The Christmas Moon

ChristmasMoon

Several years ago I was driving home on a Christmas night, traveling along a dark two-lane road in a somewhat rural area that was familiar and fairly close to home. As dusk fell the light dusting of snow around me was tending to violet and the perfectly clear blue sky above me was also shading to violet in the east. As I turned a bend in the road I met with surprise a big bright and creamy full moon that had risen above the uneven line of pine and deciduous trees nearly silhouetted against the sky on the horizon. I smiled at the pure beauty of the scene and as I drove along, the moon seemed to follow me on my left.

I had just driven first my brother back to the nursing home where he was living while recovering from a traumatic brain injury, and then my mother, who was living in personal care in the after effects of lung cancer and congestive heart failure. I had cooked a Christmas dinner at my house, set everything aside to keep warm and gone to pick up each of them. We ate our dinner and I packed a few leftovers for each of them before getting them back in time for dinner medications. Now I was on my way home to pack up the rest of the dinner, wash dishes and clean up my kitchen.

Deep in thought about these two and about my own life since they’d suffered their illnesses, I considered our day then moved to other Christmases, other holidays, other family members, other homes. In my distraction I slowed down with the rises and falls and bends in the road in the growing darkness, but was still aware of that full moon following me out of the corner of my eye.

A small valley opened out on my right, a familiar thing to one who walks the woods and valleys in Western Pennsylvania: a level area filled with young trees, scrub and brambles which had recently enough been the rich bottomland field of a farm, bordered by a narrow stream, and behind that a rather steep tree-covered hill. These small valleys appeared on both sides of the road, and with a little traveling the valley would rise up into a hill that bordered the road, up and down, the road, the landscape, the rhythm was comforting, like rocking slowly in a rocking chair.

But as I passed this little valley I noticed movement. I knew it was probably just a deer as this was the time of day they moved about and that was the perfect area for them to be having an evening meal. Though I hadn’t been facing that direction and didn’t actually see anything directly, the movement hadn’t seemed to be a deer, it had seemed human to me.

That was not a problem, really, the little valley was essentially someone’s back yard and it would not be unusual for them to be walking around there even on Christmas, but something about the figure had also seemed familiar, I had no idea why. Even though I wanted to get back home and clean up my kitchen, I slowed down and pulled to the side of the road. If there’s a possibility, I like to pursue these little ideals that arise, stopping to explore, but I rarely have time to.

I had passed the valley so it was now behind me, but I backed up along the berm of the road to a spot where I could see the valley.

That silent pale yellow moon still shone on my left, risen slightly higher above the horizon than before, shone directly into the little space, lighting the snow cover to a pale silver violet and the tree trunks to varying shades of pale gray against the charcoal-shadowed hill in the background. Everything seemed still, but I detected movement flitting among the trees, thought I saw the glint of moonlight on hair, on an arm, a dress. I opened my car window and shut off my radio and then my car’s engine. If those were people moving down there, they should be crunching in the snow, but I heard no sound in the crisp, clear air.

But I felt such a strong presence. Quietly opening my door and standing up in the bits of snow and gravel at the edge of the grass along the road, I heard only far off sounds, a plane in the sky, a car traveling somewhere, a dog barking. The air was so clear I thought I’d hear sounds from miles away traveling quickly through the cold, windless darkness, leaving little virtual contrails as they moved through the infinity of a cold winter night, but nothing came up from the valley, neither from hooves nor feet.

And if I was reading this and didn’t know the story I’d be yelling, “You idiot! Get back in the car!” No, this isn’t going to turn into a made-for-TV movie—you are safe to read on without fear. I am cautious and always aware, but didn’t feel in any way threatened, in fact I felt safe and welcome.

As I stood there, one hand on my open car door, I thought I recognized one of the figures out of the corner of my eye, and as it is with focusing on subjects in near darkness the figure disappeared when I looked directly at it. But I knew it was my mother, walking quickly and gracefully as she had done when young, laughing soundlessly over her shoulder before disappearing into the darkness. Then I saw one of my aunts, also laughing but in a conversation with someone else, happy for once in her life. And as I stood there I saw other relatives, my brother and sister, aunts and uncles, even ones I’d never known and only seen in photos, just a few seconds each, and all were happy and laughing and moving here and there, the little valley was full of these specters.

Then I realized that each of these were the people I’d been thinking about as I drove along. Had I manifested them? Was I hallucinating? I hadn’t even had a glass of wine yet, waiting until I was back home in my warm kitchen in my stocking feet and wearing an apron, washing my dishes and singing along with the radio.

But here they were in this magical little valley and what had made me slow my car, had drawn me out to experience it was the joy in the scene, they were all enjoying themselves, happy and laughing, something that had not always been so in real life. Here they all were together in this little parallel universe.

No, I had been thinking so deeply about them all, remembering where I had memories or simply imagining those who I’d never met. When I create a scene for artwork or writing I visualize it pretty completely and for a while as the goal of my work it is very real to me. In that manner of visualizing, in that dusky time of day when I feel the veil of reality thin and the closeness of those who aren’t with me along with that magical moon and its light among the trees, my thoughts for those brief seconds became real, and I saw them as I wanted them to be, or perhaps as they really were without the worries and weariness of everyday life, happy to be together.

~~~

You can read this and other stories in “Short Stories”.


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Christmas Short Story: Let There Be Peace on Earth

Sunset-14
Sunset-14
Let There Be Peace on Earth

On a dark, misty, not-quite-raining Sunday afternoon just before Christmas, I walked across an uneven, wet parking lot toward Dollar Tree, my mission: three or four pairs of 2.75 or 3.0 reading glasses that I could leave around the house or carry with me as need be since I was recently finding myself unable to read smaller text. I’d probably also pick up some other one-dollar-doodads that I really didn’t need.

It wasn’t cold, just dreary, especially since we had had a very pretty snow a few days before that had mostly melted leaving piles of dirty ice in parking lots and cinders and salt on the streets and caked on cars.

Ahead of me I saw an older woman emerge from the passenger side of a neat, clean silvery sedan parked near the end of the row and close the door, leaving someone, presumably her husband, behind the steering wheel.

She was slender and slight, dressed in an unwrinkled light blue poplin raincoat belted at the waist and had no hat on her short, mousy-gray permed hair. I thought of her leaving a very plain white Protestant church with a wreath on the front door, her husband in a navy blue suit, holding the passenger door for her as she got into the car; she had asked to stop here on the way home for something. She walked quickly with her head down and did not look up at me as I passed her but only glanced sideways without raising her head or turning in my direction, and said nothing.

I admit my outfits can look interesting at times, with my penchant for making and wearing colorful crocheted berets and hats, sometimes adding a scarf over a sweater or two and usually a long skirt with colorful tights and clogs or boots of some fashion. Some people say it looks cute or “funky”, some people just look, and I know that it often looks like I couldn’t decide what to wear or like I’m packing extra clothes, and while I’ve overhead “bag lady” I still get plenty of compliments. But my outfits are generally a reflection of what’s going on inside my head and heart and this is different every day and rarely monochromatic.

Even though the older woman didn’t look like the typical Dollar Tree patron in that area, in fact, she didn’t look like the typical patron of anything in that shopping center, she certainly looked as if she was heading for the door. Reaching the door ahead of her, I opened it and held it for her to pass through.

She stepped up on the sidewalk and hesitated, looking at the door, then glancing at me, as if she wasn’t sure she trusted the situation, as if I might close the door in her face or hit her with it. I smiled when she looked at me and nodded my head, and that seemed enough to encourage her to trust me as I held the door for her. She nodded at me, not making eye contact, and hurried past me into the store with short, quick, silent steps. I entered behind her and let the door close behind me.

Dollar stores are generally a little chaotic, but before Christmas they reach a peak of excess that is generally overwhelming. The merchandise displayed in no particular order turns into areas of color and texture and blocks much of the light from the ceiling fixtures, the scents of candles, perfumes and spices float in from everywhere, and once you add in the musical cards, conversations and Christmas music piped in from above, even the most focused person can become completely disoriented.

Patrons dressed in winter clothing wander up and down the aisles and among the displays of stuff clutching an armload of t-shirts and window cleaner and kitchen utensils and a box of rotini pasta with startled expressions darting about for anything they might have missed and would regret not purchasing when they got home. Maybe it’s a merchandising tactic by the store, but when everything is $1.00 you don’t need to worry about appealing to customers, and shoppers can afford to lose focus and pick up a few things they hadn’t come in for but might use later so it’s worth a cruise around the store.

I lost track of the older woman as she entered the store and turned right past a display of fake red-and-green-and-glitter poinsettias wrapped in sparkling red and green foil. I remembered where the display of reading glasses was, so I headed straight into the store, past the line at the front to the end of the counter where the spinning racks of reading glasses and sunglasses were displayed.

I don’t know what was playing when I came in, but above the din I heard gentle piano chords begin a melody joined by strings, not at all unusual for a holiday tune but when it led into the first words of “Let There Be Peace on Earth”, the Vince Gill version, I smiled. I knew this song, and I really loved its clear message accompanied with a simple melody. Vince Gill’s version is very straightforward and unadorned, not a big resounding production, and I find that very comforting.

Let there be peace on earth

and let it begin with me.

Let there be peace on earth

the peace that was meant to be.

In addition to my interesting clothing I also tend to sing along with anything I know, but it’s often completely unintentional as familiar words and melody flow through my thoughts and I simply begin to hum or sing—not loudly, but people can hear me. Of course, because I knew this song I began to sing along, softly, as I spun the glasses display and tried on one pair after another, purple, silver, flowered, tortoiseshell, looking in the teeny mirror to make sure I wasn’t completely over the top and picking up other packages to see that I could read them.

With God as our father

brothers all are we

let me walk with my brother

in perfect harmony.

I also looked around the store to see how the vision was with the glasses, even though they were meant for reading. A display of greeting cards began on the other side of the glasses display, and I saw an African-American couple who had been pulling out one card after another reading and laughing or discussing. An aisle of figurines of all shapes and colors and subjects opened up beyond the sunglasses display, and there I saw a woman and girl softly speaking Spanish, likely mother and daughter, picking up various figurines and discussing them.

Let peace begin with me,

let this be the moment now.

Now, however, I noticed that the mother and perhaps daughter, too, also seemed to be singing along with the song; their lips moving slightly as they browsed their shelves, and they seemed to be singing in English.

With every step I take

let this be my solemn vow…

I know I was staring at them trying to focus and determine if they really were singing along, and the mother looked up at me with a smile of recognition as her lips and mine moved with the same lyrics. I smiled back; we didn’t know each other, but we certainly had something in common.

…To take each moment

and live each moment

with peace eternally.

We kept singing softly as our glances broke apart, but we kept smiling.

Let there be peace on earth

and let it begin with me.

I turned back to the glasses display, finally on the fourth pair, while the song went into an instrumental section. When the song began again, with the child singing this time, so did I, and so did the African-American couple looking at the cards. I looked at them, they looked at me, we smiled and kept singing softly.

With God as our father

brothers all are we

let me walk with my brother

in perfect harmony.

I was overcome, and as is also typical of me in emotional moments, my eyes brimmed over and tears dropped down my cheeks. I glanced down and pulled a used tissue from my pocket, dabbing at my eyes, but kept singing.

To take each moment

and live each moment

in peace eternally…

Far too emotional to consider browsing the store, I turned to the counter with my glasses to check out. Just then I recognized the older woman’s blue raincoat already in line. I stepped in behind her. She was holding several stuffed toys and humming the last bars of the song.

Let there be peace on earth

and let it begin with me.

That really finished me off. I found another tissue as I began to wonder about this woman who was so uncomfortable in these surroundings.

Because she looked too old to have young children of her own, and she appeared to have the means to buy better toys, I wondered who the stuffed toys were for and why she would go to Dollar Tree to buy them. I imagined a scenario of some single mother she had heard about in church, a neighbor or perhaps an errant daughter with her grandchild; the sermon had nudged her conscience and she was acting as quickly as possible. Perhaps that was the reason for her apparent discomfort, or perhaps she stopped here after church every Sunday but didn’t want anyone to know she was helping someone. I knew my imagination was running away with the facts, but the whole experience had opened a flood of ideas that I could barely follow.

When radio stations pledge to play Christmas music from Thanksgiving to Christmas they really have to lower their standards to keep the selections varied, and while some pop holiday hits have become classics, others are just inane. But then, anything would be inane after that experience. I somewhat like “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree”, but not right then.

The one thing I do know is that there in that discount store, among that mixed group of us—the uncomfortable older woman, the Spanish-speaking mother and daughter, the African-American couple, myself and possibly others—there was peace on earth, at least for those minutes when our hearts met in the simple wish described in the lyrics. And perhaps they each carried it away as a tender memory, just as I did.

~~~

You can read this and other stories in “Short Stories”.


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Poem: Let Our Hearts Fly

Let Our Hearts Fly

A cardinal
flashing red in the bare winter landscape
innocent of my intent
I missed my shot, my camera open to receive too much light
yet it was then that I heard
of the shooting of other innocent birds
on this brilliant morning
colorful plumage
melodic chatter
gathered in a trusted place
a flash of red
too many left behind
others holding hands
closing eyes to run.

No.

Please let it not be so.
For those who can no longer fly
let our hearts fly to be with them
flashing red in the brilliant and bare winter morning.

Let Our Hearts Fly © 2012 Bernadette E. Kazmarski

Let Our Hearts Fly
Let Our Hearts Fly

My heart was heavy with the news of the school shooting in Newtown on December 14, 2012. I really was photographing the cardinal and missed my shot, and then heard the news. May we remember the innocent children, the adults who tried to protect them, and the families they leave behind.


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The Kingfisher

The Kingfisher
Kingfisher on the power lines.
Kingfisher on the power lines.

The other day as I walked into Carnegie I saw the flock of Canada geese congregated along the creek and a small tributary in the center of town, doing goose things. At the same time I heard a familiar chittering and finally found the tiny shape of a kingfisher on the power lines above the creek, loudly scolding the geese and likely telling them to get out of his territory. They paid no attention, but the kingfisher did not relent.

The Kingfisher

Blending with the scenery, more chittering sound than sight,
you are more than just a bird fishing for an afternoon snack
but evidence of changes that have already come
and those certain to be.
Little indicator of the health of a stream
and by that the health of a community
and a region
your presence here means we have made change,
we have turned around and made right something we had spoiled
and we have made welcome not just for you
but for ourselves as well.
We can stop for a moment to appreciate
but you tell us to be ready for new accomplishments and adventures.
Even better awaits us.

Poem The Kingfisher © 2014 Bernadette E. Kazmarski

Kingfishers are not large birds, barely larger than a robin but with a stubby tail and an almost top-heavy head, very protective of its territory along a waterway. They are small but bold, and are also known to be a harbinger of the health of a stream because they needs to feed directly from creatures that live in the water and will leave if there isn’t enough to eat.

Once Chartiers Creek was so polluted even plants died on its banks, but after decades of a ban on dumping and a mandate for cleanup the waters were safe to be in, to fish in and fish and other aquatic species began to return. I had been hearing a kingfisher’s chittering along the creek for a couple of years but the actual bird was hard to spot. Finally one March afternoon I saw the actual bird and photographed it diving into the water. We had reversed a century of pollution.

The kingfisher splashes into the creek.
The kingfisher splashes into the creek.

I saw the kingfisher two days before my 2014 poetry reading celebrating the 110th year of Carnegie’s existence, and wrote the poem then and read it at my reading. Kingfishers also symbolize adventure and future accomplishments and tell you to be bold, so perhaps we’ve not only healed past ills, but also it may mean the best is yet to come.

Kingfisher watching the water.
Kingfisher watching the water.

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Poem and Essay: Corsages in a Book / The History We Will Never Know

Corsage-2-1000px

I have a book that remained in my mother’s house
after I moved her to the personal care home,
The Pennsylvania Almanac 1945,
in which were nestled
three corsages pressed flat,
spaced among the thousand pages
of information about the administration of Pennsylvania,
maps and lists and departments,
information anyone would need to know
to get things done in Pennsylvania.
But there was no information about the corsages,
the small wrist corsage with the shell-pink ribbon and small pink roses,
or the white rose with blue ribbons to be pinned on a dress,
or the creamy white bridal bouquet, two roses, ivory satin ribbon
chenille holder and ivory lace.

When were the dances, the night out, the wedding?
Do I see these in the dim black and white images
of my mother with her first husband,
right after the war,
before they married?
Is this the small bouquet she holds in one of her wedding photos,
to match perfectly the ivory wedding suit she wears?

Or are they from an even earlier time,
the love all through high school
who came back from the war and loved and left her.
You preserve a corsage because
you want to preserve the memory;
you carefully arrange the materials so they preserve the original
and the book pages pull the moisture from the flowers,
but these were dropped in a book that would never be opened again,
and the pages slapped shut,
no arranging of ribbons and lace, the flowers pressed into each other,
the whole thing nearly unrecognizable,
I know about pressing corsages;
these were left behind, ignored, but I know they were not forgotten.
Somewhere in all the stories
I will find the stories of the corsages.

poem copyright 2009 © Bernadette E. Kazmarski

The History We Will Never Know

A wide, heavy volume always occupied a space in the bookshelf near where my mother sat in the living room, along with her crossword puzzle reference books and world almanacs, dictionary and thesaurus and other reference books, near the book club novels that were still her favorites. But she regularly used those reference books and we read the novels. The big volume never seemed to move, just sat heavily and dull green, its title, The Pennsylvania Almanac 1945, embossed in increasingly faded gold on its wide spine.

I never questioned the presence of this book, never wondered why someone would want an almanac of the state’s political system and elected officials from 1945 when it was 1975, for instance, or why there was no almanac for other years. As a young reader and into my teens, looking for something to read when I’d run out of things, I’d opened the book more than once and tried make it interesting enough to follow along. Each time I carefully flipped past the corsages because the book’s pages opened to them, and even looking at the edges of the book it was clear something fairly thick was stuffed in there, a bit of ribbon seeping out.

I didn’t question the corsages then, either. Finding corsages pressed into a large book, which would flatten it and pull the moisture out of the flowers and greenery fast enough to keep it from turning brown and crumbling and thereby preserve it, was still in common practice then and dictionaries and encyclopedias were often pressed into service for this.

But when I cleared out my mother’s house as I prepared it for sale, alone there in the quiet little ranch I’d grown up in while she was in personal care, clearing off shelves, packing papers from the desk in boxes, I paid closer attention to things than before, even in the recent years she’d lived there, and found questions, but few answers.

I opened that big, ugly volume once again, carefully looked at each of the corsages, looked at where they were placed to see if the pages were a clue. The book had not been hers originally, had someone else’s name penciled onto the flyleaf so it may have been used, or it may have  been given to her, or possibly that person himself was the reason it was kept; an affair she never mentioned? Why 1945? Were the corsages from 1945? Had there been other volumes but only this one kept because it contained the corsages, and perhaps a volume of memories as well?

1945 was also the year her high school sweetheart had come home from the war but told her he could not stay with her because of his experience overseas. Had she worn one to welcome him home? Had they gone out to a dance or event? Would that have made her unceremoniously toss the corsages into this big ugly book, but carry the book around for the rest of her life, through two marriages? She certainly carried his memory actively through that time.

That was before her 1946 wedding to her first husband, my sister’s father, who they’d lost in a car accident in 1952, though they may have been dating that year. He ultimately worked for the state and possibly that had come up in conversation. Had she found this book as a reference for working with the state, and then forever associated it with him?

I also noticed the faded embossed gold, the broken binding, torn at the edges of the spine, top and sides. Any book that had sat on a shelf, rarely moved, for 60 years, would not have tattered covers. Someone besides me had opened that book frequently enough. My mother stayed up late every night of my childhood, often until dawn, after my baker father had gone to work in the day’s early hours. Had she pulled this book from the shelf then, opened the pages, touched the corsages, held those memories?

I don’t think I will ever know where they were from. But I realized on that day in 2003 when I took a good look at the book and the state of the corsages that they represented one more hurt in her long and rather sad life, one more hurt she could not let go of.

I carefully placed the book into a bag to take home, its pages literally and metaphorically carrying information I would carefully keep to discern. I asked my mother about the volume and the corsages later, but never truly received an answer. Sometimes deflection was her subterfuge for things she didn’t want to discuss, sometimes she was experiencing mild dementia. I did not press her at that time, and the work of selling the house and bringing much of what I wanted to either sell or keep came to my house so that the book was placed on one of my own shelves, then lost behind boxes of things as paperwork mounted.

The time of running my business, managing her care and my brother’s care were top of mind but in rearranging things in 2009 I found the book again, but by that time my mother was so deep into dementia she might as well accuse me of letting the turkey burn in the over as tell me once again she wasn’t sure what book I meant and change the subject. I tried, and failed, wrote a poem to hold my thoughts and let it go until later, when I had more time to consider.

The high school sweetheart left her at the end of 1945, as near as I can tell. My mother and her first husband were married in December 1946. The car accident that took his life, and nearly hers too, was at the end of November 1952. My parents married at the end of October 1955. I think of her in relation to those marriages and losses at this time of the year, especially in the dark and cold of November, when suddenly the days are short and spirits seem to moan in the first cold howling winter winds.


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Snow at Night

Alley in Dusk, 8 x 10, acrylic © Bernadette E. Kazmarski

I check under the streetlight whenever I pass the window,
the still night scene like a Hopper painting, tranquil and perfect,
or the set on a stage, ready for the players, the houselights dim.
I anticipate the first action of the play,
and I grow impatient—
the stillness, the leaden sky as the afternoon aged
weighted with promise,
the early darkness,
then suddenly a bit of movement under the arc of the streetlight,
I hold my breath and still myself—was that it?
then a pause, then again, at an angle, a bit of ash gently drifting,
and another, then two at once,
then five,
then too many to count, meandering,
all in the same direction,
appear in the streetlight’s cone of illumination, then disappear.
I am transfixed
as the flakes simply continue as if without agenda,
my neighbors’ windows are all covered,
lights and flickering TVs behind curtains and blinds,
I am the only one who has witnessed the beginning.

poem Snow at Night ©2006 Bernadette E. Kazmarski

I don’t know about you, but I’m waiting for that first snowfall, quietly appearing as if by magic under the streetlight.

I read this poem at my recent poetry reading “Walking Around” as one of the experiences we share in a small town.

The painting in this post, “Alley at Night”, is available as a print from Portraits of Animals.


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Poem: Effortless

Autumn in the Valley, pastel, 31″ x 27″, 2010 © Bernadette E. Kazmarski

I paddled the canoe around the bend,
and was faced with the effortless beauty of the panorama,
the trees in all their colors, the sky with changing clouds,
the water moving and reflecting simultaneously,
all perfectly arranged,
I realized that my creations are but raindrops in a puddle,
wisps of cloud that change and dissipate
my solitary accomplishments borne of great effort
would never equal this one solitary scene
or the one I would have seen the day before or the day after
evolved on its own, no one to frame it and display it and promote it
as it quietly exists through the day.
We humans sometimes get to think everything happens because of us
but these trees and grasses and hills arrange themselves
and create great beauty effortlessly
simply in the process of their everyday existence.
So I did a painting that can never match the original
so that I may remember my place.

Copyright ©2009 Bernadette E. Kazmarski

Sloping hills blaze with autumn color at a rocky, rippled bend in Chartiers Creek, yet on the horizon deep gray-purple clouds hover; although the day was sunny I remember it being distinctly chilly with a sharpness to the breeze, especially on the water in a canoe, and winter is literally on the horizon.

For two reasons the scene was reminiscent and inspiring: first, that I rounded the bend to see this natural splendor in all its detail, brilliant color, fluttering leaves, rippling water, changing clouds, happening all on its own with no help from me or any other human ; and, second, it was an example of that “change of season” with the gray-purple clouds of winter arriving on the horizon, two seasons blending into one another. I needed to share this image, and it was so moving that the inspiration also became a poem, and the title for my third annual poetry reading and art show at Andrew Carnegie Free Library & Music Hall, Change of Season.

And again, no, I couldn’t paint while paddling, and my little digital photos didn’t do the scene justice, yet other than wading down the creek and setting up an easel in the middle of the water, there was no other way of painting this. To take the scene from the tiny digital image to the full-size painting took a good bit of memory and visualization; it’s a good thing I’m very familiar with scenes like this. I don’t often work at this level of detail, especially at this size, but in order to share what I took from this moment, I found myself worker ever deeper into the minutiae of the scene so that others, viewing it, could hear the light lapping of the water, watch the clouds move, feel the warm sun on your back but the chill wind on your face, and the glory of those tree-covered hills.

You really have to get into “the zone”, though, while working at that level on the painting, letting go of your space, yourself, to get back to that moment and all your perceptions from that time. I still go there when I look at the original, which was purchased and made a gift to Andrew Carnegie Free Library & Music Hall and hangs in the Reception Hall.

In the mini-ecosystem in the valley along Chartiers Creek, the color show begins a little later and the trees keep their leaves a little longer, perhaps because of the extra humidity along the water through the dry heat of late summer. The diversity of species is generally much greater in both the trees and the understory brush and grasses, which encourages a greater diversity of foliage color and shape. When the show begins, it’s absolutely breathtaking and it gets more stunning every day until a November storm rips the last of the leaves away.

This area of the creek is approximately below Rosslyn Farms, between Carnegie and Crafton. In this area, the creek’s channel was widened and dredged deeper and the banks made more sloping through the Fulton Flood Control Project, allowing all the runoff from upstream communities to flow ever faster down the valley to the Ohio River without overflowing the banks or backing up into Carnegie, as had happened prior to the Project. Also, many of the trees were removed from the banks up to a certain level. Still, even with that modification, the channel remains beautiful and inviting in this lovely and unseen area of Chartiers Creek.

I actually wrote a poem about the scene before I did the painting, so inspiring was that particular moment.

The painting that accompanies this poem, Autumn in the Valley, can be found in the Landscapes Gallery on Portraits of Animals.


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The Cabinet

The Cabinet

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.

poem copyright 2014 © Bernadette E. Kazmarski

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.

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.
1946

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.


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Poem for Saturday: Like A Tree

Birches 1: Autumn Showers, 16 x 23, oil pastel, 1998

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
in spring.

poem © 2000 Bernadette E. Kazmarski

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.


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My Mother’s Tuesday Afghan

My Mother's Tuesday Afghan-poetry
My Mother's Tuesday Afghan
My Mother’s Tuesday Afghan

She was calling, calling
reaching from the depths of the body
I no longer recognized
to this world
she no longer recognizes
an imitation of reality
patched together from
leftovers of memories,
pleading for someone to do something,
but the first thing I saw
was the afghan across her bed
one big granny square
row upon row growing larger
each row a different color
brighter and more cheerful
with each row.

She recognizes my voice
but not really who I am
still I can guide her attention
away from her unidentified need
in this unfamiliar world
to where mine had gone
when I saw the afghan
remembering one just like it I’d made
decades before as a young teenager
scraps of yarn from other afghans I’d made
for other family members
each row a different person
a different room in a different house
a different memory
and given to my brother.

And so with leftover scraps of memories
tied to leftover scraps of yarn
I led her back to her home,
the afghans, my brother, the 70s
all of us
a time I knew she held close
until her voice lost the desperate note
and she sat back
talking of the neighborhood
and the new kitchen makeover,
my cat Bootsie and her kittens,
and of people who had died years ago
and, surrounded by these familiar things
in an era where I’ve always felt she was happiest,
I hoped she might spend the afternoon there.

Poem (c) 2010 Bernadette E. Kazmarski

I stopped in at the nursing home to see my mother on a November afternoon in 2010, and, really, the first thing I saw when I looked in her room was the afghan pictured above, and it immediately took me back to an earlier day, a similar afghan…and a younger mother.

She was in her bed calling for someone to do something, I’m not sure what, and it took a while for her to recognize my voice; her macular degeneration had virtually blinded her, just as her dementia had done, taking away the reality we see and feel every day and replacing it with an inferior imitation, patched together from the leftovers of memories. Visiting her at that point, just two months before she died, she was mentally so far away and the confusion really frightened her. I appreciated any tiny kernel that could help to organize her mind, and in this case, mine as well.

I did my best to take her mind from her unidentified need by pointing out the afghan, which she could barely see though I described it. I’d made one much like it years before just as I described, out of scraps of yarn left over from afghans I’d made for sister and aunts and even neighbors, every row a different color, a different person, a different room, a different home, round and round.  I gave it to my brother who hadn’t yet received one of my crocheted creations, and through many situations he kept it for years though it had ended up in her house. Pulling together those odds and ends of memory, the yarn, the afghans, the 70s, my brother, all slowly steered her to a different memory, focused on a different time, and I hoped she might spend her afternoon in those memories.

Ironically, that time was a profoundly unhappy time for me, one I’d rather not remember, but perhaps visiting it in this context softened the edge of memory.

My mother died just two days before I had a poetry reading scheduled. The day she died, after taking care of much business, I went late in the night to sit on my porch swing in the dark and watch the snow fall, and wrote a poem for her and decided to go through with my reading in her honor. I wrote this essay a few days after I’d visited her, and felt I still had something to share of the experience and wrote the poem a week or so after the essay. I read this poem as well as the dedication poem at that reading.


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