Oddments

In search of story


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August 1.22: Coping, but barely

Did you ever not say something you should have said? Good. Then you will understand the following.

I cannot do math in my head. Dad had his master’s degree in mathematics and, I suspect, wondered if I’d been switched at birth and where his real daughter was. My math persecution complex began early in life.

Some years ago, I was checking out of a hardware store apparently on the heels of someone who couldn’t do math in his head, and the cashier huffed to me about that inferior being. This is what I thought but didn’t say: “I can’t do math in my head either! But I can play Bach’s Little Fugue in G minor like nobody’s business, with both hands cavorting over three manuals, and my feet flying over the foot pedals, and having a grand old time doing it — and not once has it occurred to me to get all huffy about those who can’t!”

Mind you, dear reader, if I tried to play the Bach today, I’d fall off the bench and break several bones, but that doesn’t change the fact that I could once. It was exhilarating, and I’ve never met a single number, in or out of my head, that came close to being such fun.

(This harrumph was the result of reading Dan Antion’s blog post about the way retailers try to rope us into buying, with the inarguable position that math-in-the-head is our best defense against their wiles. In no way was his post huffy, but it reminded me of my to-now unsaid say. Yes, thank you, I feel better.)


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July 25.22: Coping, but barely

A garden in a kettle,

what enticement to know more;

no ordinary flowerpot

hints so of family lore.

Kettles are like aprons,

remnants, scraps and shreds

of kitchens gone to dust

except inside our heads.

Replaced by kitchen jewelry

gleaming, digitized,

its plump and stolid air

is yet unbowdlerized.

Something in its roundness

brings noodle dough to mind,

vegetable soup with barley,

doughnuts cinnamon-brined,

children up on tip-toe

to watch and sniff, content,

the world in proper order

as it was surely meant.

Today its storied depths

give rise to happy greenery,

rooted, like our memories,

in distant kitchen scenery.

 

 

More thanks to photographer S.W. Berg,

and to gardener and family preservationist D.J. Berg.

 


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July 1.22: Coping, but barely

In crowded company

of musicians through the ages,

I’ve fumbled in attempts

to play while turning pages.

More than once I’ve chased

sonatas to the floor,

twisting off the bench

to nab the fleeing score.

Flagrantly contrary,

it always had the knack

to land so I’d dislodge

my sacroiliac.

To keep the left hand going

and play at obtuse angle

crossed Mozart with aerobics,

performance art fandangle.

Now comes a pageless music,

no flip and fumble here —

what a total wimp-out,

musicianship veneer.

What kind of ease is this?

It seems somehow a cheat

to keep your fingers focused,

turning pages with your feet.

 

 

More thanks to photographer S.W. Berg.

 


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June 19.22: Coping, but barely

Back when television was young, as was I, a commercial played this ditty:

“You’ll wonder where the yellow went

when you brush your teeth with Pepsodent,”

which my dad sang as

“You’ll wonder where the yellow went

when you brush your teeth with fresh cement.”

Along in those same years, I asked my dad why we don’t have an A in our last name. We spell it O’Hern but a whole lot of folks spell it O’Hearn and are ever sticking the A in our name as though it belongs there. So what happened to it?

“Our ancestors, “said Dad, “were horse thieves. In an effort to evade the police, they dropped the A from their last name.” The moral of the story being, I assumed, that our ancestors were horse thieves and halfwits.

Apparently slow of wit myself, I asked Dad one day how he felt the first time he held me. “Wet,” he said. So sweetly sentimental.

To dads everywhere, I wish all good things. It isn’t easy to be a dad. But know this: when you see your offspring rolling their eyes and shaking their heads at your stories and jokes, you know you have achieved immortality. Dad jokes never die. Happy Fathers’ Day!

 

The dad in the photo is my son,

whose offspring have indeed been known to roll their eyes.

Good work, Dad!


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May 31.22: Coping, but barely

Grit,

ground coal,

ash and lung gravel

paid the bills.

Grandpa wore it home

to match the grit

on windowsills.

His worker’s cap

marked him:

social scrap,

laborer,

tall, thin,

Cassius on the trolley,

morning, evening,

foundry-dusted

with other scraps

hollow, rusted.

Sometimes,

when there was meat,

he would get it

because he wore the cap,

carried the big black lunchbox

with the rounded top

and thick strap.

When we rode past

the fiery black mill,

we said,

Grandpa works there!

with pride.

Not knowing.

He was, I think,

smart.

I wonder what he wondered

in this brown, gritty life.

 

 

Writing is strange business. I had no intention of trying for another entry in Dan Antion’s Thursday Doors Writing Challenge, but this photo, also Dan’s, wouldn’t leave me alone. It is so reminiscent of where I grew up. Beautiful it wasn’t. Looking at this brought to mind my grandpa and his life there.

 

Thanks, Dan, for inspiring and challenging us, and for this photo.

 


19 Comments

May 30.22 Memorial Day: Coping, but barely

You’d have to be as old as I am, dear reader, to remember the days of packing red geraniums into the trunk of a car and heading out to cemeteries. Every year at the end of May. It was boring. I hated it.

We’d clean winter’s debris off the graves and then plant the flowers. Guess who was sent for water. There were faucets in the cemetery spaced with the express purpose of making kids walk miles with sloshing, heavy watering cans.

There was always a moment of prayer. What videos play in our heads at such moments! I can only imagine the videos that played in my grandparents’ and my parents’ heads: wars, polio and flu epidemics, floods, heart attacks, cancer.

The video in my head had to do with my bike, waiting for me to start summer vacation.

My complaints, registered every five minutes or so, were roundly ignored; it was Decoration Day, after all, and this tedious, bleak trek to the cemetery was non-negotiable, as were many family dicta. Against my young will, I learned that it wasn’t about the geraniums; it was about lives lived. Real lives. It was about remembering.

Decoration Day became Memorial Day and a three-day weekend, honoring real lives lost in service to this country’s ideals. Remembering.

This Memorial Day comes in a bloodbath. Locally and globally we are awash in the blood of real lives. I hope those who lost their lives in service to this country, in service to ideals, aren’t sorry they made the sacrifice. And I wish all kids were thinking only about their bikes.

 

My family served, but none died in service.

I do not pretend to the grief this day renews for many.

But I do think of the graves and the real lives lost.

It becomes harder to remember peace.

 

 


15 Comments

May 22.22: Coping, but barely

A machine that makes ice cream cones?

How could it be?

I thought they materialized

from some alchemy.

They simply appeared

from a summery haze

by a wave of the scoop

on tropical days.

In colorful turbans

turned quickly to goo,

they left us goatee’d

with sugary glue

while teaching hard fact

under brilliant hot sun

that time and fudge ripple

wait for no one.

Speed was the essence

of masterful lick;

neat slowed us down:

it had to be quick.

Racing the drips,

maneuvering the cold,

to push it all down

into cone’s hold

was no easy victory,

the skills were hard won,

but practice made perfect

and we’d hardly begun.

Like all childhood magic,

a part of it lingers

as we lick chocolate chip

from between grown-up fingers.

 

For me, dear reader, the only cone worth the drips was the “sugar cone,” which was the ultimate in crunch. It did not, like those flat-bottomed would-be’s, turn to flab in my hand and chew like rubber. No. The sugar-cone had character. It also had the tiniest hole at the bottom so that only the most skilled could come away with clean clothes. But the crunch held. What else mattered?

 

More thanks to photographer S.W. Berg,

and to Doumar’s Cones and Barbecue, Norfolk, VA.

 


14 Comments

December 24.21: Coping

My world is little

as is my tree,

yet there’s a world

inside of me.

The thing to do,

I cannot doubt,

is turn my person

inside-out,

and hang that world

with due aplomb

upon this little

tannenbaum,

and then to watch

the tree grow tall

— not so little

after all.

The world within

is mighty crowd,

kaleidoscopic,

teeming, loud,

overlapping place

and year,

mix of music,

laugh and tear.

Mishmash? Yes.

But life is that:

it isn’t neat

and folded flat.

The world inside,

the story of me,

sparkles on

my Christmas tree.

 

Whatever your traditions, your rituals, dear reader,

may they bring comfort this year,

and may they keep the story of you.

 


8 Comments

November 24.21: Coping

In the kitchen

live the ghosts

that waft with air

of pies and roasts.

Abiding still

in towel and platter,

in recipe card

with ancient splatter,

they hover close

and scrutinize

with furrowed brow

and x-ray eyes

my every move,

my chops and pares,

as I use things

that once were theirs.

And then they squeeze around

to eat,

they watch our manners

heads to feet,

then, with a wink

to everyone,

salute themselves

for job well done.

 

 

Here is the crowd in my kitchen this week: my mother’s recipe for stuffing in her handwriting, the towel my Grandma Mauck would wet and wrap over the turkey to keep it cozy, their baster and meat thermometer, the platter my Grandma O’Hern’s turkeys came to the table on. Three women at my elbows.

You will note the towel is linen. My mother and her mother insisted on linen dishtowels, and, yes, my dear incredulous reader, they had to be ironed. Ironed damp, no less. In my generation, the technical term for such things was “flatwork,” and it was how we served our ironing apprenticeships. Handkerchiefs, pillowcases and sheets, linen towels…flatwork. Yes, we ironed sheets and pillowcases. And underwear. As I hear it, young women today wouldn’t know which side of the iron gets hot. (They’re smarter than we were.)

But I digress.

It’s a difficult time no matter where you live, dear reader; I wish I could make things better for you, for all of us. You might not celebrate Thanksgiving Day this week, but you can know that I am giving thanks for you because you have helped me write, and that has been a huge gift to me. Thank you!

 

 


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September 26.21: Coping

When an autumn sky is at your feet

and the low grasses hum,

and the one of you

is the total sum,

and your bike,

faithful steed,

is all the car

you really need,

do you know

this moment’s rite,

this solitary watch,

to hold it tight?

 

 

Thanks yet again to photographer S.W. Berg.