Friday, March 23, 2012

Poem for my parents' wedding anniversary: Words and Silence

My parents with me after Dad had preached his sermon
one Sunday, probably in 1959; I'm guessing
it was Mother's Day; I am the youngest of 8 kids;
my parents were 40 when I was born in 1956;
I remember this day, and being grumpy
for this shot. I needed a nap. (still do)

Yesterday was my parents' wedding anniversary; they were married in 1941. They both passed away in the 1990s. I suppose something we never stop doing is to look for them when they're gone, mostly in ourselves. I thought about them a lot yesterday, remembering how they would give each other anniversary cards at the breakfast table, with an acronym on the envelope. They could not open their cards until they figured out what the acronym stood for. (Could be something such as: T. T. M. H. M. I. T. W.) By the way, speaking of handsome (catch that?), Robert of The Solitary Walker has a wonderful new blog about the inner journey called words and silence. I guess that phrase has been on my mind lately too as a result.

Words and Silence

My mother was a talker. An enthusiast.
She’d meet us at the front door with a book
open in hand, ready to expostulate. “Oh, hello,
Mom.” “Hello. Wait till you hear this,” she’d say.

Our father was quiet (when not in the pulpit
or visiting parishioners at home or in the hospital).
Still waters and all that. Mom talking
at her end of the ten-seated dinner table,
he waiting at his end, not saying
a word, hands on his lap, not eating,
and finally someone notices that
he’s waiting. “Potatoes, Dad? Pickles?”
When he smiles his faint smile,
you’ve found it, and you pass it to him.

They are long gone, but I taste them
here in my mouth. My mother’s excitement
about life, her garrulous smorgasbord
spilling across the table. My father’s
silence—waiting, so often waiting—
for the salt or beans or something else spread
out upon the table in front of us, content
to let the empty space of his buttercup plate
just rest awhile.

March 2012

Poetry should be heard.


Margaret said...

Ruth - you create the most introspective, heat-felt poems, and I adore this prose style (is that what it is called?) It is intimate, tender, and with words carefully chosen, include us in an intimate family embrace.

Rubye Jack said...

This is such a fine tribute to your parents. I looked for it on your podcasts but it's not there yet. Will check back on that.

Yes, it is funny how we look for our parents within after they pass away. Actually, there is no need for me to look for my mother as she is always jumping out at me.

George said...

A nice remembrance, Ruth. It seems like there was a very interesting contrast of personalities and temperaments between your mother and father. Your title, "Words and Silence," seems to capture them perfectly.

Maureen said...

Isn't it lovely what we hold in memory? How beautifully you write of your father's silence that was let to rest in "the empty space of his buttercup plate".

Kathleen said...

I feel like I sat at the table with you all for a while. Thank you for inviting me.

The Solitary Walker said...

We are of the same generation, Ruth. I was born in 1954, as you know. I like the poem, and it strongly brought to mind my own parents, who died in 2004 and 2009. (Remember my poem "Sunday Lunch?) Though it was my father who was the talker. Oh, dear God, did he talk.

Thanks so much for highlighting my new blog! Handsome is as handsome does ... ;-)

Barb said...

Ruth, this poem paints a vivid word picture. Such differences meshed into a lifetime together. They are both inside you, I think - the still water and the flowing outward. That photo is fantastic - you do look like you're not too pleased!

Reena Walkling said...

Love how you painted the picture of your parents. Love your mother's enthusiasm with life.

ds said...

Words. Silence. Yes. Both of them within you. Yes. I love the words you used (and the silences between), the "garrulous smorgasbord" and the buttercup plate. You've painted a beautiful portrait of them, and their relationship. Thank you for sharing your Sunday dinner.

Jeanie said...

Ruth, this is such a beautiful tribute to your parents -- I "see" them in your words. And the photo is a treasure. I think you nailed it when you mentioned how we never stop looking for them when they are gone. I look for mine every day.

Ruth said...

Margaret, thanks so much, I'm glad you enjoyed my prose poem. Is there anything more indicative of a family's personality than dinner time?

Rubye, thank you for your kind words. I did record this after your comment, so thanks. What you said about your mother jumping out at you, I find that true for myself and my sisters the older we get.

Thanks, George. Yes, my parents were very different, and although their differences must have grated on them at times, their love and friendship carried them through many joys and sorrows.

Ruth said...

Thanks a lot, Maureen. I like how writing allows us to choose those items in memory and expand them into personal mythology.

Kathleen, thank you for joining me and my family at the table.

Robert, I do remember your poem "Sunday Lunch" and other stories from your past that are similar to my own. Keep up the important work of solitary walking as well as words and silence.

Ruth said...

Thanks, Barb. It's extraordinary how we are the same person as in our childhood pictures, yet we are so changed. Can that really be me, and can I remember it from more than 50 years past?

Reena, thanks. Mom's enthusiasm was sometimes overpowering, and I understand it better in hindsight.

ds, thank you for joining us at the table. I think you'd have loved talking with my mom about books, or should I say listening to my mom talk about books? :-)

Jeanie, thank you. I have so enjoyed our own stories of your parents, especially your mom, who I think is very much alive in you.

Shari Sunday said...

I think your parents would be pleased with your poem and your memories. Isn't it nice to live on in your children's memories? Wonder what our children and grandchildren will remember? I'm trying to make sure it is good. I told my kids I don't want a memorial service. I want a big (hopefully) crowd of my friends and family gathered together and telling stories that would probably embarrass me if I could hear.

The Broad said...

I love the photograph -- and your sulky scowl -- I've been known to do that -- and there are some photos of me very young that I can remember being taken and the feeling of displeasure that I felt at the time, too! I like very much the comment about being invited to your dinner table that the poem evokes. A perfect description...

hedgewitch said...

Thanks for serving us the dish of a long and slow simmered family memory, full of flavor--one doesn't need a spoon to taste it. Beautiful and not too rich, just right.

Allison said...

wonderful wonderful. THanks for the clear images and the memory sharing!

Lorenzo — Alchemist's Pillow said...

You really grabbed my heart’s attention with the line: “I suppose something we never stop doing is to look for them when they're gone, mostly in ourselves”. Like most compelling truths, it seems so obvious but only after someone has been kind enough to point it out for me. More than a table, what you so lovingly and poignantly describe is a tableau, a tableau vivant of family, of quotidian memories, of echoes and absences, of empty space, of knowing how much soul work is done silently and how loving memory, like a magical gas, expands to fill those spaces and silence. I can almost feel the back and forth flow between your parents along the table, the flow of words and silence, faint smiles and chatter. They seem like different poles of the same magnet, existentially essential to one another. Do you suppose that your dad may have at some point wondered where and when his daughter Ruth would discover and share with him the importance of letting the empty space of his buttercup plate just rest awhile?

Deb Colarossi said...

I am just swept up in the photo ...
Do you sometimes feel as I do on a Sunday?
How I can't stop thinking about my parents and then the mess after and my husband and I as parents and how oh how we will be as grandparents?

Sometimes it is all such an overwhelming burden , and sometimes it is all such an overwhelming miracle.

( love the smocking in your dress btw ;) )

James Owens said...

how perfectly matched they seem. and to grow up between them, in the rhythm between expostulation and silence!! could there be a better environment for a poet? it seems as if the children are looking out for him in the flood of words, though you treat them both with the gentlest of touches ....

GailO said...

I feel like I have joined you at the table:) How I love the image of the buttercup plate! How I love the tradition of the acronyms!

Anonymous said...

As our parents go, so do we. Recent neuroimaging studies suggest that our thinking is deeply attuned to our mother's through the mother-child interactions, and all intimacy -- and lack of it, shapes the range of our expression. (Love does wonders, lack wreaks wastelands). Your account of a Sunday dinner at a big table with your parents at both ends is so familiar in my own memory - for a time (before my father came out of the closet and he and my mother separated, slowly, eventually for good) we'd have similar Sunday dinners at the table of our 100-year-old house in Evanston, after my father had preached, in my case my father garrulous, holding court, going on in a merry way about his life (regardless of consequence), while my mother was a silent suffering person at the other end, her wounds unspoken, her unhappiness vast, whether from the cold dark Chicago winters (she was from Florida) or with my dad, or with all of us kids (of course we all took the blame, being kids, for the sharp pains always breaking out from below). Back to pal Rilke, parents stretch inside opposites between distant poles, and the place we grow up in proximity to that distance is where we get to know God, for better or ill. In this scene the differences are loving and prescient of a self whose expressions continue to form in this verse, here gently yet tightly expressed for maximal punch. Great job, Ruth. - B

Ruth said...

Shari, yes, I too would love a wake, which is what your wishes for when you pass away sound like to me. I attended one recently, in the home of the daughter of the woman who passed, and its personal elegance was exactly as it should have been. But I suppose it is good that we are not there to hear ourselves spoken of, eh? Gotta let the stories fly, without concern for embarrassment. :-)

The Broad, what a difference between ourselves, who scowled at cameras, and kids nowadays! They act as if a camera in their face is just another fact of life. Even our two-month-old James seems to recognize our lenses when they appear in front of his wee eyes.

Thanks so much, Hedge. Your taste test for my poem is quite accurate for the meals at our table too, which were simple Midwestern fare. I don't quite know how my mother did everything, when she loved books and study, as well as music and her piano, not to speak of God, more than anything.

Ginnie said...

The first thing I want to say, Sister, is how much of Lesley and Peter I see in you from this photo. Is that possible?! It's really quite amazing....

The second thing to say is that I can't even go there...where this poem takes me, in relation to Dad's silence at the table and how we had to quess what he wanted before he became civil and ate. Did Mom's exuberance for Life really have such an adverse effect on him? Was he jealous of her many gifts?

And yet, I DO have such happy memories of the acronyyms. We, too, tried to figure them out, didn't we! :)

Ruth said...

Allison, thank you for reading and for your kind response!

Lorenzo, being of the same age (and disposition, perhaps) as me, I think you, too, find very rich soil in loving family memories for exploring the inner territory of your heart. I do think now that my father was contemplating many such things as you suggest, though as a child his silences were indecipherable to me. I recall the strong sense that I longed for some quotient of my mother's enthusiasm and my father's silence, as a comfortable place to not only rest, but to grow and blossom. But some soils take much, much tilling and testing (even fallowness) before the organic matter is just right for something green to sprout, let alone something fragrant to bloom.

Ruth said...

Deb, yes I do feel overwhelmed at times, with wonder and a bit of anxiety, as well as joy so big I can't get my arms around it. As for the dress in the photo, I remember it so well, even the little black velvet bow, which was always wrinkled and didn't lie properly. If I'd had the hands for it, I'd have made that right. Well I did take on the ironing one fine day when I was about seven, thinking I was doing the family a great service... :-)

James, maybe you're right that it was a great breeding ground for a poet, but as I said to Lorenzo, it took a long time to recognize it. I can look back gently now, after writing poetry took me on a journey through intense feelings about it all. Thanks.

GailO, thank you for sitting here with me a while and loving these image-memories, my friend.

Ruth said...

Brendan, those inner spaces of our brains and selves, which we begin to discover through science, are breeding grounds for characters and journeys we can't begin to predict. It's terrifying to me at times (that seems a strong word, but it's just so) when I contemplate our grandson's small self and all that can shape him that we have no control over. We only have some semblance of control over ourselves, and I even wonder at that. The Rilke reflection is utterly true for myself; how extraordinarily he could see into those inner rooms! Thanks so much for the ongoing exploration.

Ruth said...

Boots, you do? See Lesley and Peter? :-)

Dad's silence was not easy, and no doubt this poem could over-gentlify what we felt as a result of it. I do feel it was easier for me than for you, eleven years my senior. The questions you raise about Dad's reaction to Mom are apt, I think. We know how much he admired her, and yet how could two people with such polar opposite personalities not run into difficulty communication?

Dutchbaby said...

This is a beautiful vignette of the family dynamic. "Words and Silence" describes my parents' relationship and mine too. My husband is reserved by nature, yet his career requires him to talk all day long. I figured out a long time ago that by the time he got home, he had spent his allotment of words and I could expect Monsieur Silence for at least the first half hour of his arrival. Fortunately, he doesn't seem to mind my chatter.

I wonder if your father spent all his words on his congregation, leaving his own family wanting.

erin said...

i sit and look at your mother's smile and love her. how is that possible? she looks so familiar, so optimistic, so present. god, her skin, her eyes! and then her enthusiasm! oh! and balanced against the quiet of your father.)) i just watched winter's bone and in your father's waiting i heard this line again, "don't ask for that which should be offered". how his silence taught you, didn't it? and how your mother's enthusiasm shaped you. i feel very close to them now after this poem. it is lovely and important, the nexus from which you sprang from.


Loring Wirbel said...

I can feel their spirits in these lines. Wonderful.

Miss Jane said...

I felt the tension in this between the polar opposites of your parents and felt so relieved by the ending. It's good to find the good, isn't it? The buttercup plate image is quite wonderful. I liked what Lorenzo had to say about you finding peace in the silence.