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December 2, 2014

The students at my college get an entire week of vacation over Thanksgiving, so I took the week off, too. I invited my mother to fly from St. Louis into Columbus and come to our house to stay for the week. Ron took off on Wednesday afternoon so he could chop up the onion and celery for cornbread dressing and pick up Eleanor at the airport while the rest of us waited for a friend to bring Walker down from Oberlin.

I made frozen fruit salad and pumpkin pie ahead of time, Ron made pecan pie, and then we roasted a turkey, mashed both white and sweet potatoes, and made green bean casserole with cream of mushroom soup and french fried onion rings. We had our feast midday, so then Walker and Stephanie could go to her family’s evening feast and do it all over again, with slight variations (“we have actual salad,” she told us, eyeing our frozen fruit salad and cinnamon applesauce molded salad).

Everyone stayed until Sunday; we had big meals and went to the movies (Mockingjay and Interstellar) and played games of Rage and Telephone Pictionary. I was determined not to talk about work for a week, and I succeeded. The college students told us about what they’ve been studying and doing outside of classes (we got a reprise of the best songs from Walker’s recent starring turn as Georges in La Cage Aux Folles).

Inevitably, events in Ferguson, Missouri made their way into our conversation and we discussed them from across our wide range of the generational spectrum–18 to 83—which made us think about what was happening in a historical context and made me think of Tony Hoagland’s poem “Parade,” with its echoes of the tag at the end of the parade in The Laramie Project, the sign-correcting militantism recommended by the authors of Eats Shoots and Leaves, and my long-ago realization that the crowds beside me on the sidewalk during our small-town Memorial Day parade–in which my daughter marched with the high school band–included people who advocated teaching creationism in our middle school. Walker and the other kids would be trading candy after the parade, and I would see a pamphlet discarded, picking it up to see a cartoon featuring a person and a dinosaur in the same wooded scene.


Peter says if you’re going to talk about suffering
you have to mention pleasure too.

Like the way, on the day of the parade, on Forbes Avenue,
one hundred parking tickets flutter
under the windshield wipers of one hundred parked cars.

The accordion band will be along soon,
and the famouse Flying Pittsburgettes,
and it’s summer and the sun is shining on the inevitable flags—

Something weird to admire this week on TV:
the handsome face of the white supremacist on trial.
How he looks right back at the lawyers, day after day
–never objecting, never making an apology.

I looke at his calm, untroubled face
and think, That motherfucker is going to die white and right,
disappointing everyone like me
who thinks that punishment should be a kind of education.

My attitude is like what God says in the Bible:
Love your brother, or be destroyed.
Then Moses or somebody says back to God,
If I love you,
will you destroy my enemies?
and God says—this is in translation–, No Problemo.

Here, everyone is talking about the price of freedom,
and about how we as a people are united in our down payment,
about how we will fight to the very bottom of our bank account.

And the sky is so blue it looks like it may last forever
and the skinny tuba player goes oompahpah,
and everybody cheers.

In the big store window of the travel agency downtown,
a ten-foot sign says, WE WILL NEVER FORGET.

The letters have been cut with scissors out of blue construction paper
and pasted carefully to the sign by someone’s hand.

What I want to know is, who will issue the ticket
for improper use of the collective pronoun?
What I want to know is, who will find and punish the maker
of these impossible promises?

Everyone in my family got home just fine on Sunday night. Eleanor’s flights from Columbus to Chicago and Chicago to Des Moines, and then her shuttle bus ride to Grinnell all went about as well as they could on such a busy holiday weekend. Walker’s ride back to Oberlin was without incident. My mother’s flight back to the St. Louis airport, next to Ferguson, went fine, as did her shuttle bus ride back to Cape Girardeau. I didn’t have to worry much that anyone would mistake one of my tall children or my elderly mother for a person they should be afraid of. Other mothers have to worry more, I guess, until they get that last text telling them that all their loved ones have made it safely home.

8 Comments leave one →
  1. December 2, 2014 9:52 pm

    What did everyone think of Mockingjay? I liked it a lot more than I expected to, even though it was very slow-moving.

    • December 3, 2014 11:10 am

      We liked it fine. Ron and I haven’t read the books, but have enjoyed seeing the movies. My mother and Eleanor have read the books, so they told us about a couple of places where an idea that’s developed in the books is given a visual moment in the movie. We thought it ended like all two-parter movies, though, with more of a whimper than a bang.

  2. December 3, 2014 10:57 am

    Glad you had such a lovely holiday! Thanks for the poem, loved it! I like the mix of seriousness and humor.

    • December 3, 2014 11:08 am

      I like that in Tony Hoagland’s poems in general but yes, I like it particularly in this poem, too.

  3. December 3, 2014 12:43 pm

    What a wonderful post, and that is one damn fine poem. Poetry ought always to be funny and achingly true. I often think about mothers who have more at stake on that last text, and how excruciatingly hard that must be, and how I really don’t know that I’ve been born sometimes. Oh and I do so love that line about punishment as an education.

    • December 3, 2014 12:49 pm

      I’m pleased you like it! I am partial to poems that are both funny and serious.
      The line about punishment as an education, in particular, seems ludicrously old-fashioned now.

  4. December 5, 2014 9:49 am

    A poignant post, Jeanne, and sobering along with the happiness. Your Thanksgiving sounds a lot of fun and good family time. The poem’s excellent.

    • December 5, 2014 10:33 am

      Families make a lot of “impossible promises,” but mine gets along pretty well.

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