I just returned from “home,” Enid, Oklahoma, where I read my memoirs and attended my high school reunion–more to come on that. All over town, I encountered places of memory so profound I felt I was surfing layers of time. This photo is of a small lake bordering what was Phillips University back in the 50s, tucked away in silence and peace, a place where I visit in my dreams and memories, a place of encounter that changed my life. After Rusty died, I began to write for the first time. It was a beginning I never could have imagined developing into something that would fill and heal my life. Sixty years later, I return here to speak with him, to remember. On a May afternoon this spring, standing where the winds of memory were rustling the trees, there he was, smiling.
I share him through a poem I wrote long ago to honor a boy who died too young.
August 14, 1961
Rusty was sixteen,
then, and always:
the red dirt road, the hose,
the blue Dodge where we talked
about things that mattered
by the silent lake–iridescent dragonflies,
summer sun, canopy of green leaves, mockingbirds
calling out our future–if only
we could understand.
The day he died, I washed and curled
my great-grandmother’s white hair over my fingers,
reading her skull like a phrenologist,
deep indentations and history.
Ringlets haloed over her pink scalp,
her liquid mind flowing in and out of memory.
I called her Grandma.
Her black granny shoes stamped the buckled linoleum,
creased knuckles curled around the enamel teakettle,
slammed it on the cook-stove,
(hated new-fangled gas). Outdoors by the garden
wood was chopped and stacked into cords
by three sons.
She pumped the engine in that stove,
pounded out pie crust ripe with white lard.
I peeled buckets of tiny green apples with brown holes, bruises,
imperfect apples perfect for compost
and our pie.
Thick virtuoso fingers wedged the rich crust
high around the rim so the apple juice wouldn’t spill.
Even when you’re young
you come to count on the
moon ripening into its fullness,
cycling through years that peel off like skins.
That lost boy, his green eyes forever empty,
sleeps in deadly gases flooding the
fine bones of his face, entering molecule
by molecule his blood and his heart.
He can not count on anything now
but this death by drowning in the wide
plains night, caressed by the silent, hot wind.
Black coffee percolated in the dented aluminum pot,
striking the glass top with its burned beak.
Iowa summer sucked lace curtains in and out,
in and out above our feather beds.
Grandma’s world, 1880 and 1961, time suspended.
Wings of clouds promised afternoon rain.
The letter came while the fire
burned its hottest, Grandma prodding oak and pine,
demanding heat for the zenith of perfection,
apple molecules burst in the summer afternoon.
The letter said he had passed
to an unknown place.
His father begged him to come back, sobbing,
clinging to the coffin that day in the sun,
white roses fluttering like chambers of the heart.
Grandma worked like a midwife, brown eyes burning,
flesh of her arms swinging, her strong hands
mixing the elements–apple and lard, flour, salt, cinnamon,
magic transforming into pie in the dark caldron of the oven,
oxygen and heat and gases an alchemy,
She sliced the crisp crust, apple and cinnamon singing out,
juices scalding, so much life, burning like lightning,
I crumbled to the floor,
hot oven baking my back,
needing the heat to strip me
as she asked how old he was,
did I love him.