Talk, reading, and book signing at
Harwood Art Center
Albuquerque, New Mexico
July 16, 2006
“Show Me the Way to Go Home”
Show me the way to go home.
I’m tired and I want to go to bed (hum)
Wherever I may roam—o’er land or sea or foam—
You will always hear me singing this song.
Show me the way to go home.
That word holds so much. So much memory. So much meaning. Home—sometimes just the idea of home—is a holy grail in our lives.
July 16th We are here together on July 16th, my great-grandfather W. J. Thompson’s 150th birthday, thereabouts. July 16th or the nearest Sunday to that date was the traditional date for the Thompson family reunion—that’s my father’s side.
On this July 16th we are in New Mexico, not Illinois. Aside from my 95-year-old Cousin Lyle, none of you have blood ties to me—none that I know of. We are in a different century from those long-ago family picnics and torturous picture-taking sessions. Yet, today, we have come home in this room. Welcome to my Family Reunion as, together, we show each other the way to go home.
For two years now, I’ve commuted between two cultures and two homes in Northern California and Southwestern Illinois. The catalyst for this nomadic pattern was my older sister Julia Thompson’s death in a car wreck on August 16th, 2004. A woman ran a red light and changed the life of my family forever. Julia’s husband, Dave Kraus, was in the car and severely injured, as was my mother, Ruth Thompson. Julia and Dave’s young grandson was also in the car, but escaped physical injury when a Good Samaritan pulled him out of the car before it burst into flames. My mother and Dave made brave recoveries. Dave went on to reconstruct his body and his life and, miraculously to me, fearlessly drives on freeways. In a spiritual sense the entire family was in the car when it crashed. We went on to make of it what we could.
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. Evergreen Heights is my paternal grandmother’s homeplace, the place where my father grew up, 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. I had been afraid to spend so much time at my home and family of origin, but a friend in California urged me on by saying, “Janet, everyone deserves to know the truth about her life.” Out of the truth I found, sprang my book Sightlines: A Poet’s Diary.
My work on Sightlines 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. This was a period of evaluation for me as I considered which place was really home to me and if I would move, full-time, back to the family homeplace in Illinois. My mother, even while suffering from dementia, always had an uncanny knack for grasping the essentials of the situation.
M: “Which place is better? Mother, on the phone.
I don’t know, Mom. That’s what I’m trying to find out.
My malady, if that’s what it is,
reverses the grass is always greener.
The fence is too high to see one world from the next.
Each place, a world of it’s own.
Sealed off, except for phone.
In one world,
the other disappears into the world of lost socks.
A magic trick, of sorts.
Back and forth and around she goes.
Where she stops, nobody knows.
Sightlines shows glimpses of the cycle of life of six generations in our family on this land. The cast of characters includes my great grandfather (the original patriarch who immigrated from Germany), my grandmother and some of her siblings, my father and mother and some of their siblings, my sister and brother, my niece, and her children (my great-nieces).
In going home I reconnected with all of these folks, living and dead, in an extended family reunion. One of these reunions is with my father, and he gets an entire section to himself titled Slim, one of his nicknames. I’ve always loved the quiet time we have together when I cut his hair.
Coming home after a long absence, I said, Pop, it’s time we cleaned your glasses.
He yielded them easily with a closed-lip smile.
Safety glasses stuck on my father’s face for decades now.
Pits from bouncing pebbles, splattered paint, grime.
I washed his glasses with hand soap and warm running water in the bathroom.
Glasses back on his face, his grin widened,
E: “It’s not near as dark a day as you think it is.”
We play music from his youth. Intertwined melodies and new harmonies.
He taught me these songs by ear, note by note.
His little lamb, I follow his lead.Long stories in-between tunes, flutter like grace notes.
For his up-coming appearance at the antique car and quilt show
I trimmed his winter’s crop of hair.
Pop spread newspapers on the bathroom floor;
fetched the old metal stool. Stripped to his boxer shorts,
he offered his shaggy white hair to my clippers.
His body slumped a little more, but still strong.
Handyman and steward to the land, its buildings,
down-and-out tenants huddled in the bottoms where corn grew once.
A simple haircut with electric clippers.
The back of his neck—crisscrossed wrinkles, dirt-filled crevices.
I clipped hair off over his ears. Pop, you need to scrub your ears when we finish.
I trimmed his bushy eyebrows while we were at it. His beard?
E: “Now, I never let anyone trim it but me.
Definitely not those girls down at the barber school.
But, if you want to, have a go and then I’ll finish off with my razor.”
He cocked his chin towards me. Sweet milk to a kitty.
Be quiet for a few moments. You don’t want to be talking
when these clippers go over your throat.
Mouth closed. Eyes soft.
A silent purr as I fussed over him.
Hair falls to the floor, a faint cymbal-brush.
Each clump and lock, as it falls, a syllable of love.
The problem with wanting to go home again—and we all know that Thomas Wolf said you can’t—is the problem of Time (Big T), the problem of memory, and ultimately a question of how big your mind is. In Wolf’s words:
The essence of Time is Flow, not Fix. The essence of faith is the knowledge that all flows and that everything must change. . . [otherwise we become] nothing but a series of fixations [in our body of beliefs].” (Thomas Wolf, You Can’t Go Home Again, p.731)
The poems in Sightlines are saturated with the longing for home—such a charged word for all of us.
My Mother, longing for her childhood home at the Fox Place and for her parents.
Myself, coming back as a prodigal daughter to my childhood home. I often felt I was now an outlander and found that what I remembered had been erased.
Home as heaven; heaven as home.
In looking around the world of the homeplace that had been there throughout my time on earth, I repeatedly found that Time’s Hand had passed over the earth of my childhood. It’s the presence of absence that reverberates so clearly as we hear in “Chicken.”
I know enough not to count my chickens before they hatch.
But what about afterwards?
The old chicken yard greets me at the end of my uphill climb.
Or, the archeological remains of it,
I should say.
I see it standing as if it were yesterday.
I understand that phrase now.
How phantoms of a person’s past
loom up more real than what clearly is not there.
This chicken yard, then, is now leveled
and grown over with Johnson grass,
the most stubborn weed in the world.
I can still step inside the foundation of the first coop
where Great Aunt Mim leaned too far
to collect eggs from a hanging basket.
The stool kicked out from under her.
Her shoulder broke, like hen’s eggs.
Later, she claimed, “But, I was being careful.”
In the kitchen yesterday my niece
nervously watched me stand on a chair.
And strain to reach the top shelf
to put away a cookie canister.
“Wouldn’t you rather use the step stool?”
The tactful voice of caution.
No, but, don’t worry. I’m being careful.
We both laughed, in joint homage
to a family story footnote.
My friends in subdivisions lived in split level houses,
but didn’t have a split level hen house to play in.
Nor did they have a clutch of stories to hatch.
No ancestors, who, never chicken,
played chicken with the odds.
Aged chicken manure fertilized Mother’s flower gardens.
Day lilies grew out of it.
Somewhere chickens watched and ran
as if their heads had just been
It’s not that we can’t go home. It’s that we can’t go home to the same place in quite the same way. I read Wolf’s words as saying that when we relinquish our false sense of safety that we gained in securing our storehouse of a fixed past that, in fact we do go home again. It is in the not going that we can then go. The home I came back to, the family I came back to had radically changed from my childhood. I had to move with the current of Time’s River.
Can you pin down safety?
Makers of safety pins think you can.
But they didn’t count on my mother,
all comfy in her easy chair,
to reach and open the drawer
in the old Singer cabinet.
Childproofing a house is a breeze,
compared to motherproofing a house.
The thing is, in my eyes,
she’s still the mother I once knew.
Not this new mother
I find picking her teeth
with the point of a safety pin
when I duck my head in from the kitchen
Angels, if you are there,
dancing on the point of that pin,
please protect my mother.
She really needs you.
It was a new home that I came home to. The warp of the old home was laid out on the loom, but we were weaving a new pattern with the weft of each day that passed after Julia’s death. The home that I came home to contained a mother that needed minute by minute care, a father devastated by loss and sleep deprivation (he cared for his wife at night), plus ravaged and rearranged family dynamics. Fortunately, though, I had a Pope in my bedroom to see me through all this.
There is a Pope in my bedroom.
Sitting in the chair at the foot of my bed, reading and writing.
Mouth open as if to speak.
What’s he trying to say?
Shall I go forth to do great things today?
If I’m lucky
I’ll learn humbleness and patience
kneeling at my mother’s feet,
on her birthday.
Her last lessons to me.
I clean her shit off the floor.
Off the toilet.
Off her nightie and sheets.
It’s all over everything.
All over her legs down to her ankles.
All over her back and arms.
She stands at the sink
to wash her private parts
as I kneel behind her
to wash her nether parts.
I’m going to powder your bottom, Mother.
“That’s what I did for you as a baby.”
I know, Mom.
That’s why I’m doing it now.
socks and shoes on,
Before the long walk to her chair.
She sits at her command post in the Queens Chair.
She gazes as the red-headed woodpecker
attacks the house once again.
Everyday Old John tries to peck the house down.
So far, it hasn’t yielded to his demands.
But, he has made quite a dent
in the trim on the corner
above the birdfeeder
where the other birds perch,
content to peck seeds.
But, then, he is a wood pecker,
and he would peck wood, wouldn’t he?
Upstairs in my bedroom
The Pope chuckles.
Secretly watching and listening.
Mom gives me lessons
While I give her care.
The Pope nods and goes wherever
Song: All Through the Night
Sleep my child and peace attend thee,
All through the night
Guardian angels God will send thee,
All through the night
My Mother died this May, but I am grateful for the many months God granted me to know her in this new way as a care-taker during her final stage of life. My Mother suffered a major hemmeragic stroke in 2001 which resulted in a cycle of increasing dementia and repeated smaller strokes until a last major stroke before her death. In Mother’s dementia, her mind was fixed on her parents and her main goal upon waking each day was to get back on home. My brother Gary determined that the home she longed for was the Fox Place, one of her girlhood homes. “Catechism” tells of our conversations and revelations around her longing.
M: Have you seen Mom and Dad?
No. Not recently.
M: How long has it been?
M: Where are they?
They aren’t around anymore.
They died, Mom.
That’s what people do.
M: I know that.
We all look forward to that.
I think that’s a good thing.
M: Dad died?
Maybe forty years ago.
M: Why didn’t I know about it?
Maybe you forgot.
M: That’s possible. What else is possible?
I don’t know, Mom.
M: Where are they now?
Up in heaven, I guess.
You’ve seen their graves in the Jerseyville cemetery.
M: Why didn’t I know about it?
M: How many children were there?
M: How many of the family is left?
You, Grace, and Oscar.
M: Why didn’t I know about it?
M: How many in my family?
Four, now, Mom.
You, Daddy, Gary, and me.
M: Who are you?
Janet, Mom, your youngest daughter.
M: You’ll always be my baby.
Every time I say, Your youngest daughter,
Every time we count to four instead of five,
I hold my breath.
Will she plunk in the missing piece of this puzzle?
She’s come close, a few times.
She knows Julia is there.
Somewhere, there’s an oldest.
Somewhere there’s a third child
she nursed from her breast.
Her heart would break if we told her.
Then, she’d forget in the next instant.
Only to break again, and again.
Every time she asks.
But, she never asks, outright.
She never says, “Where’s Julia?”
“I haven’t seen Julia for awhile.”
Then, I’d have to hand her the piece.
Then, she’d have to know about it.
If only for a skipped heartbeat.
At my Mother’s memorial this past May, my Father spoke and said:
E: Going home to visit her parents was a very important thing for Ruth. When we were in the service during World War II, in Winona, Texas, I remember the homesick feelings that we both had when we heard the mournful whistle of the train that passed within a block of our home. There is nothing so mournful as a train whistle at midnight when you are a thousand miles away from home, and not sure that you will ever be able to return.
In later years, she would get the feeling of needing to go home to visit. We always tried to accommodate this urge. The family feeling was very strong. They were a close family. They treated me more like a son than a son-in-law.
Lately, she would wake up and say: “I want to go and see my parents, today!” Or: “I want to go home.” I believe that she has now gone home.
This is the poem I read for my Mother in the Oak Grove Cemetery that day where she was buried between her parents.
she gathers the country to Illinois.
Maine ferns find new shadows
in Midwest loam.
only a trifle greedy,
she draws together, under her yew tree,
the country’s foundations.
Rocks and rubble
from Gettysburg National Cemetery
and Long Island back yards.
In darkness the country
crumbles while yew-loam
Coming home for me meant coming home to our family’s land and coming home to a sense of legacy. Thomas Wolf says it like this:
He, too, was out of that land which had been so much more to him than land, so much more than place. It had been a geography of heart’s desire, an unfathomed domain of unknown inheritance. The haunting beauty of that magic land had been his soul’s dark wonder. He had known the language of its spirit. . .He had been at home in it and it in him. . . He had known wonder in this land, truth and magic in it, sorrow, loneliness, and pain in it. He had known love in it. It was the other part of his heart’s home, a haunted part of dark desire, a magic domain of fulfillment.
In my girlhood I roamed our 100 acres on the bluffs above the Mississippi River. I knew its woods, ravines, fields, and bottomlands intimately. Our place was an early form of gated community.
Three gates protected our hilltop kingdom.
One at the bottom,
just past the No Trespassing sign.
One at the top,
just short of our house.
And, the gate that barred the back way,
our winter escape route.
If you belonged to the place,
then you possessed the keys to the kingdom.
Invaders lived to regret it.
Sometimes the lower gate remained open.
Joy riders got a jolt
when they zipped up the road,
ready to explore
and found the upper gate locked.
It’s a long way down when you’re backing up.
As for the back gate,
adventure-seekers, who couldn’t fling it open,
saw it as some kind of affront to human freedom.
Lovers liked to park in a shaded nook
just off the gravel road
six-inches away from our back gate.
My introduction to sex
was a naked couple dashing out of the woods,
Some folks brazenly trekked in.
One bunch of scoundrels topped a good evergreen
just to take home an ill-begotten Christmas trophy.
A troupe of teenagers crouched below the pine row.
Tucked their tails and ran when their jig was up.
Their abandoned cache of imported booze
introduced me to alcoholic spirits.
My parents lined up six bottles
in back of their closet
right behind the shoes collecting dust bunnies.
Why my tee-totaling parents
didn’t pour it down the drain
is still beyond me.
This dark bar stored my secret treasure.
I developed a taste for Grand Marnier,
doled out one thimble at a time,
nervously watching the level go down.
Thieves slipped through
our security system one night,
set to siphon gas from our 300-gallon barrel
supplied by the Farm Bureau.
Mother sensed them first
sat bolt upright on the back sleeping porch.
M: “Erwin, wake up!”
My father slipped down to their car.
Calmly pulled the keys out of the ignition.
A neighbor arrived with an unneeded gun.
Pop scored a flash photo of our gas hose in their gas tank,
license number prominent in the composition.
Road blocked on both ends by other neighbors.
The gas gang stood stock-still
quaking until the sheriff arrived.
Caught red-handed, they went straight to jail.
Do Not Pass Go.
Gates swing in
and then swing out.
I hightailed it to foreign parts:
Europe, Africa, Asia, and the Wild West.
But, I still carry
keys to the kingdom.
Like Wolf, I found myself caught in a torrent of recollections—of my own life and the “earth from which I came. . . Nothing that had ever been was lost.” (p. 790) I felt this most strongly at my favorite childhood refuge, up under the pine rows.
When I was little and ran away from home,
I ran under the pine rows up on the ridge.
Those Evergreen Heights of ours.
They all have white pine disease now.
It breaks my heart. The dead branches.
E: “That’s the tree I sang on as a boy,” Pop says,
on our stroll that has become an inspection walk.
The branch is a beauty,
a low curving upward horse of a branch.
Great Grandpa E. A. Riehl planted these pines.
Grandma Annie named her poems after them.
On the Heights.
God’s heights were the heights she came to know here,
seated underneath these evergreens
on the ridge overlooking the Mississippi.
She carried them
to the Korean Mission Field—and back.
Julia carried them to Europe to Russia to Africa
to Ellsworth Avenue in Pittsburgh—and back.
I carried them to Ghana to Botswana to Europe to Bhutan
to New Mexico to Northern California—and back.
Gary carries them 60 miles north to his lake
above Jacksonville—and back—and back—and back.
And so, when I was little and ran away from home,
with some food stuffed in my pockets,
I ran under the pine rows up on the ridge.
Those Evergreen Heights of ours.
(Each time I swore it would be forever,
but my forever’s never lasted more than an hour.)
I flung myself under that pony branch,
prayed it would rear its way over me as it
stampeded towards me. Flung myself face down
for my cry. Then faced upward towards the sky.
These pines are our mothers and aunts and sisters.
They are the resting place for ashes at the end.
And now, they too, are dying.
Commuting two-thirds of the way across the country meant lots of starting and stopping. With relocation, there is dislocation. But, I am fortunate. My sweetheart takes care of the nuts and bolts of domestic life such as mail and bills, and keeps the homefires burning. What I find hardest is to project into the next place when I am still in the other place. Each place and situation is so different.
Song: Homeward Bound
I wish I was,
Home where my thought’s escaping,
Home where my music’s playing,
Home where my love lies waiting
Silently for me.
Silently for me.
It’s a relief to be in my West Coast Home.
Talking long distance to my Midwest Home.
Saying, Good morning, how did your night go?
Rather than being part of that day and night.
E: “Ruth, get on the phone!
It’s your youngest daughter.
Your daughter, Ruth.”
It’s me, Mom. Janet. Your youngest daughter.
“So it was announced.”
I crack up.
“Such a pleasure to hear your voice. Such a nice surprise.”
Mom says over and over, A loop that’s easy on the ears.
I got home safely.
E: “I’m glad,” Pop says.
“But, I’m sure no one is more glad than you are.”
There was air turbulence on the last leg home.
But it worked out okay.
E: “Can’t control the air.”
Can’t control the air.
Song: Home Sweet Home
‘Mid pleas-ures and pal-ac-es thou-gh we may roam,
Be it ev-er so hum-ble there’s no place like Home!
It’s a relief to be home in Lake County.
Where Mount Konocti replaces limestone cliffs.
Clear Lake rather than the muddy Mississippi.
Views from our windows stretch miles.
Friends serve as family.
People to visit that I’m not related to.
No one to dress but myself.
A chance to get my hair cut.
My back back in whack.
My energy channels needled.
My med mix officially stamped.
How sweet it is to be loved by you.
It’s like sugar sometimes.
Back in the land of fresh focaccia and mufaletta mix.
Young mozzarella and basil.
Back in the land of manzanita and oak-bearing mistletoe.
Some trunks have fallen across the path since my last visit.
There’s the Great Blue!
He tests his toes on the Monet bridge
before playing You Can’t Catch Me
as I walk along the canal.
A red-shouldered hawk
heads for a Valley Oak, frog in his claws.
The water level seems lower than usual.
The ranger shows me the rain graph when I ask.
But, there’s always March.
Yes, it’s a relief to be back home.
Song: Home On the Range
Home, Home, On the Range
Where the deer and the antelope play.
Where seldom is heard a discouraging word.
And the skies are not cloudy all day.
It is fall at the lake now, no question.
The water cold and roughened by the wind.
The ducks have flown through.
To keep the falling oak leaves and redwood needles at bay,
I sweep my wooden porch at least once a day.
We had our first rain last night, sustained and gentle
as it fell on the roof and slid off.
No longer able to swim because of the cold,
I’ve started walking in the nearby state park.
Each day, something new.
Today, a covey of quail on top of a brush pile.
A dozen wild turkeys foraged
in the rain-damp earth at a deserted camp site.
Deer came down from the hills and peeked onto the path,
holding me in their wide-eyed gaze.
Two turtles sunned on a log.
Then, one slid down, as if on a children’s playground.
When I looked under the log in that world
of dark shadows and reflected branches,
I saw a red crayfish dart.
The quiet is deep
with all the summer people gone.
There is a feeling of sadness
attuned to the darkening
of the shorter days
and longer nights.
Wolf learns, as I did after him, “the priceless measure of his loss. He knew also the priceless measure of his gain.” He came to the conclusion that “You can’t go home again—not ever. There was no road back…. You can’t go back home to your family, back home to your childhood, back home to romantic love,. . .back home to lyricism, . . . back home to someone who can help you, save you, ease the burden for you, back home to the old forms and systems of things which once seemed everlasting but which are changing all the time—back home to the escapes of Time and Memory.” (p.706)
The place we can come home to is to ourselves. We can come home to our hearts and a new sense of freedom in our homing instinct as we yield up our illusions of rescue and permanence.
Song: Take me home. . . country roads. . . to the place I belong. . .
We flick the lines to reign in time’s runaway horse.
The horse neighs and its flanks quiver.
It’s a five-horse hitch that pulls this one-person buggy,
in harness for the last time.
Uneven, to be sure, but they were all stabled
in the same barn when we set out on our trip home:
Past, past perfect, present, future, future perfect.
It’s not the passenger that weighs so much.
It’s the baggage.
I want to thank Stephanie, my friend of 33 years—I had to do the math—along with the set-up and clean-up crew. We have some food and drink to enjoy and some books I’ll be happy to sell and sign—although I think most of you bought your own copies before the talk.
Thank you for being part of my family reunion today, this July 16th, and coming home with me. You’ll always be welcome. We’ll leave the porch light on for you.