by Philip Raisor
Poetry was part of our family, the way laundry was. If it was present, it was personal. I once read, “Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night,” to my father while he was spending considerable time in the bathroom, and, later, whenever I called from Virginia (I was teaching modern literature at a university) to ask how he was, he would invariably say, “Fine, fine, I’m raging against the dying of the light.” My mother had a line she would quote according to her mood. If dad stopped by her chair, asked if she needed anything, she would say softly, “I shall but love thee better after death.” If she felt helpless or out of breath during the day, she would grimly say to the world the same thing. We all understood that poetry was a dress-up occasion, to be attended as many times as possible.
At the hospice, in my mother’s final days, at her bedside as she slept, I stared at blank walls, listened to whispered conversations of nurses, thought about my parents, and occasionally read from Robert Pinsky’s essay, “Poetry and American Memory,” parked on my knee. At the moment, memory was my focus. I know Pinsky was making the point that our personal memories morphed into national memories which thereby defined us as a people. America was this shared experience, and what each of us remembered was vital to the quality of the nation. Not feeling particularly historical or patriotic, I wanted only memories of my mother, but the elegies of Whitman, Housman, and Lowell kept running through my mind and pulling me back to Pinksy’s point that what we choose to remember is what defines both relationships and ourselves.
I choose to remember that the day my mother died, July 4, 2006, was Independence Day in Muncie, Indiana, and that I would forever connect the two. Each recurrence would include John Adams’ encouragement to celebrate the event “with pomp and parade, with shows, games, sports, guns, bells, bonfires, and illuminations . . .,” and my mother dying on the same day as Presidents Adams, Jefferson, and Monroe. Each year, firecrackers and smoke from tailgate parties explode, and in my mind a funeral cortege eases down Ashland Avenue. She would have looked askance at the freedom and joy, but, willful person that she was, would have taken credit for choosing such good company to die with.
The day she picked was the day my father’s spirit died. “What are you writing now?” he asked me, as he dropped his jacket on his favorite chair after the funeral. On the wall of Floyd and Catherine’s home hung a collection of family photos: snapshots, portraits, a history of homecomings. One picture is distinctive, my mother at twenty-two. The studio portrait, professionally-taken, shows a stunning college beauty (she graduated from DePauw University, an honor student, and member of Alpha Omicron Pi sorority), looking at the camera, but also past it. It has a French quality about it; her hair is stylishly bobbed, the background tinted in a light walnut. She had picked the photographer, knowing that her fiancé (later my father) was nervous that a glamour photo in the annual yearbook would draw more attention to her than he wanted. He admitted he was a jealous man. As he maneuvered slowly toward his chair with his walker, he cursed it, and reminded me that “if someone would have been paying attention,” he wouldn’t have fallen. Then he smiled mournfully, knowing his anger was directed at himself for not being able to save his wife of seventy-seven years. “She should still be there,” he said, pointing to the other side of the bed where she had spent most of the last years of her life.
“I know, Dad, but she was a hundred.”
I had said that before, particularly when my mother’s determination to equal my father’s effort succeeded, but even now I was thunderstruck. Both of my parents had, in fact, lived to be a hundred, and they had lived to be a hundred TOGETHER!
I smiled with immense warmth at my sweet but cranky father. I knew that neither of them could have saved each other from anything. Once, in the middle of the night, my father lay on the floor after he fell until my brother stopped by for breakfast. Dad couldn’t move, mother couldn’t get her arm from under her to punch the emergency button around her neck. Still, they were absolutely determined to live in their own house (with part-time and caring nursing), which my father said had survived the Depression, a World War, a mortgage, a series of inconsequential Presidents, and a conflagration of college student parties that burned up the neighborhood every Saturday night.
Friends of mine would often say how wonderful to have both parents live to that age, and it was. Sometimes they would laugh, relive historical moments, confirm eternal hope, and when anyone walked in with a hail howdy and a smile, they got both back, especially the grandchildren and great-grandchildren clattering in the back screen door. But if you would have seen them alone, you would have inevitably asked, “Good heavens! Why do they do it?” My mother sat in her chair in the den, collecting dust, she said. My father hunched in his in the living room, with the TV blaring. One of their remaining pleasures was to find the location in the seat, the curve in the back, the dip in the arm rest, that didn’t press on a sore spot in their bodies. My mother wanted more contact, but several smiles, my father’s morning monologue, dinner together occasionally, or even grousing about a piece of memory they didn’t agree on, was enough for my father most days, until they went to bed together at night with a final kiss.
I know my parents received excellent home geriatric care, but, in the end, they simply fell apart. It was a long process, neither unique nor avoidable. In his fine essay, “The Way We Age Now,” Atul Gawande calls it the wear-and-tear model: “Eventually, one too many joints are damaged, one too many arteries calcify. There are no more backups. We wear down until we can’t wear down anymore.” Weeks after my mother’s funeral, Sonnie, the most durable of my parents’ caretakers, handed me five hand-written (often hurriedly scribbled) notebooks in which the aides had summarized their daily shifts. It was a page-flipping record of grief, constriction, occasional joy, endless consumption of tiny bits of food and volumes of medications: “Floyd had flem [sic] in his throat and could not swallow. Coughed up flem [sic] for about an hour. He was finally able to drink a few sips of Coke. Catherine was not hungry. Brushed her teeth, soaked and brushed dentures. Put Icy Hot on knees. Took Sorbitol. I bathed her bottom, used Desinex. Powdered and prepped her. Put in eye drops. Rough Night!”
Was this the future I inherited? Much to my chagrin, and against the pleasure of knowing my parents were still with us, I also found that their longevity and slow deterioration intensified my own sense of aging. Both of my knees had been replaced, I had contracted asthma in my thirties, a nasal operation had accidentally eliminated my sense of taste and smell, and I was starting to find the past more invigorating than the present. Friends would tell me that they had seen “Hoosiers” again on television, and we would have to recall that I played in the state final game that inspired the movie and was a freshman on the team at Kansas with Wilt Chamberlain that lost to North Carolina in the national championship. My mother had kept a scrapbook for six years of those basketball days, and my wife and I had kept notes and photographs of our early dating troubles, enough so that I culled from a trunk a period of time I turned into the book, Outside Shooter: A Memoir. I was publishing more of my own poetry, which was often rooted in that early period, and it was then, I think, I had to acknowledge that my all-consuming passion for the works and scholarship of modern literature had abated. I was going the way that Eugene Goodheart chronicles in his superb essay on aging, “Whistling in the Dark”: “Now I can think and care about only what I think and care about.”
Photo by Philip Raisor
Kids growing up remember the atmosphere of their home. It is standard fare for coming-of-age stories. Holden Caufield recalls a funny smell in the foyer, Mary Karr writes of both outrageous laughter and the fierce need for privacy, W. D. Snodgrass recoils from damp newspapers, used kitty litter, broken toys stacked in a basement for years. Our home was casual, with an open door policy, where a quick knock would get you in. We weren’t big on hugs or formal introductions, but the young were expected to behave and show respect to adults. As a general rule, swearing was out, but allowed without consequence when deep emotion or dramatic event justified it. “Don’t be timid,” my father would say. “But don’t be a bully, drunk, ignoramus, girl-demeaning, flunk-out either,” mother would add. She loved manners, but not Mrs. Manners. “Just being decent,” she called it.
Her favorite example was the time she and Dad played hosts for the sequence of Bearcat teams (my brother’s first, then mine) that gathered at our house during the sectional and regional basketball tourneys. For six years on those Saturdays, she and dad cleaned, cooked, and arranged the downstairs so that twelve players could plop down, move leisurely through the house, lounge on the back patio, and do what we were supposed to do-relax and stay out of trouble.
John Casterlow took up the most space. He was our 6′ 6″ center, black, enigmatic, and princely who would pop me on the back of the head just to hear the sound. I was the little 5′ 9″ white, sophomore guard who was supposed to get him the ball down low, and, at practice, he would smack me when I didn’t. Still, we joked and had some good conversations, so both of us, from different sides of town, were friends off-court.
The scene my mother remembered best was during the 1955 season when we all came to our house after beating New Castle. I remember opening the door, eleven hungry young men behind me, with no one home yet from the game. We all found our favorite places, as students do in a classroom, or headed for the refrigerator to see what we would be eating. My mother recalled she was late leaving a parking lot and still had to stop by a store to get biscuit mix. “When I arrived at the house,” she says. “I only had one small sack, so I didn’t need to ring the door bell. I opened the door and stepped into a room full of long, stretched-out legs and letter jackets piled in the corner. Everyone acknowledged me. ‘Hey, ma’am, how ya doin’. My son was playing cards over in the corner with Scotty. But only one person, short or tall, black or white, stood up. John Casterlow. He reached for my bag, all six foot six of him, bowed slightly, and said, ‘We appreciate you inviting us to your home.’ That young man learned what his mother taught him,” she said, looking at me with that look I knew all my life.
Three weeks after my mother’s death my father died, six days from being a hundred-and-one years old. “I’m going to be with her tonight,” he told my brother, Tom, sitting at his bedside in Ball Hospital. I believe my father willed himself to die, a speculation none of the doctors and nurses dispute. An hour earlier, he had duly taken his medicine for a slight case of pneumonia and quietly recounted one of his favorite memories. At half-time of a Muncie Central game, he was asked to come from the stands to the center of the playing floor to receive the Governor’s highest award for citizens of Indiana. Five thousand Bearcat fans waited patiently while he shuffled ahead of Tom and me, past standing coaches and players, past local administrators and politicians, finally arriving to hear an introductory speech that recounted his history of service. The fans exploded in applause and wonderment when they were informed that he and Catherine were celebrating their 75th wedding anniversary. Just before he left the floor, he told the crowd that this evening had been perfect in all aspects, except that he wished his wife could “be here on the floor with me.” They exploded again.
What keeps people alive for a hundred years? There are approximately 100,000 centenarians in America depending on your source; for example, the U. S. Census Bureau, AARP, or the Max Planck Institute for Demographic Research. In 2050, there should be over a million. The burst in the 100 year old population since 1940 has been dramatic and widespread. Florida doesn’t have the most (warm, sunny weather) or Minnesota the least (bone-chilling cold). Centenarians live wherever people can keep breathing. Some scientists say genes are the primary reason; others claim that only about six percent explains longevity. Sit in an old folks home or catch up with walkers in malls and you’ll hear other reasons: God, improvements in vaccines, public health, water supplies, diets, and those actions which are absolutely and personally validated—daily cold showers, a five o’clock scotch-on-the-rocks, or bowling every Tuesday.
But following Pinsky’s theory that we hold on to and define our lives by what we choose to remember, I have another idea about why my father-and maybe many others-persisted. It comes, not from habits, but from what Yeats referred to as “the deep heart’s core.”
Close to home is what my father liked. Dad would sit in his chair, often all afternoon, and leaf through the dozens of books about Muncie, and each morning he had a routine: he would pull on his long, blue sweater, struggle to the front door, pick up the morning Muncie Star, settle into his chair, and read-slowly, meticulously, and completely-every word in the paper. Then, whether his wife was clearly responding or not he would summarize for her the daily schedules in the “Your Neighborhood” section, the box scores of the Cubs, the political machinations which he relished, and the Obituaries, announcing gleefully that they were not listed. When they came in on their varying schedules, the caretakers-Barb and Lou Ann at times, or Mary, Jackie, Kim, and always Sonnie-were obliged to listen to my father’s reconstruction of his Muncie and provide a hands-on view of their own.
He loved the story of the gas boom. A huge gully of natural gas was discovered outside of town on September 15, 1886, and the pristine landscape of Delaware County, always a little prudish and flat-chested, began dancing like a hussy on top of a table. Muncie turned into a saloon of possibilities, of dreams, that a bountiful nature, uncorsetted, would provide endless resources for industrial growth. Muncie became “Magic City.” By the mid-1890s the city, according to one commentator, “boasted seven glass plants, fourteen fabricators of steel or iron, two carriage works, four washing machine factories, two hub-and-spoke factories, [and] a pulp company.” All day and all night, throughout the county and even into eastern Indiana, where new veins were discovered, gas flowed unrestricted. Muncie entered a period of intense competition with other communities, attracting money from the East and workers from the South.
Our grandfather arrived from Kentucky. He was the first in the neighborhood to get indoor plumbing, electricity, and that new-fangled thing called an automobile. My father worked at the Ball plant, graduated from high school, and after getting all but six hours of a Ph.D. in Education returned to Muncie during the Depression to start a career in teaching, coaching, and school administration. He brought his wife home from college, and they settled into the town that sociologists Robert and Helen Merrell Lynd examined and turned into Middletown. In two books, Middletown: A Study in American Culture (1929) and the 1937 update Middletown in Transition: A Study in Cultural Conflicts, the Lynds concluded that not much happened in Muncie and certainly nothing outstanding. Residents, they said, were working or business class, family-oriented, diversely religious, politically independent, culturally deficient, and excessively enthusiastic about their high school sports teams. Both books were national best-sellers and became the prototype for future studies of small city America.
My father loved being a part of a mythical story, but he laughed that the Lynds missed the impact of the gas boom, a totally un-average event. “We never got over it,” he said. “And we always kicked ourselves for throwing it away.” That’s what my father liked to do-revise everybody else’s history and provide his own. I began to see this as his way of holding on, not only to the past, but to each present day that his body told him was slipping away. “Muncie is stuck with the Lynd’s myth,” he’d say, “but from my view, OF A HUNDRED YEARS, I think the myth is the thing Muncie tries not to be. It lays awake at night, twisting in its own soured dreams, trying to become unique again, faltering before morning, then getting up and walking around as though nothing has happened.” My father felt he understood Muncie and his relationship to it. It was alive to him, like his wife, his family.
To the extent that my mother shared these feeling, it was reassuring. The city of my youth was the city of their lives, and while it is true that not all of us will live to be a hundred if we stay connected to the history and spirit of our home town (village, suburb, borough, even the metropolises), I think the connection soothes us in a sustaining sort of way. In my family’s case, I was comfortable with the idea that my old, tired, decrepit parents were as much Muncie’s as my own, and if my view of this small city was that of a transient (albeit a respectful and loving one), theirs was steeped in a century of burying the dead and inspiring the living. I thought that their will to live to be a hundred together was textured not only by how they lived but where they lived. Muncie’s history was their daily fare, and in choosing to continue, if they could, maybe something in that shared experience made them waken each morning, move to their separate chairs, and feel, if even briefly, that there was something magical about living in “Magic City.”
As my own sense of poetry evolved beyond the home, through graduate school, and years of teaching and practice, I found I was gravitating toward those contemporary poets (James Wright, Richard Hugo, Wendell Berry, Maxine Kumin, for example) who embraced their environments, locales, regions-the concrete places that nourished their lives and art. I had spent countless hours and years in the cosmopolitan and configured worlds of Eliot, Pound, Stevens, and Marianne Moore. But in the end, somewhat defensively, I would tell my students, who I wanted to experience all varieties of poetry, that I was a small-city boy who carried his hometown on his back. As William Carlos Williams did. As the novelist James Joyce did. Paterson and Ulysses, I would tell them, though neither naturalistic nor easily accessible, were as real and life-affirming as my father’s own commitment to his newspaper.
That newspaper, for him, was a lifeline because it allowed my father to recreate his life every day. He was not a critic seeking to understand his era in terms of a modern, postmodern or pseudo-modern cultural context. For him, authority, knowledge, selfhood, reality, and time, were located in the fragments of the hundred years he could remember and connect with the bicycle wreck that took place last evening, reported on page two, when Mrs. Ebright’s dog broke loose from her porch and chased the mayor into a telephone pole. “Just like when Harry Truman came through here in his Magellan train,” Dad would say, “dogs yapped at him like he was just a mailman.” The powerful made ordinary, not “brought down,” not diminished, but subject, like all of us, to humor and situation. At these times I would think of my father as a poet who understood, better than most, what Octavio Paz meant when he said “the poem would have no meaning-or even an existence-without history, without the community that nourishes it and is nourished by it.”
As we now turn into a new era of email and text messaging, TV phone-ins, viewer manipulation of news programs, computer games, flash fiction, hypertext and interactive poetry, and a whole environment of transient data and short shelf-lives, of what value is my father’s example? He stands, it seems to me, with those who believe that remembered experience is life-sustaining. If the computer, in many respects, is our memory now-inexhaustible, spontaneous, easily accessible—it is not our own, not the emotionally-based repository of our experience, not the unconscious seed-bed of our perceptions and feelings, not what Joseph LeDoux (in The Emotional Brain) calls “the working memory.” My father’s once excellent conscious memory deteriorated into a badly flawed one, but the emotions tied to the events and place that spawned them remained vigorous. On several occasions, I asked him if he remembered any detail about World War I, and he would repeat the image of his Kentucky-born father sitting in his backyard across from Heekin Park watching black children playing in the weeds. “One day they’ll own this house,” he’d say, with some regret and rancor. For my grandfather, the war and the black children owning his house were connected, and for my father, who eventually saw a black family living in that house, and did not regret it, the memory reawakened his father’s struggle and his own affirmation of change. I think this is what Robert Pinsky means by discovering America through what we choose to remember.
My vigil at my mother’s bedside ended while I was thinking of contrasts: my parents’ fragmented farewell a few days earlier (an in-and-out of consciousness touching for her, soft words from him), and images of other centenarians we had joked about over the last few months. My brother said he’d read about the one from Mobile who hooted out the calls at ring dances, and I noted the one who was still taking his prize-winning cows to the Idaho County Fair. My father grumbled most at the muscle-flexing fellow who was still teaching a physical education class in Maine. It takes all kinds, we’d say, acknowledging both the alternate possibilities of vigorous aging and the pernicious hand of fate.
I expected, hoped, that mother would die peacefully in her sleep. When conscious, she acknowledged she was dying and planned to be in heaven soon. But around noon, as I was watching a gurney slide past the door pasted with a rocket on an American flag, not at all offensive on such a celebratory day (though the irony to me was evident), she became restless. Her breathing sputtered and it appeared she was trying to speak. Her face was gray, eyes glazed (I spontaneously and painfully thought of Emily Dickinson’s “I saw a fly buzz . . .), and then I leaned down,
“Help me! Help me!”
Stunned, I looked behind me where her eyes were going and saw only white walls and the open door where the gurney had passed. When I looked back, her breath was gone, her face calm.
I’ve often wondered why, when my brother laid his consoling hand on my shoulder as I looked out the hospital window, I shook it off. I’m sure I was feeling guilty—for missing birthdays, not writing very often, but certainly because I was doing what we often do-take what happens to someone else and begin thinking about ourselves. I hated the self-indulgence, but what could I do? My mother’s vision or terror or sense of abandonment had stirred in me my own moment, when, like her, I cried out “Help me!” and no one could.
I remember the snow, and playing in a backyard, and a glorious birthday party, balloons, ice cream, and the smell of my grandfather’s pipe. Kitty Ann and George Kenny, my cousins, were there, and we all tried hand-stands, and I flew into a snow bank, and I thought the laughter would never end. Then it was time to go home.
My father’s heavy heel cracked the snow, his sole touched lightly, heel/sole, heel/sole, the rhythm soothing me toward sleep. My mother pulled a loose flap of blanket over my head, her steps making only a sliding sound.
“Would you get the back door, Honey,” my father said.
“That’s all right.” mother said. “Let me get in first. I’ll hold him.”
“He’s almost out,” father said. “I’ll lay him on the seat. You can tuck the blanket around him.” I heard the door open, felt briefly my mother’s breath, and the sound of the engine working hard to start. Then, I was asleep.
When I awoke, my left hand and my right ear was cold. I pulled on the blanket. I listened. Wind, and now my foot was numb. I opened my eyes to darkness. I was in the back seat of our car. It wasn’t moving. “Daddy?” I said.
I sat up, jerking at the blanket, cold peppering me at elbow, ankle, tip of my nose. I said Daddy again, and Mommy, but no one answered. The back of their heads weren’t in the front seat. I tried to look through the frosted window, and briefly debated whether I wanted to pull my hand from under the blanket to scrape on the pane. Then I swirled the heel of my hand on the glass, as I had seen my father do, and it cleared enough for me to know I didn’t know where I was.
I started crying, even as I heard in my mind my brother telling me to shut up the sniveling. I pushed against the door. It was locked. I popped the latch, fear and the closed space driving me outside in the snow to look and yell for my parents, to cry at the one stop sign I could barely see, at the shoveled sidewalks and two porch lights ahead of me. I saw darkness all around, not the slow shading I would watch from my bedroom window as it faded into dark and darker, nor the under-the-cover blackness I would brighten with colorful flags and illuminated white rabbits. This dark crawled all over me, into my bones, into breaking me apart, like the scoldings or spankings, never hard or severe, that made me feel I was a stranger and my parents were not mine and I didn’t belong in this world.
I ran, sobbing, toward one of the porches, crawled up the steps to the screen door, scratched on it, then banged on the frame. No one came. I didn’t know what to do. I had seen a light and thought if I could get there, I would be safe. But I was only shivering in the pale shadows, so cold I couldn’t move anymore, and didn’t want to. I just slumped to the wood.
I vaguely remember the door opened, a woman picked me up, my parents came, something about running into the store to get milk, finding I was gone, being lucky.
My father was ninety-five when I recounted this story one sunny afternoon on his back patio, and, not remembering, he said I made it up. My mother still recalled many details and especially her “immense joy and guilt.” I told them it was a tale of the abyss, and if, for a moment, I felt I was throwing rocks at yesterday’s train, I knew on reflection I was not. It was an implanted memory, one so visceral that when my mother died her final gasp was my own and the landscape I saw was ours. A painful, new image burst from me:
I look out the window, away from this death,
the green swell of summer, the wrens
you loved, all this beauty, this terror.
Five months before my mother died, I came home from Virginia. She was no different than she had been for the last five years. Occasionally on such visits I drove her around Muncie, to give relief to her caretakers and to return her to the outdoors. It was a task to get her into the car, but as a veteran of doctor and hospital visits, she was a determined passenger. It was tournament time. Sunlit cold and streamers on lampposts. City buses plastered with Bearcats, Wildcats, Patriots placards. On Walnut Street, tailgaters hoarded the corners of mall parking lots. An old man with a cane wore a high school letter jacket. Two women chatted, while a large cart with purple and white grocery bags in it rolled away from them. For Rent signs, shaped like basketballs, were clustered in single-home neighborhoods near campus. The city was just being itself. Levis, work shirts, occasional suits, a corridor of used car lots, empty buildings downtown, but a surge of restaurants, medical offices, and new homes out North. I saw, with my father, that Muncie remained a mixture of exaggerated promise and devastating neglect, from its recently constructed, ornate County Courthouse and its towering buildings on Ball State’s campus to the endless clusters of ramshackle houses, gnarled streets, and still declining work force.
“Who’s playing?” my mother asked, indifferently. She, who had always been an enthusiast watching night games with strangers and friends consumed by jump shots, brackets, and championships, now sat silently as I rattled off the top five, and then pointed out the tree I had crashed into when I was nine. It wasn’t until we passed the newspaper office that she said anything. “I would like to have worked there.”
I joked back, “Yeah, I bet you would have been the publisher.”
She looked at me. “You do not know, son.”
Why is it that moments of truth often come like broken bones that never heal-unnoticed one day, bloated the next? Apparently, she knew she had the skill and drive to be an executive, but had settled on the role of a twentieth-century housewife. “I chose, son,” she said. “I made things better.” My wife would tell me later that my mother had wasted her best talents and deepest emotions on her husband, children, and community organizations. I know she was only mocking a convention, having herself absorbed and transcended it enough to raise three children and be an editor in business news for twenty-five years.
“What don’t I know, mom?” I asked.
She smiled, touching my hand on the wheel. “Just drive, darling. Just drive.” I thought immediately of Rita Dove’s lines to and about women, “If you can’t be free, be a mystery.” I knew I would never get the story now. She was leaving us, and though I remembered dozens of scenes with her laughter, earnestness, and beauty, I knew she would not return to her past. I had missed (even with a whole lifetime) the opportunity to ask, “Mother, tell me about your life, your dreams.” I know it is not an uncommon failure. My full-grown children have not brought up the subject. My students have no idea what it was like for their own grandmothers to work in factories during World War II or their uncles to die in Viet Nam. History is a TV channel they don’t watch. I, too, mindlessly thinking that albums, scrapbooks, my own experience with her would be enough was watching her accept silence, and I had not heard the full resonance of her voice. I was left with, “My heavens, What she was! What she might have been!”
For about twenty years I had been working on several collections of poetry, while maintaining an acceptable portfolio of scholarly essays, interviews, and reviews on Joyce, Faulkner, Arnold, Browning, and Snodgrass. For a contemporary academic, I spent too much time on administration, teaching, family, outside business, home improvement, and arts organization. I did not soar in my specialty, but with the books and service listed I eventually did become a full professor, which my father had once dreamed of being and was quite pleased for me to stand in his stead.
Periodically, I would send home copies of poems and articles I was publishing in journals, and found, as I neared retirement, that I was sending more. Sometimes, my father would complain that he simply could not understand the poetry and file the work on his rejection shelf. It didn’t matter to him that they had appeared in The Southern Review, Poetry Northwest, The Midwest Quarterly. However, when he began receiving poems titled “How to Get to Muncie,” “Hoosier Schoolmaster,” and “Demolition of the Delaware County Courthouse,” he said he could understand every word, remembered, in fact, when the courthouse crumbled, and wondered if I had been thinking about him when I wrote the Hoosier teacher poem.
Poetry, for him, was back to the personal. Yes, of course, I was writing about him, and our neighbors, potholes, racism downtown, the murder on Walnut Street, a century of kinship, the longing of a deteriorating city for beauty and growth. My mother did not recognize herself in the one poem I wrote about a woman facing a hollowness in her life, but when I began sending off-prints with titles “Milan vs. Muncie, 1954,” “Spring Training,” “Helmet-to-Helmet,” she pulled out her scrapbooks and with my father went back and forth on what they remembered and didn’t about their lifetime in sports. My father said the poem about John Casterlow brought my mother to tears and a finger-gesturing tour of where he and all the other players used to sit.
My parents did not live to see that the poems I sent them would evolve into three collections, one published in 2013, Swimming in the Shallow End, a second, Hoosiers the Poems (chapbook), also in 2013, and HeadHunting and Other Sports Poems in 2014. They did not see what they had wrought, or, at least, initiated-that their great struggle to live had affected my view of poetry, history and the world. I can almost agree with Eugene Goodheart’s proposition that “modern human existence is dedicated to the fear of death, the prolongation of life, and the survival of the unhealthy and disabled.” We now have funded research on the biogenetics of aging, expanded health care, long-term insurance, the attitude of “Keep me alive! Keep me alive!,” and that has negative repercussions on the young’s natural takeover of the future.
But the issue, of course, is not do we keep living longer, or even how we do it. It is not a matter of looking ahead, but of looking behind. Science will take care of the duration, but experience will shape the quality of living longer. The one thought that drove my parents from day to day, year to year, was that both were here, and that included everything each of them could remember. Their illness and dying did not matter as long as they could preserve their world together. As they began to lose their memories (both long term and short), forgot names and faces even of their grandchildren, and even mine (occasionally), I realized there was a single thread that kept them connected to each other. It was not simply a touch, nor the pride they had in living so long; it was the conscious awareness that they had made something, created something, that would endure. They had created a sense of place, fixity, a center where individual life mattered within a community that also mattered. That place, born in a home, grew in our minds, migrated through a world, and remained a pattern of thought and conduct. I think they understood that they had seen a century’s worth of change that would be replicated, in various forms, from century to century, and that their sense of respect and love would be tested over and over, but it was in the gene pool now.
This year on Independence Day, after a long trek from Virginia, and before I turned into my brother’s house, I drove by the family residence. It is now a college student rental, with new shingles on the roof, fresh paint, a few beer cans in the hydrangeas my father planted. I stopped, rolled down the window, let the air-conditioning out and the hot, old-smelling breeze in. Through whiffs of barbecue and the smoke-filled sounds of rock, hip-hop, and heavy metal, I wandered around for awhile in the past, my own memories of my family’s memory of America.