This Reaching is Alive Yet

“July Fourth 1934″ ~ J.C. Leyendecker

While it’s possible my mother saw J.C. Leyendecker’s cover illustration for the July 7, 1934 issue of The Saturday Evening Post, it’s certain that she celebrated that July 4th with her own mother.

It would have been one of the last celebrations they shared. In November of that year, my grandmother died: leaving my sixteen-year-old mother to care for three sisters, cope with the vicissitudes of life during the Great Depression, and bear what she perceived to be the shame of poverty.

She rarely talked about those years unless questioned. When I asked if she remembered anything from that last July 4th with her mother, she laughed and said, “I know there would have been watermelon!”

Then, as one memory led to another, she began to offer details.

There were flags everywhere. Everyone put out their flag. Sometimes, there was a parade, but even if there wasn’t a parade, there was a program on the town square. By the time it got dark, a neighbor — maybe one of the Weir boys? — would have had a little too much drink, and would start to sing. Everyone laughed and said, “Now it’s really the 4th. The boys are tuning up.”

Then, more serious, she added this:

Mom always told us to be proud of being Americans. There were plenty of Croats, Italians, Irish, Germans, Swedish in our town who’d talk about the Old Country, but none of them wanted to go back.
Everyone believed that, no matter how hard things got, we had the freedom to make them better, and no one wanted to give up that freedom.

Carl Sandburg’s book-length poem, The People, Yes, wasn’t published until 1936, so my mother never had the chance to study it in school. Whether she ever read it is uncertain. Today I read it often, appreciating Sandburg’s realistic and compassionate view of the American people. Each time I turn to the poem, I find something new to appreciate, and never fail to think of my own family.

Like my grandmother, Sandburg understood that pride in country is a virtue. Like my grandmother and mother, he clearly believed that, no matter how hard things get, people are capable of using their freedom to make them better. He’s a fine poet for this day, and a voice of wise counsel for this country.

The people yes
The people will live on.
The learning and blundering people will live on.
They will be tricked and sold and again sold
And go back to the nourishing earth for rootholds,
The people so peculiar in renewal and comeback,
You can’t laugh off their capacity to take it.
The mammoth rests between his cyclonic dramas.
The people so often sleepy, weary, enigmatic,
is a vast huddle with many units saying:
“I earn my living.
I make enough to get by
and it takes all my time.
If I had more time
I could do more for myself
and maybe for others.
I could read and study
and talk things over
and find out about things.
It takes time.
I wish I had the time.”
The people is a tragic and comic two-face: hero and hoodlum:
phantom and gorilla twisting to moan with a gargoyle mouth:
“They buy me and sell me…it’s a game…sometime I’ll
break loose…”
Once having marched
Over the margins of animal necessity,
Over the grim line of sheer subsistence
Then man came
To the deeper rituals of his bones,
To the lights lighter than any bones,
To the time for thinking things over,
To the dance, the song, the story,
Or the hours given over to dreaming,
Once having so marched.
Between the finite limitations of the five senses
and the endless yearnings of man for the beyond
the people hold to the humdrum bidding of work and food
while reaching out when it comes their way
for lights beyond the prison of the five senses,
for keepsakes lasting beyond any hunger or death.
This reaching is alive.
The panderers and liars have violated and smutted it.
Yet this reaching is alive yet
for lights and keepsakes.
The people know the salt of the sea
and the strength of the winds
lashing the corners of the earth.
The people take the earth
as a tomb of rest and a cradle of hope.
Who else speaks for the Family of Man?
They are in tune and step
with constellations of universal law.
The people is a polychrome,
a spectrum and a prism
held in a moving monolith,
a console organ of changing themes,
a clavilux of color poems
wherein the sea offers fog
and the fog moves off in rain
and the labrador sunset shortens
to a nocturne of clear stars
serene over the shot spray
of northern lights.
The steel mill sky is alive.
The fire breaks white and zigzag
shot on a gun-metal gloaming.
Man is a long time coming.
Man will yet win.
Brother may yet line up with brother.
This old anvil laughs at many broken hammers.
There are men who can’t be bought.
The fireborn are at home in fire.
The stars make no noise,
You can’t hinder the wind from blowing.
Time is a great teacher.
Who can live without hope?
In the darkness with a great bundle of grief
the people march.
In the night, and overhead a shovel of stars for keeps, the people
march:
“Where to? what next?”


Comments are welcome, always
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Fiddlesticks, Footsies and Spoons

Stern. Reserved. Strict. Perhaps even judgmental or cold.

So she appears in this photograph from an indeterminate time and an unknown place, but as she herself might have said, appearances can be relieving [sic].

To her cousins, she was a caution.  To my mother, whose great-aunt she was, Rilla was just slightly dangerous, a force to be reckoned with, a strange, self-possessed woman whose refusal of rules and wicked sense of humor made her a favorite among the children.

She returned the children’s affection, although she often scandalized more conventional relatives with her baby-sitting techniques. Confronted with a passle of bored children, she was capable of sending them to the back yard with a stack of 78 rpm records and a hammer, essentially saying, “Have at it.” From what my mother recalled of the unfolding events on one such afternoon, “It was fun.” (more…)

Published in: on January 19, 2014 at 6:25 pm  Comments (112)  
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Class Acts

Some came here as immigrants. Others were born into the newly-arrived families or grew up among later generations, listening to their elders tell mysterious and compelling tales of those early, shadow-riven years.

A tangled knot of humanity, my family uprooted themselves from England’s Staffordshire hills, fled Ireland’s sweet, green County called Down and sailed away from Baltic seaports, searching for a better life, a richer life, a life more suited to an increase in well-being and independence.

Arriving in Virginia, Philadelphia or New York, they worked their way north, west and south by wagon and by boat. A handful paused in Ohio. Others followed the rivers to Kentucky and Tennessee. 

A few sought true adventurer, like my Great-great-grandfather David. He panned for gold in the Colorado Rockies, fought the Civil War from Vicksburg to the Rio Grande and then returned to Iowa, where he took a sweet girl named Annie as his bride and persuaded her back to Texas. They camped here on the prairie, just to the east of a rail town called Melissa, until the lure of familiarity and visions of deep, loamy soils enticed them back to Iowa, to family and to farm. (more…)

Published in: on August 26, 2013 at 3:48 pm  Comments (142)  
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Purple Cows on Parade

It was, as they say, a ritual. Sunday meant church, a change of clothes and a relaxed dinner.  Sometimes it meant football and other times a bit of yard work but always, if the weather allowed, it meant a drive in the country.

Even without a visit to nearby grandparents, there were excuses to be out and about. There was growing corn that needed checking, bittersweet to be cut from the ditches, fresh gravel to be tested. In spring, we looked for the first robin. In autumn, the last leaves swirled and scudded like vast, colorful clouds while we counted the bundles of snow fence waiting along the shoulders of the road. “They’ve got more fence out than usual,” my dad would say. “Must be expecting a hard winter.”

On the rare afternoons when corn, cattails or bittersweet failed to entertain, we’d read the Burma Shave signs or “collect” out-of-state license plates. There went “Minnesota”, a common enough sight. Here came “Illinois”, a reminder of far-away relatives.  “But look!” I squealed from the back seat. “Montana!”  We might as well have discovered a Bedouin galumphing through Iowa on his camel. (more…)

The Joys of Imperfection

It started with the left arm.  There was a dropped stitch, a slight irregularity in the smooth, sweet rhythm of the yarn.  The sweater-in-process, lovely and green, the color of wild asparagus, lay in pieces across the dining room table – its back, two arms and cabled front the eventual shape of loving, hand-knit warmth.

Still, that dropped stitch was causing consternation. Halfway up one sleeve,  it would have nestled into the bend of an elbow, barely detectable and probably unseen to even a well-trained eye until it began to pull apart.  But the knitter – proficient, quick, given to knitting argyles and Arans in darkened movie theatres – spotted it and felt it looming like an accusation.  “I’ll just unravel that sleeve and do it over,” she said. “It’ll take a little more time than picking up the stitch but after all – we want it to be perfect.”

With the sleeve unraveled and the yarn gently re-wound, she began to knit again. This time there were no dropped stitches, no errors, but a more subtle issue soon emerged. Intent on re-doing the sleeve perfectly, she may have been a little tense. While she knit, the tension worked its way through her hands, down the needles and into the yarn, making the stitches in the repaired sleeve noticeably tighter.  On a completed sweater the separation of the sleeves might have negated the difference in appearance. Side-by-side on the dining table, the variation was obvious. “Humph,” said the knitter, who had plenty of time and a tendency toward obsession. “I’ll just do that sleeve again.” (more…)

Published in: on January 10, 2011 at 5:24 pm  Comments (30)  
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