Selections from Sightlines: A Poet’s Diary
by Janet Grace Riehl
Second Reading Bookstore
April 15, 2006
The other day my father recalled the first time he’d heard the phrase “extended family.” We visited Makalamabedi—the place where the two rivers meet. This was the village in Botswana where I’d lived for two weeks during Peace Corps training and where I’d begun my journey in becoming fluent in Setswana. A place where I’d gone out fishing and learned how to carry water and sponsored my first goat feast.
At the time we visited, the people I’d stayed with had gone to work their crops at the lands. We couldn’t find my closest friends. But everyone who was a relative or a friend of the people I’d known stepped in to welcome us with great warmth. They considered themselves as members of the extended family of those who were not there. And, they considered us as members of that extended family as well.
Pop wanted me to welcome you here today in that spirit, as members of our extended family. Sightlines: A Poet’s Diary is dedicated “To Julia and All.” This is a very personal book and yet, it is also a book that reaches out to the human family…our joys and sorrows, our losses and gains out of those losses. In your presence today, you’ve now entered into the heart of our extended family. I welcome you and thank you for coming to join us today. This work seems especially apt to me this Easter weekend, a time of hope born out of death.
My wish is that the poems in Sightlines: A Poet’s Diary benefit those who read and hear them. The Romantic poets believed that if you described something with enough particularity that you would strike a universal chord. This afternoon my theme is family, specifically parents. You can consider this Mother’s Day and Father’s day all rolled into one. In listening to these excerpts and poems from Sightlines: A Poet’s Diary, my wish is that you will come to a deeper appreciation of your parents, your family, and your own place within it.
My mother has recently turned poorly, to the point we are concerned about her. My father, her husband of 63 years, is here today. Both have hefty sections in Sightlines. I dedicate today’s talk to them: their strength individually and together as they raised three very distinctly different children and lent a helping hand to a multitude of people along the way.
Mother thought that the births of her three children gave a hint of what kind of people each of us would be. I mention this in “Reaper,” a poem I wrote on my sister Julia’s birthday, the first year after her death.
That was Mother’s theory.
Julia, like a rocket.
Gary’s birth so perfectly normal.
Three trips to the hospital for me
on icy roads before I was willing
to come out and give it a go.
Julia Thompson, my parents oldest child, went through her 61 years like a comet. Here is the story of her birth from “Just Like You and Me” in Julia’s section of Sightlines:
As brilliant as coal
Under pressure for billions of years.
As brilliant as the diamonds she never wore.
So brilliant, she dazzled us.
It was a virgin birth, you see.
Both parents were virgins when they wed.
They got busy changing that right away
Because there was a war on.
Nine months later she came out,
All in a rush to get started.
The wonderful thing about having siblings for me was the feeling that they completed me. Julia was the family genius that the world could understand. Gary has given my life a sense of normalcy, grounding, and balance. In my acknowledgements to Sightlines, I thank my brother in this way: “ . . . an Eagle Scout at an early age, still earning those merit badges. I am the never-to-resign President of the Gary Arthur Thompson Fan club.” I dedicated “Streaker,” in mother’s section to my brother, who is so devoted to her care.
And, then, myself, the baby of the family, the poet, whose life is like a meandering stream touching many places and people. Julia was fire. Gary is earth. I am water. My life moves between two great bodies of water—the Mississippi River in Southwestern Illinois and Clear Lake in Northern California.
My parents gave birth to three radically different children: Julia, a world-class physicist and social crusader; Gary, a retired industrial arts teacher who turned out the nicest, most capable man in the world; and myself. Daddy kids me that I am a woman of the world—who traveled as the currents of creativity and culture carried me. Who are these two people who brought the three of us into the world and never ceased to try to raise us?
Sightlines: A Poet’s Diary is structured into five sections. Two of these sections are devoted to my parents. At the beginning of each of their sections, I’ve included a praise poem. This is a form borrowed from West Africa. My parents visited Africa three times during the five years I lived and worked there. My parents loved the people I worked with and they loved my parents. Curiously, there are many things in common between rural Africa and the rural Midwest of my parents’ generation. The honoring of generations and heritage is one of these. Here is my Pop’s Praise Poem.
Erwin Arthur Thompson.
Erwin Arthur Thompson.
Ur-win Are-thur Tom’s Son.
Grandfather to David Arthur.
Father to Gary Arthur.
Son of James Arthur.
You collected nicknames in your life.
“Tom” they called you, and “Tiger” and “Slim”.
A leader with never enough to lead:
Platoon, union, scout troupe, family.
The community that grew around
Mr. “Big Daddy” Thompson on Evergreen Heights.
Homespun Renaissance Man of culture and grace.
Clean plate for dessert after digging out water lines all morning.
Well-rehearsed folksy disguise over layers of armor and amour.
You open your inner doors a peek at a time, letting life
enter you like a cat tossed out in the rain.
You taught me to dance while I stood on your steel-toed shoes.
You taught me to sweep in your workshop.
In a family of teachers, you are the teachers’ teacher.
Handy man and artist inside one package.
You like to fix things: cars, houses… people’s lives.
Self-taught, self-made, you are American to the core.
Music, novels, poetry, carving are your frontiers.
Creating is…what keeps you sane.
Is your electrical conduit
between your intense inner world and us folks outside.
In service and in harness all your life.
Loyal as a trusted horse.
Your good deeds form your red carpet.
Your road to royalty.
You live on principle and purpose.
But, thank the Lord, Pop, you remember how to play.
“A little humor dear,” you explain to mother.
It’s the glint in your eye, your laughter, your stories
that warm your craggy face and made our growing years fun.
Mother, of course, must have what Pop has and so I wrote a praise poem for her as well. It’s a little more complex than Pop’s praise poem. Hers speaks of her weaknesses as well as strengths and traces the tension in our relationship and how that was finally resolved. This is the complete text of the poem, so just relax and sit a spell.
Born Ruth Evelyn Johnston (don’t forget that “t”).
Married Ruth Thompson, Erwin’s wife and lover.
We called you Mother or Mama,
but not “Mom.”
“Mom” is too much
like the women in the wax commercials.
You are an original.
Your own person.
A sociable eccentric.
Your will like a steel bolt through your character.
You fought and scraped and plotted
for what mattered.
You were never one to purr your way to favor,
rubbing against legs to be petted.
If you’d been born a few generations later,
who knows what history might have had in store for you?
Your grit the stuff of American legends,
I see you starting out
as a stock girl and ending up Corporate President.
Your feet so grounded they’d sprout roots.
Your head a computer, whirling out business deals.
Or, I see you sneaking into the army as a youngster,
Carrying the general’s bath water,
And ending up five star general yourself.
Hair clipped close and held firmly under your helmet.
Shoulders only slightly stooped by golden epaulettes.
The general in you
incapable of small-scale projects.
You marshal resources and forces as you:
Make acres of quilts.
Cook roomfuls of banquets.
Plant fields of flowers and vegetables,
laying in stores for the winter.
Victory is yours, over and over,
as you pack
the productivity of two into one body.
Yet, for all your gumption,
your feelings, like old lace,
disintegrate in my hands.
Your magnolia petal soul bobs down the creek,
navigating shallows and peering into depths.
Delicate titmouse feather Mama, same as those
miniature birds you feed
before they dart into gourd palaces.
I write this wrapped in your masterpiece quilt,
appliquéd with views of Africa
you crafted and cried over
for years during one of our civil wars.
One day I tore open a bulky brown package and there it was.
Exquisite, a sign of our peace, and mother love.
It’s a woman’s quilt.
African women stately and beautiful,
Pounding sorghum and cooking porridge over an open fire.
You were there when you were there.
The women loved you because you were you, of course,
But most of all, because you were a mother.
You were my mother.
You filled your life with the challenge of yourself.
Now, I call you on the telephone,
a year after your stroke.
We nearly lost you.
You lost megabytes of memory.
But, you never lost yourself.
The more you forget,
the kinder and softer you become.
“I love you, Janet,” you say.
And then, say again a few minutes later.
I love you, too, I say.
Then, the surprise word slips out:
Music is close to my father’s heart. I remember one morning in Botswana, out on the lands where my parents had gone to visit. My father woke up, stretched, and said, “Janet, I have never heard music so beautiful as that I hear in my dreams.” I wrote “Rehearsal for Papa’s Song” to honor my father’s musical heart. He’s going to help me out a little bit on this one.
“I couldn’t say, exactly, but the song went like this.”
Cold nights bind us together,
And in my silence his icicle words melt.
He tells of warm burrows in frozen time.
Fiddling and square dance calls.
“Ladies bow, and gents bow under,
Hug ’em up tight,
and swing ’em like thunder!
Grab your toe and on you go,
Chicken in the bread pan,
pickin’ out the dough!”
Lulabelle and Skyland Scottie,
on the crystal set
“Country lads and lassies,
goin’ to the scene.
Lookin’ fresh as dewdrops
on a bunch of garden greens.
Gingerbread and candy
they’re eatin’ all the while,
Goin to the circus,
puttin’ on the style!”
Jeanette Mc Donald and Nelson Eddy,
on the silver screen:
“He takes her in his arms. Would you?
He tells her of her charms. Would you?
I learn slowly.
His time is mine only by heritage.
But when the revival comes,
his glacier music will need singing!
My mother’s section in Sightlines is titled “Sweet Little Dove.” This is a small family joke, because my mother’s temperament is pure mountain goat. “Sweet Little Dove” comes from a song Pop and I often serenade mother with because the title, “Evelina,” is as close as we’ve ever found to my mother’s middle name, Evelyn. Pop’s going to help me sing this for you now.
Way down in the valley where the lily first blows,
Where the breeze from the mountains ne’er ruffles the rose;
Lives fond Evalina, the sweet little dove,
The pride of the valley, the girl that I love.
Dear Evalina, Sweet Evalina
My love for you will never never die.
Dear Evalina, Sweet Evalina,
My love for you will never never die.
Now that you have a small sense of my parents as individuals, let me speak of their strong bond as a couple, parents, and stewards of an extended family and the land that has been in our family since the 1860s through six generations. They are 90 now, their birthdays just a few months apart. In “Rising,” written last year, I wrote:
my mother caught up to my father at last.
As if anyone ever catches up to another,
especially, if that other
never ran away in the first place.
They are a tag team, my mother and father.
Running and catching, tagging and running.
And so it will be, I think,
all the way to heaven and beyond…
My parents stir
in their bedroom below mine,
in the oldest house in the world.
My mother snuggles inside the crook of my father’s arm.
Their bodies stirring,
warming each other, still.
Following a major stroke in 2001 up until just this month we were able to care for my mother at home. Many families would not have made this choice or had the resources to carry out this choice. My father, supported by a strong family team, has been my mother’s primary care-taker for roughly five years. I tell people that if there were a care-taking Olympics, that Pop would win in his class. One of the biggest benefits I’ve received in spending so much time with my parents in the last 18 months is witnessing the closeness between them, that is beyond words. . . and seeing my father as he carries out his marriage vows of “sickness and health.” The poem “Nesting” shares some of their intimacy that I was privileged to witness:
to my parents’ bedroom is ajar.
I poke my head
around the door and peek in.
There they are,
not a peep out of them.
Cuddled in Mother’s hospital bed
he cradles her head under his armpit.
Pop grins his head off.
Mother looks like she died and went to heaven.
Not a bad way to go, when you think about it.
“Tuck your head under my wing
and go to sleep,” Mama used to cluck
when I was her baby chick.
Here they are, nestled together,
under each other’s wings.
Nesting, with no eggs to hatch.