The Blog Formerly Known As

nj_coopershawk04

I may rename this blog All the Things I Refuse to Speak About. Last week (this one, too), it was politics. This week it is my mother’s cancer.

Instead:

The bird-of-the-week (I haven’t forgotten you, junco. You have kept me company these difficult days in Westerly at one of several of my mother’s feeders), is the Cooper’s Hawk.

Christmastime, she sat in the neighbors’ tree eyeing the buffet outside my mother’s kitchen windows. Didn’t take long for the place to lose all its customers.

I pointed her out one day to my mother who could only make out a dark spot in the leafless branches.

“Is that what happened to all the birds?” she asked. “Next time your brother comes, I’m going to tell him to bring his gun.”

Before I could manage my surprise, she looked at me and smiled, leaning on her walker. “Just kidding,” she said. “But I wish the damned thing would go someplace.”

Go someplace. That’s one of her phrases. When you ask her who her favorite child is. When my husband Dennis says he can’t wait to come talk to her about the Pats returning to the Superbowl next year. When anyone suggests she might benefit from a hearing aid.

And maybe what she would have said to the Cooper’s Hawk once it got bold enough to sit on the hedges outside her front window where my brother installed another feeder that she can see from her recliner. We had drawn the shades so the morning sun didn’t hit her in the eyes and a wing flashed in the slit of light. It cast more shadow than a measly sparrow or one of her omnipresent house finches. When I lifted the shade, the feeder was deserted, but minutes later, the hawk landed, fixing its yellow eye on this side of the glass.

“My god,” I said. “There it is.” An arm’s length away.

Before my mother could see it, the bird vanished. But I witnessed it: the way the creature staked out her territory. The way she made it clear: trespass at your own risk. But trespass.

What is there to say about a February where it is 60 degrees? Yes, when I head downhill each morning for my walk, the wind comes off the river and makes me zip my jacket all the way up, but by the time I’ve turned the corner onto one end of Beach Street or the next, I’ve peeled off mittens and bared my neck to the unseasonable weather.

Fifty four years after I was born right down the street at the Westerly Hospital, I have discovered whole neighborhoods I didn’t know existed. Babcock Street, for example, the kind of eclectic neighborhood contractors have made rare. An American foursquare next door to a 1950’s ranch, across the street from a stone bungalow, a few feet from a modern monstrosity whose garage dwarfs the home’s narrow entrance. This is the kind of neighborhood, I think, that kids could ride bikes around. The kind of neighborhood that fills a schoolbus up and inspires block parties. Except I don’t really see kids riding bikes now or overcrowded busstops or block parties. Instead, for the last two mornings, it has been one man walking a big white shepherd mix and me wondering what it would be like to live in a house different from the one Dennis and I bought over twenty years ago because it reminded me so much of the house I grew up in.

imag0029

That house. This past week, my brother-in-law Bill sent me a memory stick with dozens of pictures of the farm which I promptly posted on Facebook.  This morning, my cousin Rob shook his head. “Those farm pictures,” he said. Now that was a neighborhood. A neighborhood in which we escaped many things that could have killed us.

My brother told a story about crawling into the Harvestore silo to dislodge whatever clogged up the works. “I crawled in with a tool to hack away at the lump of silage gumming stuff up and Tum (our father) held my feet in case he had to pull me out of there in a hurry. There was 6 tons of silage over my head somewhere.”

In one photo, one our fourteen year old hired hands drives the David Brown tractor while my nephew Michael perches on the fender except he’s leaning down, looking over the treads and the hired hand, no doubt thrilled with his job, hurtles along over potholes and tire ruts.imag0088

We climbed the 40 foot ladder outside the Big Jim silo on a dare. Jumped barn roof to barn roof, a pack of kids in flip flops.

My brother, my cousin and I shared stories of corn trucks whose brakes gave out in busy intersections or pick-ups whose homemade sides rattled along the Interstate from the shifting weight of the thousand pound yearling bull in its bed, or the pliers pinched onto where other vehicles had gear shifts, or the rotting floorboards through which the highway’s lane lines flashed, or the passenger side doors that flew open when you turned a corner with your four year old passenger, unbuckled, in the seat.

Bulls broke free of their stalls. Cows charged, foolish with the first warm day of the year. Hurricanes knocked silos over. Equipment churned and chugged and stalled and lurched with us at the helm or as passengers. Skittish heifers kicked off their machines and we felt the air whoosh by our cheekbones. We ice skated on ponds that weren’t necessarily frozen solid, smoked in the hayloft, rode standing up in the beds of trucks with no tailgates.

Good times.

Hawk, you would not have scared us. We were very young and, no doubt, exhausted by the work behind us and the work ahead. We had no idea what to fear.

 

That was a long time ago.

So Long, Seniors: Twenty Years of Goodbyes

1222044_news__students_throw_mortarboards_-_july_14__-large_transth3h5bemkyhxfkdcxjgxv7c8h33cqspnmpifi37zqx8How impossible summer seemed when I was a kid. Climbing off the bus on the last day, heading down the lane towards our house, I couldn’t believe another year had ended and that what stretched before me were nights and nights and days and days of no school. That kind of freedom paralyzed me. Along our lane, laurel bloomed, deer flies swarmed, the brook ran, invisible beneath the skunk cabbage. In the pastures, cows found shade. In the fields, corn sprouted flimsy as new grass. Unlike my own children, I had no camps to attend, no friends with pools in which to float away my afternoons. We had no vacations planned; no jobs off the farm awaited me. I had a calf to get ready for fair season. My father would no doubt need someone to rake hay or finish milking so he could bale hay before the rain started.

But the list of things that would disappear for a few weeks: homework, early mornings, lunch table awkwardness, rote practice with long division and sentence diagramming — my God. What to do with the kind of joy I felt?

Today is the first day of summer vacation, too. Twenty years of teaching are behind me. I still look forward to summer, but not with the same joy, nor with the same paralysis, either. For someone who hated school as much as I did, the only surprise for me now is how much I love teaching. And how much, in so many ways, I dread June.

My friend Blake graduated from UNH the year before I did. During the final few weeks of his time there, we gathered, probably at a table beneath the low ceiling of the Catnip Pub, and Blake talked about what it felt like to be finishing up. “It’s not that I worry about seeing all of you,” he said. “I know we’ll keep in touch, but I’ll miss all those other people you pass on campus every day: the guy who lived across from you freshman year or the kids from the study groups we had for anatomy. I’ll miss the community, you know what I mean?” We said we did, but we didn’t. Not really. Not until it happened to us: that all those people who had been part of our world were suddenly in places that we were not. And for teachers, it happens at the end of every year.

We’ll come visit, they say, and they do. Always wonderful to see them (even if they’re off to South Africa and Prague and Barcelona for a year abroad or to Thailand for an internship or to China to teach poetry and I am exactly where they left me a few years before). But I no longer see them in context. They aren’t the students who gather in front of my desk during directed study anymore to show me pictures of the puppy they’re getting or to collaborate on a giant list entitled: Why Florida Brings the USA Down. They will never gather at the door just before the bell and show me how they intend to dance at the prom that night. We won’t meet to discuss “Where are You Going, Where Have You Been” or to do Friday read-arounds from our weekly writing warm ups. They aren’t in the class that makes more allusions to pop culture than literature or the one that randomly brings in cakes to share. Those communities have dispersed permanently. They’ve joined other groups, and I have, too.

Oh sure, we re-connect on social media. That’s a modern day bonus. Some of my former students are in their 40’s now, but in their faces, I still catch a glimpse of the teenagers they used to be and I remember stepping in between one of them and a kid who arrived outside my classroom door to fight him about some long-forgotten girl, or getting my car rear-ended by one when we were out looking for prom venues and laughing so hard, I couldn’t get out to examine the (minor) damage, or hearing one of them tell me about the girl he’d asked to the prom who, all these years later, is his wife.

These memories are fun, but they are also the reason why I refuse to look at yearbooks: Because they seem to capture all the hope teenagers have that they are on the cusp of becoming who we were really meant to be, that life will only get better. That optimism, that naivete, is my undoing. I can’t explain it anymore than I can explain my aversion to the Macy’s Day Thanksgiving Parade. Perhaps it’s that, at least in the case of yearbooks, I don’t like knowing what’s ahead when once upon a time, we were all filled with such promise.

Sometimes, I think I see my former students in the halls. A familiar posture. A similar profile. A hair color. A shirt I recognize. But no. They won’t be here again peering into their lockers or climbing the stairs to the science pod. They have moved on, exactly as we are all meant to do.

This year, my own daughter’s image might haunt the halls of her high school, a community she also left this June with the attendant pomp and circumstance. She is so excited for what’s ahead, so ready to be done with high school. And I? I’ll be here, of course, exactly where she left me except in a very different world.

You’re Only As Old As (Things Make You) Feel

bikini beach

And, okay, so this is not exactly how I go to the beach these days. Now, for example, my camera is digital.

People say they don’t feel whatever age they are. I get that. I look in the mirror, mentally taking note of myself on the morning of my birthday. I slip into the same clothes I wore yesterday, or last winter, or the year my oldest daughter was born. 53 doesn’t feel any different than 52, which didn’t feel any different than 51, etc. etc. I still like to dance. I can be silly, especially during faculty meetings when it is impossible not to whisper comments under my breath to my colleagues. I’ve been known to throw a recent tantrum or two. I haven’t ever cured myself of my fear of spiders. I will treat myself to a frosted gingerbread man at the grocery store.

Of course, people also say: It’s not the number! These are people whose own numbers are greater than, say, 40. But it really isn’t 53 that makes me feel old; it’s any one of the following:

  • My daughters sing songs whose lyrics offend me, or
  • I say, “How can you like this song? I can’t understand a word they’re saying.”
  • My students don’t get my references to: Jeffrey Dahmer; quarter to an hour; the Royal “we”; Seinfeld; drinking the Kool Aid. Kool Aid.
  • I wear American Eagle jeans (because otherwise I would have spent hours in the store doing nothing while my daughters shopped) and my students say, “Oh my god! You’re wearing American Eagle jeans!”
  • I hate backing out of parking spaces.
  • I have to scroll down, and keep scrolling, and scroll a little more on the pull down menu to enter the year of my birth.
  • Immediately after getting my hair cut and colored, I run several errands in very crowded places where I meet dozens of people I know and I’m feeling pretty good-looking except that as soon as I get home, I notice that my sideburns are painted so black, I look like a very amateur Elvis impersonator. Like a very old, amateur Elvis impersonator.
  • Mornings, when I first stand on my ankles, they hurt.
  • Mornings, when I wonder why my butt is so sore, I hope it’s because the day before I did a few squats. But then I realize: Nope. Just pulled a few weeds.
  • I panic when I don’t have a pair of reading glasses (except, of course, the ones on my head).
  • When I get my alumni magazine and flip to the back page to catch up on Class News, I discover that my graduating class’s column has moved much closer to the centerfold.
  • I suggest someone rent the DVD.
  • I always forget to click the full screen option.
  • When I am finally reminded to click full screen, I fail to move the cursor off the full screen so that it points directly into the actor’s nostril.
  • Autocorrect.
  • Autoformat.
  • Texting with any kind of speed or accuracy BUT being able to type without looking at the keys! (Thank you, 7th grade typing teacher with her ASDFJKL: space drills and Christmas tree puzzles).
  • Y2K feels like something that happened in the 80’s.
  • I have no idea what kind of shoes to wear with skinny jeans.
  • I wear clogs. I like clogs.
  • One of my students says, “Hey, did you know that there was once a skater from Massachusetts who was attacked by another skater right before the Olympics?” His classmates gasp and say, “NO! What happened?” and he says, “Well, it was a long time ago.”
  • Everyone adheres to random rules of capitalization. Also, of the apostrophe.
  • I realize how many times I tell my family to look at how cute the cat is.
  • The doctor walks into the examining room and I say, “Christ, Doogie Howser,” and s/he says, “Who?”
  • I tell people I don’t drink water and they warn me how close I am to death and I say, “We didn’t have water when I was a kid.”
  • My former students turn 40.
  • My former students turn 47.
  • Some of my friends are grandparents.
  • No cat in my neighborhood ever has a litter of kittens.
  • I can’t recognize people in the photos from my latest high school reunion. In fact, I can’t even remember who was in my class in high school.
  • I wonder whatever happened to Riunite. To Boone’s Farm. To Red, White, and Blue Beer. To Peppermint Schnapps. To Zarex.
  • I understand that it’s really true: Things do come back in style (legwarmers?!).
  • Tattoos have no allure. None. Zero. Not for free. Not if someone gave me four million dollars to get one. Not if they’re on an impossibly bulging bicep. (Bulging biceps do still have an allure but it feels very creepy to admit this.)
  • In certain restaurants, it is impossible to see the menu.
  • I pluck my eyebrows all by myself. Look, kids: No waxing!
  • I can eat gluten.
  • I LIKE the skirt on my bathing suit, thank-you very much.
  • Movies are, like, really, really loud.
  • I will drive quite a distance for 100 percent cotton underwear whose lines might or might not be visible through my pants.
  • I hear other adults saying things like, “That’s a force,” and I cringe.
  • I think, “That’s a force,” is a really stupid thing to say even if you’re not an adult.
  • I get up to go to work and my RETIRED husband doesn’t.
  • My RETIRED husband does the grocery shopping.
  • My RETIRED husband.
  • No one in my friend group is ever too broke to do stuff. Just too tired.
  • I haven’t bought a really sparkly party dress in a long, long time. Long time.
  • And even if I did, I’d have to wear it with my clogs.

The Shortest Days

1Hard to believe you, December, season of evergreens, of oak leaves shriveled, but tenacious. I’ve been walking without a coat. Haven’t begun the seasonal mitten matching quest. We’re doing our part in this charade. We’ve dug root vegetables, lit the woodstove. This week, Dennis bought an ice scraper at the grocery store, just in case, though this gesture seemed apologetic. A few days ago, I bought a birdfeeder that sticks to the window, a television for the cats, I thought, and we filled it with seeds that have gone untouched ever since. The birds are too busy bathing in the puddle at the end of my neighbor’s driveway, too full of sluggish insects and winter moths to eat seeds. It’s kind of like me still wearing the kinds of shoes I can wear without socks. Winter is so long — when it finally arrives — you get tired of certain things. Foods and fashions. Why not delay the inevitable boredom, the relentless sameness of the season?

My father’s winter clothes: striped overalls over his usual work clothes (dark green Dickies, blue short sleeve shirt, crewneck sweatshirt);a hooded sweatshirt tied tight over a stocking cap; felt boots. Underneath the layers, he weighed under 140 pounds. He hated the cold. His birthday was the second, but he was an impossible man to buy for. Bags of Canada mints. Work gloves. Old Spice. And he wouldn’t feel much like celebrating.

December, you were different then. Inside, my mother changed curtains and bedspreads. She made polenta and beef stew.

Outside, cows’ coats thickened, hair sprouting over their polls like clownish toupees. The dogs moved into the hayloft at night. Some mornings, a lacework of ice in the waterbowls. Some of the barn’s broken windowpanes would be boarded up with old panelling, but as we walked past others with biscuits of hay for heifers stuck inside now, you blew at us your reminder: Yoohoo. I’m out here. You’ll miss me when January comes.

Most afternoons, I sat inside at the kitchen table doing my homework, my stomach knotted as I awaited the sound of a car down the lane, a car that would deposit one high school boy or another to do the night milking. As often as they did show up, they didn’t, and eventually, my mother would stand peering out into the darkness and say, “I guess you’d better get out there.” The short days meant getting the cows up in the dark. No electricity, god forbid, in any barn, and the freestall, where we had to drive the cows away from the new silage and up to the parlor, seemed acres away from the light bulb that burned over the house’s back door.

You wouldn’t have recognized me, December. I was too unprepared for you then, too convinced there was nothing to do against you. Inside my unlined rubber boots, my toes froze. My legs grew numb beneath my jeans and long johns. Each time I slid the barn door open to let in more milkers, my hands ached with cold, the door sticking in slushy ruts. Cows’ breath steamed windowpanes. So many of them, I dreaded counting groups. There were always so many more waiting to be tended to.

Oh, December. What we wouldn’t have given for you then. A mild month for new calves. We could have kept our sleeves rolled up and not have soaked our cuffs that froze and burned the white skin at our wrists. The cows would have lingered in their pastures and that would have been a good walk. Moonlight, mist, the illusion of spring.

But we were both very different then.

I wish I could say you had been less ominous.

I wish I could say I went uncomplainingly those nights, that I appreciated how dark the sky was there, how many stars shone over the silos. I wish I could say that I understood that those hours of working on that place and beside that man who, despite the exhaustion he must have felt, was much more liable to burst out into a Dean Martin song in the middle of milking as he was to complain about being cold and tired, would not last. But I’m a slow learner. The year concluded with you, December. This, of course, I understood, but I it didn’t make me understand how many other things were destined to end as well.

 

Septembers This September Reminds Me Of

September Salt Marsh

September Salt Marsh

Spent part of Labor Day weekend at the Steep Hill Beach. For the two summers we had it, we anchored our little boat, All the Best, here. Funny to think of Dennis on the beach for a few hours now. Dennis who doesn’t like the sun or to sit still. The girls in life jackets for the trip out through the river. A cooler, a net bag of sand toys. Today only Apphia is with me, sunning herself with her friend May. I’m the restless one.

Pulled weeds in the driveway yesterday and wondered: how did they get this bad? So many mornings, as I waited for the bus with the girls, I pulled the grass and wild oregano that had trespassed into the gravel. Other days, we played tag. We put the finishing touches on high ponytails.

5:30 AM, Bella and I walk. I used to set my alarm, instead, to write a few minutes before my new job began. How to teach full time and write? That was a question ten years ago and still.

First Day of Kindergarten for Beatrice. Here with the send-off committee.

First Day of kindergarten for Beatrice. Here with the send-off committee. 2003

Pine Grove’s driveway helps me extend the morning walk to the two miles that feels passable. I pushed the double stroller along this same route on September 11, 2001, to drop Beatrice off for her first day at preschool while her sisters watched, oblivious. Was Beatrice, though? She cried so hard when the teacher carried her inside, and I thought: why not just take her home? Why let any of them out of my sight today?

Dennis turns sixty this month. When he turned 40, we had lived here a few weeks, would be getting married on the last day of the month. At the last minute, I called friends (I used an address book!!, one he’d had since the 70’s) and family. Said nothing to him. All day, they trickled up the driveway, his parents and siblings, his friends, my family. Each time, he stared at them and said, “What are you doing here?” They met the goat, petted the horse. Riley swiped food off plates; Daisy cowered beside one of us.

For his 50th we had a tent. His southshore cousins rented a van. By 8PM, he had his first (and last) migraine, rose after everyone but Tony and his nephew Michael had left, tucked into the leftovers, the coolers of beer.

This year, a smaller gathering where he will give garden tours and then the food, the coolers of beer.

I painted a wall with chalkboard paint to keep track of their soccer games and Dennis and I, applying our best reasoning skills, determined which games I would attend, which ones he would, which ones we’d have to rely on carpools for. Now, when both JV and varsity are home, he moves his chair from one field to the other, half a game each. I stand on the football practice field where I can see both and where, at the end of cross country practice, Beatrice’s team will warm down on the outskirts of where her sisters play, the salt marsh changing colors behind them.

This is always the time of year for flies to find their way inside.

One September, the dog’s cancer returned.

Our first fall on Cross Street, 1995. Daisy still a puppy; Riley alert for dogs who incorrectly assume this is their neighborhood.

Our first fall on Cross Street, 1995. Daisy still a puppy; Riley alert for dogs who incorrectly assume this is their neighborhood.

We recorded Patriots games on the VCR and spent warm Sundays working outside. Tore up a front yard’s worth of forsythias that refused to bloom, shoveled up the macadam from the driveway to replace it with gravel, brought the horse and the dogs out to the trails beyond Kittery Ave. Bill Parcells had just become coach. The Krafts had bought the franchise and promised great things. We drafted Drew Bledsoe and, when he was sidelined by a hit that sheared his blood vessels, we didn’t hurry in to watch some kid named Tom Brady’s first game under center. These days, we let the outside work wait a few more hours.

After a soccer game, I stop at Cider Hill for apples. The stand is abandoned so I bring my money to the ice cream window where the girl says I can leave whatever I think is fair; the woman who runs the orchard has gone for the day. This is the woman, I’m sure, who hosted Justina’s third birthday there, who offered me a dozen pumpkins for a dollar apiece. I bought magic markers and googly eyes, Elmer’s, picked up a cake at Market Basket and invited any of the nursery school kids who could make it. We had a hayride out to the orchard where we picked apples and then we sat and ate cake, colored pumpkins, shooed away yellow jackets.

1995

1995

We got married on the last day of September twenty years ago. This rainy day is nothing like that sunny one. Tonight, no dancing. Dennis cleans the chimney. I’m waiting for the girls to come home to a house that seemed so full of noise just a little while ago.

Every September is back to school. Yellow school buses. The surprise, no matter how inevitable, of the first yellow leaves, of the darkness coming earlier. Cold mornings that turn into warm days. The flattened remains of coiled snakes who come onto the blacktop at night to stay warm and aren’t quick enough to avoid harm. Saturday yard sales. Forgetting how brief apple season lasts. Checking the dates for the Topsfield Fair. Septembers that remind us of other Septembers. Septembers that go on as if it matters little what images they leave us with.

Storykeepers

The Dolomite Mountains, Italy

One August, I was driving in Maine, heading north to raft on the Penobscot. In a culvert on the side of the road, stood a young moose. We could get out of the car and stare at him as he was so far below us, there was no danger, and I thought: I can’t wait to tell my father about this.

My father had died the April before, however, and this moment made me understand all the things I’d have to store up to share with him one day if we do meet again.

Maybe I had always seen the things he would want me to pay attention to: roadside flowers, birds, cloud patterns. Maybe, even if he had lived to be 200, as he promised me he would, I would still pause at a stream in hopes of spotting the beavers at work, or sit outside a snake hole with my daughter waiting for the creature to give us a glance, or stand at a meadow waiting for yellow finches to burst out of the grass. Or maybe, in his absence, these are the things I study because he can not.

From this loss, in part, I have derived a great deal of poetry.

But I am also a storyteller and, if my father was home waiting for me yesterday, I would have had a story for him. About how I had lunch with cousins, some of whom I’d never met. And, mostly, about how these cousins wanted to know where we all came from. That the story of his family mattered to them. I know he would have liked that.

I was twenty-eight when my father died and not as devoted to my writing as I might have been, but I am older now, and this is what I’ve learned after several decades of writing and a couple of teaching: human beings love stories. We have, since the beginning of time, sat around the fire narrating the events of our days. We have etched them out on the walls of caves, have put them to music, have, ultimately, written them down. Stories connect us.

So it should be no surprise, should it, that one woman might have heard a story about how her grandmother died and that, wanting her own,  more substantiated version, she spent several years compiling the history of a family? What makes a story good, after all, is how we can’t predict where it will take us.

For my own daughters who never knew my father, I try to bring him to life. Show them pictures, of course. Tell them what it was like to work beside him. For a few years, they even joined a 4-H club and learned to halterbreak heifers. “You know what my father would have said?” I say, sometimes, when they do something. Of course they don’t. Maybe they have a few facts: he loved maple walnut ice cream; he owned one of the most famous bulls in the history of dairy farming; his voice was so hoarse, most people couldn’t understand him. These are what writers call character details. Small strokes, but no complexity.

Still, they have more than what I have of my own grandparents. I know that my grandfather, Angelo, was such a good stonecutter/carver, he could cut more letters into granite than any other cutter at the quarry. My grandmother planted a white rose bush in front of the house. No food my father ate after she died tasted as good as when she made it. She made rugs out of rags. Always kept a pot of soup on the stove. When my father and his brother were done with the milk route, they climbed out of the wagon at the schoolhouse and the horses walked home alone, my grandmother and her sister waiting for them at the end of the lane to remove their harnesses. It is, essentially, a series of video clips that plays in my head when I think of them, but no real film.

Yesterday, I want to tell my father, I added what I could add. I saw a picture of my grandmother, Giovanna, as a young woman, for example. I didn’t have to peer at a blurry group shot of her and her large family. I could study her face. Look right into her eyes. I could see that she was the tallest of her sisters, as tall as some of her brothers. But I couldn’t see my father in her.

I learned that my great-grandfather made nails out of the iron mined in the Dolomites where they were from. Supported his wife and fourteen children. That the Zoldani, my father’s people, were noted for their nail-making. I saw a picture of my great-grandmother when she was very old, a woman used to the hard life of that place.

And I saw a picture of my father as a very young boy (so young, in fact, he was wearing a dress. This, I would especially like to tell him.). He stood with his grandmother on a spot of grass that would one day be where he and his brother built a garage out of wood that washed ashore after the Hurricane of ‘38. He had a bowl cut, straight hair that surprised me. His dark eyes looked suspiciously at the photographer. Even then, I thought, a tough guy to please. My father as a toddler, reaching up to hold tight to his grandmother’s hand. You’d think it impossible until you remember: I am in the middle of a story and in a story, anything might happen.

Lake Summers

Halfmoon Pond, Summer 2004

Halfmoon Pond, Summer 2004

I am working on a poem about how quickly time passes. And I am working during a summer when my own children don’t particularly need me except for rides to work, captains’ practices, firepits in someone else’s back yard.

We spent last week on Lake Winnisquam. The girls brought friends. They sunned themselves on a floating dock, shopped at the nearby outlets, made their own breakfasts and lunches, recorded every moment with Go Pro’s and IPhones. Posted. Liked. Shared. I kayaked alone and walked three miles a day seeking different routes filled with things to put in my poem: a hunting hawk, wind shifts on the water, the memories of other summers.

We tried the Cape first. A friend had a place in Wellfleet and assured us there was plenty of room. There was, but it was not the kind of room suitable for two young children. A woodstove sat atop a brick hearth whose sharp edges seven month old Apphia rolled towards. Someone without children had removed the door from the stairway, and we finally had to upturn the kitchen table across the threshold to keep Beatrice, 2, from plunging down them. The children’s rooms were at the bottom of those stairs, two floors away from where we would be sleeping and with sliding doors that led out to a wooded area and that didn’t lock securely.

A trip to the beach required a $50 beach pass, packing up, and arriving early to get a parking spot. Then, we hiked all of our stuff over dunes and settled down so that one of us could pry the sand out of Apphia’s fists and the other could follow Beatrice from blanket to blanket to shore. Our friend sat in the shade flipping through People magazine.

At night, instead of putting the girls to bed where we couldn’t hear them, we crammed two pack n’ plays into our bedroom and tried to get our usually independent sleepers to drift off. After a few hours of this, we listened to them scream.

We had one day to use our beach pass. Then, for the next six days, it poured. Let’s go to breakfast, we said. So did everyone else on the Cape that week. Let’s go shopping we said. So did everyone else on the Cape that week.

Let’s rent a house on a lake next time, I said. And we did. And we discovered Half Moon Pond.

Our house was the only rental on the lake that was Boston University’s adventure camp. Each misty morning, as my daughters stood naked at the edge of the water, the campers paddled by on their way to the ropes course or a hiking trail or a zip line that plunged them into a culvert where snakes sunned themselves on ledges. I did spend a few mornings wondering where the arts and crafts tent was, but mostly I was engaged in watching the girls wade in, stand still enough for the fish to nuzzle them.

Apphia and Beatrice, Summer 2002

Apphia and Beatrice, Summer 2002

We spent several years at Half Moon Pond during the first week of August. My mother came and claimed the biggest upstairs room where the girls would drag mattresses into so they could sleep with Nana. In the middle of the night, Apphia would climb into my mother’s twin bed and say, “I thought you might be scared sleeping alone.” Justina ventured off into the woods and had to be retrieved again and again, but she couldn’t go far. Beatrice set up paints on the picnic table and directed the business of art time.

Tony visited and, even though he doesn’t swim, spent hours in the water letting the girls splash him — even the summer it was only fifty degrees. He plunged in with them and then they all ran inside to the fire. Teresa and Peter stopped by with kayaks, the girls perching on the bows as they paddled. Dom took his kids up and showed my girls how to fish. Dennis’s parents came and kept my mother company on the screen porch. Patpat came with her feet bandaged from surgery (and didn’t get too made when Apphia stepped on them).

I plunked my beach chair in the shallow water as the girls played around me (eventually they did wear swimsuits), and read four or five books, wrote some poems. Dennis ran through trails he would later take us on, places where we could see a village of yurts, a stand where you could hold bird seed in your hand and wait for a creature to alight.

Justina, summer 2003

Justina, summer 2003

No television. No wi-fi. Some old puzzles and checker games, a deck of cards. We packed dolls and stuffed animals. One year, Nana brought three one-dollar floats and hours later we had to call the girls in to finally eat something. Every afternoon before dinner, I attached swim bubbles to them and they paddled into the deep water with Dennis. Then they needed only noodles, and, finally, they set off on their own, unafraid and buoyant, as I fretted on shore. After dinner, they rode scooters, then bikes with training wheels, then bikes without, through the camp.

We ate local corn on the cob, Nana’s macaroni and cheese, grinders with salty lettuce, sharp provolone, garden tomatoes. Storms came in over the water and we watched through a dewy window, the lightning flashes over the mountains growing closer and then the forks of it on the water. Fish fed every night in rippling seams. Dragonflies hovered. Snapping turtles popped their heads up like so many pond weeds. We canoed the width and length of the pond, the girls between us on their small lawn chairs until they could paddle themselves.

One summer, Dennis and I left the girls with Nana for a few hours and looked at houses in the area. So many acres, so many rooms, for so little money. Barns and pasture for the horse and goat, a quiet country setting to prolong the kind of peace our week at Half Moon brought us. It seemed possible.

The only thing that seemed impossible, actually, was that the girls would grow up. That, one summer, that tiny pond wouldn’t be enough to entertain them. That, another summer, on another, much larger lake, they would have friends and bikinis and their own spots to tan out on the floating dock. That I would walk a few miles alone and then kayak alone, Dennis running along winding roads instead of forest trails, heading home to tend to his garden. That I’d be writing the kind of poem I couldn’t have written at Half Moon Pond, the girls’ voices floating toward me where I sat in the middle of two worlds.

Dispatch from Somewhere High and Dry

Misquamicut Beach

Misquamicut Beach

At Misquamicut Beach a few days ago, my cousin Sue and I toasted one another at the Andrea which, these days, is a temporary tent ala a MASH unit, set up where the old hotel once stood. Hurricane Sandy left only the original hearth which now sits surrounded by sand, a relic from an ancient civilization. Behind my cousin’s shoulder, the sea rose and fell, lit by some source that might have been as mundane as a streetlight, but whitecaps glowed nonetheless. Why would anyone live anywhere else? I wondered. When you can round a bend and be confronted with the sea?

Today, I have moved inland temporarily, but still I perch beside a lake and raise a glass to a water view. What is it about water that draws me? Especially when the smell of chlorine transports me instantly and miserably, to the cinderblock hallway of the Westerly-Pawcatuck YMCA, the worm of worry crawling through my belly as my mother dragged me to swim lessons.

“I never learned how to swim,” she said. “But you will.”

She had the kind of determination she used unscrewing stubborn jar caps, tight jaw, narrowed eyes. She wanted what was inside and, if forced, she’d smash the goddamned jar rather than admit she couldn’t open it. Knowing this, I bit my lip against any whimpering.

Remember Aquaman? Except for Archie, I hated comics. but my Aunt Nancy reserved one kitchen cabinet for her son Mark’s comic books and when he spread them out on the kitchen floor, I’d seen the blonde muscle man on a cover or two (Mark never allowed me to actually read the books which caused all kinds of trouble when it was time to go home and my mother said, “Clean up.” Let’s just say she wasn’t the only lock-jawed, fist clenching, stubborn female in the family). And that’s who awaited me in the Y pool. Okay, I thought, so I’m terrified of water and I like getting wet about as much as your average housecat. But how bad can lessons be with a superhero?

Pretty bad, as it turns out. This Aquaman treated me like Black Manta. Was it my cowardice? My absolute inability to blow bubbles without water squirting up my nose and burning an expressway to my brain? My wild and useless flailing of limbs as I attempted to make it from one end of the pool to the other without clinging to the buoys? God. I HATED swimming. Years later, I can’t pour bleach into the washing machine without remembering Aquaman’s seething disdain. How easy, he must have thought, to just let go of the hopeless, whiny landlubber whose mother had to fork over extra cash for private lessons because she was too terrified to swim with other, more naturally aquatic kids.

I should have introduced YMCA Aquaman to the swim instructor at Winnapaug Day Camp. Their love of this unforgiving element and their contempt for me would surely have bound them for life. We six year olds took swimming lessons daily in the brackish pond beside one of my father’s rented cornfields (which I looked toward longingly each time we traipsed down the path that led (cue Jaws theme) to the water). Overcast days, drizzly mornings, times when you really had to poop, you had to get in. No wading in and doing the Town Beach sponge bath I perfected later on in life — scoop of water up one arm, then the next, chest pat, return to seat.

“Just get in already,” the instructor said, oozing disgust as I tiptoed past. (Years later, during my first year teaching, one of my students said, “Can I ask you something?” He was a cocky bastard, but on this particular day, he looked truly puzzled. “If someone hated kids, why would they teach?” His question took me right back to that camp counselor).

The dead man’s float in particular eluded me (and by the way, who thinks a good name for an early swim maneuver has the phrase dead man in it?). Finally, Aquaman’s soulmate said, “Why don’t you just go over there and practice.” She motioned towards a reedy patch. A breeze ruffled the surface of the pond, clouds hovered. “Alone.”

Oh, water. How I love your mirror-surface, the “sorrows of your changing face”, the way you give us the sky above, a salt spray, a lullaby, a reminder of the world’s vastness. From a distance, you soothe and inspire. You are mythological, a high priestess, a mesmerizing story teller. And it’s okay, isn’t it, this long-distance intimacy we share? It’s one kind of devotion and it preserves my dignity.

So I sit, this week, observing Lake Winnisquam. Its loons glide by, my daughters and their friends dip and dive and float and kayak. I took my girls for swimming lessons, too, of course. With less of my mother’s grim resolve and more hope that they wade in, dive under, swim out, if that’s what they choose, if that’s what that other world offers them, if they accept that invitation.

And I did learn to swim (I’ve also read up on how to perform a tracheotomy with a bic pen, but I’m not anxious to put that knowledge to the test, either). In fact, during the camp’s final days, I surprised that cranky young water nymph by taking home the Jellyfish Float championship. I’m my mother’s daughter, after all. Push me hard enough and I’ll set my jaw, grit my molars, wrestle with the obstacle at hand to earn some little success.

(And here’s a link to one of my favorite poems, Lament for the Non-swimmers by David Wagoner: http://garmon-okemos.weebly.com/uploads/3/1/1/3/31136891/lament.pdf)

Fat Heifers, Good Teaching, Happy Father’s Day

Rhode Island Black and White Show, Rocky Hill Fairgrounds, 1969. Me with Shelly; My dad looking on (with Tum-A-Lum shirt on).

Rhode Island Black and White Show, Rocky Hill Fairgrounds, 1969. Me with Shelly; My dad looking on (with Tum-A-Lum shirt on). I was supposed to be looking at the judge.

My mother carted me to swim lessons where I refused to get into the pool with other children, and to ballet when I quit after one lesson because the teacher said a word I didn’t recognize: recital. When my sister Barbara Ann picked me up, I asked her to define it. “You dance with all the other children on stage and we come to watch,” she said. End of my interest in that activity. While I cried, my mother packed my lunch for my two week stint at day camp. Around her friends’ children, I clung to her lawn chair and whispered in her ear to take me home.

Defeated, she finally left me alone with my dogs and my books.

Then, my father suggested 4-H. My father, who never suggested anything, really, who just came and went from the barns and the fields, a welcomed and beloved visitor into the everyday struggles my mother faced trying to get me to make friends.

“You have to try this 4-H thing,” my mother said, and then she added the words that sealed the contract: “For your father.”

*    *    *

“Pathways,” my principal said at this week’s faculty meeting. “This is a word you’re going to be hearing a lot about next year.”

Last year it was Successful Habits of Mind. Other years: Standardized Testing; Interdisciplinary Education; Data Driven Instruction; Rigor; Response to Intervention; Alternative Assessment; Collaboration; Project-Based Learning; Understanding by Design. What does powerful learning look like, we are asked? How can we integrate technology into our classrooms? What are some authentic tasks we ask students to perform?

Consultants arrive toting giant-sized post-it notes, markers, a powerpoint with clips to videos they find amusing. “We’re going to do some break-out groups, some pair-shares, a gallery walk, a table-share. We’ll report back.”

When I think I can’t take it one more second, a colleague who truly cares about me says: “Remember what a small percentage of your time in this career is spent in meetings like these.”

*    *    *

I did not quit 4-H. Instead, I learned a great deal. For example, everyone showed calves, not cows. In my father’s world, cows ruled. Clean-boned, pink-uddered behemoths who tested your arm strength and your endurance for a shoulder full of their drool when you showed them. These were famous cows, bovine divas. They were doing you a favor allowing you to clip their rosettes to your back pocket as you walked out past popping flashbulbs. But our calves, those poor progeny, were boneracks, pale shadows of their gorgeous dams and of the beefy calves, round-shouldered with massive throats, that my fellow 4-Hers showed.

Into the microphone, once he’d lined us up, the judge would say: “I’m starting the class today with this big, strong heifer, blah, blah, blah. At the end of the line, a calf that just can’t compete with the size of the animals up front.”

“How do you get your calves to grow so big?” I finally asked, humiliated. They fed their calves milk for the first year, extra grain.

“Grain?” I asked. Meanwhile, my crazy father asked me several times of day: Got that hayrack filled in front of your calf?

My 4-H friends snorted: “Hay doesn’t grow them.” Then they’d glance behind me at the hip bones of my feline-like yearling. “Obviously.”

Oh, the battles I waged to do what other kids did, but my father wouldn’t budge. Two months of milk, he said. Racks full of hay. That’s the way you grow cattle.

“You know what happens to those over-conditioned [farmer-speak for fat] heifers? They grow up with too many fat deposits. Can’t put up an udder. Don’t last. You want a dairy heifer, goddamnit. [By this he meant an animal that will grow up to convert her energy into milk, not meat] No matter what anyone says, that’s never going to change.” Then he stormed off to erect a silo out of a kit.

So I fumed, but I did not win. Not with him. Not against my peers and their decidedly un-dairy heifers.

4-H would be even greater, I thought, if my father would just butt out of it.

*    *    *

This past week, my seniors long gone, I have been preparing for my new role as mentor coordinator. That is, it will be my job next year to assign our new teachers an experienced educator to lead them through their first year in the profession. In an article about classroom management, I read that it’s important to understand what your own bottom-line is. What do you absolutely believe to be true about what is necessary in your classroom? Behaviors? Philosophy? etc.

I stare out the window. Good question, I think. Then: Thanks for asking.

*    *    *

A few years ago, I returned to the fairgrounds. It is both good to be back and heartbreaking. If there is such a thing as ghosts, my father’s is here every August.

In a calf class, I watched the children — even grandchildren — of my former 4-H friends leading their animals around that hot ring. When they lined up, the biggest calf did not win. Instead, the judge chose an angular calf, sharp-shouldered, leggy. Her over-conditioned competition stood much farther down the line, in a spot I was very familiar with.

Into the microphone, the judge said, “I’m starting the class today with this dairy heifer.”

Okay, I said to my father, who, if his ghost was there, was leaning on the rails beside me, sunglasses on, hands clasped before him. He would have picked the winner as the animals milled about outside the ring but he would have waited anyway, see if the judge knew what he was doing. He wouldn’t say, I told you so. He would have looked at me and smiled (he had a beautiful smile) and remind me: “I told you, honey. Your daddy is always right.”

*    *    *

Distilled, my teaching philosophy is this: I want kids to understand the power of language. Maybe this means to love a book, really love a book. Maybe it means to write a poem they didn’t think they could write. Maybe it means listening to a peer read aloud from something so powerful, or so funny, or so honest, that it stays with them long after that stupid tone sounds to end the class period. Tell a story, listen to a story, love a story.

And I want them to love being in my class, to feel safe, valued, a part of the community we get to inhabit for only a few days out of what I hope will be our very long lives.

So this is for you, Dad, who taught me to understand what lasts beyond all trends, to develop an expertise by listening, by watching, by cultivating patience, and then, in the face of all those people who insist they have a better idea, to cling quietly to your own understanding of what will always work.

You Can Get There From Here

It began with Westerly High School Class of 1971’s yearbook. Began with how old yearbooks depress me. Even current ones. (Yearbooks and the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. Don’t ask.) Anyway, those black and white photos of other human beings who considered themselves It. Off to take on the world! Our whole lives ahead forever and ever and ever and ever! Endless effing summer of being the envy of every old woman sniffing cantaloupes at Sandy’s Fruit Stand, of every old man walking into Danny’s for a beer after his softball game. Prom queens then, and prom queens now, class clowns then, and class clowns now. Don’t we all believe (and maybe dread and maybe celebrate) that we’ll always be The Generation? We don’t listen to graduation speeches but we know that, in essence, what the speakers are telling us is that we hold the future in our hands. We always knew this, of course,  and we are selfish with our birthright. We wouldn’t give it away to just any old Most Likely to Succeed to come along. And we look good all polished up for a studio portrait (most of us; again, don’t ask). This is the most important moment to us so far and we can’t imagine others quite so big. We picked out the right sweater, the initial pin clasp; we chose a quote that made us sound either philosophical or like the most inebriated member of our species. Aren’t we clever, we thought, or: Aren’t we sticking it to the man?

The yearbook started me thinking about the music of this generation or that. This reminded me of Mr. Brightside, that song by the Killers which is definitely NOT a song from my generation (I remember someone blasting Hotel California from a boombox powered with several D batteries in the back of the bus coming home from an away football game senior year; I remember kids in study hall (I remember study hall) fighting over the correct lyrics to Stayin’ Alive.) But when I tried to teach one poetry class how powerful disruptive rhyme schemes can be, I told them to listen to Mr. Brightside. Try, I said, to predict what the line that follows “And it’s making me sick.” See what unstated things a real poet can make you hear? I love this song even if it isn’t my generation and even if, had the wrong kid been sitting in that room, I could’ve been called to the principal’s office and subjected to a slightly embarrassing recap/justification of that particular lesson.

And this led me to think about Frankie Valli’s Swearin’ to God song. This is the kind of sugar pop I used to love much to the horror of friends with more discerning tastes (and, yes, Karen Denham, I still stand by my Fifth Dimension fandom). Every time it played on WABC AM radio, I cranked it up and sang along.

The song came out the same summer as Jaws. Remember that summer?

Aunt Rita dropped my cousin Rob off early for the matinee. He was always over when we were kids, but now that was changing, too. I was twelve. He was sixteen. Maybe he had his license, but that wouldn’t have mattered. Who would ever have let us drive a car anywhere? So we walked from the farm to the Jerry Lewis Twin Cinema on Granite Street on a brilliantly sunny day when we should have been at the beach (one last guileless trip before we realized what could happen in an idyllic summer town like ours). I had never been to a horror movie. My friends had wanted to sneak into the Exorcist, but I said, Count me out. I’ll never sleep another wink. Nightstalker paralyzed me, made me a statue in my bed convinced that if the sheets didn’t move, a vampire wouldn’t know I was in there. But there we were, my favorite person in the world at the time and me: on our way to see Jaws.

If it was Rob’s idea to go, I wouldn’t have said no. Especially that summer when the stuff we used to do was out of the question: picnics on Turkey Rock, playing Shoot in the hayloft, reclaiming abandoned calf sheds as our forts. Look at us, all grown up and off to buy a ticket to a scary movie right in the middle of the day! When we got to the theater there were other boys, too. His friends from his neighborhood, one of his Shea cousins. I sat on the end of the aisle, a little heartbroken, and then absorbed, completely transported by the terror that Jaws inspired in a generation that had no idea what special effects could achieve.

Once the movie ended, the sunshine outside the theater did nothing to assuage my terror. The older boys got a ride home. Rob and I walked back towards the farm, a route where great whites might be hiding behind the stone walls and hedges that used to line my street. I don’t remember if we talked about the movie, but I do know I told my mother every detail that night as she stood at the stove and I set the table: And then the head rolled out! And the leg — with his sneaker still in it! — hit the bottom of the ocean!

Every time I hear that Frankie Valli song (, it conjures the first scene of the movie. The naked scene I watched at the end of a row of adolescent boys, boys whose voices had changed, who could grow beards. That song plays and I am back in that theater, wishing Chrissie would stay at the damn party, wondering how I will survive the next two hours, gripping the one armrest I don’t have to share, hoping I can resist screaming.

Rob and I went bowling last summer and, four decades later, it was the kind of fun I remember. There is something of those children left in us, something, too, of those people we were all buffed up for the yearbook photographer. Once, Rob and I swam in a lake where we later learned someone had dumped a pet alligator that had outgrown their bathtub. The state itself was full of cottonmouths. No adults supervised us. We never touched bottom, only treaded water for hours, at the center of our universe, no worries about whatever shared space with us, the future rippling from our young bodies, outward like a song.