About My Mother

Mom

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
and great-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.

Poem About My Mother © 2011 Bernadette E. Kazmarski


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Short Story: The Baker

photo of small town in the rain
photo of small town in the rain
The Baker

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.

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


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The Christmas Moon

ChristmasMoon
ChristmasMoon
The Christmas Moon

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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The Thanks of a Grateful Nation

My personal tribute to veterans everywhere, beginning with my father, veteran of WWII.

This is a small portion of the flag I fly on appropriate holidays, and sometimes when I just feel like it. It’s the flag that was presented to my mother at my father’s funeral, he a veteran of the U.S. Army and deserving of the honors at the death of a veteran. He’d been cremated so there was no coffin to drape, no taps or honor guard, just a few of his Army buddies were there but in the end it was the funeral director who handed the folded flag to my mother, not quite protocol, but the recognition was appreciated.

My mother gave the flag to me; she had a nylon flag that had flown over the White House that our congressperson had given her and she found it much easier to raise on the flag pole. I could see why—this flag is about 5′ x 8′ and sewn from heavy cotton bunting, and once when it was caught in a heavy downpour it was so heavy it nearly knocked me down as I pulled it from the pole and tried to pile it in my arms; I don’t think anyone would find it an act of disrespect to have tossed it in the dryer, and it did not shrink one inch.

Extremely well-made, and in the USA no less, the individual strips of fabric that make the stripes are stitched together with flat felled seams that fold in all the edges and stitch two seams across the bulk to ensure strength, and this stitched in the same way to the blue field for the stars. Each star is thickly embroidered onto the blue field, raised above the surface on both sides with the thickness of the threads. The hems, binding and grommets are likewise quality materials and stitching. Of all the other fabric items I handle every day, this flag always feels very different to me as I carefully unfold it and attach it to the special pole I have to ensure it doesn’t touch the ground when hanging. Instead of flapping in the breeze or wind, it waves gracefully as if under its own strength. It has a dignity all its own. I am glad I have this flag and will always take care of it in honor of my father who served in World War II.

My father in his uniform.
My father in his uniform.

Alfons J Kazmarski, Army of the United States Technician Fourth Grade, 115th Quartermaster Bakery Company, Asiatic Pacific Theater, India, enlisted 11 May 1942, discharged 21 Mar 1946.

Like so many others in this huge group of baby boomers, my father served in WWII, and like so many who served returned with untold stories and unhealed wounds; it’s actually presumed that the Parkinson Syndrome that shortened his life took hold of him as he fought the fevers of some tropical illness when serving in India.

But because of his service and my mother’s memories, I always felt like WWII was my war too, for better and for worse. But the war was not done when they came home. It changed their lives, and so it changed ours too. At their return, by their industry, the United States was transformed from an impoverished nation of immigrants to a wealthy and productive nation of members who would all win their place at the table, though for some the struggle continues.

And possibly because of the service of my parents’ generation I am a grateful daughter, and I fly my father’s flag with pride, especially on Veteran’s Day.


I’ve written a few other things about my family’s experience of WWII and my father’s service and armed service in general in Memorial Day, “Soldier” and “Memorial Day Parade”


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Cloaking, Clothing and Fireworks

Cloaking, Clothing and Fireworks
Cloaking, Clothing and Fireworks
Cloaking, Clothing and Fireworks

I was in K-Mart the other day, just a quick run for a fan they had on sale, one item, intentionally going near closing time so I’d be in and out. I walked in the store and stopped to get my bearings, trying to remember the department the fans would be in and the quickest way to get there.

I walked right into the thick of sleeveless summer tops in gingham with white collars, striped tank tops, colorful crinkle cotton capri pants with an elastic waistband in the women’s clothing department right by the front door. Without taking a step toward them I assessed the style, the quality and the size, and my eye wandered over it all, putting outfits together for my mother.

Though she died in 2011, I still catch myself subconsciously shopping for her as I did for most of the decade she lived at home or in personal care after her lung cancer surgery, often too ill or unwilling to go out. I would take her shopping seasonally when she felt well enough, or we would stop at one store or another after a doctor appointment. Most of the time, though I am not a frequent shopper, I would pick up things for her as I saw them in my own shopping trips, like this one to K-Mart, drawn to a rack of clothes tailored a particular way. “Wow,” I still think to myself, “Mom would love that,” even if I walked nowhere near the clothes.

I knew my mother’s taste, very different from my own flowered skirts and bright colors and my inability to wear white or even solid colors for they’d quickly have some art materials or house paint or grass stains. My mother could wear all white without a spot, and preferred pants and more fitted and somewhat tailored clothes, kind of a business casual, sometimes with a bright accent color thrown in for effect. Even with fewer choices while living in personal care, her outfit would be just so, the hem on her capris rolled into a tiny cuff, the white collar on her orange and white gingham top standing up just a bit, and a white cardigan sweater draped just casually her shoulders, arms swinging free.

But when I visited she would not be wearing the outfit I had purchased, often in more than one size in case the first choice didn’t fit. There was always something wrong with the clothes I chose and took to her with such excitement. “Mom, look what I found!” just as I had done all through childhood with rocks and bugs and feathers and flowers and, of course, kittens.

Instead, I returned the things I’d bought, capris, tops, cardigans, socks, underwear, there was always something just not right about them. Or she would accept an item, then later tell me it wasn’t right, after I’d taken off all the tags and written her name inside the collar or waistband so that it would be identified if it ended up in the laundry, and couldn’t be returned. Yet I would often find her in a similar outfit that someone else had kindly purchased for her, one of the care workers who especially liked her.

However it happened, at least she had new clothes, and I would do my best to reimburse the person who’d bought them because often they refused. I had ideas but never figured out why the things I brought just weren’t right, and I don’t think my mother did either, though I think we both knew it didn’t have much to do with the clothes themselves. I tried to give my mother more than clothes, and she didn’t readily accept that either, yet I was the one she had turned to, even when I was a child. Through the years, the only gift I found that suited her was to purchase a flat of flowers and plant them for her for Mother’s Day each year.

Where the clothes were concerned, even though I knew she would likely decide the clothes didn’t suit her, I still bought them, and we would go through the same little drama each time. I simply could not go without making the effort; at the time I whined whenever I got the chance, but now, for the most part, I’ve forgotten the drama and only remember the excitement of finding something I thought she would like.

And here I am today, still putting outfits together for her. Still trying to please my mother? I think it had just become a habit, and somehow, even though she rarely accepted any of these findings from me, I knew underneath her difficult exterior she liked what I’d bought but found things hard to accept. As time went on and her eyesight gave in to macular degeneration and she could not see the stains and wear on her favorite clothes, she still dressed the same, or thought she did. The aides at the places she lived made sure to cajole her to wear something else when they knew we were going out.

My mother’s birthday is July 7, born in 1925. We often celebrated her birthday when we celebrated July 4, with a big cookout on her beloved in-ground gas grill and later watch the fireworks. We lived at the top of a hill and could see not only our own municipal fireworks from the park below but also other displays from many other communities around us. People would often come to our street to watch the fireworks, and cars would stop on the interstate on the other side of the valley to watch the display as well, and each year we would remark on how many cars we could see pulled over onto the berm to watch and how unfair it was as cars with flashing red and blue lights would move in and make them disperse.

On my way home from K-Mart, I drove that stretch of interstate and saw the fireworks display in progress, and I was one of those cars who pulled over. I’m not so interested in fireworks, but they added a grand finale to a day of memories.

My mother would have been 93 today, July 7, and we often celebrated her birthday along with the 4th of July.

. . . . . . . .

I posted on July 4 a photo from my garden of a female Tiger Swallowtail butterfly in her black form. This dark cloaking mimics the poisonous Pipevine Swallowtail butterfly, and predators have adapted to avoid them, so the black form female Tiger Swallowtail keeps herself safe though she is not at all dangerous.

The day was quiet and for some reason full of memories and contemplation as I worked in my garden and yard, and seeing a butterfly, which I’ve always associated with the spirits of loved ones, was not a surprise in those circumstances. Continuing the day to the clothing and the fireworks, I realized the butterfly, at least to me, represented my mother, who wore a cloak of personality to protect herself from perceived dangers, including me. I have my ideas why, but I am glad she is finally where she doesn’t need to protect herself anymore.


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About My Mother

Mom

My mother died on January 25, 2011. 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 several 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 in a soft blanket on all around me, the poem came to me in nearly one complete piece. I carefully went inside and tiptoed to my desk and quietly went back outside to the swing, 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, just two days after my mother died, because it was an opportunity to share her with others to read the new poem.

I could never encapsulate 85 years of a life into one blog post or one photo or one poem, so I won’t even try, but I want to share this. 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 shirt 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
and great-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.

Poem About My Mother © 2011 Bernadette E. Kazmarski

Poem for Saturday: I Had to Call My Brother

Pirates-hat-1000px

They traded Andrew McCutcheon
and I had to call my brother and
hear his side of the story,
I don’t care what the Pirates do
or really anything about sports
but my brother lived for it all
and I liked to hear
his normal voice discussing
games and stats and history
as if it was the history
of the world,
his voice,
the one without the
vodka or Jack Daniels,
quick and clear,
humorous,
alive,
but he is not.

I will not call,
but I will enjoy that moment
that might have been.

Poem I Had to Call My Brother by Bernadette E. Kazmarski © 2018, may not be reproduced in any way without express written permission of the author.

Every once in a while we want to share a moment with someone who has died, and sometimes this is painful if we’ve momentarily forgotten they are gone. I knew my brother had died when this moment came up, but still I wanted to hear his answer, and that voice speaking from who he might have been. My brother died in 2016, somewhat unexpectedly, but perhaps not considering his lifestyle.  Through the years, even back to his teens, I had grown so tired of the rambling drunken conversation that though I really don’t pay any attention to sports I would hear some nugget of information that I knew he would talk about. The Pittsburgh Pirates really did trade Andrew McCutcheon, who seemed like a great guy as well as a good player and was extremely well-liked by the team and the city which was how I recognized what this trade was news. I knew Mark would have a lot to say about this one.

I just drafted this poem and for the moment I’m pleased with it. I may find some things to change about it in time, though. I don’t mind letting poems evolve.


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

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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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My Own Labor History

090417-IsalyApron-letter-1000px

First published in 2013

When I was a senior in high school I began my first full-time job as a cook at a local deli, Isaly’s in Pittsburgh. Working part-time nights and weekends until graduation I trained in the day cook’s position of opening the kitchen at 6:00 am to cook the lunch entrée and heat up the soups, open the doors of the shop at 7:00 am for the first customers wanting coffee and a pastry or a brown bag lunch to go, serve meals and beverages and offer counter help at all the stations as needed, plan the weekly lunch specials and soups and order accordingly, also using leftovers, with as little waste as possible, keeping the kitchen and walk-in freezer clean, and deep frying 50 pounds of fish every Friday for a community that still observed this particular weekly fasting menu. Whew!

For this I was paid my full-time wage of $3.50 per hour for all the hours I worked and was an apprentice member of the Hotel, Motel, Bar and Club Workers’ Union, a subsidiary of the United Food and Commercial Workers’ Union, which ensured that my employer gave me what he’d promised—a reasonable schedule for a high school student, maintaining the hours and wages agreed upon, full training for the job I would undertake, and the ability to question or file complaint if anything didn’t meet the standards we’d discussed when I was hired. In addition, the union as well as the shop oversaw my performance, that I learned what I needed to and worked as expected. I guess I did because when I graduated in June the day cook could finally retire as I undertook her 40 hours of weekly duties and also became a full union member, and received full health and life insurance benefits, guaranteed raises and vacation, pension, plus all other union benefits of assistance with further training in my field and the ability to file grievance if I felt one was necessary, and my employer could also appeal to the union if they felt my performance wasn’t adequate.

Now that’s job security.

It was 1979, minimum wage in Pennsylvania was $2.90 per hour. Using the US government’s Bureau of Labor Statistics calculator for wages and inflation, my full-time wages of $3.50 per hour today translate to $11.26 per hour. My 1979 annual salary of $7,280.00 translates today to $23,423.95. Out of my wages I paid $20.00 monthly union dues, but all the rest after taxes was mine, and with that amount of income I could have moved out of my parents’ house into my own place and started my life as an adult, purchased my own clothes, food and necessities, bought a car and other commodities, and even managed to save a portion of it for retirement, a house, vacation, or even investment. In other words, I could live independently on the salary from a fairly unskilled job with training right out of high school. There were other, better jobs as well that required more effort and paid better, I had my choice. In my little spot in the world, nearly everyone was a union member, and a choice such as this had begun many a life-long career that raised many families, bought many houses, paid for millions of college educations and built the strongest economy in the world.

My choice

What I decided to do with that money was invest in my college education. At the same time that I’d applied for the job at Isaly’s I’d also applied, very late, to a state college, urged on by my high school guidance counselor, and been accepted; I’m not sure, but I think I took my SATs when I applied and got my results just in time. While there were, and still are, a dozen viable colleges and universities in Pittsburgh as well as dozens more trade schools and even other union apprenticeships where I could have attended while living at home, my guidance counselor gently pointed me to Edinboro State College, close enough to be easy to get to and full of students from Pittsburgh but far enough that I would have to live there, because they had a good art program and I could also have the option of a teaching degree with their long history as one of the state’s oldest teachers’ colleges. I didn’t have terribly good grades or SAT scores and no distinguishing activities at all aside from the fact I’d always been praised by teachers for my art and writing, but the school wanted students, and also had the lowest tuition of all the colleges in the Pennsylvania state college system at the time. It was perfect for me, beginner that I was.

My parents wavered between ignoring the idea and disdain at the idea I wanted to go to college. My father, we learned a few years later, had Parkinson’s disease, never said much and reactions were barely detectable, but my mother laughed and said I could try this but I’d probably come right back home; I was a minor so they signed my application at least. I don’t remember the reaction when I received my acceptance letter, probably because I’d rather not remember, but my mother was further angered when, while I’d dutifully signed over all other income from part-time jobs and even grass-cutting from the age of 14, I went to one of the banks on Main Street in Carnegie and opened a bank account, depositing my paychecks and learning from the teller how to manage the register and write checks. I actually didn’t think about the impact on my mother, it just made sense.

I paid my fees to the college, bought myself a set of luggage, some clothes, a winter coat and boots for life in what I heard was the “snow belt”, and a backpack, which seemed to be de rigueur for all college students and kept all the rest of the money in the bank. My parents filled out my financial aid forms, though after my first semester I declared myself independent of them and completed them myself. My boyfriend drove me up for Initiation Day just before he left for Air Force boot camp, and I told my employer about my change of plans.

Through the rest of the summer I worked and trained my replacement. On the day I left for college my mother stayed in bed while I piled all my stuff into the back seat of my father’s olive-green Impala and he drove me up, dropped me off, gave me the only hug I remember in all my life, and went back home. After attending four years, including summers, working five or six part-time jobs on and off campus the entire time, taking the bus home only for occasional holidays, making a fair number of misguided mistakes as well as good decisions, I graduated with 178 credits out of a necessary 120 to graduate, only $700 in student loan debt and a BA in English, but I learned much more than grammar and a love of Shakespeare.

Coming back

The world had changed dramatically during those four years as the steel industry and most of the economy in Pittsburgh had totally collapsed. Within years jobs like the one I’d had at Isaly’s no longer existed, and unskilled beginning jobs were non-union, often taken up by unemployed adults, and wages stagnated. For nearly a decade all jobs were uncertain, layoffs were common—I was laid off four times in my first three years out of college—and population dropped as people left for jobs elsewhere until Pittsburgh found its feet again, in education, health care, and hi-tech development and manufacturing.

I didn’t have the chance to go on with the education I’d planned, to teach English and comparative arts at the college level and become an artist and writer in my own right; soon after I’d graduated my father injured himself at his lifetime occupation as a baker in small family bakeries, was diagnosed with lung cancer and Parkinson’s disease and both parents needed assistance of all sorts. I worked any job I could find and began freelancing even then, and by the time my parents’ situation had stabilized with my father in a nursing home and my mother settled in the house but with a car and a drivers’ license, I had some debt to remove and, after a lot of deliberation, decided not to return to school but to try to make a career out of what I could do already. After many twists and turns both in and out of my field, I ended up being a typesetter for nearly 20 years as well as installing ceiling fans for cash and decorating malls and painting signs and all else I could make out of what I’d learned in college and afterward, here I am, self-employed as an artist and writer, and now and then I get to teach something.

My personal labor history

As a young person I was able to begin the course of my adult life by choosing between a skilled job at a living wage or a college education and what that could bring me later. The minimum wage (or even the 1979 server wage of $1.81 per hour plus tips) and slightly higher wage for skilled labor were each living wages and I could either start my career right then or work my way through college because my wages could sustain those choices.

I won’t bemoan the opportunities that are no longer available. The world changes as time passes, and hopefully the changes bring not only different but better opportunities, the things to which we are accustomed are replaced with things that make our lives better and easier, education matches the needs of society and its work force. But the days of working your way through college with a bunch of part-time jobs, or being able to live independently right out of high school, are so far out of reach it must seem to most people that there really are no choices, and no place to go. I was glad for the choice of an unskilled career job that enabled me to learn true independence, save money, and help me set sail, and I’m also glad for the college degree I could afford and without which I would have ended up living in my parents’ basement for the following decades. Today, I would not have the choices I had 34 years ago, and would certainly not have had the courage to make the decision I did to go to a four-year college and see what happened. How can you look forward to your life when your future seems out of reach and unaffordable? What do determined dreamers like me do? I’m not sure, but we need to find a place in the labors of our society for everyone.


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