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,