Sightlines: A Poet’s Diary
A downhome family love story beyond death told in accessible story poems and archival photos. Janet Grace Riehl's "Sightlines: A Poet's Diary" received honorable mention recognition in the 2007 DIY Book Festival contest.
A beautiful collection filled with 90 poems, 190 pages, 25 photos and tribute to a loved family.
Sightlines offers a frank portrait of a family not only coming to terms with its grief, but also celebrating its past and difficult present. Although deeply personal, these poems strike poignant and universal chords. They offer a vision of life filled with little treasures that carry us back to what is truly important in our lives.
“Rich and vibrant, complete with vivid language that bursts, or sneaks, into your mind.”
—James BlueWolf, author of Sitting by His Bones and Grandpa Says
“Village wisdom for the 21st century. Between these covers lives an enlightening friend.”
—Clive Matson, author of Let the Crazy Child Write!
“Janet Riehl’s poems tread that thin line between insightful nostalgia and objectivity Midwesterners are so good at.”
—Hal Zina Bennett, author of Write from the Heart
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Creative Process: Behind Sightlines
On August 16, 2004, my sister Julia Ann Thompson, 61, was killed in a car wreck. Julia's work as a world-class physicist coupled with her far-reaching efforts for equality and justice made a profound difference in the world.
Julia's husband, Dave Kraus, and my mother, Ruth Thompson, were severely injured in the accident. Julia and Dave's grandson, Cody, was pulled out of the car by a Good Samaritan. Dave, through skill, care, and willpower, slowly traveled from hospital bed to crutches to cane to walking unaided to driving a car. Mother, after escaping death by a hairsbreadth in the hospital, spent several months in a nursing home mending her broken shoulder and ankle. Cody appears to be back to a relatively normal boyhood.
In the year following my sister's death, I spent the bulk of my time in Southwestern Illinois at Evergreen Heights, the home pioneered in the 1860s by my Great Grandfather Riehl, and our homeplace still. I wanted to come closer to the family core, and be part of building a fire we could warm our hands around.
For my 56th birthday in December 2004 I went into a small retreat at King's House, run by the Oblate Fathers of Mary Immaculate in Belleville, Illinois. During this time, I came to a strong sense that the world is charged with meaning, and that is a poem. Not could be, but is. The only trick is to tease out the meaning.
In January 2005 the book began. Drinking morning tea out of an old-fashioned shaving mug, surrounded by enough antiques to make a collector drool, I cocked one ear towards my inner voices and the other for sounds of my parents stirring downstairs. When I heard them on the move, I dropped whatever I was doing to rush to help my mother get dressed and ready for the day.
The work moved back and forth between my Midwest home to my Northern California home on the shores of Clear Lake where the whirl of extended family, visitors, and renters of the Midwest quieted to just me, my sweetheart, and an old cat.
In childhood, I often watched my sister Julia put together 1,000 piece jigsaw puzzles. Putting together this poet's diary has been a little like that. It's a chronicle of my family and I picking up the puzzle pieces of our lives, studying them in light of Julia's absence, and then looking where to place the next piece. Sometimes we get just the right fit. But, there are a pile of pieces still waiting to be sorted.
Mortality became keenly real to me over the past year as my parents and I aged together and we marked the anniversary of Julia's death. The sorrow of life's fragility and joy at its tenderness form the sightlines of this collection of poems.
Behind the Photos
The commentary for these photos is written by my father, Erwin A. Thompson, unless noted by my initials, JR. My father grew up on the homeplace, EvergreenHeights. He generously opened his photo archives for use in Sightlines: A Poet’s Diary.
Annie = Anna (Erwin’s mother)
Aunt Alie = Alice
Amelia = Mim
Aunt Emma = Em
Aunt Judie = Julia
Aunt Nell = Helen
1. COVER: Downriver view from the Riehl’s front lawn, circa mid 1890s. Aunt Mim took this picture with her 120 box camera. She included the branch of the evergreen on purpose to give the perspective of distance. Grandpa Riehl used this photo on the postcards he used to promote his horticultural business.
2. Frontispiece: Woman walking down the hill is Aunt Em. The road led to the West Bottom. The umbrella protected her from the sun. The upper berry shed is at the upper left of the picture (cropped out here). These sheds were to gather quarts of picked berries and properly credit the pickers with their accomplishment. At the end of the day the credits were tallied up and the picker paid if they required it. Otherwise the tally was put on the books and paid for at the end of the week.
1. Section title page photo shows Julia as a toddler sitting next to her parents Erwin and Ruth Thompson, cuddling and clearly in love.—JR
2. Page 5. Julia Thompson, looking up, with pigtails.
3. Page 20. Studio portrait (from left) of Janet, Gary, and Julia. Note the lace collars.
1. Section title page photo shows Erwin playing guitar in front of his army tent in France during WWII.
2. Page 39. Erwin in little cart that Grandpa Riehl made for the Aunts to transport vegetables and fruits from the garden and orchards. It also transported tired children and their toys.
3. Erwin with his pet chicken, Mr. Henny, named after a favorite family friend. Mr. Henny was one of the best pets I ever had.
4. Page 45. Portrait of Erwin taken for Union Electric News. He is standing next to inch and a quarter plastic pipe used in his job as a gas pipefitter. Fascinated to discover that the large donation to the St. Louis Arts and Education fund had come from a blue-collar worker, they set up an interview to probe his reason for the donation. Erwin said that his three children had benefited from such programs and he wanted to help make these same type of opportunities available to other children. –JR
5. Page 57. Aunt Em with her brood of early chickens in the little Bluff House. Grandpa Riehl made it to take advantage of the solar heat long before the idea came into general use. The structure was built into the hill with the high side almost entirely below ground. The river side was all glass, made from old cold frame sash with the top sloping back toward the roof so as to catch the sun better. It was too hot most of the year, but ideal for early chickens. This was years before dressed chickens could be bought in any grocery store as it is today. Part of the Riehl income was from dressed chickens in my day, and earlier from boarders who ate the dressed chickens.
C. SWEET LITTLE DOVE
1. Section title page photo shows Ruth Evelyn’s high school photo.
1. Section title page photo shows the Riehl family on the front lawn, probably about 1890.
Sitting in front: Anna (Erwin’s mother).
Front row: Mathila Roesch Riehl, E.A. Riehl, Amelia (Mim), Helen (Nell).
Back row: Julia, Alice, Frank, Jessie (Frank’s wife), and their daughter Irene, Ed
Note the musical instruments. Both Aunt Mim and Uncle Ed played violin. Aunt Judie and Aunt Nell played guitar; Aunt Em, mandolin; Aunt Ali played piano.
2. Page 101. The Alton Steamboat taken from our bluff. You can see a pine branch in the forefront of the picture. Grandpa Riehl worked on a steamboat before purchasing the land that became EvergreenHeights. He knew the river and its channels well.
3. Page 109. Aunt Em and Aunt Judie burring chestnuts—taking the nuts out of the burs. Some varieties opened up the burs and let the nuts fall on the ground, but others held them tight. Note that Aunt Em is not wearing glasses. She was around fifty when this picture was taken.
4. Page 117. Willard Thompson, Erwin’s older brother by four years. Shown here playing chess and eating crackerjacks, a favorite snack for bachelors.
5. Page 125. Frank Riehl with his hunting buddies, the McAdams. The ducks they shot are strung behind them. Frank is on the extreme right.
6. Page 134.
I remember the day this picture was taken. It was a Sunday afternoon, and we had all gone down into the pasture to gather black walnuts. I am sitting on Jim Bowman’s lap. Aunt Mim and Aunt Judie had gone along on the pilgrimage, but had chosen to walk home as there was only one seat on the wagon and it was almost full with the youngsters and whatever walnuts we had gathered.
This was in what we called the East Bottom, where Chestnut Street is today, looking to the east toward the Stanka property. Looking closely, a corn shock can be seen just in front of the horses. This was on the Stanka farm. The east line of the Riehl property was and is the east line of JerseyCounty. The Stanka farm is in MadisonCounty.
I do not remember where Dick the horse on the right, came from, but I do remember that he was always friendly toward me when I visited him in the horse stable. Pete, the horse on the left, was bought in Potosi, Missouri. Uncle Will, who lived near there, wrote my grandfather and told him there was a horse for sale that he thought Grandpa would really like to own. Grandpa took his word for it, sent Jim Bowman down to Potosi by train with a saddle, and Jim rode the horse home.
A few words about Jim Bowman. He and his wife came to work for Grandpa as newly-weds, shortly after the turn of the previous century. Their four children were born here in the little house at the foot of the hill. I never knew him to hurt or abuse a horse in the years that I new him, and I never saw him hook a team to something that they didn’t move.
7. Page 140.
Riehls on the croquet ground. Here is our best educated guess of the people in this photo. Far left, probably Aunt Ali (Alice). The man is definitely Uncle Frank. The two girls are probably Aunt Mim and my mother, Annie (Anna). This is a deduction from their relative sizes and the way they are standing. The young woman in the foreground is Aunt Judie. We do not identify the mules in the background or the people with them. The man with the straw hat on is possibly Uncle Ed. The woman with the child is likely Frank’s wife, Jessie and their first-born child, Irene. standing, and Grandma Riehl sitting. The boy sitting on the grass is Walter. The young woman by the evergreen tree is Aunt Em.
8. Page 142. Grandpa Riehl by one of his seedling chestnut trees, the result of his cross-pollination.
1. Section title page shows hand-molded candles floating on ClearLake in Northern California from “Water Ceremonies,” an art project of Rocking Triangle Studio the year Janet was Artist in Bioregional Residence through University of California at Davis. Photo by Crystal Austin.
2. Page 150. Riehl’s Station was created by the Bluffline Railroad which went from Alton to Grafton. Later, this line was connected to larger regional and national lines such as the CP&SL (Chicago and Peoria and St. Louis). This station served the neighborhood, and transported illustrious guests and borders to the coolness of EvergreenHeights during the summer months. It also, at one time, shipped a large volume of horticultural produce to Chicago and other places in the region. The Riehl house can be seen on top of the hill. Most likely the people in the photo are two of the Riehl sisters. The curve pictured here is the Blind curve above Riehl Station where the two locomotives met head on as chronicled in Erwin’s poem “Bluffline.”
3. Page 151. Rowing on the Mississippi. Two of the girls and Uncle Will (Grandpa Riehl’s brother) in one of the skiffs that Grandpa made. Note the point. Most of the local rivermen used Johnboats with square fronts as well as rears. Grandpa’s boats were easier to row and maneuver because of his design.
4. Page 159. Aunt Em in her later years, with her string of fish. They never caught big fish, but they were surely proud of the little ones that they caught. This picture on the back steps of the big brown house. Cane poles, of course, sold at the hardware stores, and it was a real triumph to find just the right one.
Sometimes Uncle George would visit Wes Sconse or Pete Housting and get a larger one that they had caught on a throw line in the river. Aunt Em would eye him suspiciously and ask, “Did you really catch that fish, George?” He would assure her that he really had, with a perfectly straight face. Then, he would add: “I caught it with a silver hook.” (Meaning he’s paid a quarter for it.)
5. Page 163. Aunt Mim (Amelia). This is a studio picture. Diane Thompson, Julia’s daughter, told me while proofing the book that Julia had admired Aunt Mim, taken her as a role model, and often spoke of her as Diane was growing up. I didn’t know this when I chose Mim’s picture to go with “Anniversary.” It just seemed right to me. –JR
6. End page. Grandpa Riehl and young Erwin walk up the hill beyond the brown cottage on the way to the pine rows.