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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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: August 28, 1941

My mother and her friend Martha in the summer of 1941.
My mother and her friend Martha in the summer of 1941.
My mother and her friend Martha in the summer of 1941.

Bits and pieces from The Pittsburgh Press, evening edition, August 28, 1941

1935 Ford sedan for $95.

’33 Auburn Sedan for only $5.68 per month.

Cary Grant’s Mexican jaunt to invest $300,000 in silver mines there.

Fred Astaire is building a private golf course on his San Diego County ranch.

Steelers Make Guard Out of Dan Williams, Texas Tackle.

LifeGuard tires save lives, money, rubber.

America’s snapshots better than ever…most of them made on Kodak Verichrome film—to those in Service, send the news of your new life in the Nation’s service with the portable form of snapshots.

New York Central System, Travel in comfort, every Sunday to Cleveland $2.50.

Mt. Lebanon, New, 6 rooms, 2-1/2 baths, brick, large wooded lot, $9,600.

I can give you my word that Roosevelt, the man, has a deep personal hatred for war. Roosevelt, the president, has the task of carrying American Democracy forward under God against any resistance.~Rear Admiral Richard E. Byrd.

Pirates Run Over Phillies, 12-2.

College days are with us again as students across the nation start cutting rugs and classes.

At the “New Carnegie Theater”, Carnegie, PA, Cary Grant, James Stewart in “Philadelphia Story”, also Cartoons and News.

Hitler’s Broken Promises Occupy Nearly 1,000 pages in his own words—“My New Order” from Reynal and Hitchcock.

Ten Homewood children, between the ages of 7 and 12, held a lawn fete last Friday afternoon at the corner of Gettysburg and Edgerton Streets for the benefit of the Milk and Ice Fund. Today The Press received the proceeds, $3.57.

Among the novelty high shoes this season is one of black patent leather having bowknot patterns showing an underlay of white kid.

And when we witness the downfall of dictatorship—what then? A world union of self-governing peoples to guarantee and enforce peace.~Associate Justice Owen Roberts, U.S. Supreme court.

Today’s newspaper boy, tomorrow’s leader—When Robert S. Bogda, son of Mr. and Mrs. S. H. Bogda of McKees Rocks, finishes high school, he intends to go into the steel mill with his father. He is the junior merchant who delivers The Pittsburgh Press daily and Sunday to subscribers around Ridge Avenue. Bob likes to travel and also runs errands for neighbors to augment his fund for travel.

A program that is heralded as the world’s first all-Negro opera will be previewed on KDKA at 8:30 tonight as Negro performers from all over America perform selections from “Celeste Aida”.

Bellevue couple welcomes twin girls.

But did anyone see the storm darkening the horizon?

poem copyright 2008 © Bernadette E. Kazmarski


Several years ago I pulled several things from a pile of trash at a house that was about to go up for sale. I have no qualms and no embarrassment about this because I often find not only useful items, but also things that in their own way are deeply inspiring and have been the subject of poems and short stories.

One of the items I found in this particular pile was a large oval wicker basket with handles, darkened with age. I’d call it a laundry basket, and that is what I used it for, except that it was padded in the bottom with a hand-stitched muslin “cushion” that was filled with newspapers, and this cushion was in turn hand-stitched to the reeds of which the basket was woven. A testament to the durability of things made years ago, the fabric was still sound, though dirty, and not a thread was broken on the heavy “shoemaker thread” that held it together.

The newspapers were just folded and torn pages of the Pittsburgh Press from August 28, 1941, ripped into large squares and folded to fit the makeshift cushion. I pictured a large dog who loved his bed.

I of course began to read the newspaper pages, and was intrigued at the mix of items included from news, features, shorts, ads and classifieds. Noting the date, just a few months before the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor and our official entry into WWII, I wondered what had happened to all those mentioned in the stories. Behind a sunny image of the back porch of a white Victorian house with a woman in a 1941 house dress covered by an apron leaning down to feed a big happy dog I saw a dark cloud rising over the hill of houses behind. Instead of a painting, I wrote a poem from the strength of the image I visualized, and have since written a short story, not quite ready for publication.

In 1941 my father was 22 years old, my mother was 16, and the war molded their lives as it did all Americans and the country itself. My father volunteered early the next spring, and I shared this poem and posted a portion of the group photo including him at boot camp at Camp Lee, VA in June 1942on Pearl Harbor Day.

Today, so close to the actual date, I’m sharing a photo I found of my mother from the summer of 1941; she’s the one on the right. The lives of both her and her friend Martha were about to change dramatically as they finished high school during the first year of the war, said goodbye to so many childhood friends who went off to war and came back dramatically changed or not at all, they scrimped and saved and recycled and conserved for the war effort immediately following the deprivations of the Great Depression, and their futures changed forever with the tide in the following four years.

And looking at the social and political climate of today, I wonder if there is a cloud on our horizon to darken our days in the coming months..


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Memorial Day

Memorial Day
Memorial Day
Memorial Day

Even though Memorial Day was founded to memorialize the losses of the Civil War, it came to be an important day of remembrance for our losses in successive wars as conflicts came nearly every other decade in the century following. My parents’ generation called Memorial Day “Decoration Day”. It was the weekend to clear away the weeds, trim the grass, and spend time in the cemetery, and the graves of family members were decorated with wreaths and flags and freshly planted flowers, veterans or not. I’m not sure how it had lost the origin for them of remembering those who had died in service to their country but perhaps it had been the European tradition carried on in this country. Nearly everyone in my parents’ generation was touched by WWII, either in service or the hardships of living through the war years and the friends who had not come home.

I always focus on WWII, since that was my parents’ experience, all the male relatives in my parents’ generation served in that conflict, and the experience marked my own life as the generation following. My father suffered no emotional trauma in combat or in service, but another trauma to his body that we didn’t learn about until near his death that marked his life after service as well as that of my immediate family.

The collage above includes a photo of the veteran’s flag from my father’s funeral, a treasured artifact of mine, as well as the WWII section of the military wall in the Historical Society of Carnegie which bears hundreds of familiar names—names of businesses and owners of businesses, the fathers and uncles of kids I grew up with, and even husbands and brothers of others I’ve come to know as an adult. My father’s name, Alfons, and his brother’s names, Richard and Henry (his parents dispensed with the European names after the first three children), his cousin’s names, and the names of those who would intermarry with sisters and cousins are there as well.

The other image is a rare and interesting artifact from my godparents’ house, which had been the house where my father grew up, a hand-tinted photo of my father in uniform, and it’s so fragile I didn’t want to take it apart to scan it. His younger brother, who signed up at the same time, is to the right, but they weren’t photographed together and aren’t in proportion to each other. Their images were combined and hand-tinted like an early Photoshop collage, probably done quickly and by an amateur by the looks of it, and unfortunately my uncle Richard’s image was damaged by water and some odd abrasion. The frame is a wonderful round-cornered wood frame with a piece of convex glass obviously custom made for it. At some point I want to work on a little restoration for this, but for now I want to leave it as is since it’s pretty stable, and I’ve just included my father in this photo.

My father was an Army cook and baker, stationed in India during WWII. I have no stories of valiant combat service, but the troops needed to eat, and nothing was a more comforting reminder of home than familiar food in unfamiliar places. Bakers also made specialty items for officers and for troops, and as a baker, my father baked and decorated plenty of birthday cakes for the troops in his area. He’d been working in his parents’ bakery since his pre-teen years, and he was a little older than some other troops, entering service at age 23 and had plenty of baking experience for special projects.

All who serve bring back with them the traumas of their service, whether it’s their own experience or the injury or loss of a friend. My father, as an Army cook, wasn’t on the front lines risking his life but he had his share of losses of friends, and a loss of his own that we didn’t realize until later. My father had Parkinson Syndrome or Parkinsonism, and though it wasn’t diagnosed until 1984, once we learned the symptoms we realized he’d had the disease for years, likely from the time of his service in WWII. By the time I have any memory of him in the early 1960s he already had the characteristic shuffling step and stone face, silent except for one-word answers, but he never had a tremor and everyone thought he was “just like that”. He worked at night as a baker, often seven days a week, he was in his 40s, and he was always tired. That was understandable, but it wasn’t accurate.

Parkinson’s Disease was first identified in 1817 by Dr. James Parkinson, studied in the 1870s by Dr. Jean Martin Charcot and by this century the developing tremors were easily identified in many older people as a “palsy”. But because my father never had those tremors no one ever identified the other symptoms in him. It wasn’t until the 1960s that the chemical basis for Parkinson’s Disease was found, measuring the levels of dopamine in the brain which, as it decreased, caused degeneration of specific brain cells leading to the classic symptoms. Further studies in succeeding decades led to ever more information on other forms of Parkinsonism that did not evidence all the symptoms and could be caused by physical trauma or other damages to the brain, including viral illnesses and high fevers, and these were classed as Parkinson Syndrome conditions.

During my father’s service in India he was recorded to have had some type of malarial fever—not malaria itself, but there were many other tropical and sub-tropical illnesses that caused extended fevers and even death for troops who’d never encountered them, and in the days before vaccines were common. One of my father’s friends who came to visit now and then told my mother after my father recovered that he remembered the change after the fever, no more jokes or pranks, my father was just very quiet and very tired. That apparently continued all the rest of his life and as he aged and suffered other injuries and surgeries and the stress of working all night all the time, the decrease of dopamine killed off more brain cells.

What? Jokes and pranks? My father? No way! In hindsight it’s good to know what was the reason for the silence and lack of emotion, which in turn infuriated my mother and confused us kids. It would have been nice to grow up with that person who married my mother, and who created me. It is at least good to know the answer to something I’d always wondered, and on Memorial Day know that I am not alone in what we remember of those we loved, or tried to love.

~~~

You can also find this essay under Essays on this site.

I’ve written a few other things about my family’s experience of WWII and my father’s service in “The Thanks of a Grateful Nation”, and also others about Memorial Day, “Soldier” and “Memorial Day Parade”


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All Rights Reserved.   ♦   © Bernadette E. Kazmarski   ♦   PathsIHaveWalked.com

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