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Waiting At The Window

by A. A. Milne

 

These are my two drops of rain

Waiting on the window-pane.

 

I am waiting here to see

Which the winning one will be.

 

Both of them have different names.

One is John and one is James.

 

All the best and all the worst

Comes from which of them is first.

 

James has just begun to ooze.

He’s the one I want to lose.

 

John is waiting to begin.

He’s the one I want to win.

 

James is going slowly on.

Something sort of sticks to John.

 

John is moving off at last.

James is going pretty fast.

 

John is rushing down the pane.

James is going slow again.

 

James has met a sort of smear.

John is getting very near.

 

Is he going fast enough?

(James has found a piece of fluff.)

 

John has quickly hurried by.

(James was talking to a fly.)

 

John is there, and John has won!

Look! I told you! Here’s the sun!

 

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It’s a compulsion for the grieving to speak of the dead. It’s a kindness to listen.

 

So thanks in advance for kindnesses given.

 

IMG_4229My mother died May 7, the day before Mother’s Day. She was ninety. As a reader of obituaries, I know that ninety is a long life. I know that a death at ninety is no tragedy. So many people get but a fraction of her years. So many live in misery for the years they have, struggling in poverty, physical debilitation, mental suffering, violence, refugee camps, open seas. I have no reason for bitterness over the length of her life or the circumstances of her death.

 

But still. It hurts. It feels sudden. She seemed so much younger than she was. Anyone who spent five minutes with her would come away from the visit hoping she’d get at least twenty more years to continue enjoying life on Planet Earth.

 

Until a few weeks before her death, she still drove herself, oxygen tank and all, to Sunday Mass and weekly hair appointments. She played bridge. She played jokes. She took interest. It’s hard for old people to do that, I know. Suffering in the hospital in her last week, she garnered the energy to weigh in on bridal shower invitations, ask questions about the college decision of one of her 38 grandchildren, delight in the announcement of a new great-grandchild scheduled to arrive in a month she must have known she wouldn’t be around for.

 

She had fluffy white hair that sproinged back when you touched it, a ready laugh, bright blue eyes that shined in the Irish way. She was mother to eleven, mother-in-law to ten, beloved by all. A Denver gal, a Navy wife. Redskin fan. A list-maker, a listener. A giggler. Penuche maker. Fan of British detective shows. Knitter for the Christ Child Society, her last project unfinished, a mint-green baby sweater.

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She was always game for silly posing

She was always game for silly posing

 

I could go on, and I would–I do, in my head all day–but I’ve made my point, I guess. I miss her. Often I ache for her. What I want to do is honor her. She was a faithful reader of this blog and sometimes featured in it, so here is where my tribute to her will go.

 

My two-month delay in posting about her has been over poem selection. A few tributary poems came to mind, but nothing seemed adequate. I thought about these lines from Seamus Heaney’s “Clearances” (from stanza 3, usually excerpted as a stand-alone):

 

I remembered her head bent towards my head,

Her breath in mine, our fluent dipping knives–

Never closer the whole rest of our lives.

 

This particular stanza is about a young Heaney skipping Sunday Mass with his mother to peel potatoes in the kitchen. I peeled many potatoes for my mother when I was young, lots of potatoes, potatoes for thirteen people, always flipping the peels on to waxed paper as she directed, but that image doesn’t carry her spirit for me. Still, the comforting sense of shared activity that Heaney describes is one I hold in my heart. One of my favorite memories of visiting my mother in Maryland over the last few years is sitting side-by-side with her on the couch, nearly touching shoulders, each of us reading our own books silently together.

 

Julia Kasdorf’s “What I Learned From My Mother” was also under consideration. A poem I’ve read dozens of times. But what Kasdorf learned from her mother–

 

have plenty of vases on hand

in case you have to rush to the hospital

with peonies cut from the lawn

 

is more in line with what I learned from my oldest sister Ceci. I learned lots of other things from my mother, not the least of which is that life is plenty hard but also plenty fun if you use your imagination.

 

Which brings me to the poem I did choose, “Waiting at the Window” by A.A. Milne, better known for his Winnie-the-Pooh stories. Here a little boy, stuck inside because of rain, makes a game out of watching raindrops roll down the glass. Screen Shot 2016-07-21 at 2.29.44 PMThis is exactly the sort of thing my mother often did–create characters, make a race, not complain about situations you can’t change. (My two younger sisters remember fondly the many times she entertained them on boring errand runs. She’d have them duck down in the back seat of the brown Nova, hidden from view, while she called on her pretend CB radio, “Calling all cars, calling all cars. We have two missing girls, ages six and seven, both brunette, short hair. If found—” and so on, over and over because they found it side-splittingly funny.)

 

The poem is from one of two volumes she read to us: When We Were Very Young and Now We Are Six. All eleven of us can still recite from memory one poem or another from these collections, but the memory of her voice is what is most precious about these poems. Her reading voice was low and tuned to rhythm, and her wry delivery made every funny line even funnier and brought out humor not obvious to lesser readers. The musicality of Milne’s poems, the whimsy, and the sometimes subversive messages made these books perfectly suited to her.

 

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Over time, the poems and the characters in them have become old family friends—Binker, Mary Jane, King John who was not a good man, Nanny who let the beetle out. Now We Are Six and When We Were Young are ingrained in our imaginations and shaped us in ways we probably don’t realize, ways big or small, who knows. I don’t want to make too much of a point about this, but it strikes me as funny that these poems and the accompanying illustrations (simple, beautiful line drawings by E. H. Shephard), which we associate with our mother more than any other material she read out loud, paint a world opposite the one we grew up in. My mother, who could not unjustly be accused of reverse snobbism, didn’t know any patrician families with nannies and cooks and big houses in London and distracted mothers dressed to the nines, absent fathers, only children. And she probably wouldn’t have liked them much if she did. Milne’s world is not quite Downton Abbey, but as far as can be from our suburban split-level house held together with duct tape and credit.

 

That home is where I left the poem, in the front bay window where I spent many hours looking out into the street. I had come back to Maryland to help clear out the house for a sale. (Which we did sell one morning that week, after Sunday Mass, my sisters and me, out of the blue, without a realtor, to a lovely young couple who will surely re-fill the empty house with life and fun. I hope the house cleaners leave the poem for them. I left a few others too, but will include those in another post.)

 

IMG_1057The only other connection I want to make about “Waiting at the Window” and my mother is the last line:

 

Look! I told you! There’s the sun!

 

She was not a rose-colored glasses lady, never a Pollyanna or even a cheerleader. But she had grit, she had perspective, a sense of humor and a strong faith, and that’s how she carried on. It was her example more than her words that taught us that the sun always does come out, eventually.

 

Screen Shot 2016-07-21 at 2.33.09 PMAlan Alexander Milne (1882-1956) was born in London to a Scottish father and English mother. The family lived at the small private school his father ran, which Milne and his two older brothers attended, and where science-fiction writer H.G. Wells taught. Milne went to Trinity and Cambridge on scholarship. He studied math. At Cambridge he worked on the student magazine Granta and later worked for Punch, the famous British humor magazine.

 

He married in 1913, and served in World War I, although he was a pacifist. In 1920, after the war, he and his wife had a son, Christopher Robin, the inspiration for the boy in Winnie-the-Pooh and several of his poems. In 1934 he published an anti-war book, Peace With Honor, but later he served in World War II.

 

Milne played on a cricket team with J.M. Barrie of Peter Pan fame, and Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of Sherlock. It’s hard to imagine three such different writers playing a sport together. (A challenge to readers: come up with your own unlikely writerly sports team.)

 

He wrote thirty-four plays, seven novels, including detective fiction, five books of nonfiction and the books of verse already mentioned. His most famous creation, Winnie the Pooh, has been translated into over fifty languages (in Russia he’s Vinne the Poohk) including Latin.

 

There’s an upcoming biopic of Milne, starring Domhall Gleeson (Bill Weasley in Harry Potter films, among other roles) and Margot Robbie as his wife. The film will examine the affect of international fame on the Milne family. Can’t say it sounds particularly gripping or interesting.

 

Milne had a stroke in 1952 and never recovered well. Brain surgery left him partially paralyzed, and being an invalid took a toll on his personality and his family relations. His lingered three more years and died in early 1956.

 

I dreaded writing this post and cried many times writing it. But I feel better having finished. If you’ve stuck with me through all these long paragraphs, many thanks again.

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poem is in condiment caddy

poem is in condiment caddy

Wedding Cake

by Naomi Shihab Nye

 

Once on a plane

a woman asked me to hold her baby

and disappeared.

I figured it was safe,

our being on a plane and all.

How far could she go?

 

She returned one hour later,

having changed her clothes

and washed her hair.

I didn’t recognize her.

 

By this time the baby

and I had examined

each other’s necks.

We had cried a little.

I had a silver bracelet

and a watch.

Gold studs glittered

in the baby’s ears.

She wore a tiny white dress

leafed with layers

like a wedding cake.

 

I did not want

to give her back.

 

The baby’s curls coiled tightly

against her scalp,

another alphabet.

I read new new new.

My mother gets tired.

I’ll chew your hand.

 

The baby left my skirt crumpled,

my lap aching.

Now I’m her secret guardian,

the little nub of dream

that rises slightly

but won’t come clear.

 

As she grows,

as she feels ill at ease,

I’ll bob my knee.

 

What will she forget?

Whom will she marry?

He’d better check with me.

I’ll say once she flew

dressed like a cake

between two doilies of cloud.

She could slip the card into a pocket,

pull it out.

Already she knew the small finger

was funnier than the whole arm.

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I was flying to Fort Lauderdale to meet my mother and some of my sisters. My plan was to leave “Wedding Cake” in the seat pocket, sandwiched between the in-flight magazine and the sky mall catalogue.  But we passengers were sandwiched too, packed so tight that every sniffle and stomach gurgle seemed to originate from a communal body of seatmates, and I didn’t feel like making a spectacle of myself leaning away from the seat pocket to get a decent picture.

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’m glad I held on to the poem because I found a better spot for it later in the trip.

 

One day we heard that the owner of the hotel/condo we were staying in was having a huge birthday bash at the tiki bar downstairs, with a DJ and “Drink Girls.”  The “Drink Girls,” our tiki bar waitress explained, were hookers. None of us middle-aged suburbanites see prostitutes on a regular basis, and we wanted to watch them in action.

 

The tiki bar, being the last of its kind in Ft. Lauderdale, grandfathered in after beachfront tiki bars were outlawed, was crowded with a young and hormonally fired-up crowd. We had trouble distinguishing between the hookers and the bar patrons.  Young women in fishnet stockings and unzipped Daisy Dukes sauntered around selling shots, delivered with flair and in unusual serving positions. But other young women, dressed almost as provocatively, touched themselves as if they were showering and shook their body parts with an earnest determination to attract the attention of men far less attractive than they. To us it was all Sodom and Gomorrah, but to everyone else, we were the spectacle.  We must have looked like the summer stock cast of The Crucible.

 

After a while we got tired of the scene. We got up to go just as my mother was served a full beer she couldn’t drink.  No wanting to waste the beer, we brought it to a rowdy table of women at a bachelorette party.

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I offered the beer to the bride on behalf of my mother.  “She’s 88,” I told her, “and she was married for over sixty years and had 11 children.  So this is good luck to you from her.”  The table cheered and the bride greeted my mother warmly, albeit drunkenly. As people do at those kinds of milestone parties, the group absorbed the moment into the story of their evening, and my mother became to them what my sisters and I call “Friends Along the Way.” Friends Along the Way are strangers you meet on group outings who bond with you on some deep or joyful level. Friends Along the Way love connecting with your group and in turn are loved and petted.

 

My mom is pretty cute and no doubt her beer offering was adorable just because she’s 88 and they were young and wild. But the moment was more than that.  Maybe seeing the bride in that atmosphere of hookers and hooking up made us feel protective towards her. Like the speaker in the poem to the stranger’s baby, we each became the bride’s “secret guardian.”   Knowing my sisters and mother as I do, I‘m pretty certain that many silent prayers were said for her, asking she be blessed with a long and happy marriage.  She’ll never know that, which is part of the beauty of the encounter to me.

 

As luck would have it, on the next day we were seated for lunch at the very same table. Which is where I left the poem.

 

That’s a long story to show how Naomi Shahib Nye’s “Wedding Cake” is suited to its site. The protective feeling the speaker has towards the baby and the unexpected connection between two strangers are exactly what we experienced with our bride on her “Final Fling.”

 

On to the poem itself.

 

Being left with a stranger’s baby on a plane for an hour is a Billy Collins kind of moment.  Like Collins, Nye has a light touch, a droll perspective. But Billy Collins couldn’t have written this poem.  Such situations rarely happen to men, and if they do, it’s all Three Men and a Baby and Do I Really Have to Change This Diaper?!  Mothers, on the other hand, often ask other women to hold their babies—probably not for an hour, but still, mothers need a free hand now and then and sometimes have to rely on the kindness of strangers. But the absurd situation is not at the heart of the poem. “I did not want/to give her back,” the speaker says. A connection has been forged, a connection that goes beyond the physical pleasures of holding a beautiful baby.

 

Dressed so fancy in her white dress with little gold earrings, the baby seems to me Hispanic.  I mention this because cultural exchange is central to Nye’s work.  In an interview with the online journal Cerise, she offers her recipe for increasing tolerance:

Spend more time with people not your own age. With people from backgrounds which do not mirror your own. With anyone you might consider an “other” — even urban people need to spend more time with small-town or rural people, etc.

 

The speaker and the baby are traveling in a plane, above borders, free to connect across cultures, age difference, time, language or the lack of it.  Spending time with the baby, the speaker begins to identify with her.  They both cry.  They both wear jewelry.  The baby even wears what looks like a wedding dress, a signature dress in a grown woman’s life. Even without a common language—the baby presumably doesn’t speak—the speaker bonds so deeply with the baby that she can “read” the baby’s curls. They will become part of each others’ future lives.

 

The poem leaves me with some questions, as poems usually do. Does anyone have idea about these lines:

She could slip the card into a pocket,

and pull it out.

What’s the card?  Did the speaker write this poem on a card and imagine the baby keeping it as she grows up?

 

I’m also mulling over the end.  I’m interested in how other people understand this:

Already she knew the small finger

was funnier than the whole arm.

I can picture the speaker tickling and teasing the baby with her little finger, or the baby examining her own pinkie.  This is presented as a lesson the speaker has imparted to the baby.  How else do the lines work in the poem? Why do they end the poem?

 

Naomi Shahib Nye was born in 1952 in St. Louis and identifies as an Arab-American. Her father was a Palestinian refugee and her mother American. During high school she lived for some time with her grandmother in Jerusalem and in San Antonio.

 

She’s written several books of poetry, children’s books, songs and novels.  She has traveled for the U.S. Information Agency on goodwill tours.  Her anthology for teens, The Space Between Our Footsteps, is a beautiful collection of paintings and poems from the Middle East. After 9/11, she spoke out against terrorism and against prejudice, and in 2002 she published a book of new and old poems she had written about the Middle East.

 

In 2009, PeacebyPeace named her a Peace Hero.  I didn’t know such a thing existed, but it’s a wonderful appellation and something we can all aspire to be.

 

She’s won multiple literary awards, including four Pushcart Prizes. She lives in San Antonio with her photographer husband and son.

 

You can hear her read here, a “found” poem. Her voice surprised me. I had expected a voice soft and gentle like her face, but she sounds more like your best pal in high school talking too loud the morning after you got drunk together.  Gravelly and fun.

 

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