Last year I determined I should search paying publishing markets for my essays and poetry which I have, and for the short stories and other fiction I have been writing. This constituted a lot of research into markets and publications, looking for the ones that I fit into.
One of my greatest inspirations is the natural world, whether it’s my back yard or the woods or an overgrown field, the shapes and textures, color and scents, flora and fauna seen and unseen, the wind and sun, all create an almost overwhelming experience for me. Creating art to capture the moments I treasured was a natural move as a painter and photographer.
Because of that, each painting has a story, and I love to tell it: how the painting came to be, the chance finding of a special place, the perfect moment of a season, the discovery in the milieu of my life. The whole process is a part of my experience in nature, and often the reason I’m there.
I’ve written the story of several of my paintings. As I perused speculative markets for my writing I not only looked for markets but what I had that was unique in those markets. In creative writing about nature, I didn’t see anything like this, yet I thought this audience might best appreciate the story of me out in nature, finding an inspiration, and creating a painting that didn’t just capture the physical moment, but a lot more sensory and emotional details. As I always say, that’s why we have art.
I found or ordered copies of the publications I thought might be most receptive—printed magazines, daily blogs, websites, anthologies—read the content, and if it felt right I sent them a pitch for my idea with sample art and essay. That was the end of last year, 2018.
Then I waited. Some will tell you how soon they’ll respond, some don’t. You never really know if they don’t like it, or they just haven’t gotten it yet, or it got lost in email or fell off someone’s desk. It’s all on faith that someone will see your idea and fall in love with it.
About a month later I thought I was seeing things when I saw an email from the editor of Woods Reader magazine, published in Minnesota. I had been pretty hopeful about that one, and here it was a good guess, the editor loved the idea and wanted to publish what I’d sent.
The sample I’d sent was not “The Rope Swing”, but another painting and essay which they’d planned to publish in the summer issue. About a month after we’d agreed to publish that one the editor sent an email saying she’d rather wait for a winter issue to publish that one, and did I have any summer art? She’d been to my art website and seen “The Rope Swing”, and wondered if that had a story as well.
Yes, it did, all wound up in my annual art exhibit on the Panhandle Trail, and I also had another favorite summer painting, “Running Through the Woods”, becoming reacquainted with my great-niece and great-nephew by taking them for a walk on the trail and in the woods.
In the end the editorial staff chose “The Rope Swing”, and not only do the essay and painting appear on the inside, but the painting is also their cover image for the summer 2019 issue.
It’s the first thing I’ve ever had published “cold”, not through a referral or an organization or any other means than digging through listings and doing research. I am over the moon. And looking forward to publishing another with Woods Reader. And looking forward to hear from other publishers to whom I’ve sent essays and short stories and poetry.
I have a degree in writing. I love my art and all the other things I do, but I’ve been wanting to get back to that dream of just writing for writing’s sake. I hope I’m on my way.
Because they’ve paid me to publish this essay, I can’t share it here until well after this issue of the magazine has been published. I will tell you that, if you enjoy reading creative writing and essays about the experience of being in the woods, you would love every story, essay, poem and photo that’s published in this quarterly magazine. It’s available on the Woods Reader website for $7.95, and I’ll also have a dozen or more copies here in my shop and at my events for the same price.
And I hope I have another “published” story to tell soon!
The wounds of trauma,
the sin of killing,
the witness of unspeakable acts
against the bodies and minds of others
the leaving behind of others held more dear than lovers
another world, all too real,
all came home in the duffel
unpacked into the house
worn like unwanted medals
that could not be removed
but with your hands you made this lasting monument
to prove to yourself you could still build, create, give
to start your new life,
not the one you left behind.
Several poems I’ve written are about or refer to things that I’d…found in the trash, and the stories they told me, mixed with the experiences of my own life.
Seventy-five years ago today, “D-Day”, one of the bloodiest and most critical days of WWII, 160,000 superheroes changed the course of history. Nineteen years ago more or less today, I saw this cabinet in a trash pile and it began to tell me its story. It was the story of a WWII veteran just returned home with his own memories, mixed with memories of my father and mother whose lives were both forever changed by that war.
Many homes around town had been owned and occupied by only one family from the 1930s or 1940s to today, and contain a lot of things people kept for various reasons, things that tell a story about life in that house, and the eras the house was occupied, typical of Carnegie and towns like it.
The Cabinet is so named for a cabinet I saw one evening out of the corner of my eye as I hurried off through my day. The cabinet looked to be in good shape, the drawers stacked on top, and I’d take it just to look it over, maybe I’d stop later, maybe I could pass on this one, but then I saw the little scalloped and curved decoration at the bottom. It reminded me of things around the house my father had made of wood that had just such decorations: awnings outdoors, cornices above the drapes, room dividers in our little post-war ranch house. My mother had designed the idea, my father had designed the item and made it by hand.
My errand on that evening was my daily visit to my mother in a critical care hospital. She’d had lung cancer surgery two months previous but her hypertension had caused her to unexpectedly slip into a state of dementia from which she was not expected to recover. I visited her twice each day, about mid-day and evening, and I knew I did not need to take on a stray wooden cabinet. Driving through the evening to see her the cabinet had led me to remember those projects the two had created before I was born, that I saw in the house each day when I stopped to pick up the mail and check things over; if her recovery had been as normal, she would have been back in the house, but this strange netherworld of waiting, and the quiet calm of the house with no one in it followed me as well.
So of course I swung past that cabinet on the way home from my visit to my mother, took a closer look and saw that indeed it was a sturdy cabinet, handmade with a birch wood top and red Bakelite handles very common and popular just after WWII, all the drawers were solid, and I crouched down to run my finger along that simple decorative curve, the only decoration at all added to the bottom to span from foot to foot of the cabinet just below the door with the thumb latch that held it closed.
So I struggled to fit it all into my little wagon and drive about a half mile home with the wagon door open, unloaded it and carried it into my basement for inspection. The paint was older, that shade of warm white that older oil-based paint became after years of sitting on the surface. The birch wood top was partially covered with real “linoleum” in a distinctly late-40s pattern, faded, dirty from probably motor oil, and more than half scraped away.
My parents lives had been marked by WWII, and all the indications that this had been made or at least updated at that time were pulling on those stories. My father had served in the Asia-Pacific theater from 1942 to 1945 and come home not knowing he had developed Parkinson Syndrome from a malarial fever that had nearly killed him. My mother had graduated high school in 1942, and all her memories of late high school, her early working career and life as a young adult were bound up in the American homefront experience during the war. I only heard the good stories, but in time I determined there was much sadness and pain underneath the shiny surfaces.
As I walked around the back of the cabinet, a single bare, unpainted panel darkened by age, I saw handwriting at the top. There, in pencil, was written:
MADE BY R.O.M.
And the story began to write itself of the person who’d returned from overseas with all the pain and trauma and trying to get back to “normal” life, creating this cabinet by hand, and letting this simple creative activity help to start the healing.
The story was always intended to be a short story. My mother actually recovered and lived 10 more years though she was ill and needed constant care, and many stories never came to be during that time. I still have the cabinet in my kitchen, see it, touch it, use it every day, and had to share something of it in my own creative efforts, so I wrote the poem for my 2014 poetry reading at Andrew Carnegie Free Library & Music Hall, “In This Valley”, commemorating the 110th anniversary of the merge and founding of the town of Carnegie because my parents were so much of this town, and the town itself, like so many others, was marked by that war. I read it again in my recent reading, “Walking Around”, because this finding and the inspiration for my own creation perfectly illustrate things you find when you carefully observe your surroundings, and how things we need sometimes magically appear when we need them.
I have not matched anyone from our town’s history with those initials—yet, but I hope to find a clue someday. But for the story it told me, lending its own magic to my memories and experiences, this will always be the tale.
To live my life like a tree,
to grow steadily from small beginnings,
fervently when possible, and quietly adapt when necessary,
stand in peace and harmony with my neighbors,
bear my fruit appropriately,
bring shelter and comfort to others indiscriminately,
and when my season is over
graciously give my gift to the earth
for the benefit of myself and all around me,
and without fear
patiently wait for my moment to return
I came home from work one day when I still worked my day job, but was heading for working freelance at home, within the year. On my deck enjoying dinner and feeling expansive in the late summer lushness of my yard I faced my wild black cherry tree, my favorite, big, mature, graceful and beautiful in all seasons. This poem came to me line by line as I scrambled for something to write on and write with. I tweaked a few words, and included it in my very first solo art exhibit in June 2000.
Autumn has arrived as usual, and each day the colors of the season appear in new places. Here in Western Pennsylvania with our miles and miles of tree-covered hills, more brilliant reds and yellows stand among the deep olive green as if someone had stippled a single wide brush stroke here and there on the hillside, just for effect. Because I am compelled to photograph and paint these colors I know that while we see some colors even in September, the leaves don’t begin to turn in earnest, in that big wave of change, until mid-October, yet many hillsides are already halfway there. This year our warm and wet summer is said to produce a spectacular autumn leaf show.
Because I paint Western Pennsylvania, nearly every one of my landscape paintings contains a tree, usually more than one, and often the trees themselves are the subjects. I have gigabytes of photos of trees, just for the trees’ sake, not to mention ones where the trees are the supporting cast. The other day I ran an errand entirely on winding back roads so that I could drive 10 miles per hour and photograph the beauty unfolding at every turn, even if they weren’t particularly good photos; the change had come so quickly that I was completely distracted and it was either that or have someone drive me or I’d wreck my car.
This weekend many leaves have fallen, the light has changed and I see more sky through graceful or gnarled branches.
I think of the trees around me as I think of my friends, those constant presences that are more a part of us than we know. The tree that actually inspired this poem almost 20 years ago has fallen, and I sincerely miss that huge old wild black cherry tree, but she lives on in my memory.
Below is the introductory information for the event, and below that is a link to the exhibit Portraits of Animals including all the essays and poetry and galleries of images. Please enjoy reading through it.
the poetry and art of
Bernadette E. Kazmarski
Thursday, February 18, 2010, 7:00 PM
Andrew Carnegie Free Library & Music Hall, Reception Hall, 2nd Floor
ON THE POST CARD (above): “Spring Thaw”, pastel, 2003, preparatory sketch for “Spring Comes to a Bend in the Creek”
Below is information about the poetry reading from the post card, and then after the event. In 2010 I was still building a static web page for each reading. This page will give you the basic information about the event, and the static page contains all the featured images and poems.
I really enjoyed designing and building those static pages so there is a link to the page for “Coming Spring” below. enjoy!
The Andrew Carnegie Free Library & Music Hall (ACFL&MH) is hosting a poetry reading and art exhibit on Thursday, February 18, 2010 at 7 p.m. in its Reception Hall. “Coming Spring” will feature 12 new poems and the fourth and final installment of the “Art of the Watershed” series, “Spring Morning at a Bend in the Creek”, and an exhibit of other works by Carnegie’s Bernadette Kazmarski. This local artist and poet finds the beauty and rhythms of Carnegie’s local landscapes, the Chartiers Creek and surrounding environs a source of ongoing inspiration.
The poetry reading will be followed by a dessert and coffee reception, and is free and open to the public.
Featured Painting: Spring Morning at a Bend in the Creek
Thank you for either joining me at my fourth annual poetry reading and art show or visiting me here on the page for the event.
My biggest inspiration for poetry, prose and artwork is the world right around me, and I enjoy the opportunity to share it from the perspective of one who walks and hikes and bikes and carries a camera, art materials and journal everywhere—even around the house—so the inspirations are fresh.
Many thanks to Maggie Forbes, executive director of Andrew Carnegie Free Library & Music Hall, who invites me each year to read my poetry and show my artwork. I love that building, every inch of it, and the opportunity to bring people in to visit is an honor. What a pleasure, every year, to be able to share the collected thoughts, inspirations and images of my past year.
My Garden Waits Under a Blanket of Spring inspired by my garden under 27 inches of snow
Pawprints and Raindrops published and award-winning
Taking My Shift memories upon visiting Eat ‘n Park
Inventing the Wheel where inspiration leads to
All Our Foundations are Gone old neighborhoods demolished for new development
The Bean-Picking Lesson pick those opportunities as soon as you see them
The Last Red Berries a poisonous and reviled plant is beautiful
Each day in the 29 years I’ve awakened in this house I’ve tilted my head back to look up through the branches of a silver maple right outside the window to see the morning sky. Many a night I’ve looked up at the stars before I’ve settled into sleep.
This silver maple took seriously her role as guardian of my cats and I and all who would be here, steadfast in front of my bedroom upstairs and my office downstairs, providing a screen from the outside world, the street outside a little too close for privacy, an aviary to observe the birds. She cast a cool green shadow in summer, a bright yellow glaze in autumn, permitted winter’s cool afternoon light to illuminate generations of cats sleeping, safe and warm, on the bed.
She even made an appearance in two of my paintings. “Biding Time” was inspired by seeing the mourning doves just sitting for hours in their places on the gnarled branches, and all the different textures of individual branches, sketched in pencil with a tiny bit of a watercolor wash for the cool and warm colors and the green of moss.
“Snowy Morning” shows rescued former feral Bella in her first winter indoors intently watching a heavy snow shower outside the window, watching it from the inside instead of trying to survive in it while living outdoors, an emotional moment for me.
I had three of my trees taken down today, including this beloved silver maple. These were in the sextet of trees that greeted me the first time I came to see this house, whose leaves I happily raked that first autumn in my new home, whose presence made my little house on a medium lot seem like a cottage glimpsed through an enchanted forest, as many people commented.
They whispered through the summer as they kept me cool, flashed their colors in autumn, and stood sentinel through winter storms, providing visual inspiration on snowy days and frosted moonlit nights, then emerging once again in spring with a haze of green.
I hated the thought of it, but knew, as the maples dropped large branches often enough, and especially after my wild black cherry tree fell on its own on a hot summer afternoon three years ago, that it was only a matter of time before one of the new style of wild storms would toss one of the trees over onto my house or a neighbors’. One was largely leafless with peeling bark, the other two were sparse, but with a twisted, battered beauty, like a bent and wizened old human. While I know birds and squirrels and insects use dead trees for life, endangering them and humans within the trees’ reach was too much risk.
Before this morning’s work…
I had noticed that birds had still roosted in the trees but had stopped nesting there a few years ago, perhaps a sign they felt the trees were too fragile to entrust their family’s future there. The maple by the driveway had dropped a large branch representing almost half of the tree’s canopy on top of my car in a windstorm in 2011. My Escort survived with a dented roof and a busted out rear window, but the tree had not only lost half its canopy but also a large portion of the side of its trunk, revealing a hollow interior with lots of squirrel treasures. I would stand and look at that and wonder if it would topple over onto the sparse blue spruce that never had a chance to grow much without enough light.
After this morning’s work…
The silver maple in front of the house was hollow too, I knew. When generations of raccoon families had squealed their way across the back yard to the front and scratched their way up the trunk of that maple tree they would stop and look at my cats and me looking right at them from the bedroom window, then disappear into the center of the trunk of the tree, either hiding goodies or finding them in there. Once I climbed the tree and shone a flashlight inside, and saw that it was even more hollow than the other silver maple. The tree’s diameter was roughly 24”, and when it was cut down today the wood of the trunk was only four to five inches thick around the tree’s circumference, and it was hollow not only all the way down the trunk but down into the tree’s root system at least 18” under the surface of the soil.
I plan to plant another tree in its place, and when I saw the hollow trunk I decided I’d fill that trunk with soil and plant the tree right inside it and the old maple could nourish it as her roots became part of the soil once again. Maybe a crabapple, so I’d see the flowers and reddish leaves and twisted branches and the birds could have the fruits (except for the ones I’d use for pies and jelly), or perhaps a magnolia, which would provide a good bit of shade and privacy without endangering the house.
Seeing the slices of the trunk I also decided to keep several to fill with soil and plant flowers inside, like the half barrels I had when I moved here. I’m really excited about that idea.
The silver maples had always had an odd shape, or shapelessness, in the way that trees carelessly trimmed back too far grow sprouting branches up at all angles from one spot in the trunk, rather than spaced out up the trunk. Though the area where I live is not known for tornadoes, though they happen all around us, a tornado came through town in 1963. I was only two, but I’ve heard the story, especially from my realtor, who told me that the tornado had gone up this street but rolled backward when it couldn’t rise up the hill right outside my house, snapping the tops off of both trees. They stood there branchless for a few years, then started sprouting branches, developing their unique shapes.
There is a hand-drawn map of my town from 1897 in our library, borough building and historical society. Seeing a map of my town I always need to find my house, but my house didn’t exist yet in that year. There were in the empty lot where my house would one day be, however, two trees in the approximate place where my two silver maples would stand along the street, protecting the front of the house and shading the driveway. The map has many trees on it, and I had thought they were general representations of tree-covered areas in our early neighborhoods.
But these two trees, one on the level of the street just before it began to grow steep, and one higher, partway up the hill, are so specific, just those two, and grass all around, that I think they must have represented two very real trees. They correspond with the tree that had stood by my driveway, on the level, and the one in front of my house, guarding and shading the front. I’m not sure if those two trees were my maples because silver maples are notoriously weak and messy trees, easily damaged in storms and, as mine did, dropping branches regularly. Their lifespan is usually about 70 years, though some can live twice that long. The trees on the map are not saplings, but don’t look like mature trees, so possibly 10 years old at the time. That would make them 132 years old now. That’s entirely possible. I’m so glad I had the chance to live in the shade of such august trees.
Andrew Carnegie Free Library & Music Hall in Carnegie is a place I’ve visited my entire life and is also one of my customers for commercial art and design. In 2018, as part of the plan for Library Park, the community was invited to help create a mosaic that would be mounted on two low seating walls in the park. The design included features of the Library & Music Hall, around Carnegie, and the Pittsburgh area. Rachel Carson, because of her impact on our local environment and green space, of which the park is a part, was included in the design.
While I typically design the Library & Music Hall’s newsletter, the executive director asked me to also write an article about Rachel Carson’s work, explaining science in everyday terms but in an evocative, poetic style that made her work very popular to scientists and everyday people alike, her findings leading eventually to the environmental legislation in the 1960s and 70s that changed our lives here in Pittsburgh, and many other cities in this country. That was my pleasure entirely. When I read A Sense of Wonder I was proud, as an adult, to still be picking up neat rocks and identifying wildflowers, interpreting it all in my own way.
Rachel Carson’s name may immediately bring to mind “Silent Spring”. Though that is her best-known work she was an award-winning writer long before its 1962 publication, and found her way to that subject and international fame from a distant starting point—a log cabin in a rural community near Pittsburgh.
Born in 1907 in a 50-year-old log cabin with no utilities on a farm north of Pittsburgh, she was a pioneer in her education and practice as a female scientist who brought her understanding of the natural world to readers with her graceful and descriptive prose, and stepped from there to conservation with writing that inspired the environmental movements and legislation of the 1960s and 70s.
She was born in Springdale, 18 miles north of Pittsburgh. You can still visit the house, now managed by the Rachel Carson Homestead Association, which preserves her legacy in the place where she began. The family’s 65-acre farm on which she explored her surroundings is much reduced, but this was the place where she first met and fell in love with the natural world, finding her own “sense of wonder” in her adventures on the land with her mother and later on her own.
A brilliant student, publishing her first story about the natural world at age 10, she graduated high school at the top of her class in 1925 and went to what was then the Pennsylvania College for Women, now Chatham University. Originally majoring in English with the goal of being a writer she changed her major to biology but continued submitting to the school’s literary publications. After graduation her next stop was Johns Hopkins University for graduate study in zoology and genetics. Working her way through financial setbacks she graduated with a master’s degree in zoology in 1935.
Her father’s death in 1935 prevented her from moving on to doctoral studies as she sought a job to help support her family. In the midst of the Great Depression jobs were few but she was encouraged by a mentor to take a part-time position writing radio copy for the US Bureau of Fisheries, today the US Fish and Wildlife Service. Her manner of translating the science into literature that was not overly simplified nor pedantic was so popular that she rose through the ranks to become editor of publications, and stayed with the bureau until 1952.
At the same time her writing also caught the attention of magazine and book publishers and soon she was publishing articles and working on her first books, not about conservation, but about the life of the sea. The Sea Around Us published in 1951 was on the best seller list for 86 weeks. Also in 1951, in a crossover with science and art, she was invited to write liner notes for the RCA Victor Recording of Claude Debussy’s La Mer with the National Symphony Orchestra. Chapters of her books were published as freestanding stories or serialized in The New Yorker and TheYale Review among others, she won prestigious literary awards, received honorary doctorate degrees, other book proposals were accepted, and in 1952 she could have her career as a full-time science writer.
And then came Silent Spring.
Carson will always be remembered for the message and legacy of Silent Spring, that the way the pesticide DDT was overused in the 1950s would cause irreversible damage not only to wildlife and the environment in which it was used, but its carcinogenic effect would also sicken and kill many people. Synthetic pesticides were new then, developed along with many other chemical agents with funding from the military after WWII. Not much study had been done about their effects outside of killing target insects, but along with other uses DDT was liberally sprayed aerially, mixed with fuel oil, to kill the gypsy moths that chewed their way through any forest they populated, including onto private land.
Begun in 1958 the book was four years of research with government and private scientists and doctors, writing that proved with scientific evidence the detrimental effects of overuse of such chemicals, and a recommendation to use them in appropriate, targeted amounts. She was refuted as “hysterical” and her abilities as a scientist were questioned in part because of her sex, but in the end, after hearings and reports, it was her science that held firm and convinced the US government that DDT and other synthetic pesticides should be regulated for public health and safety.
The general public agreed and through the 1960s, on the back of the science and impact of Silent Spring, a slew of environmental pollution control regulations of air, water and land were passed along with the establishment of the Environmental Protection Agency in 1970.
But Rachel Carson never saw the final impact of her work. She was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1960 and even with surgery and radiation it metastasized and she died in April 1964.
She was only 57 years old. Imagine what she could have carried forward if she had been around for the next decade and the spread of environmental awareness both for public health and safety and for land conservation.
We stand now where two roads diverge . . . The road we have long been traveling is deceptively easy, a smooth superhighway on which we progress with great speed, but at its end lies disaster. The other fork of the road—the one “less traveled”—offers our last, our only chance to reach a destination that assures the preservation of our earth.
The silence of ice
hard-smooth glaringly mocking
a manufactured perfection
life, birth, spring
held captive in plain view
under a solid clear glaze
pale world strangely hushed
I tiptoe through
afraid to break the surface with my sound
but a snap, a crack, a drip, another
whispers return to life around me
once broken, the ice cannot hold its captives
dripping, pattering, babbling
life begins again
the stream torrent rushing
beneath the clear, fragile, broken cage of its captor.
My mother died on January 25, 2011, and each year around that date I remember her in a post and share the poem I wrote for her the day she died.
She had been ill for years, and this last time she’d gone to the hospital in congestive heart failure it was clear she would not recover. Kept comfortable by the hospital staff, we waited around her bed for her last breaths.
Later, after clearing out her room at the nursing home, all the necessary phone calls, a visit from a friend and more calls, I had my time alone and was up quite late. As I sat outside in the quiet of the January night watching the snow gently fill the air and fall whispering in a soft blanket on all around me, the poem came to me in nearly one complete piece. So that I would not distract myself from the flowing words in my head I carefully went inside and tiptoed to my desk for a tablet and pen, quietly went back outside to the swing and wrote it down slowly, line for line, all as if I was afraid I’d scare it away, all the beautiful words I’d been thinking, or maybe I’d break it, like a bubble. I changed very little in a rewrite.
I read this poem at her memorial. And I had decided I would go through with my poetry reading scheduled for just two days after my mother died, because it was an opportunity to share her with others and to read the new poem.
I could never encapsulate 86 years of a life into one blog post or one photo or one poem. The photo above is the one we placed in our mother’s casket, her wedding photo from 1946 when she was 21 years old. The little scrap of red in the lower left corner is the red blouse she wore, the one she loved best, and I knew she’d want to be remembered in it; our mother was one who could wear a red chiffon blouse in her casket and be proud.
About My Mother
Regardless of the many outstanding qualities any person may have
we are essentially remembered for only one of them.
In my mother, all would agree
this one would be her remarkable beauty.
All through her life the compliments trailed her
as she carefully maintained “the look”, her look, so glamorous,
from tailored suits to taffeta dresses to palazzo pants,
hair perfectly styled, nails manicured and painted
a collar set just so, cuffs casually turned back,
hair worn long, past the age of 50,
a dark, even tan and shorts into her 80s,
lipstick always perfectly applied,
and even at 84
people marveled on her perfect skin,
dark curly hair,
and big bright smile.
I see that smile
when I see my sister smile,
and I see my mother’s active, athletic bearing
when I look at my brother,
and her gray eyes are mine.
In each of her grandchildren
I see her round face,
graceful hands, pert nose,
proud upright posture
and a million other of her features and habits
and in all of us
her wild curly hair
is part of her legacy to us.
When we look at each other from now on
we will see the part of her she gave to each of us,
this little cluster of people who came from her
and who were her greatest treasure,
and when she looks at us from wherever she is
she will know that
she cannot be forgotten.
When I was seven years old, my sister entered me in a beauty contest for first graders. That’s me on the left in one of the few photos I have of me from my childhood, dressed kind of like I do today, flowered dress and tights, hair cut with bangs and curly wavy long in back; some things never change. I did not win, and I don’t know who did. I guess it wasn’t important enough to remember.
I do remember that 1968, the year I went from first to second grade, was a very frightening year, and I remember the things that happened that year as I moved out into the world; I can picture me at that time, and remember. Two very public and very respected people were killed in public places. People cried in public. Riots happened and we saw cities burning like something from a scary movie, except it was real life, and people were hurt and killed, real people, like people I knew, and they lost everything they owned.
We heard about the Viet Nam war on every radio news cast and saw it every night on TV. Those people were being shot at and shooting at others in places with strange names, but it was difficult to determine who was who, and what was right and what was wrong, and the news didn’t really make that clear. A plane was hijacked to Cuba, people taken hostage, big words for a first-grader but I knew what they meant, and I knew it meant those people hadn’t done anything wrong, yet they were taken to a place they were frightened of and could be killed.
And black people, like the few I knew at my Catholic school, were also fighting, and being killed, like the people who had lost their homes in the riots. My black friends seemed safe, but from what some people were saying around me I really wasn’t sure.
It seemed like people were being killed everywhere, and that this country, and the world, were not a safe place to be as I emerged from my suburban neighborhood and went to Catholic School. My world was small. I thought these things happened in downtown Pittsburgh, six miles away, and in the tree-covered hills around us in Western Pennsylvania.
We called him Martin Luther King then, no Reverend, no Doctor, no Junior, and I realize now, not allowing him the respect he deserved. But when he was shot and killed, and time stopped as adults held their breath wondering what would happen, I remember hearing about the dream, and freedom and wondered why some people couldn’t have it like I did. In my simplistic first-grader reasoning I thought they should live like me and had no idea why things were as they were.
I remember the word “service”, and how we needed to help each other, no doubt echoing what I was also learning in Catholic school, which was very much about public service and reaching out to people with less than we had and sharing, making sacrifices.
And I remember hearing that we needed to do this in a hurry, we could not wait because…people were suffering, and they were dying, because they did not have the same rights as others, as I did. And other people didn’t want them to have those rights, either.
Children often feel they are responsible for needs in their environment. I wanted to do something, but had no idea what I could do, or when, or how. I looked to adults for answers, but they all seemed to be waiting for something to happen, looking for answer just like me.
I decided I would just be nice to everyone.
A decade later, after witnessing the strife and changes from 1968 to 1978, I read Letter From a Birmingham Jail, which speaks much of time, and there it was, …”the time is always ripe to do right.” That concept of not waiting for the right moment, the “fierce urgency of now” would appear in many of what I read of Dr. King’s writings. And it answered the question I’d had a decade before.
The time is always right to do what is right.
Yet for many people conditions have not changed from what they were in 1968. The time is now.
She stood beside the bed waiting for the next command, acting out her baker’s apprentice role. Her father sat in the bed, kneading the sheet on his lap into massive quantities of imaginary bread dough to be proofed in a big nonexistent wooden bowl, real sweat rolling down his face. When he indicated it was ready by pulling his hands away and speaking a few unintelligible words of Polish, she lifted the balled up sheet “bread dough” in both hands and took it away, turning to place it on the seat of the reclining chair in the cramped institutional room. He either approved or didn’t see what she’d done, she couldn’t tell, and he barely took a break before he began kneading another sheet into a ball.
She had taken a guess this was what he wanted the first time he’d done this; he was speaking Polish, which she knew in only simple conversational phrases. He waved his hand and in an irritated voice said something that included the word mąka which she knew meant flour. Did he need more flour? Again she took a guess and picked up a bed pillow and carried it over to him, setting it on the bed beside him. He picked it up and poured imaginary flour from it, so she guessed, then put it down and went back to kneading the bed sheet. He wasn’t strong enough to support himself walking, but his muscles were rippling as he vigorously kneaded the sheet.
What was he seeing? She was fairly certain he was not seeing this room with those glassy, feverish eyes. Her father’s eyes were hazel and soft, but these eyes were squinted with effort, then glaring sharp and black with his dilated pupils when he looked at her and gave his order. Probably a medication effect, but who knew? Dementia was a strange thing, the doctors and nurses had said. You never knew what you were going to get, or for how long. It was hard to tell if they were “in there”.
She had had her introduction to this mind play a couple of years ago, the day she had driven him to the hospital, on the last day he’d ever spent in the house she’d grown up in. As her mother sat before her vanity back in the bedroom putting on makeup and brushing her hair, getting ready to leave the house, she had been in the kitchen with her father. This was not at all unusual, but the conversation was. Her father had stopped conversing years ago, speaking one or two words in answer to questions but never sentences, and certainly not initiating talk. He had been diagnosed with Parkinson Syndrome a few years before that day, and the discussion of symptoms and effects had pretty much explained the silent, shuffling, stone-faced father she’d grown up with. Now, with medication for the condition, he talked all the time.
They had a nice, normal exchange, even a laugh or two. Then he walked down the hall to check on her mother and after a short exchange heard him say to her, “That’s a really nice girl out there. Who is she?”
He didn’t know who she was. And in the two years following that day he seemed to be moving steadily backward in his life, discarding memories as he went. She was the youngest child, and he was now back before the time she was born, some time in the late 1950s when her brother was a toddler and her sister in grade school, they had just moved into that house, her mother was still young. Since then her father had forgotten Allen too, and then her sister Ann, though he seemed to hold onto his memory of his wife. Eventually even she slipped away to reappear unexpectedly as he moved through the war years when he’d been a cook and baker in India, the years during the Great Depression when he’d worked in the family bakery, jobbed around as a musician and picked up any odd job he could find.
The bakery had been the family business. His father had brought it in his head from Poland and built a family bakery, not on Main Street, but in a poorer neighborhood where people really needed the bread and would buy from an immigrant. The bakery had done well and her father, first born, had nearly been born in the bakery in the years when his father and mother were just starting out. Then he had worked in the bakery from a young age before and after school.
After the banks had failed in 1929 and so many people were unemployed, hungry and losing their homes, they kept baking bread and just gave it away if people couldn’t pay for it. In 1931, at age 12, her father left sixth grade to make bread and pastries and drive the delivery cart, pulled by a pony that belonged to a neighbor. They lost the bakery in 1936, and her father along with his father and brothers looked for any work they could get until 1941, when the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor made the World War broadcast on the radio, like a serialized daily drama, reality for Americans. The brothers enlisted, all were lucky to make it safely back. The family bakery was never resurrected.
When he had begun this wild bakery activity, giving orders in Polish and sweating real sweat, her sister had been in the room and called her to say she was probably the only one who knew what he was doing, and maybe even knew some Polish.
His family had spoken Polish at home, and though they also spoke English he didn’t speak it regularly until he went to school, and spoke both easily all through his life. But on the rare times he spoke now it was only Polish, his sunken soft hazel eyes wandering in confused silence otherwise. If her guess was correct about him marching steadily back in time he’d be a teenager now, or even younger. She’d tried to pull out a few Polish phrases but he didn’t even respond to that. He just kept kneading sheets and sweating, seeming angry.
Wow, she thought, he really hated baking, he wanted to be a musician, and here he’s stuck baking in his hospital bed…until he dies? She looked at his gnarled hands and veiny arms, thin from wasting with this disease, his back hunched from decades of bending over the bench, those dark, piercing eyes that were not his, and wondered what he did see. It wasn’t this room, it wasn’t her. What part of her father’s childhood was he inhabiting now?
The bakery just below street level was dim and hot with the fire to keep the ovens going, stuffy with the rain. The street was at eye level, the cobbles a glistening bumpy pattern. A waft of cool damp air drifting down the steps to the open door cooled his face momentarily, but the sweat still dripped from his nose and chin, ran down his arms from under his shirt. Maybe the heat and rain would make the bread proof faster and he could get out of this place before dawn and hide somewhere to sleep. They treated him like a servant and barely let him eat. He was supposed to be an apprentice, learning the trade, and he had learned it alright. He seemed to have a talent for it that even he had never known. But this couple had stopped baking since he had started, taking care of the shop and traveling around town to sell even more so he had to work even harder, never giving him credit for the increased quality of their breads and pastries, and or course he was unpaid.
He had been glad to get away from his drunken father who roared and swung a meaty punch toward anyone who came near him. His oldest brother wasn’t scared of their father and would take over the smithy. His other brothers had gone off to be soldiers and had no idea if they’d ever return. His sisters stayed with his mother and each vowed to take her with them when they married. His father had told him to go to the baker, who had no children, that would be his trade. That was it, just leave, walk across town and go to live with strangers. As the youngest son, he knew it was taking a trade elsewhere or being a soldier or sailor, and so he went.
He had been glad at first, until in a year they barely let him out of the bakery, no more fun, no more education, he couldn’t even finish schooling and would be trapped, working in their bakery until they gave it to him or died. He didn’t say much about it, didn’t talk to much of anyone, he just seethed and kept it all inside.
He had heard customers talking about people leaving Poland, leaving all the countries in Europe for a new country, full of other opportunities, sailing for months to get there. He hadn’t had much school, but he had seen maps, checked them when his brothers left for the war, checked them again when people mentioned this “America”. He couldn’t even comprehend the distance, a boat, total strangers, and didn’t even think about speaking a different language.
Yes, the heat and moist air would raise this bread to perfection. Yes, he knew his baking, good enough to have his own bakery, which would never happen here. He finished kneading the bread dough, rolled it into the proofing bowl, pulled together his shoes and his coat and cap, walked out the door and squinted his dark eyes into the drizzly night, and headed west, toward where the English coast was on the map, where a ship would take him to that new land, where he could claim the success and the life that would be his.
This story is mostly true. The father is my father, and I was the apprentice baker in his room in the nursing home. We had that conversation, he did seem to move backward in time over the years, and he did make bread of his bed sheets. And he did have those frightening eyes that, for all my father’s distance through Parkinson Syndrome, I never saw at any other time in his life. I also never forgot him sweating in his very real bakery.
I have been working on researching my family history. Years ago when I began I could not find my father’s father anywhere. I barely knew him because he died when I was quite young, but my fiction writer’s mind was putting this story together even then, thirty years ago. That part of the story is fictional.
I resolved to at least draft the short stories I’ve been carrying around in my head all these years, just to see if they actually work and to get into the habit of writing them. I am slowly working on a few, but this one practically wrote itself in the first draft with two rounds of rewrites. I hope I can keep it up.