Posts Tagged ‘sisters’

One of many ways to enjoy the charms of Chestertown


I love the Midwest, but sometimes living here I need a strong dose of quirky.  I spent last weekend in Chestertown, Maryland with my sisters, my mother and a handful of nieces, and I’m happy to report that quirk has been dispensed.


Chestertown is a small historic Eastern Shore town, population 5,000, situated on the Chester River a few miles from the beautiful Chesapeake Bay.  It features a two-street downtown with brick sidewalks and just enough shops to fill an afternoon.  My daughter thought she was on the set of Gilmore Girls.  There was a funky coffee shop, a clean well-lit bakery with a very cute baker named Dougie, a multitude of consignment shops (no pretense here, that’s consignment, not antique), and five bookstores.  Two are used, one new, one’s Christian and the other is the campus bookstore for nearby Washington College, established 1792.


At one of the bookstores, I fell in love with a series of hand-made books by a local husband-wife team.  Funny, quirky little books.  The couple lives in a barn and I was encouraged to walk over and meet them.  To my lasting regret, I ran out of time and didn’t. (Later this week I’ll post on their enterprise, Idiot Books.)


In another bookstore I heard a customer ask the bookseller, “Do you have anything for ‘Mommy lied and Daddy’s really in jail?’”


I celebrated my birthday with my sisters for the first time in twenty years.  They surprised me with a wonderful cake:



I got a plastic duck with a tape measure hidden in its backside and this, a gift that brought tears to my eyes:


My sister told me the bookseller knew all about Kenneth Rexroth.  This town impresses. Marian the Librarian would surely be idle if she was charged with improving the cultural level of Chestertown.


But the best present was spending time with my female relatives.  We did what we always do:  we plan runs and eventually go running, we persuade each other to take our cast-offs in a grand clothing exchange, we laugh at my mother’s jokes and tricks, we put candy corn in our mouths like teeth and talk like hillbillies, we drink, we dance, but mostly we talk talk talk on matters trivial (how often we dye our hair if at all) and profound (what are our dreams for the rest of our lives?)


Indeed I have an embarrassment of riches in the sister department, so it was most appropriate that my sister-in-law, who always designs the commemorative t-shirt, chose a treasure chest as her theme.


The quote is from the end of a poem by Victorian poet Christina Rossetti called “Goblin Market.”  It’s crazy stuff.  One of two sisters eats the forbidden fruit of goblin men.   After the first fruit-eating frenzy, she can’t get any more and begins to waste away.  The other sister begs the goblin men for more fruit.  They refuse and beat her and squash fruit in her face.  So she runs home and tells her sister to lick the pulp from her cheek and lips.  (Face-licking was unnecessary on our weekend because there was plenty of cake and apples for all.)  Years later the recovered sister tells her children:

For there is no friend like a sister

In calm or stormy weather;

To cheer one on the tedious way,

To fetch one if one goes astray,

To lift one if one totters down,

To strengthen whilst one stands.


Amen, sister, amen.

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Everyone Sang

by Siegfried Sassoon

Everyone suddenly burst out singing;

And I was filled with such delight

As prisoned birds must find in freedom,

Winging wildly across the white

Orchards and dark-green fields; on – on- and out of sight

Everyone’s voice was suddenly lifted;

And beauty came like the setting sun;

My heart was shaken with tears; and horror

Drifted away . . . O, but Everyone

Was a bird; and the song was wordless; the singing will never be done. *

English poet Siegfried Sassoon wrote “Everyone Sang” in 1918 to celebrate Armistice Day.  Sassoon initially went to war with patriotic fervor and dreams of glory.  He was quickly disillusioned by the carnage.  As the war ended, as “horror/Drifted away,” the fields he had seen covered in body parts and blood were replaced in his mind’s eye by fields alive with green grass and trees in full bloom.  Hence the joy.

I taped his poem inside a guest bedroom window in a house that the female half of my family–7 sisters, 3 sisters-in-law, 1 mother, and 4 out of a multitude of nieces–had rented for a weekend in Annapolis. We gathered three months after my father died.  Nothing profound happened: we cooked for each other, ate, drank, danced, shopped, and mostly laughed, our family jokes inscrutable and probably unfunny to outsiders; in short, it was a weekend full of joy.

The house we rented had a grand piano that looked out on the Chesapeake Bay.  After dinner one night, as a surprise present for my mother, my sister the amateur jazz pianist accompanied us singing “Stars Fell on Alabama,” a beautiful old song that my mother and father liked long ago. When we finished singing and returned to the table, we noticed my mother, a strong Irish lady who rarely cries, teary-eyed and flush with emotion.

I like to think that as we sang, images of my father dying in a nursing home bed fell away and were replaced by images of him at his most handsome, his most romantic. Exactly what memories the song pulled up for her we’ll never know. But youth was surely alive in that precious space of the heart that relives times past; there she and my father can dance together forever, unseen by us.  I’ve listened to several versions of that song—Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald both sing it—but none will be as magical as ours that night.

Thinking of the sweetness, the tenderness of that moment reminds me of one of my favorite dreams.  In the dream I’m outside a white clapboard house at night looking in.  Every light from the 3-story house is on, and warm light reaches out to me as I stand in the darkened yard. I can see clearly inside each window, and each window is a tableau of women talking, some intently one-on-one, some in groups, some laughing, some holding each other, some with heads in each other’s laps, as children do with their mothers. It was a vision of joy such as Sassoon had, and like his it went on and on and on, until I woke up.

I grew up surrounded by women, always finding comfort in their presence.  How strange that a poem written by a man about a war of men fighting men should pull me back towards those women.

*I’m having difficulty with line breaks in WordPress.  Can’t get the stanzas to separate.

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