Sunday, November 12, 2006

Who was Genevieve Sullivan Markert?

Irish Immigrant Roots

Genevieve Sullivan Markert is my mother. She was the granddaughter of Irish immigrants. Her grandfather, Owen Sullivan, immigrated to New York from the Lakes of Killarney County, Kerry, Ireland, in the 1840s. He was a poet and ballad singer and came to America during what was called “the second wave of Irish immigrants,” those who emigrated from Ireland because of the economic depression caused by the potato famine of 1845. Initially, he took whatever work he could. Eventually, he owned a livery stable, a trade he learned in Galway, Ireland. Soon after the Civil War, Owen Sullivan left New York with his young bride, Mary O’Neil, a school teacher, who was born in 1824 in Kerry county Ireland. They were married in Windsor, Ontario, Canada. They traveled west in a covered wagon and built a log cabin on the edge of a wooded area near St. Paul, Minnesota, where Owen worked in a lumber camp. Owen and Mary Sullivan gave birth to nine children, including our grandfather Jeremiah and his twin brother Alexander, who were the second youngest of the children. Owen and Mary Sullivan moved several times, each time improving their economic status. Eventually, they were able to procure their own farm through the Homestead Act, which was passed in 1862 to encourage settlers who were penetrating the wilderness to establish farms and create a sturdy social and economic base for communities. The Sullivans were part of the western movement of the 19th century. Farms were easy to acquire. Government land after 1820 could be bought for $1.25 for a half hectare. After the Homestead Act, could be claimed by merely occupying and improving it. In addition, tools for working the land were easily available. Living conditions were difficult on the prairies of Minnesota, however. There were no railroads or highways and the covered wagons followed the Indian trails. Mom’s grandmother, Mary Sullivan, was a strong, independent and visionary woman. Among her few material possessions was a box of books which, as a teacher, she used to teach her children to read and enjoy. Tragically, Owen died when the twins were only seven years old. At that point, Mary moved the family back to St. Paul and enrolled the children in the Jesuit school. Many years later they returned to the prairie, which was developing rapidly.

Mom's Parents Meet and Start a Family

The railroads were now crisscrossing the west and with them came throngs of easterners seeking adventure and a new life. Among them were a young Irish immigrant couple, Roderick and Mary McConnell Beaton, and their only child, Mary. Mary McConnell had left her white-washed cottage in County Monahan, Ireland, to come to America with her brothers at the age of sixteen to earn a living. Through her brothers she met Roderick, a farmer from Nova Scotia, who left country life for a job in the city of Belmont, Massachusetts. Roderick and Mary soon married and gave birth to their daughter, Mary Beaton. Since earning a living was difficult in the city, the Beatons pioneered west and took a homestead next to a railroad station in St. Paul. In 1896 Mary Beaton, at age 16, married Jeremiah Sullivan in Brewster, Minnesota. They took a new homestead which they farmed so successfully that Jeremiah was eventually able purchase a bank in Heron Lake and move the family into town. The farm then became a summer residence. The town home was large and had its own private tennis court. Mom became an accomplished tennis player and violinist. However, when the Stock Market crashed on October 29, 1929, Jeremiah lost his bank and moved the family back to the farm.

Jeremiah and Mary Beaton Sullivan had eleven Children: Mary, who remained single and worked a long career as a secretary with the railroad; Geraldine, who married William DeMuth, an express agent in Mankato, and with him had four children: Robert, Mary Francis, Leo and Janie; Dorothy, who married Peter Reuter, an electrical engineer in Newton Center, Massachusetts, and with him had three daughter: Ann, Dorothy Jane and Jacqueline; Roderick, an immigration service agent, who married Hanahan and lived in Milwaukee, Wisconsin and had two children: James and Sharon; Genevieve Elizabeth, our mother; Eleanor Louise, who remained single and became a bank vice-president in Anchorage, Alaska; Sylvester, who married Delphine Lurchin and remained farming the family farm in Heron Lake, Minnesota, having one daughter, Nancy; John, who became a Captain in the army and married Lucille Rostomeny and had three children: Michael, Jeremiah and Thomas; Katherine, who married Russell Schmidt, a radio researcher in Newark, New Jersey, and had three children: Mary Margaret, Katherine and Johnny; and Helen, the youngest, who married John Pappas, an accountant in Anchorage, Alaska, and had two sons, Nick and Chris.

Childhood, Adolescence and Youg Adulthood

Mom grew up on the farm until she was eight years old. She told stories of her early days on the farm when the Indians would come and go through the farm fields, which were probably ancient hunting paths for them, and clothes would disappear from the line and her mom’s apple pies would disappear from the window sills where she was cooling them off. When a cloud of dust was seen in the horizon, things had to be secured down. Though the Indians never hurt anyone, her father and brothers were always ready with their rifles. After the Indians passed by on their trips back from buffalo hunting, the pies and clothes were put back out!

When mom was eight the family moved to town so that she and her brothers and sisters could go to school. Her father worked as a banker and as postmaster in the post office. Mom eventually graduated from Heron Lake High School where she was the valedictorian of her class. She attended Saint Teresa’s College in Winona, Minnesota, for a brief period, and then transferred to Loretta Heights College in Denver, Colorado, where she studied nursing. After a year of study at Loretta Heights, she returned home because she was diagnosed with a weak heart and the staff thought the high altitude was unsafe for her. She taught school in Heron Lake for a year with the Sisters of Saint Francis before transferring to the University of Minnesota where she lived and worked at the Settlement House while continuing her studies in the teacher training program. During this period she sustained her high level of academic achievement while becoming accomplished at both tennis and the violin. She was also writing poems, many of which she entered into her college composition book along with her class notes and essays or typed on small pieces of paper.

Mom Meets Dad

When mom was about to graduate as a teacher from the University of Minnesota, she went on a blind date arranged by her classmate, who happened to be a friend of a gentleman named Julius Markert. Either mom’s friend did not want to go alone or dad’s friend asked her if she knew someone whom his friend Julius could take as a date so they cold go as a group. The arrangements were made and dad purchased and sent mom tickets to the opera in Saint Paul. They were to meet at the coffee shop next to the opera theater. Dad and his friend were late, however, so mom and her friend, being independent and wanting to be on time for the show, went on in, telling the ticket man that two men would soon be coming and showing him their tickets. After the show, dad was so impressed with mom that he asked her to go on a canoe ride the next day, which was a Sunday. They canoed down a local river to a picnic area, with dad being the “total gentleman,” holding her hand and helping her in and out of the canoe. Mom later told us, at her 85th birthday, I think, that they “had a wonderful time” and there was a definite “spark” between them, though she did think dad was a bit on the bold side to ask her out again so quickly. There was urgency to the moment, however, for dad had a job offer in Boston to work as a social worker and had to leave within a few days. During the Depression Years, a job of that stature was a major accomplishment. He wrote to mom from Boston at least once a week, and often more frequently. They corresponded for about a year when, on opening his letter one day, mom was surprised and elated to read dad’s proposal for marriage. He wanted to come out to Minnesota for the wedding then bring her back to Boston to raise a family.

On June 16, 1930, mom and dad were married at Sacred Heart Church in Heron Lake, Minnesota. This was not a marriage blessed by Irish eyes, however. In those days the Irish were not fond of the Germans and vise versa. None of dad’s family attended the wedding. Dad stayed in the upstairs bedroom and mom downstairs. It was just as well they started a new life out of Minnesota. They drove on their honeymoon to Boston, stopping along the way at many resorts in the Appalachian Mountains. When they reached the east coast, they settled down in a small white house in Marblehead, Massachusetts, just a block from the beach. Dad was working as a Social Worker with the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children in the North Shore district of Boston. They lived in that small white house for a year, then moved to a cozy little house in Beverly, also near a beach, to make room for the birth of their first child, Mary, in 1931.

Over the course of the next fifteen years, mom went on to have the rest of us—nine in all! Mary’s autobiography written in 1946 at age 15 gives a moving account of these years. Mom and dad moved many times around the Boston area, always keeping us close to the sea and conveying their values about God, nature, education, work and the family to us. In 1941 they moved to Newport, Rhode Island, when dad took on a new position as director of the USO. They continued to maintain their focus on us, always modeling the highest standards of integrity and maintaining their commitment to our development through their self-sacrifice, hard work and unfaltering love for us and for one another. During this time, too, mom wrote poems, this time not typed or in a student notebook but usually scratched hastily on scrapes of paper and between chores, then tucked away quietly away, saved and hidden over the years--- maybe unseen by anyone, even dad and us, until now perhaps, or upon her death, when we began sorting through her very few possessions. She had a pioneer spirit to the end, like her mother and grandmother, being always ready to pick up stakes and move on, never getting overly attached to material things. To her, “things are just things,” to be taken care of, but dispensable and replaceable.

Louis F. Markert, Ph.D.
Fifth Son, Eighth Born

November 19, 2006

Monday, October 30, 2006

Viewing Genevieve's Poems in a Literary and Historical Context

Poetry presents a spirit-voice that orders reality around it. The poet both apprehends reality as it is and projects his or her own inner state onto the external world. In her poems, mom weaves, tucks and tufts her mind into images of the world around her. She presents situations that reveal the inner beauty and essence of things, as, for example, in The Mystery of Spring when she writes of a tree coming alive again in May after a long cold winter on the harsh Minnesota prairie:

Its arms to the dancing blue and its eyes to snow-capped heights,
And toes deep clinging to the prairie soil,
It grew—a radiant Peach Tree—in tender tones singing
The mystery of spring, the beauty of love,
‘Til everyone could know,
The joy of a peach tree aglow.

Through her poems mom expresses her relationship with herself and her world, a relationship of intuitive creativeness, where her poetry serves as both a vehicle for bonding and communicating and as a device to protect. She can hide her true feelings in poems, conceal her thoughts in images neatly arranged to stand on their own—stand even as they have in her case silent on scraps of paper for over 80 years!

The American poet, Marianne Moore, said, “Poetry provides a place for the genuine…creates imaginary gardens with toads in them.” In general, mom’s poems present two general outlooks: the devotional sentiments of her Catholic faith and the creative free-wheeling imagination of her poetic spirit. Although mom’s poems were written just after WWI, during the wild, rebellious jazz age of the Roaring 20s, through the Great Depression years, and during and after WWII—a period when many prominent British and American poets were expressing uncertainty over a cold tension-filled universe bereft of order, design and purpose—mom maintained an unwavering faith and optimism in God and the natural order of things. If she felt any doubts or ambivalence, it was only about the decisions of human leadership, particularly political and military leaders who were too willing to send our nation’s—or any nation’s—young off to war, as expressed in Mark Ye, Men of War and Political Fame and Between Two Fronts.

For her there is always a logical structure and explanation to things. She expressed and reinforced this belief through the themes, structure, diction, settings and imagery of her poems. These are not the expressions of someone whose soul is wracked by doubt and anxiety and who is now drifting without purpose or destination, as many young restless writers her generation—called “the lost generation”—became when they gathered in Paris after World War I in a desperate search for a fun and a faith to believe in. F. Scott Fitzgerald, author of The Great Gatsby, was one of these restless souls. So was Ernest Hemingway, who wrote about them in his first novel, The Sun Also Rises. Rather, mom’s poems are the statements of someone very clear about who she is, where she is and where she is going. Raphael, Gifts of a Woman and Song of Life are just three of several poems that articulate her clear sense of identity, place and direction.

Mom’s poetic spirit was akin to that of Emily Dickinson's, a 19th century poet who lived in solitude and wrote lyrically of love, nature, death and eternity, and whose works weren’t published until after her death and Robert Frost, America’s most popular poet of the 20th century. Frost found inspiration in the ordinary things around him—the landscape, a stone wall, paths in the woods, a snowy evening, a farmhouse—and regarded poetry as something that” begins in delight and ends in wisdom—is a momentary stay against confusion.” Though Frost’s style of poetry reflected the romantic style of the1800’s, whose themes depicted man and nature living in harmony with each, his actual themes depicted more of a split between man and nature. Nature’s meanings and secrets remained mysteries to man, so serenity was achieved, not in understanding nature’s secrets but in simply appreciating them and toiling productively and usefully amid the external forces of nature. To Frost, we are sustained and nourished by “significant toil.” Mom’s poem, Be Strong, captures this work ethic:

We are not here to play, to dream, to drift.
We have hard work to do and loads to

Like Frost, mom highlighted her relationship with ordinary things. Her poetry advocates an active life over the passive and suggests the tenacity necessary for victory over life’s struggles, a tenacity equal to the iron grip of a honeysuckle tendril. It conveys an attitude of someone in complete touch with her environment, complete absorption in the moment, and complete acceptance and enjoyment of the absolute. It presents an affirmation of life’s mystery and beauty, and not an attempt to understand it. Again in The Mystery of Spring, she captures this Frost-type element:

Still, no one knew from a mere glimpse of this tree
What sort of friend it might someday be.

Though mom knew struggle from her years growing up on the farm and raising a family through the depression, the dominant feeling of her poetry is optimism and appreciation for life and the life potential of nature. She saw images and heard sounds of beauty all around her, as expressed in these lines from Sunset:

Warm downy clouds aglow with light,
Above and beyond green lacy trees
Ever shading from greys to purplish –pink to white…
The chirp, chirp of a bird/
And a dark flash ‘gainst the sky
The crying laughter of children
In the yard nearby…

Mom’s response to nature was visceral and spiritual. Her poems about nature, like her devotional poems, were expressions of faith in the purpose and design of the universe, of a belief that God guides all living things—man and birds alike, flowers, trees and the ebb and flow of the sea. Her belief was not a blind, mindless one, but a philosophical questioning and wondering, a philosophy of being part of the earth, one based on the premise that nature is truth. If she had a wish to escape or retreat, it was to this aspect of nature, and not simply to be free of suffering and pain. For mom a visit to the sea is a return to our origins. We leave our troubles behind, are comforted and awed by sea life, regain on the dunes and the edge of the surf our true perspective. This was the attitude behind her spending days upon days with us at the beach: keeping herself and her sons and daughters connected to their place in the universe. She knew the practical value of a day at the beach, too. After romping all day in the sand and surf, we ate well when we got home and slept well at night!

For mom as for many poets, the physical world corresponds to the inner world. Her life is bound with the life of nature. As a child growing up on a farm, it is natural for her to feel the mighty power behind life’s shifting scenes and mysteries….the ebbing and flowing, waxing and waning, being born and dying. Her poetry is marked by the language of yearly decay and the yearly renewal of life. If she felt inner turmoil and restlessness at night, she expressed this mood through the image of shrouded red beacons of lights passing through the pulled curtains from the distant shore, as in her poem Perspective:

Through the darkened curtains of night,
Two red beacons of the air,
On the distant shore,
Keep their lonely vigil with my fingers,
While I “tune in” with God

Mom believed in the larger and enduring unity behind the specifics of life and death. For her, death is the point at which we pass into the eternal spring, the eternal now, the world of infinite life and eternal affirmation and splendor. It is a return to the source of all beauty. Her poetry, however, is not just serious or prayerful or political. There is a light and playful side, too, perhaps the natural Irish wit and humor, the twinkle in the eye, that we all enjoyed along side her sense of devotion and discipline. This playful, free spirit is captured most beautifully in the poem, The Little Knife:

I’m a powerful thing,” said the Little Knife.
“How is that?” asked the Oak’s jealous wife.
“While others must sing and dance for their life,
I just cut and cut,” said the Little Knife.

“You silly thing!” sang the tree so tall.
“How could powerful be such a thing so small?
You’re not strong or big like me,
Nor up in the winds and always free.
You can’t wave your arms or bend your knees.
You can’t dance with the wind whenever you please!
What a powerful thing, indeed!” laughed the tall tree’s wife.
“You’ll know when I cut!” warned the Little knife

This poem moves on, logically, lyrically, delightfully to a fitting end. It provides in combination with the poems below a rare glimpse into a perspective that bridges and transcends nearly forty years.

Since most of mom’s poems were undated and written on fragments of paper, it is impossible to place them into an exact time frame. Collectively, however, they provide an inspiring view of the spirit of a remarkable person who, in the midst of keeping step with the events of her time, moving from house to house and city to city, and raising nine children, found a way to create, over the years, maybe one day between kitchen chores or one evening after the children were asleep, “a momentary stay against confusion.” In putting down her thoughts neatly into words and rhymes and sentences and lines, mom ordered her world. She found in that order reflections of the love and beauty and peace and purpose that already existed deep within her, and all around her, from her days as a child on the prairie in Minnesota in the early 1900s to her very last days in California in 1997, where, alongside a rose garden, beneath a towering eucalyptus grove, amidst the vast and beautiful and fertile fields and orchards of California’s Central Valley, in the shadows of the spectacular High Sierras—where giant Sequoias really do “dance with the wind” whenever they please—mom passed into her Eternal Spring, returned to the Source of All Beauty.

Sunday, October 29, 2006

Song of Life

Dearest forever, I’d give my life away,
I’d ask you never, for e’en one little day,
Yours just to do with as you pleased,
Yours til the life in it has ceased,
For I trust you in everything you do.
My strength—I’d give you all I have,
My heart for only you would beat,
And all my prayers be your retreat,
For all my love then to atone,
For I trust you in everything I do.
(Early 1920s)

This undated poem was typed with a stanza format, internal and line- ending rhyming, plus two conventional poetic word usages, (“e’en” for even, “til” for until), that makes me think mom wrote it while she was a student studying poetry (or music, since she called it “Song of Life”). Its theme is the classic “Bride of Christ” theme, expressing the total commitment and trust and devotion to Christ, to be and live as He, the Son of God, would want her to be and live. This attitude reflects her devout Irish Catholicism. Regardless of when she composed it, she never wavered from this attitude of devotion, but seemed rather to grow stronger in it as the trial and tribultaions wore on. For mom, spiritualty infused and surrounded everything we did. It emanated from nature itself. It seemed to me, as a child growing up under her wings, that it was in the natural order of things that mom found reinforcement for her faith. Her attention to the events of nature--the sun rising and setting, the seasons coming and going, plants springing up each spring, the phases of the moon each month--these were all aspects of God's power and love for man. Our task was to respect and trust in His power and love and to return these through our everday actions. She offered everything up to God, living out as well as anyone I've every known the words of Saint Benedict, "To work is to pray." Her very life was a song of praise written for the glory and honor of God. All who met and knew her seemed to sense this humble yet powerful and radiant nature of her personality.

Saturday, October 28, 2006

Be Strong

We are not here to play, to dream, to drift.
We have hard work to do and loads to lift.
Shun not the struggle.
Face it. ‘Tis God’s gift.
(Early 1920s)

Mom scrawled this on the inside of the back flap of her composition notebook from Loretta Heights College in Denver, where she was studying to be a nurse. Eventually, she left her studies to return home to the farm in Heron Lake to help her family, becoming a teacher in a local school. The little poem captures her philosophy of working hard, not complaining, seeing every struggle as an opportunity given by God, bestowed on us by Him, to carry out His will. All her life, through every household move, every child pushing inexorably toward his or her own independence and suffering inevitable setbacks and disappointments, she never wavered from this attitude.

Once when I was trying to tuck her into bed a couple of years before she died (about 70 years after this poem was written!), I was trying to get her into the middle of the bed so she would be more comfortable and not roll off. She was kind of stiff-bodied then and hard to move. It was a struggle. I got her head on the pillow but, lying on her side on the edge of the bed, she looked like she was uncomfortable and might easily role off. I was worried and asked, “Are you comfortable, Mom?” She answered, with that Irish chuckle of hers, ”I didn’t know that was the goal.”

That was a profound moment of insight for me and an object lesson in life. In an instant I got the point: embrace what is, accept it and go on…in this case, discomfort and to sleep. “Face it.” Of course, I was at that time in the middle of having to face horrific personal struggles of my own, but the lesson was there, right before my eyes. Mom was strong, stoic, accepting, uncomplaining, never shunning the struggles given to her. There it all was, lying like a lump under the covers, a spent and wracked 92 year old body, long past trying to be comfortable, just happy now to have a warm place to rest her head, and a son to tuck her in. “Good night, Mom,” I said. “I love you.” “Good night,” she said, her voice barely audible. “I love you, too.”

I walked out of her room that night, shutting the door behind me, tears welling up inside, thinking how lucky I was to be around a mother so strong, so loving, so accepting, so much at peace with herself. I was 50 years old then and living with her in the Fedora Street house in Fresno. Within a year or so I had to face the decision, with the help of the family, to put her into a 24-hour care residential facility. That was, ultimately, one of the five or six most difficult struggles of my life. I searched around for months. Found one close by, but it was eventually unacceptable to us. We looked so more, lways struggling against ourselves, until we finally got an interview with the highly regarded Armenian home. She had to interview for this “position,” not being Armenian and not having any money or inside connection. Once I realized she was going to be interviewed, I knew inside that we were in luck: How could anyone not want to take care of her once they meet her? I thought. I was right with this feeling. They accepted her on the spot!

“Be strong.” Good advice, but to feel it deep down in your bones, all the way to your toes, that takes years and years of practice. She had it…the strength…and I was still just learning about it.

Friday, October 27, 2006

Dreams of a Blind Man

I strayed away one summer day
from the land of bustle and noise.
My thoughts?
They wandered far away to play

with their dreamy toys.
The shore was cool, but the sun was bright;
I felt the day and thought not of night.
My dreams! How they sparkled in rainbow hues,
And brightly danced in grays and blues.
And colors sublime? I saw them, too.
I know ‘twas so.
But now…now …Where did they go?
‘Tis dark! ‘Tis dark again at night,
The dark without a ray of light.
The green of the trees, the blue of the skies,
Have gone with my dreams.
To Paradise?
Ah, Yes! I’m sure! I’m sure ‘tis so!
And now I pray through everyday
that I again to them may sometime go.

Here mom shows her knack for escaping into her rich imagination and enjoying, at least for a moment, its “rainbow hues” and brightly dancing “colors sublime.” She is the dreamer, the “blind man,” speaking in the masculine voice, and I can’t help thinking that, though she never stops or stopped believing in her dreams, there were moments of melancholy, moments she kept to herself, when she wondered, “Where did they go?” In those moments, her faith kicks in and she realizes that all dreams end in “Paradise.”

This is not only a sample of her early sophisticated poetic skills (she was 17 in 1922) but it is a profound statement of her faith. WWI had been over only a few years. A wave of cynicism had been sweeping the country and the world because of the vast devastation in lives and the disillusionment in institutions. The Roaring ‘20s were just beginning as an escape from the war. Mom shows her deep sense of optimism here, of coming out of the dark and, eventually, into the light of paradise. In literary circles, there is a tradition of blind poets (for example, Homer and Milton) who are inspired by their suffering and who also espouse the sanctity of nature. Mom alludes to that here, at least unconsciously, indicating she had studied or been aware of this tradition. After WWI, there was a general sense of tragedy lingering in the consciousness of people, but poets often asserted the idea, as mom does here, that even within tragedy the life that is nature (and super-nature, i.e., “Paradise”) will reassert itself. As a foot note: In 1990 my sister Julie’s daughter, Jennifer, was studying Helen Keller. Jen memorized this poem and recited it for her class.

I remember when we first took mom to St. Agnes Hospital in Fresno after her first major stroke. It was sometime in the early 1990’s, I think, about 80 years after this poem was written. She began hallucinating in her room because of her medication. She told me to “get the spiders” off the wall across from her bed and to “turn the water off’ on the faucets which were also on the wall. At first I was frightened and tried to reason with her, bring her back to reality, then I realized that for her, she was in her own reality. To her, the spiders and running water really existed! So I entered into her world, her “belief system,” went over to the wall and pretended to wipe off the spiders with some Kleenex and turn off the water faucets. She felt better then, even smiled. I didn’t feel like a professional entering the mind of a patient, which is a technique I teach to students, but like a child believing with his mom that this is what’s going on, this is reality, this is the way things are. I was prepared, conditioned all my life for this moment!

Throughout her life, mom maintained her sanity by moving in and out of her imagination at will, crossing back and forth between the actual and the imagined as if they both exited on one plane. Working about the kitchen or the living room, she talked incessantly to herself. She lived in overlapping realities. This poem is an early indication of the deep structure of her faith and her imagination. She was healthy that way, though most of us could only follow her for a little while into the rich and colorful world of her dreams and visions and imaginations. Most of us did not have that deep spiritual infrastructure. Maybe we were more spiritually “frail,” which is why we so idealized her and regarded her as a “saint.” In our experience, she was one, though we hardly understood how deep her spirituality really was. Few of us could truly follow her there though we are grateful to have her as our model of strength and character.

Thursday, October 26, 2006

Song of the Heart

I sang a song as I passed along
Of the one I loved most dear.
I sang a song midst the thick of the throng
Of the one I longed to be near.

Not a melody rich with cadences
Nor trills and heart-rending runs,
Nor a rhyme in step with the dances,
Nor a technique which dazzles and stuns.
Just a simple little tune, I sang—
“Two steps to a stride” marking time
While the tinkle and merry laughter rang,
singing the light of faith in rhyme—
‘twas a song of the heart, I sang!
I sang a song as I passed along,
Of the one I loved most dear—
I sang this song midst the thick of the throng
Of the one I longed to be near.

Since the original is typed and has only one correction on it (fourth line “longed” was originally “loved”), I have a hunch this was written by mom in her earlier years, maybe during college. It has the musical motif, which suggests to me she was still playing the violin, maybe, and the fact that it has a theme of “longing” for someone suggests she was not married and this may be a romantic sentiment. Or, could it even be about dad during their courting days in 1929-1930?? We did not see much of this side of mom, the romantic or outward display of affection. She was a more reserved cultured woman and this controlled poetic expression is probably her best way of expressing this side of herself. I don’t remember mom ever saying “I love you” to me or dad or anyone else, but I never gave this much thought. Her love was so deep and real it was experienced directly in her eyes, movement and tone that he words just weren’t needed and, maybe just weren’t much a part of her prairie culture's vocabulary.

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

My Dream House

It isn’t, of course, and it shan’t be,
For years and years where passing eyes might see.
Yet deep in the depths of will be, must be,
Already it stands complete—
Pine trees hiding the drive,
Sheltering the doorway and nooks,
Rugs on the floor—dishes, pictures and books,
A wide fireplace and a winding stair for looks.
Surely you’ll love it, this Dream House of mine,
And visit it often any season or time,
When drowsy south winds hum prairie tunes,
Or biting north gales tempt fireside runes.
In summer a door open wide—
In winter a lantern outside!
My Dream House, come true!

Technically, this is one of mom’s most complete and perfected poems, I think, each word working well to flow with the next, sketching out the colorful, concrete details of the dream, each line building the theme. The poem was typed with only four small corrections and three phrases added in pencil, which suggests that she had worked on it by hand several times before finally typing it, and then made a couple of changes. This was probably written while she was in college or just afterward, in the early 1920s. It shows her romantic nature and deep sense of home and hearth, of having a warm place where others are welcome, a place with mature “pine trees” hanging over the driveway and the house, with “pictures and books” and a “wide fireplace.”

Mom kept this dream alive throughout her life. She seemed to literally will it onto each home or apartment we moved into—and there were dozens! Each house or apartment was to her, “not just a house, but a home,” (her words, always!) and she made certain that we hung family pictures and set out the books in the bookcases. She was always looking forward to anyone who came to visit. She wanted to share, not just her physical space, but her entire dream of place, the feeling of being “at home.” The phrase “fireside runes” is significant. “Runes” is an old word and it means poems, verses or songs. Only a student of poetry or a literate person would know this word and be capable using it appropriately, as she does here. It conjures up images of people coming in out of the cold, warming up next the fireplace, and sharing stories of the day—maybe as mom remembered her father and brothers doing during the cold winter months on the farm in Minnesota. Since her grandfather was an Irish barroom balladeer, the singing of Irish runes had to be part of the family mindset. Symbolically, she re-enacted this scene every time a visitor came to the house—preparing warm tea or coffee, cookies or cake, and sitting at the coffee table, visiting, attending, listening—and, if we had one and it was winter, near the fireplace with the logs burning! Overall, the poem captures mom’s eternal optimism and hope and the intricate detail of her imaginary world.

The final line is a poignant and sad one for me. In 1989 when I visited mom in her first convalescent home (St. Francis Home) in Orange county, I knew I had to do something to get her out of there and into a real home again. Though it was a nice Catholic home with a large garden and the nuns were friendly, mom had to shuffle her way down the long corridor to the chapel (Bob had done his best to get her into this home). Her feet hurt her immensely by then. When I saw that she had to sleep in a narrow room with a bed four feet from a stranger and her feet hurt her every time she went to eat or to visit the garden, I set out to buy a home through the VA in Fresno. I brought her up within a month or two to live in an apartment wiwth me until we could move into the home.

The home on Fedora Avenue was my final effort to get mom into, if not her Dream Home, a comfortable home for her last years. The move worked, I think, for she loved the grape vines and the pomegranate tree and all the shrubs. We planted pines in the front that did hide the front doorway and the small porch. She’d sit there among the geraniums and watch the neighborhood kids pass by on their way to and from school. All the family came over to help to make the place comfortable for her. Don built a long ramp so she could get out into the back yard easily. Jerry and Bob put some special hand bars in her bathroom, and the girls all helped to get her room and the kitchen organized so it looked homey. And the bookcases—we had several in each room, a large window looking out into the gardenesque back yard where one summer we tried growing corn and peas and beans and carrots and strawberries. The “we” was always me by then, though, for mom was too unsteady to do any gardening. The dog I got from the pound ate the corn (Bob called him Corn Dog!) and most of the vegetables didn’t produce much, though each day we’d check to see how they were doing. Mom put her statue of St Francis in the corner under a tree so she could see it from her window.

We only lived there a few years, mom and I and Cory and Devon, when they came over, but it was “home,” her last in her fading years and one that left her with good memories. When we finally moved her to the very nice Armenian Home in the countryside of east Fresno, she had a spacious room with a bed by a large window. Outside was a lemon grove. There the “bird with the red eyes,” which she said had followed her from the Fedora home, perched on the branches everyday and looked in on her. That was the same bird she saw flying high overhead the afternoon before he died. She stayed in the Armenian Home for about a year before passing away February 24, 1996. The staff there loved her and respected her as very unique and uncomplaining. They missed her when she finally passed away. Though it wasn’t exactly her Dream House, the Armenian Home was ranked as one of the best rest homes in the state and, in the end, it did get her back into the country, which she very much appreciated.