What Everyone Knows Matters

I was scratching around for a jump start for the Sunday Weekly poem this morning. Having had a good week of manuscript re-writes it just felt like the gears were grinding to get back to writing the first drafts that get published here. It has been an unsettling week out in the world beyond my townland. Bucolic does not mean completely disconnected or uncaring. In the end, I pulled the poetry anthology Tell Me the Truth About Life off the bookshelf. The page fell open to W. B. Yeat’s poem The Second Coming, very apt since yesterday was auld Will’s birthday. It is also a poem that speaks to the condition of our times. “The centre cannot hold…” What is truer of our polarised world?

Then I read the lyrics from Leonard Cohen’s poem “Everybody Knows”. Here are some lines from the first verse.

Everybody knows that the dice are loaded

Everybody rolls with their fingers crossed

…..

Everybody knows the fight was fixed

The poor stay poor, the rich get rich

June 19th will mark the 103rd birthday of my mother. June 19th is also known as Juneteenth, the celebration by many African Americans of the emancipation from slavery. The tradition began in Texas where, on June 19th 1865, a Union officer read the declaration to Texans that slaves were freed. The Confederacy had lost the civil war, but the struggle for full civil rights had only just begun. We know that the granting of full civil rights to African Americans has been an uphill struggle ever since then. I grew up as bit by bit schools were desegregated. When I arrived in Washington, DC in 1974 you could still see block upon devastated block of ‘riot corridor’ in the aftermath of so many civil rights set backs and Dr. Martin Luther King’s assasination. Equality for all has been a very long work in progress.

My mother taught me that discrimination matters, that it is unfair and it was wrong to harm in word or deed anyone who was not the same religion, social class, or race as us. She was particularly clear that racism is wrong. Now this might seem a bit unlikely for a woman who spent her childhood years in Jim Crow North Carolina. (Jim Crow was the codified segregation and oppression of African Americans post- Emancipation Proclamation.) In part, an unlikely alliance and friendship that bloomed in a school library between 1929 and 1932 may have been responsible for her stance.

My mother was a shy woman. In 1929 she and her sisters were living in New Jersey. Their parents had separated. Academically gifted, my mother had skipped two grades and was was placed in high school along with both her elder sisters where she graduated aged 15. Sparing the full details, let us just say that, for my mother, the years between 1929 and 1932 were fit for a novel by Charles Dickens without any silver linings. In her High School Yearbook the year she graduated the song assigned to her was “I Ain’t Got Nobody.” It was a mean spirited, but probably fair, assessment. For barring her sisters, it probably felt that way to my mother.

My mother only ever spoke of one friend from her high school years – Nellie Gator. Nellie was the sole African American in her high school class. At a time when her world was chaotic, frightening, and insecure, that connection was important to her. Nellie must have been very kind to Mom because she seemed to have been paying it forward from that day on.

This Juneteenth my birthday present to my mother is a donation to Black Lives Matter. Because they do. Nellie Gator mattered a great deal to my mother.

What our mothers teach us matters. We need to be more like Nellie and Elma.

What Everyone Knows

We like to say to ourselves that
all lives matter, but
everyone knows that some 
are worth more than those
who rattle loose change in their pockets
and others who are down to their last dime.
We look down our noses
if you aren't somehow known,
haven't got the bluest eyes
or are someone else's fair-haired fellow.

What everyone knows is plain to see.
It's in our turns of speech, but mostly
we are too yellow to face up to facts
(the kind that must have plagued old Job)
that most everyone knows
we don't treat equally our kind,
that everything has fallen apart,
we've lost our minds, mislaid our hearts.

What everyone knows when lying awake
in the dark at 4am, is that it is time
to matter, one by one by one.
The alarm has rung. Ask anyone
what everyone knows. 

Copyright © Bee Smith, 2020. All rights reserved.

Elma Russell Smith 1917-2011

Day 18 NaPoWriMo2019 – Elegy

Often what connects people is loss. Poetry is all about making connections. They even have that slogan on the NaPoWriMo.net website banner. Losses…we have all had some, whether it is a loved one – pet or person – or a job, a home, a family. In the way that the universe operates in synchronicity a bedtime conversation last night feels appropriate for the morning’s poetry practice.

Your Daughter

Last night at bedtime
your daughter and I discussed you.
And really?
You raised your kids fine.
But they miss you.

Part of it
is emptying the family homeplace.
First, your clothes to all
your favourite charity shops.
Then the NHS patient appliances
back to the hospital. Again. But..
It's all good recycling. Still...
your daughter
flees the house absent
of your smell.
Empty now has a scent. Also,
the having to fold
your reading glasses
found on your bedside cabinet
beside the Jodi Picoult book
you will never now know
how it all ended.

Her friends are kind.
But they are young and think
the object of grief
is to forget its ache.
All she wants to do
is remember you.
So we talk
of what went right
and some of your unlived life.

Just before she leaves
before the lights go out
and kisses my cheek
saying "Night Night"
I tell your daughter how
all daughters
eventually
become their mothers.
Even if only in our small foibles.
Like the reminder notes
I post beside my purse
and on the kitchen counter
for tomorrow
just like
my own mother.
And your daughter
goes to her bed
with a smile.

Copyright © 2019 Bee Smith. All rights reserved.

GloPoWriMo2019
Bee Smith is participating in GloPoWriMo2019

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

 

(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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