Pioneer in a Mountaineer

This is a picture of my sister Josie and her late husband Edison. The poem-elfing that follows is a private one, written and posted as a thank-you to my other sister, Mary K.  With Josie’s and Mary K.’s permission, I’m sharing it with you.


A little background before you read the poem. Until late 2016 Josie and Edison lived in Ecuador with their two young girls. Then Edison was diagnosed with an aggressive brain tumor, glioblastoma (the same cancer Senator John McCain is fighting). In early 2017 the family came back to the States for treatment.


My mother had recently passed away and her house sold, so there was no “home base” for Josie and her girls to stay while Edison was in the hospital. They lived with different family members—his, hers—and generous friends. They changed houses often, depending on the logistics of the next day, sometimes nightly. (The street names mentioned in the poem are some of those homes.)


Every day of the seven- month ordeal, Josie drove and drove, dropping the girls off at school, heading up to Baltimore where Edison was in the hospital or rehab. She drove an old Mountaineer my sister Mary K loaned her. The car was almost thirty years old, had bad shocks (you’ll see the pun) and needed bricks behind the tires to stay in park. Still, it got Josie where she needed to go, and became, as you’ll see, her in-between home.


During the course of his brave fight, Edison lost the ability to speak, write, and walk. He passed away peacefully on July 8, 2018.

It was tragic. That’s what we all said. It’s so sad. It’s such a terrible situation. Pat phrases, necessary because the suffering of this man and his family was overwhelming to consider. Remembering that, I’m reminded of a story my sister Wizzie likes to tell of a co-worker who always said, in response to almost everything, “It’s so hard.” If someone was discussing their weekend and mentioned in passing that the tennis courts were crowded, this co-worker would say, “I know, it’s so hard.” The deli was out of root beer? The forecast rain? In-box full? “I know, it’s so hard.”


Her colleagues soon realized her pat phrase said more about what she was going through than what was being said. And that’s the thing about pat phrases. They allow us to gloss over suffering. They can keep us from hearing. They can prevent us from seeing.


Poetry is a counterpoint to that. Poetry breaks through pat responses. Poetry allows us to see a particular person, a particular situation, a particular emotion. That’s one reason I love Josie’s poem. It’s a look behind the curtain. As much as I thought I was aware of what she was going through, I wasn’t. This poem gives fresh insight. Reading the poem, I can see that she was, in spite of all the support that surrounded her, fundamentally alone in her suffering.


When Josie returned Mary K.’s car last week, she taped her poem to the front windshield.



So here’s the poem, in three overlapping pictures:

My home in-between. There’s a lot going on there.


I’m going to lighten the mood here a little and say that I myself am partial to in-between places, to any place I can pause before moving forward—a parked car, a hallway, the crook of a tree—and as long as we’re going back to childhood, Halfway Down the Stairs, as A.A. Milne says in his poem of the same name:


Halfway down the stairs

Is a stair

Where I sit.

There isn’t any

Other stair

Quite like


I’m not at the bottom,

I’m not at the top;

So this is the stair


I always



Halfway up the stairs

Isn’t up,

And isn’t down.

It isn’t in the nursery,

It isn’t in the town.

And all sorts of funny thoughts

Run round my head:

“It isn’t really


It’s somewhere else



Okay, pause ended, hit play. Back to It’s so hard.

“Oh Mountaineer,” Josie writes at the end, and I hear Walt Whitman’s “Pioneers! O Pioneers!” Whitman’s poem has a different spirit, not elegiac as here, but hopeful, forward-looking, a celebration of the pioneers’ bravery and fortitude.


I’m going to post it here for Josie, for her girls, for anyone who suddenly finds herself a pioneer, for those who are forced—unlike Whitman’s pioneers—to explore new territory when all they really want is to stay put in their old homes, the homes they love best.




COME my tan-faced children,

Follow well in order, get your weapons ready,

Have you your pistols? have you your sharp-edged axes?

Pioneers! O pioneers!


For we cannot tarry here,

We must march my darlings, we must bear the brunt of danger,

We the youthful sinewy races, all the rest on us depend,

Pioneers! O pioneers!


O you youths, Western youths,

So impatient, full of action, full of manly pride and friendship,

Plain I see you Western youths, see you tramping with the fore-


Pioneers! O pioneers!


Have the elder races halted?

Do they droop and end their lesson, wearied over there beyond

the seas?

We take up the task eternal, and the burden and the lesson,

Pioneers! O pioneers!


All the past we leave behind,

We debouch upon a newer mightier world, varied world,

Fresh and strong the world we seize, world of labor and the march,

Pioneers! O pioneers!


We detachments steady throwing,

Down the edges, through the passes, up the mountains steep,

Conquering, holding, daring, venturing as we go the unknown ways,

Pioneers! O pioneers!


We primeval forests felling,

We the rivers stemming, vexing we and piercing deep the mines


We the surface broad surveying, we the virgin soil upheaving,

Pioneers! O pioneers!





  1. Tom

    Poems help you see what’s really there. Rosie’s poem helped me see my mother, 92, full of feist but frayed around the mental edges, as her home has been taken from her. She lives in the same homey condo she has known the past 29 years, but now a squatter has moved in, a full-time caregiver whose mere presence changes everything. “To face that my home here no longer exists.” In a flash I finally saw that’s what it is for her. And I’ve been thinking it was nothing that a better attitude couldn’t handle.

  2. HiView Now

    Thank you. On my way to move from an old life I didn’t choose to leave to a new one, and moving this Saturday. I have been in-between for quite awhile—— So sorry for your sisters loss.


  3. Patricia Rawlings

    Hi Maggie— Wow. So moving. My heart breaks for your sister and her kids and the loss of her love. But the brave little toaster of a Mountaineer helped carry her along, as, I’m sure, did the love of her family–their generosity, compassion, caring. I know the “family home” and your mom would have eased things for her, had they been there, but it sounds as if there were comforts offered that certainly went to her heart and straight to her aid. You have a lovely and loving family–a blessing. To see its heart broken like this is profound. When you speak to her, tell her one person she doesn’t know has been touched by her poem–a lovely work in and of itself. And thanks, Maggie, for sharing this very private and very poignant moment with us here. Trish

  4. Pam


    Your storytelling is beautifully rendered. Unimaginable grief.

    I loved being let in on the backstory. It set the poem up perfectly.

    You have amazing siblings. Amazing. Generous. Kind.

    It sucks the route Edison was railroaded into taking. Today I will hold Josie and your two nieces close in my thoughts. I imagine on some unknowable level they feel the love of strangers propping them up along with all the family and friends who adore them. My sinewy tendrils are slicing across time and space with all the kindness I can muster.

    I feel very blessed to know you Maggie. I love this world and how it weaves us all together with our tribe flung far and wide. I trust. I love. I am so damn grateful.

    Hugging you from here. Hope you feel it.

    1. poemelf

      I keep going back to your website to look at your work. I love it so much. Kicking myself because I was down in Raleigh Easter weekend for a wedding and would have loved to seen your work in a gallery….didn’t put it all together

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