The train bisects the blue and the green, parting wheat fields by the tracks. Mommy and I rub shoulders, sitting in the last car, watching the landscape move backward, as if erasing my childhood, all those times when she would board the train and leave me aching for her. Now, in my dream, we rub shoulders, her perfume lingering. The old longing wrenches my stomach.
Click-clack, click-clack, the train’s wheels on the track, the language of my past, my future.
Her face is soft. Her wine-dark eyes glance at me with promise, an endearing look that gives me all I ever wanted. The click-clack ticks away the time, the mother time, moons rising and falling as the years fall like petals in a white garden, our body-and-blood song haunting my dreams. Mommy, where are you?
Even as she is with me, she is gone.
The train station is the center of the universe, with tracks going and coming in all directions. People stand shivering in the ever-present plains wind, their hair kicked up violently when a train blows by, especially a freight bound for Chicago where, as I understand it, all sensible trains end up. To me, the Windy City, as I hear my mother and grandmother call it, is the end of the known world. It is where I began and where my mother is off to as the three of us—my mother, Josephine, my grandmother, Frances, and I—stand in a miserable clutch. I am sure they are as miserable as I am, my mothers, standing there with their arms across their chests, hips slung out, like bored movie stars competing for the same part. Maybe that’s what they are doing—vying for the part of good mother, or bad mother, depending on how you define things. To me both of them are beautiful and thrilling.
But underneath their beauty and power, a secret is buried. A secret that runs in the blood. This moment repeats for the third time what has happened before—a mother leaving a daughter, repeating what Gram did to my mother so long ago, and her mother before her. It will be years before I find out the whole story about the three generations of women who will define my life. At this moment, the ticking bomb is set to go off when my mother gets on the train. No one here claims any knowledge of this dire pattern. I can feel it, though, deep in a silent place inside me, a place of desperation, the beginning of a crack that will split my life open.
The sun pinks the sky in the west, a place where the eye loves to rest in this open land. Already the lore of its history tickles my curiosity, even though at this moment I am four years old. I hear of Indian chiefs and the frontier, if not from books, then from the pictures all around town proclaiming our cowboy heritage—neon signs, billboards showing an Indian chief in full headdress, peace pipe slung from an arm as casually as a gun. Right now the picture of an Indian, wearing only a blanket and standing in front of the Santa Fe Chief, hangs on the waiting room wall, wreathed in smoke rising like a mysterious code to the ceiling.
I read the code here, tapping feet in open-toed suede shoes. I stare at my mother’s toes, as if to memorize an intimate part of her, bringing my gaze up her shapely legs, my stomach in a pang, the scenes that brought us to this moment fresh in my mind.
Mommy and I came here a few months ago from Chicago, where we had lived after my father left. I don’t know much about him, except that he went off to the war, and came back too, but not to us. She cries when she looks at his pictures. Every so often she shows me a small black-and-white photo of a man wearing an army captain’s hat and grinning as he leans casually against a brick building. The crease in his pants is knife sharp. With her slim fingers, she caresses a photograph of herself against the same wall, wearing a big fur coat.
“That was the night before you were born, a cold night in March. What a wonderful thing that was for your mother.” Mommy often talks about herself like that, as if she wasn’t in the room.
I remember our time in Chicago, when Mommy would talk on the phone forever in the evening, twisting her hair in tiny ringlets all over her head, or knitting scarves and sweaters. I remember the amber light that shone over her like a halo, and I remember that I’d do anything to get her to scratch my back with her sharp fingernails.
But a few months ago, we left Chicago; it was my first time on the train. The ride was thrilling: the sound of the whistle, huge clouds of gushing steam, great deep rumblings of the engines that sounded like scary monsters speeding us by green fields and blue skies all around, with little towns along the side of the track and people waving, waving as if they knew us. The whistle tooted a special hello to them. What fun.
That night the porter unfolded the special bed that was our seat, pulling down a shade made of thick green cloth. I loved the little tent he made for us. My mother had a dreamy look on her face, staring at the sights as the wheels click-clacked beneath us. She wore her cotton nightgown, and I my pajamas. We cuddled between fresh cotton sheets. The train rocked us back and forth, back and forth in a sweet rhythm that one day I would remember as the best moment we ever had, Mommy and me. On the train, together. The next day, we arrived in Wichita where I met Gram, Mommy’s mother.
She looked like my mother, with the same pretty face. Her voice was soft as she sifted my fine hair away from my forehead in a gentle gesture and smiled at me with soft brown eyes so dark I couldn’t see the pupils you can see in most people’s eyes. She was nice to me and called me Sugar Pie. But Mommy and Gram—whew—they sure did surprise me by fighting all the time. I’d watch, or hide in the hall, while they yelled, screamed, and cried. Almost every day. It was terrible to hear; it made my skin itch. I scratched the itch, making red marks on my arms. Their cigarette smoke filled the air.
When Mommy rushed off to work each morning it was quiet and nice in Gram’s little house. Windows let in the sun through the Venetian blinds, making pretty patterns on the hardwood floors. Gram read stories to me, and we made bubbles with soap in the sink. She taught me to eat prunes every morning. I began learning how words make stories come alive—Cinderella, Snow White, the Three Bears. Every day I waited for Mommy to come home. I loved her throaty voice, the way she touched my hair for a moment. I was always slinking around trying to get more hugs out of her, but she was not much for that.
One evening, everything seemed different. Mommy yelled. Threw down her purse. Lit cigarette after cigarette, the frown between her eyes deepening with each puff. Gram edged around her, as if she were looking for a way to either blow up or not fight at all. Finally the explosion came, my mothers opening and closing angry mouths. I kept my eye on them while I put dishes on the table.
“I hate this place,” Mother said, stomping her heels on the floor.
Gram made a nasty face. Their voices had sharp edges, and got so loud I had to put my fingers in my ears. They were so loud, so angry, sounding like screeching birds. Then something happened. Mommy got really quiet, which scared me even more, and said, “That’s it; I’m going back to Chicago.” I can’t say how I knew it, but I could tell that she wasn’t going to take me, and that if she left me now, it would be forever.
I watched her walk back and forth across the floor. The seams in her hose were crooked. Mommy never had crooked seams. I sat on the floor, my stomach in a knot, while I traced the patterns in the Oriental rug. I wanted to get lost in those swirls, like in a dark forest in the fairy tales. I could get lost and never be found again.
So here we are, waiting for the train. My chest is tight; there is darkness and ice all the way though me. I am shivering. How can she leave? She knows I don’t want her to go. My mother stands apart from me and from Gram, far enough to show that she is the one leaving, the one who will go alone on the train. I dread the train that’s about to take her away. All around me everyone acts normal. People bustle around getting ready, the train men push luggage carts, kids jump up and down. Words that I cannot say gather in my mouth, fill my whole body. Every muscle wants to run to her, grab at her and scream, “Please don’t go,” but I know that she and Gram don’t want me to do this. I don’t want to make them mad; I don’t want them to look at me with those dark eyes of disapproval. I couldn’t stand it. So I pretend.
The wind blows through me, whirling my dress. Then the sound of the whistle cries out, as if in pain. A deep sorrow lurches through me. I hold my breath to keep myself from crying. The light appears at the far end of the tracks and gets bigger. I can’t stop any of this. The huge train tears into the station, rumbling the earth beneath my feet, kicking up my hair with the blast of wind. A scream comes out of my mouth, but no one hears me. The locomotive is too huge, too powerful and frightening, and it is coming to take my mother away.
Mommy and I are wrapped in invisible gauze, wrapped tight so it can’t break, but as she touches me softly with her fingertips, and leans over to give Gram a kiss, I can feel the fabric unwrapping, unwinding us until just a thin piece is left. She hugs me lightly, as if she’s afraid I’ll cling to her. Her musky smell clings to me. She click-clacks toward the train on her high heels, almost as if she’s glad to get away. Her seams are straight, and she is so beautiful with the sun on her face as she climbs into the train car.
Mommy, Mommy, I chant silently, putting my fingers to my nose to inhale her memory, her scent on my skin.
How I want to be on the train, to cuddle up with Mommy the way we did before. But when Gram looks at me with such sadness in her eyes, I know that I need to stay with her. It’s funny that she was so mad before, but now I can tell she is sad, though she doesn’t say it in words. I take her hand and stand with her as we watch the train disappear down the track in a puff of smoke.
The train whistle cries its lonely song, lingering in the wind that crosses the plains. It will call for me all my life, in my dreams and while I am awake. The train song, the train’s power and promise, are etched deep in my soul from this day forward.
Forgiveness means letting go of the past.
For as long as I can remember, I’ve been interested in healing. As I grew up, I learned that I was the third daughter in my multi-generational family to be abandoned by a mother, and I was desperate to break a pattern that I’d seen cause much misery and pain.
I’d watched my own mother and grandmother fight since was little; when I was an adult, my mother refused to let anyone know she had a daughter. The pain of these realizations haunted me, but I found relief through creativity; playing in a symphony, painting, and reading books. I devoured fiction—in those days only famous people wrote memoirs—trying to find some kind of code that would help me live my life.
And, I kept a journal. Little did I know that one day there would be programs all over the country about therapeutic journaling, art therapy, and bibliotherapy.
As a “wounded healer” I became a therapist, and learned how the sacred and mysterious process of psychotherapy facilitates healing. Being a client while working as a therapist gave me a perspective and a deep respect for the healing process. It was clear that sharing stories in the therapy hour helped people break through walls of silence and shame into a previously unknown freedom of expression, healing wounds long suppressed and buried and wordless.
During those years, I poured out the feelings, thoughts, drawings, and the stories of my life into those journals, gathered them into boxes, and put them away for a long time. But the process of finding words and even writing stories was a way for me to see past the darkness and find some light throughout the losses and traumas I experienced from a mother and grandmother who turned out to be mentally ill.
I often felt alone in the struggle, but at least I had my journal. One of the therapies I experienced had us write the dark stories of our lives, the ones we’d been trying to escape. The leaders insisted that we must write all the ways we had suffered or been traumatized in exact detail. While this was grueling and difficult, it paved the way for resolution and forgiveness later in the process. I experienced profound relief and appreciated the insights of digging deep into tough truths, and having others understand and witness me for the first time. Thus was born my certainty that writing needed to be a part of the healing process, but there was no scientific evidence to prove it—only my experience and the stories of others who were journaling.
The Research on Writing That Heals
A few years ago, studies about how writing influenced the process of healing began to be publicized in the press. The studies talked about how the power of using words, particularly writing, helps to heal emotional distress, trauma, and various physical ailments.
Recent developments in technology have made it possible to study how patterns in the brain are affected by words, and these studies are still yielding their results.
The Early Studies
As a therapist, I’d learned about Wilhelm Reich, Alexander Lowen, who carried Reich’s work into Bioenergetics, Arthur Janov who created Primal Scream therapy, and other body workers like Peter Levine and Babette Rothschild. Their theories have to do with how trauma and stress are suppressed in the body, causing emotional and physical reactions that talk therapy doesn’t touch.
These therapies include special breathing and body oriented techniques to help the client release the pent up emotions that have been lodged in the body and in the unconscious mind. Most of my clients had been severely abused as children, and seemed stuck in their bodily and emotional memories. I thought it was important to explore different ways to help them, so I studied these alternative approaches in the field of holistic health as I searched for integrative ways of helping people to change their lives for the better.
So it was with eagerness and surprise that I discovered the research showing that writing true stories about significant and meaningful events in their lives helped people heal not only mentally but physically. For example, in 1999, an article by Joshua Smyth in the Journal of the American Medical Association discussed the positive effects of expressive writing on arthritis and asthma sufferers. Discovering that writing was a factor in healing physical illnesses and trauma was big news to the medical and psychological community.
Dr. James Pennebaker’s Broad Research
As I searched for more studies, I discovered the work of Dr. James Pennebaker, the chair of the psychology program at the University of Texas. In the 1990s, he began to be curious whether writing about important and painful feelings would offer the same relief as talking. He and his colleagues investigated the therapeutic benefits of writing in various settings and with a large range of populations, including prisoners and crime victims, arthritis and chronic-pain sufferers, new mothers, and people with various physical illnesses, across different social classes and demographics.
During the experiments, members of the control group were instructed to write lists or plans for the day. The expressive writing group received the following directions:
For the next four days, I would like you to write about your very deepest thoughts and feelings about the most traumatic experience of your entire life. In your writing, I’d like you to really let go and explore your very deepest emotions and thoughts. You might tie your topic to your relationships with others, including parents, lovers, friends, or relatives; to your past, your present, or your future; or to who you have been, who you would like to be, or who you are now. You may write about the same general issues or experiences on all days of writing or on different traumas each day. All of your writing will be completely confidential.
Both groups wrote for fifteen minutes on each of the four days of the study. The intensity and depth of the trauma expressed in the subjects’ stories impressed and surprised Pennebaker. They wrote about tragic and traumatic events, such as depression, rape, suicide attempts, child sexual and physical abuse, drug use, and family violence. They often wrote of powerful emotions associated with these stories. Sometimes they left the sessions in tears, but they eagerly continued the experiment. No one suffered adverse effects of the writing, and many reported emotional relief at finally writing out deeply buried secrets. The research results showed a significant number of reduced doctor’s visits, and improvements in health markers. In another study in the group who wrote, there was a significant increase of the T-cell count, showing improvement in the immune system.
In his book Opening Up: The Healing Power of Expressing Emotions, Pennebaker discusses the ways that writing about emotional events relieves stress and promotes a more complete understanding of events. He concludes that simple catharsis, the explosive release of emotions, is not enough. Feelings, thoughts, and a new point of view need to be integrated with memories of an upheaval to create a new perspective.
Writing a story and putting events and upheavals into a narrative helps to create meaning and understanding about stressful or traumatic events. Writing is similar to psychotherapy, where emotional disclosure is a part of the healing process, but writing is a solitary activity, done alone, whereas in the therapy office, there’s another person, the therapist, whose presence may affect the content and delivery of the story. Writing may yield different and surprising material that was not shared in therapy.
Second Generation Studies on Writing and Healing
In their 2002 book The Writing Cure, Smyth and Stephen Lepore are the editors of a series of studies. This next generation of research covers more topics: depression, recovery from breast cancer and other questions the researchers developed after the first studies.
These studies showed that while writing about trauma and negative emotions causes emotional pain and distress for a short period of time, soon both mood and physical health improve. More revealing was the research by Laurie King showing that writing about positive emotions and a positive future lead to improvements in physical and emotional health. A further surprise came when subjects wrote about someone else’s trauma—the results were nearly as positive and those who wrote about their own traumas, paving the way to consider fiction writing as a healing path as well.
The research also showed that people’s personality styles affected the benefits measured. If a person tends to withhold emotions and to be more stoical, writing about negative experiences will likely have a positive effect on that person’s health. If a person focuses on negative feelings much of the time and ruminates, writing about a positive experience or a happier life event may have a beneficial effect.
Trauma Research and the Brain
Trauma and its effects on the immune system, body, and mind have been studied by many scientists and psychologists over the years, and now the research is focusing on studying the brain and how it processes trauma.
Joseph LeDoux, author of The Emotional Brain, writes about the parts of the brain in a style that invites everyone to understand this important organ in the body. The brain is composed of several “brains”: the older, reptilian part of the brain, the old mammal brain, and the neo-cortex, or higher level brain, which distinguishes more recent evolutionary human functioning.
Scientists are now able to study how the brain fires and responds under certain stimuli, especially the amygdala and the hippocampus, which are part of the limbic system and have to do with fear responses and their regulation. When we are triggered by fear, even subliminally, immediate hormonal and nervous system responses occur that were originally designed to and trigger the fight or flight hormonal reactions to save our lives. The amygdala reacts to fear stimuli, which sends messages to the hippocampus which is supposed to regulate the responses of the amygdala, but in conditions of ongoing trauma, the fear response seems to be “hard-wired” into the brain, making it difficult to process into regular memory that would allow the event to be put into perspective.
Traumatic memory is different from regular memory. It’s as if the traumatic memory is a phonograph record needle stuck in a groove, keeping the upsetting events fresh and recurring.
“The amygdala’s emotional memories…are indelibly burned into its circuits, “ says le Doux. “The best we can hope to do is to regulate their expression. And the way we do this by getting the cortex to control the amygdala.” This means that the cognitive part of the brain needs to overcome the emotional responses that overwhelm the person. This is where using words comes into the picture.
Matthew Lieberman’s Brain Scan Studies
Matthew Lieberman, an Associate Professor at UCLA, studies how words can change the processing of strong emotion in the brain. His research acknowledges the previous work of Pennebaker:
The insight that putting one’s feelings into words can have mental and physical health benefits was captured experimentally in work on disclosure through expressive writing…In the 1980s, Pennebaker began a program of research (Pennebaker & Beall, 1986; Pennebaker, 1997) in which participants were asked to write about past negative experiences on four successive days and these participants were found to have visited the doctor less often over the following half year compared to those who wrote about trivial experiences. Lieberman’s research goes on, however, to use new MRI imaging to measure how words affect the amygdala. In one study, the researchers were surprised to see that the right side of the brain was processing language, when usually it’s the left side of the brain that processes words. It could be interpreted that both sides of the brain are integrating when language is used to process strong emotion.
Studies involving the brain and writing are being done by Liebermann and other researchers to show physiological changes in the brain that occur when language is used as a tempering mechanism for strong emotion.
When you put feelings into words, you’re activating this prefrontal region and seeing a reduced response in the amygdala. In the same way you hit the brake when you’re driving when you see a yellow light, when you put feelings into words, you seem to be hitting the brakes on your emotional responses. As a result, an individual may feel less angry or less sad.
Bessel Van der Kolk and Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome
Bessel van der Kolk, Director of the Trauma Center in Brookline, Massachusetts, is internationally known for his extensive research in the field of PTSD. He has written many articles and books on the subject of Post Traumatic Stress and how it can be healed.
In his article, “In Terror’s Grip: Healing the Ravages of Trauma,” he lists some elements of PTSD: repeated re-experiencing of original trauma through physical memory triggers, an attempt to avoid the memories by withdrawing from the world, and extreme vigilance and startle reaction. The altered function of the brain, due to trauma, “causes the memories to be stored as fragments rather than being organized into the higher brain’s autobiographical self.” He acknowledges the work done by Pierre Janet, a colleague of Freud’s, who wrote extensively about trauma, and the need for witnessing and the restoration of narrative memory.
To help heal trauma, van der Kolk says, “It’s important to help people with PTSD find a language for understanding and communicating their experiences.”
For writers who want to use writing to heal, we can see that the research supports what many of us may have felt intuitively for a long time—that writing your true thoughts and feelings about something upsetting releases them from occupying your attention.
Writing for Better Health
To summarize the research:
- Knowledge is power. Most people who want to write feel uncomfortable, embarrassed, or shy to put pen to paper, their minds spinning with inner critic messages which can be a symptom of past traumas. But if you write the experiences directly and with the simple language of truth, then your higher brain processes are stimulated to integrate and eventually release the effects of stress and trauma.
- Though writing may be uncomfortable at first, after writing four times for fifteen minutes, intrusive memories may begin to recede, and you start to develop a new perspective. You may need to write the scene more than once or use different points of view such as the third person instead of first person “I.”
- The studies seem to agree that a certain amount of “downloading” of negative experiences is helpful. Expressing the unexpressed through words labels the feelings and helps the neo-cortex, the newer and more evolved part of the brain, integrate them into normal memory banks, removing them from the ever repeating timeless quality of traumatic memory.
Your Words Matter
Pennebaker’s research went beyond exploring trauma to investigating the effect of certain words on the immune system. When writers used a large number of positive words (happy, good, laugh) along with a moderate number of negative words (angry, hurt, ugly) in their writing, health improvements were more likely to increase. Cognitive or thinking words (because, reason, effect) and words of self-reflection (I understand, realize, know) created the most emotional resolution. So if you want to experience the greatest healing benefit from your writing, pay attention to the emotional content of your words, and keep writing about a particular memory until you have causally linked the events with your feelings and integrated feelings and thoughts.
Causality means that one thing is linked to another; a particular stimulus leads to an outcome—this happened because that happened first. There is no causal linkage between the two events in the following sentence: George went to the store with a gun. Bob died. But in the next example, you can see a connection: Because George went to the store with his gun, it went off and killed Bob. There is a link between the first phrase and the second. There is meaning and causality.
Another one: “That day I couldn’t know that because I wore the pink dress, my life would never be the same.” In this example, the narrator is linking the pink dress with events to follow. This is an example of integration, which allows the separated events of a life to be linked into a narrative with a plot. In this way, we weave a sense of meaning about what happens to us. Fragments of disconnected events serve to maintain anxiety and symptoms of stress, but connecting events and finding meaning helps us to create a sense of self that is calming and comforting.
Witnessing and Being Witnessed as a Healing Process
One of the ways that we break out of the isolation and secrets that are woven into many traumatic experiences is to bring these secrets out of the darkness and into the light. If we are witnessed, if we are received with positive empathic regard, we are able to more quickly heal.
Alice Miller, a Swiss psychiatrist, has written many books on child abuse and how to heal its effects. Her work about witnessing can be directly applied to our writing practice for healing.
Alice Miller and Witnessing
In her books Drama of the Gifted Child, For Your Own Good, and The Truth Will Set You Free, Alice Miller writes about the horrors of child abuse and how the wounds of such abuse continue to affect people in adulthood. She believes that for victims to heal, the secret, shameful stories of childhood must be revealed and expressed to a compassionate, enlightened witness.
An “enlightened witness,” is someone trained to fully understand the painful story we need to tell and sees us with compassion and empathy. The enlightened witness sees us as the whole, beautiful being that we are, not just someone who was wounded. Miller says, “Therapists can qualify as enlightened witnesses, as do well-informed and open-minded teachers, lawyers, counselors, and writers.”
So many children suffer in silence, afraid to reveal to anyone else the truths of how they live behind the closed doors of the family, when disobeying family rules of loyalty can lead to punishment. But Miller says that when we were young, if someone, either from outside the family or a family member, knows of our abuse or unhappiness, and if they respond in some way with compassion or kindness, we’re less likely to become trapped in the darkness of the trauma. Some of us might have been lucky enough to encounter an aunt, uncle, grandparent, or teacher in that role:
“A helping witness is a person who stands by an abused child . . . offering support and acting as a balance against the cruelty otherwise dominant in the child’s everyday life.”
When we write for ourselves, we witness ourselves in a new way, and when we share our work in a group, usually the first stage of trying out our writing on the world, we are witnessed by them. Be sure to have a trustworthy group as part of your support team. It’s important to have partners in the creative endeavor with you.
The Three Stages of Memoir Writing
Through teaching memoir writing over two decades, and from writing my own books, I have found that there are several stages that writers go through as they write their memoir. I have broken these down into three stages, and each of them has their own challenges and skillsets. Each stage has subsets, side roads, and tangled skeins that you can easily get lost in if you don’t have a roadmap. We’ll examine psychological barriers, sources of inspiration, forks in the road, and what to look out for—all with an eye on getting you to “The End.”
The three stages are:
1. Kick-Starting. This is the beginning stage, the first stage where you are beginning to learn what your story is trying to become. You discover the significant moments that create the spine of your memoir. You clarify your themes and freewrite your memories. You learn about sorting through themes and topics, character development, and how to sketch an outline for the rest of your book. In this stage you get acquainted with what a memoir requires of you and what it will give back.
2. The Muddy Middle. In this stage you start to question why you are writing a memoir. Self-doubt and the inner critic start whispering in your ear, and yet you’re also learning a lot—about yourself, the past, and the kind of structure and story line your memoir needs. Doubts that have to do with the memory, family, and truth come up at this time. You learn how to affirm yourself and your writing. You learn to find the structure that your memoir needs during this stage, and how to write your way to the end of a first draft. This stage is long, exciting, tiring, and exhilarating. It’s a ride that gets you to “The End.”
3. Birthing Your Book. This is the later phase of writing your memoir, the home stretch. By now, you know your story, and you have solved many of the problems of plot, memory, and you’ve made your way through various bouts of self-doubt. Your story has helped to teach you the focus of your work and you have learned many writing skills by this stage. You have a clear sense of what you are writing about. You are past the Muddy Middle. You can see “The End” looming. You are celebrating, and you are beginning to think about editing, building a platform, and you’re continuing to read memoirs that feed your learning curve. You learn to become your own editor in the revision process, which is a part of this stage, and you’re in the process of deciding how you want to have your book published.
To write a memoir is to embark on a long journey of the imagination and of memory. My path of gathering memories, images, and stories was first through autobiographical art–painting, collage, etching, and mixed media. But I knew that words were necessary as well, and began to capture moments through poetry. From time to time, I’ll post some of the poems that eventually led me to my memoir Don’t Call Me Mother, that were part of the process for finding the story. Photographs and art work can show what words can’t.
My great-grandmother Blanche was a powerful figure for me–in her eighties, she taught me about a kind of pioneer woman strength and steadfastness that were missing with my grandmother and mother, and shared with me the stories that helped me to understand who I was and where I came from.
This poem is about her, and the photos are of her and my grandmother as a baby, in 1895. This poem won first prize at the East of Eden Writing Conference. Later, Blanche at 90.
First Place Prize Winning Poem
East of Eden contest
My great-grandmother Blanche washed her sheets in an iron caldron
August heat spilling down her neck,
eyes moist from heat and steam and memory.
She plunged the stick, churned the suds,
her knotted hands
wringing dirty water into a chipped porcelain pan,
blue veins bulging,
bones and spine hard like a man’s.
I held up clothespins for the hanging, Hollyhocks bursting high
against her outhouse, pink flowers like skirts.
The white sheets snapped,
the plains wind blew, the perfume of sheets, roses,
sweat, the summer sun
burned into memory.
She beat the featherbed with her fists as if against a jealous lover,
slamming against it with a startling fury.
What anger did she remember?
“Like this,” she said, but I couldn’t make a dent with my child fists.
I watched her, expert featherbed beater,
grateful she was not angry at me.
As crickets sang in the coming darkness,
she smoothed the sun-drenched sheets on the featherbed,
slipped a white nightgown over her drooping flesh that had known eighty years of life,
and curled her body around me.
She whispered stories into the pillows, the pendulum clock
tocked and ticked. She remembered the first radio song,
how after the first ring of a telephone and the voice out of clear air,
she held the phone, and cried.
The first time the Ford, not the horse,
took her past fields of rustling corn
while the harvest moon rose.
As we breathed in and out the afternoon’s sun
and her memories, I knew skeins of time before my own,
before machines and gadgets,
the froth of new buds in her father’s apple orchard,
how she stopped and listened
for ripples of time yet unknown.
Never imagining me curled inside her cocoon,
never knowing her featherbed and stories
would feed lonely nights fifty years in the future,
or how I would sleep on that same bed
in a white nightgown, and think of her when she was young,
time suspended in silence,
apples and death pausing,
while she inhaled the future,