I wrote this poem to honor Constance Person, my English Lit teacher in my senior year of high school. It was a large class and she always had the desks arranged in the shape of a square with an opening near the chalkboard. But she spent most of her time in the center of the room, walking and talking. Mrs. Person was getting along in years. I found out she retired the next year, and count myself fortunate to have been one of her students.
Always in the center, whirling, twirling, setting minds ablaze with gushing sparks of knowledge and experience. Little exterior, towering interior. Next thing I knew you stood behind my desk, your hands upon my shoulders as if you were driving the idea of what I could be, letting out the clutch.
You addressed the class, gripping me. A boy slides down in his chair, feverish, cloaked in black. A boy’s heart cries out Mercy Mercy Mercy!
Your confidence unfolded my aching awkwardness like a family heirloom or a fragile cloth or drooping flower petals, now freshly watered with the drops of your uncompromising faith and certainty – petals that now turn back toward you as if you were the sun.
A man stands up. A man says thank you.
In our little country house in the sopping-wet Willamette valley winter, heat radiated from the woodstove as my mother rubbed a cast-iron pan back and forth upon it, one hand holding a lid down tight to make popcorn the old-fashioned way. I’d lay on the floor and play with the cat, listening to my mom’s old vinyl record “A Christmas Carol”, featuring Lionel Barrymore as Ebenezer Scrooge.
Mom would tie little bundles of cinnamon sticks with red and silver ribbon, nestling them among the boughs of the tree. She would press cloves into oranges, covering their entire surface to make pomander balls. I lit candles, and an old kerosene lamp, and mom put up Christmas cards from the thirties and forties all over the house. We always had a real tree trimmed with old-fashioned ornaments, and a wreath upon the door. My mother’s holiday aesthetic was a fusion of country-living, bohemian, and vintage.
We’d always open one present on Christmas Eve. Sometimes we’d go to church, sometimes not. Every year we’d drive around the well-decorated neighborhoods looking at light displays and singing carols together in the car. Then, on Christmas Day, it was off to my great-grandparents old farmhouse, over the hill and through the valley, where I would feast, play, and listen to the way old people talk to each other.
I grew up in a food stamp house, allergic to milk, with a vegetarian mother and no television. Books, cats, and a hugely-overactive imagination were my entertainment. Once a week my mom would take me to the library and I’d check out so many books I could barely carry them all. I’d lounge around reading for hours on end, picking sadly at my salad garnished with home-sprouted lentils and fenugreeks. Oh, I had my soy cheese, my Rice Dream “ice cream”, and my trusty jar of unstirred Adams peanut butter, but it just couldn’t match Grandma’s house.
Grandma Ruth’s house was a little slice of heaven. She had everything I deemed to be most important in life: every Dr. Seuss book, a pool table, an awesome collection of old 45’s, a television, and a fridge full of meat. She would fry me kielbasa for breakfast (which she called Oktoberfest sausages), give me liverwurst for lunch, and feed me pot roast for dinner. Then I’d collapse onto the couch – or as she called it – the davenport, and watch Dukes of Hazzard and the A-Team. Just everything a growing boy needs.
Grandma Ruth always had a twinkle in her eye. She’d make herself martinis, dance around to old boogie songs in her robe, and whoop my ass at billiards. “Not enough,” she’d always say, referring to a lack of English applied to the cue ball. She drove a little yellow Porsche convertible, and she drove it with a heavy foot. There were racing goggles and (imagine!) gloves in the glove compartment, and a little silk pillow on the dash that said “Baby Ruth” on it. Sometimes she’d drink a pot of coffee and then fall asleep in her chair, snoring fantastically. And don’t think she was afraid to use the shotgun in the closet when a mole went to work out in her yard.
Then I’d go back home where there was no meat, no TV, and no money. I didn’t mind though. I loved my mom; she was one of my best friends growing up, though I despised my rainbow suspenders, hated my bowl haircut, and resented the cowlick in my hair. Even a wet hairbrush only kept it at bay for a few minutes. I guess I didn’t hate being the only hippie kid in a three-classroom rural school, but I was certainly aware that I was the only one, and it irritated me.
In winter I’d build a fire in the woodstove before I left for school, so when mom got up there would be some warmth tip-toeing through the little house. In the summer I’d sit out on the front porch and eat granola with juice in it. I got tired of soy milk and rice milk, so I tried it with juice: orange (not bad at all actually), apple (a little weird), and grape (yuck). Having such limited food options has definitely had its effects on my eating habits over the years, and is probably a big part of why I became a chef. When people asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up, I answered “a food taster”. One time we ended up with one of those big round tins of Christmas fudge, and I ended up being at home alone with it. Me and the fudge, we became pals. I slowly and methodically ate the entire tin – every last piece – all the while telling myself mom wouldn’t notice or care. I was incorrect in my thinking. I also puked on a shrub and it died.
My mom and I spent a lot of great times together: movies, swimming, hunting for seashells on the beach, driving around at Christmas looking at the lights and singing songs. But when she got cancer everything changed, then changed again, and again. Cancer is mean-spirited that way. It makes you think things are getting better, gives you glimmers of hope. Then it bounces back into the center of the ring and knocks you out cold. I was really mad about it for a long time. Mad at her, mad at cancer, mad at life and the world. But as I stood on a high cliff scattering her ashes over the Pacific Ocean, I was sorry I’d ever wasted a minute being mad at her, wishing instead that I’d used every scrap of time and energy to get to know her better, and understand everything I could about who she was.
“I was permitted to hear an incredible music…I heard the gestation of the new world…the sound of stars grinding and chafing, of fountains clotted with blazing gems….Music is planetary fire, an irreducible which is all sufficient; it is the slate-writing of the gods.”
-Henry Miller, Tropic of Cancer