ORDINARY, YET EXTRAORDINARY

After my dad passed away last summer, my mom consolidated his stuff and let each of us kids choose a few keepsakes.  These items reside in a special box:  an everyday zip cardigan, a necktie, a cloth handkerchief, a Craftsman wristwatch with a leather band, a pair of clip-on sunglasses, a child-sized rosary (perhaps the one he received for First Communion), a copy of the letter I sent him for Father’s Day containing a hodgepodge of childhood memories, and the eulogy I wrote and read at his funeral.  Unbeknownst to me, he had been a journaler.  In small notebooks and diaries were records of his daily activities dating back to the late 70’s.  We didn’t fight over them, but we all clamored for our share.  On days
I really missed him, I would read a few pages.  His life, though ordinary, was full of surprises.  Who knew Dad was the garbage man’s favorite customer, a closet romantic who rewired lamps and misspelled words?

One of the diaries I have is from 1986, the year I graduated from high school and went away to college.  It was interesting to read about the months right before and after I left the nest.  The following poem is a mix of summary and insights in the style of Dad’s journal pages:

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CODE 88 BROWN

I’ve been a subscriber to The Sun Magazine for several years.  They print honest, moving, socially relevant pieces you won’t find anywhere else.  And it’s ad-free!  One of my goals was to appear in their Reader’s Write column and at long last, I have succeeded.  My short story on WEIGHT was one of about 20 chosen for publication in the March 2019 issue:

CODE 88 BROWN

I worked at an amusement park one summer in college, helping people on and off a small rollercoaster.  The ride’s safety equipment consisted of a seatbelt and a bar that snapped down over riders’ laps.

With heavier riders, securing the safety bar was a challenge; even the loosest setting pressed uncomfortably into their thighs.  Really large people simply couldn’t ride and no matter how tactfully I broke the news, it caused a scene.  Some would plead with me to keep trying; others would yell obscenities or threaten to have me fired.

I had only thirty seconds to get one group of riders out and the next buckled in, so I was always on the lookout for large people.  If a patron had trouble navigating the turnstile due to size, the worker stationed there announced “Code 88” over the PA system, followed by the color of the patron’s shirt.

One busy afternoon, a Code 88 Brown alerted me to an obese man on the platform.  Although I’d warned him about the tight fit, he stuffed himself into the narrow seat and egged us on as two, then three of us, struggled to lock the bar.  When it clicked into place, the man howled in pain, but there was no time to investigate:  a full train was waiting to pull up and unload.

The operator hit the button and the brake released.  While that poor man continued to wail, we pushed the train out of the station, then high-fived each other for a job well done.  When Mr. Code 88 Brown returned at the end of his ride, he was still screaming.  Our efforts to secure that safety bar had broken his leg.

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PRECIOUS OR PRECOCIOUS?

When I was a child, I loved staying at Grandma’s house.  I packed my suitcase and lugged it up the creaky stairway to the alcove bedroom with the framed print of the alley cat whose huge eyes glowed in the dark.  Crisp morning breezes carried the sweetness of lilacs and bird song through the open window.  Grandma didn’t play with us so much as let us tag along as she did her chores.  We clamored to help gather fallen apples for a pie, knead bread, or feed laundry through her old-fashioned wringer.  She never cut us a break when we played games.
It didn’t matter if you were six or sixteen, if you misspelled a word in Scrabble, she would challenge you and you would lose your turn.  She had the patience of Job, fielding our questions all day without a trace of irritation.  When I pointed to a ceramic jar on the bathroom counter and asked what ‘Chopper Hopper’ meant, she told me choppers were teeth and a hopper was a place to keep them.  “C’mon, Grandma, you can’t put teeth in a jar!” I said, certain she was pulling my leg.  I about flipped when she opened it and showed me Grandpa’s dentures.  At bath time, I told her I didn’t want my hair shampooed; I had sounded out the words on the bottle and was convinced that a product called ‘Hurr-ible Essence’ would smell bad.  Her rosary resided in an elegant plastic box whose lid was a statuette of the Holy Family.  Across the front it said, “The family that prays together, stays together,” which
I solemnly repeated every time I retrieved it for her.  My fascination with reading everything in her house must have driven her bananas.

GRANDMA MARGARET
(Elegy in Ghazal)

Her gentle brown eyes lit up just for me, my grandma
Her hugs were warm and soft and bosomy, my grandma

She stoked the basement woodstove, did her gardening
in a proper dress and hose—always a lady, my grandma

She turned every chore into fun: chopping up vegetables,
making beds or bread, hanging out laundry, my grandma

In card and Scrabble games, she did not pander to us kids;
she played hard, made us beat her honestly, my grandma

She churned out snickerdoodles and homemade noodles
and jars of tiny pickles, as sweet as could be, my grandma

She knew a mourning dove’s cry, made snapdragons talk,
shook down fruit for us from her apple tree, my grandma

When I tossed a Nerf ball in the toilet, talked too much, or
toppled a houseplant, she never grew angry, my grandma

On her Singer, she sewed clothing and puppets and quilts,
and hundreds of pairs of mittens for charity, my grandma

She even made me a black baby doll, hair done up in braids
Provider of my first lesson in racial diversity, my grandma

Each night, she prayed for world peace and those in need,
counting Hail Marys on her worn rosary beads, my grandma

I’m fifty and childless and live in sweatpants and sneakers,
but inside, where it counts, I shall one day be my grandma

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I THINK, THEREFORE I HAVE CANCER

At the direction of my endocrinologist, I scheduled a couple tests to make sure my thyroid cancer is still in check.  My labs were OK.  This week, I went to Radiology for an ultrasound, then Nuclear Medicine for a whole body PET scan.  The ultrasound required no special prep.  The instructions for the PET seemed fairly routine until the last few sentences.  I was distressed by the prospect of sitting around for an hour with nothing to read.  Then I was told I musn’t “think too hard.”   After the administration of the fluorosine glucose, I needed to keep
the ol’ gray matter at rest until the scanning process was complete.  PET scans locate cancers by mapping out areas of increased glucose uptake.  Because cancer cells multiply faster than normal cells, they require more glucose.  As do brains when they’re in use, meaning that rumination by the patient could potentially skew the results.  Tell me, how is a person supposed to “not think” while she lies under a scanner waiting for her fate to be decided?  So much the worse if she’s a writer whose mind churns endlessly, chasing metaphors, counting syllables, and wondering why humor rhymes with something as un-funny as a tumor.

The following poem is a VERS BEAUCOUP, French for “many rhymes.” Each four-line stanza adheres to this scheme of internal and enjambed rhyme: a-a-a / a-b-b / b-c-c / c-d-d.

  

NO READING OR THINKING WHILE THE RIDE IS IN MOTION

Nuclear Med Man schedules my PET scan, explains the plan:
OK, ma’am, fast for six hours prior, wear comfortable attire
It also requires avoidance of brain stimulation as cogitation
could be mistaken by the scanner and read as brain cancer.

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RUNNING ON EMPTY

Did you ever have one of those days when everything runs out at the same time?  It starts small, say, squeezing the final splurt of shampoo from the upside-down bottle.  (The conditioner will be fine; Universal Law dictates that the conditioner will never run out on the same day
as the shampoo.)  You lather up using a sliver of soap.  Grab the last Q-tip.  Force the final unwilling blob of toothpaste from the anorexic tube.  The depressurized remains of the styling mousse comes out in
a puddle instead of a lump.  You whisk the last kleenex from the box, dump the crummy, bottom-of-the-barrel kibbles into the dog’s dish, and resort to scraping the mayo jar with a spatula.  The spotty brown banana you were saving for lunch has gone missing.  The kitchen light bulb blows out.  You pour your coffee directly into the cream carton and swish it around to get the last little bit.  Your prescription needs
to be refilled.  You have two bills to mail and only one stamp.  As you update your to-do list, your pen runs out of ink…

I’ve condensed this phenomenon into a LIRA.  As you may recall, a Lira is a five-line poem with syllabic rules (7-11-7-7-11) as well as a scheme of rhyme and refrain (a-B-a-b-B).

WHAT’S IT GONNA BE?

Empty toilet paper core
A running-out day is what it’s gonna be
No clean socks in my top drawer
Two-crust sandwich, car on “E”
A running-out day is what it’s gonna be

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BEHIND THE CLOSET DOORS

Welcome to the Land of Unfinished Projects!  Partially strung beads, half-baked Christmas ornaments, mostly empty sketchbooks, scrap books and photo albums.  Two tattered duvet covers waiting to be patchworked into one usable one, a file box of semi-sorted medical papers, the “One-Year Bible” I got five years ago, its bookmark still wedged somewhere in Genesis.  I suspect the Road to Hell passes through this closet, albeit an unpaved section, flanked by stacks of perfectly good intentions the construction workers haven’t gotten around to laying yet.

Years ago, I started crocheting an afghan with “found” skeins of yarn from a failed sweater project.  When the “afghan” reached the size of
a super-long, super-fat scarf, I realized I’d need more yarn in order to finish it.  JoAnn’s had long since discontinued that brand and carried nothing with a similar blend of wool and acrylic.  Not to worry, folks, I found it on E-Bay:  36 brand new skeins at a price I couldn’t pass up.  The package arrived and I dived in with gusto, diligently adding a few rows every night.  Until summer came and it got too hot to work on it.
I bought an XL Tote at Dollar General, put the afghan and remaining yarn in it, and shoved it in the closet.  I unearthed it during my recent decluttering spree.  It was below zero, perfect weather to snuggle up under the wooly beast and get my crochet hook moving again.

The poem below is a LIRA.

STALLED PROJECT

Thirty skeins of bargain yarn
tucked away in a box on a closet shelf
for an afghan, thick and warm
one that won’t crochet itself
tucked away in a box on a closet shelf

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CONFESSIONS OF A MAGPIE

One of my New Year’s resolutions was to declutter my garage and my closets.  Having squirreled it away piece by piece, I was stunned by the sheer volume of stuff I had crammed onto shelves and into cupboards, drawers, cardboard boxes, and plastic totes “in case I might need it.”  There were parts from things I don’t own anymore and others I could not even identify.  Warranty paperwork from three lawnmowers ago.  Parallel printer cords, presumably from a dot matrix printer we had in the 90’s.  Most impressive was my collection of “Other-Ware,” lidded plastic food containers I feel compelled to reuse because they can’t be recycled.  I assume I inherited my magpie tendencies from my grand-mother, who saved and repurposed everything.  Margarine tubs held leftovers.  Paper bags became book covers.  Family-sized boxes from Post Toasties lined the bathroom trash can.  When she passed on, the closets in her upstairs bedrooms were stuffed to the gills with fabric.
I recognized a remnant that had been around for decades.  My mom probably had a dress made out of it, one that got handed down to all five of her sisters before it ended up in a rag rug.  When I was a child, Grandma used a scrap of that same fabric to sew a dress for my doll.
It popped up again in the quilt I received for graduation and I’d bet it plays a supporting role in some of my cousins’ quilts, too.

I took a deep breath.  I chucked glass and paper and cardboard into my recycling bin.  I filled two 35-gallon trash bags with Styrofoam and #4 and #5 plastics.  In the end, I couldn’t resist snatching back a few of the discards.  C’mon… you never know when you might need an ice cream bucket or a manila envelope or some packing peanuts…


The following “list” poem is also a KYRIELLE.  Click HERE for the rules on how to write one.

NATURE OR NURTURE?

My storage spaces overflow
with salvaged things I can’t let go
Be it malady or frugality,
my grandma’s spirit lives in me

Empty shoeboxes, tin pie pans,
mayonnaise jars and coffee cans,
tubs from yogurt and cottage cheese
My grandma’s spirit lives in me

Brittle thread and fabric scraps,
reams of paper grocery sacks,
plastic spoons from the Dairy Queen
My grandma’s spirit lives in me

I’ll brave recession or depression
horsemen, trumpets, Armageddon
armed with bread bags and ingenuity
My grandma’s spirit lives in me

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ALL IS CALM, ALL IS BRIGHT

For most of the year, I’m perfectly happy with shadows and darkness.  But the approach of winter solstice awakens in me an almost primal need for illumination, as evidenced by my recent household projects.

Setting up our life-sized crèche, powered by six extension cords:

Installing the Lego lighting kit in my little VW Bus.
Oooooh!  Ahhhhh!
Headlights, tail lights, signal lights, and overhead cabin lights:

Decorating my lime tree with a garland of twinkling stars:

Writing another Lanturne:

NOEL
Light
Shining
Luminous
In the Manger
Christ

 

But light can be metaphorical as well as literal.  I drove out to Dollar General yesterday to buy some non-perishable items for our Little Free Pantry.  I had already shopped there three times during the week and accumulated three coupons for $5 off a $25 order, all redeemable 22 Dec 18, not to be combined with any other coupon or offer.  I pushed my cart through the grocery aisles tossing in beans, vegetables, fruits, canned meats, pastas, sauce, macaroni and cheese, and jars of peanut butter.  Then some holiday items: cinnamon, ginger and vanilla, poultry seasoning, Stove Top stuffing, cranberry sauce, cookie mixes, frosting and sprinkles, hot chocolate and marshmallows.  I knew I had gone way over budget and briefly considered putting all the frivolous items back, but a voice inside assured me that I would be able to afford everything.

Just one register was open.  The clerk was hesitant to let me divide my order into three piles and use all three coupons, but she relented when I explained the food would be donated to charity.  Checking out took a while.  The line grew longer and the customers behind me grew antsy.  As the clerk scanned the final pile of groceries, a man in the line leaned toward me, held out his credit card and said, “This is the card you’ll want to use for that, Miss.”  It was the most expensive of the three piles, well over $50.  I asked if he was sure.  “Positive,” he smiled.  He’d overheard enough to figure out what I was doing and wanted to help.  The rest of the customers nodded approvingly, their irritation forgotten.  Greetings and blessings were exchanged and afterward, we parted ways, each of us touched by the glow of goodwill, carrying it like a torch into the cold, gray afternoon.

Merry Christmas!  May you all be bearers of the light.

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SPOTLIGHT ON BODILY FUNCTIONS

A call of nature occurred as I was driving on the small state highway between my folks’ house and the interstate. It’s mostly farm country, but you pass through one or two towns large enough to have a gas station.  Back then, the bathrooms were locked up and you had to go inside to get the key.  And everything closed at 10 pm; if it was later than that, you were out of luck.  That was my situation, one growing ever more dire.  Fearing the untimely appearance of a state trooper,
I turned off on a smaller road to take a quick whiz.  It was pitch dark
and I figured if I was careful, no one would be the wiser:

STOPPING TO PEE
ON A MOONLESS NIGHT

Whose fields these are I do not know
It doesn’t really matter though
My bladder has begun to twitch;
without relief, it might explode

On a county road as dark as pitch,
I brake just inches from the ditch
Hop out and feel my way around
then slide my jeans below my hips

Against the chrome, I hunker down
A sizzling jet-stream hits the ground
and thunders on non-stop until…
Is that a snake? That hissing sound?

Astonished by my speed and skill,
I launch myself right off the grille
and activate a motion light
whose million watts upon me spill

As jeans and bum I re-unite,
I wonder if some farmer might
have seen the moon that moonless night
have seen the moon that moonless night

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RORY STRIKES AGAIN!

Definitely a more challenging roll this time:
Pyramid
Water under the bridge
Footprint
Daisy
House
High rise
Lightning
Evil shadow
Frown

Juliana frowned and wrapped herself tighter in the afghan.  There was nothing good on TV – reruns of The Andy Griffith Show, NCIS, This Old House, a documentary about the pyramids, something about reducing your carbon footprint.  She wasn’t sick exactly, but it was easier to fib about having the flu than explain the real problem to her boss.  Some days she just couldn’t go out.  Six months of therapy hadn’t turned her phobias into water under the bridge.  No, they still nipped at her heels, following her like a sinister shadow.  The remains of last night’s dinner sat on the coffee table, stray bits of rice, wooden chopsticks, and two soggy cartons from China Moon.  Their sesame chicken was only so-so, but they delivered.  Next to the mess was an orange gerbera daisy in a green ceramic pot, a present from her little sister, Kate. Juliana envied Kate; she was so fearless.  She didn’t freak out during lightning storms.  She rode public busses and never worried about germs.  She lived in a high-rise—an efficiency apartment on the 17th floor!—and rode in the elevator every day.  Kate sat on her balcony, for God’s sake, sipping on Chardonnay and enjoying the view from a height that would have made Juliana break out in hives.  Dr. Sillman kept suggesting medication, and Juliana kept coming up with excuses not to take it.  But was this the way she wanted to spend her life?  Lying to her boss, flipping through the channels, eating bad sesame chicken, and staring at that annoying daisy?

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