop for carpenters. Wind and rain
have chiseled snake hair on logs thrown

against a dune. Near ocean’s edge are birds
carved–beaks broken, bright eyes whipped
and polished. Forever, they gaze seaward,

heads cocked (one to the left, the other to the right)
waiting, (bristled feathers wood-wet)
for mother tide to teach them how to fly.

Like Durer, I will cut my own Apocalypse
from wood drifting, shifting here and shape
horsemen (armor swirled, meticulous),

or whittle something simple: perhaps a cup
for tea. I warm my hands, prepare, and
feel a pulse in the heart of my palm.

Salt air and starlight sting. I find the lap
of a log, silken, grooved for rest and
my bench of block, knife and rasp—

tools required to take a piece of driftwood,
whittle it, fragile as a wishbone. I close my eyes
and whisper one desire beneath the moon.

Visions

Years ago I worked at Wyoming’s St. Stephens Indian Mission. One of my favorite places to be was at the home of blind Matilda, an old Native American whose face truly was lined in all the right places. So often she would look out on the dry hills as if a vision were there, calling to her, and she would tilt her head and listen.

During a week at home with my artist mother, I came across an Arizona Highways photograph of an Indian woman who looked just like Matilda. “I want to paint her.”

“In what medium?” my mother asked.

“Pen and ink.”

So began my two day lesson on the strokes needed to be a week-end artist. And then? I was on my own.

My lady took shape first with my pencil–so many hesitant marks, so many erasures. The eyes vexed me for days, but gradually, her features took shape beneath my hand. Stroke by stroke her wonderful face, weathered with age and lined with wisdom, began to emerge. And then the miracle of pen and ink. How often did I return to look at her, to touch her cheek, feel the texture of her scarf and the coarseness of her hair?

One week later I sat at the easel, marveling at my finished work, amazed that she seemed so alive. My mother came in and stood next to me. She leaned in close to the artwork and asked that question I had never voiced with Matilda. “I wonder what she sees.”

Birthday Morning

Before dawn, Carrie slipped out of bed. She dressed quickly, tucking the red ribbon into her jean pocket. Outside, the stars flecked silver over the cherry tree. She pulled herself up, curled around the branch, and crawled into the tree’s lap. Shimmying up and up, all alone while wet leaves dripped water on her face and neck. For a second she wished she were still under warm covers.

But Carrie remembered last night on the porch when her twin brother Cameron bragged. “See where Jupiter hits that branch? That’s how far I climbed today.” He was always first—to ride a bike, swim. Even first in the alphabet. “I marked it, too,” he said. Right then, Carrie made up her mind to climb the tree. Tomorrow, on their tenth birthday, she would be Number One. She’d show him. She’d bring back cherries from the top branch and dump them on his head.

Daylight came. Carrie spied Cameron’s marker. She pushed on. Her arms burned. Bark scraped her cheek. But she climbed past his string. Stopping to catch her breath, she sat on crisscrossed branches. Cherries glinted. She nibbled a few, down to their tart, red-black center. She let the juice swish in her mouth. Higher up, a glossy limb aimed at the sky. She felt for her red ribbon. I’ll put it where Cam can’t miss it. Today, I’m Queen of the Cherry Tree.

A small wind blew the leaves apart and there, in secret, was a tiny, empty nest. All at once an idea, quiet as a bird’s feather, came to her. “Today’s my birthday, and I can do anything I want.” She tied the ribbon into a bow and tucked it into the nest. A hiding place, way above Cam’s marker. Only the chickadees know.

Carrie climbed down, down, until tree roots bulged under her feet. Her sleepy-eyed brother sat on the porch steps.

“How far did you get?” he asked.
“Pretty far—for me.”
“Not like the King, though.”
“Nope.”
“All by yourself.”
“Yep.”
“Happy Birthday, Carrie.”
“You, too, Cam.”

The tree leaves winked at her. Only the chickadees know.

Captive

If I am looking for a lull or a reprieve from the world, Tretheway’s poetry is not the place to go. Her poems find expression not only because of her own mixed-race family roots, but because of her scholarly research into colonial art works depicting the mulattos and mestizos and those whom history has forgotten. From these sources she creates poetry that is unflinching in its depiction of slavery. In one poem I imagine the medieval artist’s representation of Cosmas and Damian as they graft the black leg onto the white patient. Tretheway reflects that “The Ethiop is merely a body, featureless in a coffin, so black he has no face.” In another poem I see in my mind’s eye Juan Rodriguez Juarez painting of the woman and the “red beads/yoked at her throat like a necklace of blood/her face so black she nearly disappears.”

The poem I want to hold in memory is her exquisite meditation on Velazquez’s Kitchen Maid with Supper at Emmaus. It is not Jesus, but the mulatta who is the centerpiece. She is the copper bowl and the jars in front of her; she is “the stain on the wall the size of her shadow–the color of blood. . .” Tretheway gently dares me to share the lot of the ones held in thrall. Kitchen Maid calls me into captivity, into my own complicity, my own prejudice and bias:”How not to see/in this gesture/the mind/of the colony?” Thrall is the perfect title for her stunning, troubling collection of poems.