Motherlines Remembered

Day 17 NaPoWriMo and I am feeling a bit more serene. I am taking my time to walk around my poem a day today. And the prompt is more congenial, too.

Our prompt for the day (optional as always) follows Gowrishankar’s suggestion that we write a poem re-telling a family anecdote that has stuck with you over time. It could be the story of the time your Uncle Louis caught a home run ball, the time your Cousin May accidentally brought home a coyote and gave it a bath, thinking it was a stray dog, or something darker (or even sillier).

The featured photo is one of my mother and Grandmother Russell, who both feature as characters in today’s offering. It was taken when my mother was about the age she was in the tale recounted.

The last time I saw my mother alive

 

My brother was driving us so I could catch

The Chinatown Philly-NYC jitney.

She was recounting a memory

of another bus trip maybe seventy-five

years or more ago

to the disbelieving ears of her grandson.

 

I was catching my first connection

back to my life that was many stops and changes

away from the USA.

She told her memory like beads on a rosary,

the pink crystal ones she kept at her bedside.

She began with her sister, oceanside

in New Jersey waving her off on her journey.

 

How Mamma met her at the station

in Philly to pack her off onto the correct bus

on the leg to Washington, D.C.

An unknown  friend  or some kind of cousin of Mamma’s

met her there since it was growing dark

to usher her into some midnight caravanserai

before setting off through the night

sitting bolt upright through Maryland and Virginia.

 

Morning light and North Carolina. Gertrude’s brother

was there in his pride and joy jalopy.

Her cumbersome suitcase filled the whole rumble seat.

The front seat was full of meet and greeters

so she clung onto the door handle

surfing into Winston-Salem on the running board,

grinning at  being  back, wind speed making her florid,

feeling a bit desperado, like Bonnie and Clyde

 

At this point in the narrative

her grandson  looked like his head was beginning to hurt

jaw dropped,

configuring an impossible Venn diagram from

this rather staid, devout, stalwart

ancient relative and that girl who was only

just turned fifteen.

 

Which was probably the age when I first heard

this tale, when I learned that my mother

was someone not solely concerned about

my health , and could actually be quite

devil may care about personal safety.

 

She was off with her childhood adventurers

hanging by  a speeding  Model T’s handle

with kids with whom she had climbed trees and

smoked corn silk behind the outdoor privy.

She was the before to her after.

And then, just then, I knew how

I wanted to be that woman’s daughter.

how that Her had been able to make me.

 

Copyright © 2018 Bee Smith

 

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(M)other Sojourning

My mother taught me to tie my shoe laces, balance a cheque book, the correct way to pack a suitcase for a trip. In my latest jaunt I packed Mom, too. Back in the spring I wrote a stage 10 speech for Toastmasters titled “What My Mother Taught Me.” A Canadian professor friend noticed my Facebook post about this and promptly invited me to speak at the Motherlines conference at NUI Galway this weekend.

Because Mom was particular about her packing and preparation for trips  she is, in a sense, ever present for any and all my sojourns. This time, however, she got a starring role. Which probably would have taken her aback, since she was inherently shy, but  also secretly pleased. I fretted over my wardrobe, as she would have done, too, and was a critical part of the packing exercise. I inherited her blonde hair and was reminded that her High school art teacher had urged her to wear red to stand out more. So, here I was 80 years or  more later giving that teacher some satisfaction standing before an audience in my red suit and shoes, sharing how my Motherlines had informed my own life choices. In her wildest dreams she would never have imagined her life being celebrated at a conference of feminists.

It has been an extraordinary few days making the invisible visible and giving the marginalised a voice. The academic research papers were mostly quantitative, with many direct quotes from respondents (or co-researchers as one person termed them.)  These voices from and about mothers’ experiences and mothering were wide ranging: mothers who were also addicts, working mothers looking for child carers, mothers who died while giving birth to children, mothers naming the namelessness of pregnancy and child loss, mothers experiencing cancer, separation and divorce. Mother as spiritual archetype of Cailleach and Brigid was examined in Mary Condren’s keynote address. A mother preparing sons for bar mitzvah examined at how gender plays out in rites of passage. Clementine Morrigan’s paper on a Feminist Queer Witch’s Marian devotion had me shifting around some weighty mental furniture, as well as unpacking some old religious assumptions (back to baggage!) from my own Catholic upbringing.

Not all the papers were academic. In the ‘Writing Motherlines’ presentation we heard poetry from Canada’s Laurie Kruk; (Favourite Takeaway Conference Quote: the best revenge is writing poetry.)

It will be sometime before I process all the rich offerings from this weekend –

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Elma Whealton Russell as a child

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Elma with her sisters Mary and Betty is a studio shot by their father

The new information, insights, ponderings for future mental sojourning. To sample the banquet on offer you can see more about Motherlines: Mothering, Motherhood, and Mothers in and thepugh the Generations: Theory, Narrative, Representation, Practice, and Experience at The Motherhood Initiative for Research and Community Involvement.

Feeling profoundly grateful to Andrea O’Reilly of York University, Toronto, for the invitation to speak, listen, learn and be enriched by so much story.

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