Friday, May 23, 2014

Poems for when you are old

Each time I visited Helen Alderfer in her two-story Indiana wooden frame home, she placed her “75-dollar- teacup” before me.  Valuable things are meant to be used, not just admired from a distance.

Her warmth and friendliness dismissed my fears that I might break this precious teacup like Elizabeth,   neighbor of the voluble, overbearing Hyacinth of the BBC TV series, “Keeping up appearances,” has.  She asks for a mug so she won’t smash the Royal Doulton teacup with the hand-painted periwinkle flowers set before her.

Tea with Helen was brewed exactly three minutes –she used a timer—and then we drank together,  not just tea, but friendship. We shared writing tips, confidences, and encouragement.

Helen was one of my first editors, when she worked with Christian Living.  She coaxed a number of articles out of me.   She was also the first to invite me to travel a long distance, in fact, to fly, to Pennsylvania, to speak at a widows gathering.

 I could not quite grasp that some group would spend money for a plane ticket for someone like me still working my way through the dark days of widowhood.  I had never done that before. But I flew and was nurtured in sharing  myself with this group of women.

Over time Helen and my roles changed.  In the early 1990s I was the editor and she was the writer.  And I still enjoyed tea with her.

In her later years she turned to writing poetry, “Lyrical descriptions of ordinary life as well as life’s larger stages and transitions.”  The Mill Grinds Fine was published in 2009 (Cascadia).

I wrote a blurb for the publisher' fact sheet: “Pick any poem, and you have chosen a jewel of rare quality. Each word edge sharply reveals truth about a life stage. Each facet reflects beauty in an unexpected way. This slim volume of poetry is a loving gift to the reader, bringing joy that lingers long after the book is laid down.” From time to time I  brew my own cup of tea and linger over her words..

Recently I turned again to her poem “Old age.”  She was still sharing her words of wisdom.

Tread carefully, Helen. This is new ground.
This is not the childhood you survived
Not the turbulent years of youth,
Not the desert places of middle age.
This is a land with new rules:

Among her “new rules” are admonitions not to give advice, to tell old stories, to recite ills (“They are dear only to you”).  Don’t ask people to speak up or repeat (“Not all they say is worth repeating”).  And much more. She finishes her litany of advice with the words: “ Twirl a few dance steps while the tea water boils.” 

Tea water boiling. Three-minute brewing. $75 cups for guests. A recipe for friendship.

Once when I was in Goshen, Indiana, for a speaking engagement, a woman asked me where I was staying.  “At Helen Alderfer’s place,” I replied.

“Oh, the blind lady,” she responded.  Blind? Hardly. Although I had known of Helen’s eyesight problems, seen her large newspaper reader device and large font books, I knew Helen was not blind. She could see far into people’s souls. And enjoyed sharing the light in her own.

Monday, May 12, 2014

Rhinestones from heaven?

The fall toward the end of the Depression n the 1930s  an unusual family moved into our little village. The man (the father?) was white as was the woman, but two children were black and one was white.  Gossip said this family had circus connections. 

That winter I helped teach the Sunday school class in the United Church in which at least one of the children was enrolled. My  friend Mona  and I, in a sudden fit of missionary zeal, visited their home one late afternoon.  I recall noting how desperately poor the family was. The little hovel  was dark and dismal.  I remember seeing a loaf of dark bread dough rising on the stove warmer, looking as if it could sit there all day and never rise.  We were poor but this was abject poverty.

In spring the family suddenly left the community. My sister Sue tells me  that before they left town Mrs. Welsh came to Dad in the store and gave him a rhinestone necklace as her thanks for the food he had often given them. She thinks Mother gave them some of our too-small clothing.

Sometimes I wonder how many families have Dad to thank for food when they didn’t have any. Dad couldn’t bear to see people hungry possibly because he had experienced hunger during the famine in the Ukraine in the 1920s.  

Dad didn’t want the necklace but accepted it anyway.  At some point he gave it to my oldest sister Frieda.

In 1966 when I was beginning free lance writing,  I returned from a writers’ conference in Wisconsin with new ideas and energy. Editors kept saying they were looking for material with seasonal emphasis.  I had just had a story rejected by Canada’s large Family Herald and Weekly Star.  It had the Welsh family  with its assortment of children as its main characters.

I revised my story, changing  the time to fall, before Christmas, and added a Christmas school concert in northern Saskatchewan. I called the story  “The Red Catalogue Dress,” in which a little black girl and the  rich doctor’s daughter both wear the same Eaton’s catalogue  red velvet dress to the concert -- with a surprise ending. 

I sent if off to the Family Herald once again hoping no editor would remember its previous rejection.  In two weeks I received $125 and later resold it at least once, if not twice.  This was my first big “success” in writing.  I was launched.

But then the story gets even more interesting.  At some point Frieda gave the rhinestone necklace to her niece Grace, who gave it to her daughter, Olivia, to wear to her senior prom.   Was that necklace once worn by a circus performer? 

Grace says Frieda gave her two necklaces.  She  also gave me one. Where did all these necklaces come from?  Were Dad’s five little loaves of bread multiplying? Were rhinestones  falling  from heaven? And if I give mine away will it reproduce once again?