Ruth's Poetry Box

A Christmas gift lost and found

Ruth’s poetry box showed up last month when I organized my study’s closet. There it was, forlorn beside Dad’s strongbox, hidden under bins and loose piles of memorabilia we recently inherited from my in-law’s household. Those photos, certificates, and post cards tell too much family history to let them go. You could call my closet a vault of history and memories.
             You must know the poetry box is mine, a Christmas gift from my youngest daughter. It does not belong in the vault. Praise God! I declare it is not yet a keepsake left behind! While I breathe Earth’s air, Ruth’s present is a living thing and belongs in our living room under the table between our two reclining pink chairs that Ruth dislikes.
While Christmas decorating a few years ago, I stowed the box away in the closet and forgot about it. You see, my mother-in-law’s ceramic Mr. & Mrs. Clause take the box’s place until New Year’s Day.
I read Ruth’s quatrain inscribed in graceful calligraphy on the box’s lid.
The poetry box…
the window
to our
SOUL
            I appreciated anew her insightful invitation to contribute our verses to the box, and regretted I had misplaced it. How many windows of our souls had we missed while the gift languished in the land of the deceased? Just how long have I had Ruth’s marvelous present and not used it for the purpose she intended? I turned the box over.  
Merry Christmas
1999
I love you  RU
            The power of poetry had its way. I opened the lid. It seemed the several pieces of paper leapt with joy at the light in my eyes. I read all the poems, mostly brief. My California daughter submitted the first verse in February 2000. The last submission I wrote December 23, 2009.
    It is Christmastime
    Again
    And I forage for
    Traces still stained
    In my home and memory
    To carry with me
    In my celebrations.
             Unable to recall our whereabouts for Christmas 1999, I turned to my journals and found my Christmas entries.  “What a marvelous day with the Juets!”
Yes, I remembered our French guests, the mirth and baguettes and Nutella for breakfast—Christmas caroling with our dear, adopted Juet sisters. They hosted Kelly, my California daughter, when she studied at The Alliance Française, Paris.
The Juets came for Christmas when our family needed them, and they needed us.  We comforted one other in the abundance of our waste places.
            There’s no mention of Ruth’s poetry box in my journal. Yet, I remember unwrapping the gift, felt the longing and promise my daughter inspired within it.
            Dear Reader, I wait for that desire and promise to be fulfilled with Ruth's poetry box. I pray for it, deposit another window to my soul inside—invest in understanding and amity. It does not come without a price.
The Babe, the son of Mary, guides our way.

A Cup of Cold Water

My firstborn and me, July 1971, at Gramma Rosie's pool

And whosoever shall give to drink unto one of these little ones a cup of cold water only in the name of a disciple, verily I say unto you, he shall in no wise lose his reward. 
St. Matthew 10: 42

On those long, summer days of childhood, nothing could call me indoors until Mom hollered for dinner. Even on those blistering, itchy, humid vacations in Kentucky, I felt no thirst. Play was my drink until that sweaty glass of cold milk appeared on the table. Then, sudden thirst had its fill.
            Mom served my sisters and me Twin Pines delivered in the milk chute. The dairy industry thrived on the likes of us O’Brien girls—four glasses each a day, times five. Mom worried over the bill.

She was skeptical of the chlorine smell from our city faucets, and frowned at the rotten egg odor from Kentucky wells. I wager she would shake her head today at our modern fetish for bottled H2O.
A genuine southerner, Mom’s water was iced tea with a teaspoon of sugar. She’d savor the dregs like they were some magic potion for inner peace. “Now, don’t you touch my tea,” she’d say to my sisters and me. It was a test of obedience I dared challenge only once.
Unlike the typical southerner, Mom never bought Pepsi or Coca-Cola. On special occasions, she permitted us a glass of icy, slightly sweetened Lipton or Red Rose. Thus, I didn’t develop a taste for unflavored water.
It was after my travail of labor and delivery in childbirth when I gladly accepted a cold cup of water. The first swallow was heaven to my parched mouth and throat. My firstborn’s cry and the nurse’s white uniform remain connected with that quenching drink. It felt like she’d saved my life.
Yet, it’s difficult to change a camel’s habits. In caring for my infant and household, I forgot to drink. Alas, my attempt to breastfeed failed due to inexperience and lack of support. Four years later, I found La Leche League and prepared for my second child.
Although I couldn’t embrace some of their ideas, I found La Leche companionship and knowledge as necessary as Sunday morning worship service. The women helped me overcome my challenges and handicaps with the will and skill to successfully breastfeed my two younger daughters. The group was like the nurse who gave me a cup of cold water when I needed it.
Dear Reader, as my firstborn’s birthday approaches, I meditate upon the nurse’s vocation and kindness, how good health and encouragement come from what seems a small, insignificant thing. Since our daughter passed, I see my barren landscape of loss grows greener from cups of cold water given by God’s disciples. With each cup, they save my life again.
As St. Augustine wrote: “Does not a certain flame rise up as if from that cold water which even inflames the cold breasts of men to perform acts of mercy in the hope of heavenly reward?”

The Ages of Faith

My friend Debra on a visit to the farm 2014

A fragrant night when crabapple trees bloomed outside the Detroit Public Library, a young woman named Debra walked to the podium in the Fine Arts room. My husband and I sat in the audience beside the Loggia’s seven arches.
A new member of Detroit Women Writers, their Annual Spring Readings was the first DWW event I attended. Preoccupied with excitement, I overlooked the Pewabic tiles of the Loggia, unaware the seven arches portrayed Shakespeare’s seven ages of man.
Debra’s voice was like a lullaby. With each turn of phrase and description of her Jewish grandmother, she expressed my affection for my Holiness Pentecostal granny. As Debra heard her grandmother say, “Well, I’ll be!” in approval of her éclairs, so I heard Granny say, “Don’t skin my cake!” when we grandkids scooped up a finger of frosting.
Never had I felt such kinship with a perfect stranger. Debra’s was the only reading I remember of the five winners that spring evening.
I felt honored and unworthy to sit amongst such accomplished women. Yet, Debra’s reflections inspired faith to believe I could also write beautiful words about my granny. With practice and study, perhaps I would have courage and merit to stand before my colleagues and read a memoir.
The ensuing seventeen years, Debra and I have read our stories and poems within critique groups. I’ve studied her writer’s voice, learned from her command of the English language. We’ve shared family histories and sharpened each other’s spirit and will.
We’ve aged gracefully in our empty nests. I’ve read my winning poems and feature stories to guests of the Annual Spring Readings. Debra and her husband have combined their art forms and produced “Picture a Conversation” to stimulate dialogue and goodwill within groups. Her vision is crisp and viable, necessary in a culture obsessed with non-verbal communication.
This week, Debra drove out for the day.  She brought baked apples to top off my quiche and spinach salad. We sat at the kitchen table five luxurious hours, our hearts open to one another. Ever her wise self, she spoke of learning from hardship, of its purpose. We spoke the same language of loss and gain within generations.
In nonchalance she said, “Eliot and Elizabeth are going to have a baby.”
           I jumped from my seat and hugged her. “You’re going to be a grandmother! How could you hold such great news?”
           “I’m practicing self-control. I’ll need it when the baby comes. They live only seven miles away.” She waved a hand in mock dismissal. “Who wants a mewling infant, anyway?”
           I smiled. “You sound like Shakespeare.”
           “It’s intentional, but I left out the puking.”
           “I appreciate that.”
           Dear Reader, I recalled where we first met in the Fine Arts room, the Loggia to our side. My writer’s mind and heart were young and tender, hungry for someone like Debra to befriend.
           In our fifth age, we face uncertainty with courage. As she emailed the next day—“The more years I spend on this earth, faith is the only answer.”       

The Meaning of Carpe Diem

The inner fire of carotenoid pigments
Signs of autumn’s tipping point are everywhere. This morning, when I drove through our Townsend Tunnel, the canopy looked past its prime, windrows deep with golden leaves. You have to watch a tree like a pot about to boil. Turn your head, and Nature’s sophisticated chemistry kicks in.
           Perhaps tomorrow the Tunnel will reach its full glory—our red maples will burst into flame. I hope they received the magic mix of cool nights and water for their carotenoid pigments to reveal their most brilliant show.
Oh! The delightful sounds of autumn’s approaching end! Pruning and raking. The shovel’s rush to plant those nursery bargains before fall's end. Yesterday, I transplanted four lavender shrubs to the rhythm of our neighbor’s plop of wood upon a pile.
Fall is naturally congenial and communal. We’re compelled to frolic in Creation’s temperate season to pick pumpkins and apples. Sip cider and eat donuts. Trick-or-Treat. I think it a remarkable instinct in honor of Nature’s harvest and man’s labor to produce it.
In high school, my best friend Debbie claimed fall was her favorite season. I preferred summer because my family vacationed in Kentucky with my kinfolk. One sunny fall Saturday, Debbie and I double dated with our boyfriends to Yates Cider Mill. 
My world expanded that afternoon. I’d never seen so many strangers in one place having so much fun, eating and laughing in picnic areas. Unawares, I was learning to appreciate Michigan’s seasons—the meaning of carpe diem.
 What I remember most of that blissful day is hiking in the woods. Debbie’s boyfriend climbed trees and hid. I participated. The place and moment settled into my soul and sowed an unspoken desire to raise my family amongst a forest.
Life didn’t work out that way. I found our little patch of property in Addison Township too late for our daughters to grow up climbing trees. They enjoy a good hike nonetheless.
I’ve adapted from tree climber to tree hugger. Although I cannot identify a Basswood from a Box Elder, I know the leaf and limb of the Catalpa and Linden. Their blooms emit scents from Heaven.  
Today, as I drove north on Rochester Road, I saw a Cooper’s hawk, then another a mile later. I’m always surprised to see their profile in a treetop after months of camouflage.
I recalled what Richardson Wright wrote in The Gardener’s Bed-Book. “Limb and structure step forth. An intricate and entirely different beauty offers itself to view. The tree enters on a rational, scientific phase.”
Dear Reader, it’s within this phase where the sense of urgency to stow away lawn furniture overcomes me. To compost the asparagus with the hen’s ripe bedding. To bake a pie with my first homegrown apples. Doesn’t a brown butter and oat streusel topping drizzled with caramel sound delicious?
And when winter comes, I’ll appreciate the wafting scent of my neighbor’s wood stove on walks to hug my naked trees.  Come March, I’ll watch for the first bud, a tipping point to spring.