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Best of NNP

Four essays developed from blog posts

1. Homecoming, by Jeanne Griggs

It is the year 2050. Eleanor and Walker are bringing their families home for Christmas via interplanetary shuttle to Cloud City on Venus, where their parents live in a comfortable low gravity retirement community. The kids love being able to bounce around their grandparents’ house, chasing the cats. At dinner, everyone lifts a glass and says “schnucks!” before passing the cornbread dressing.

My picture of a good homecoming at Christmastime has always meant several generations crammed into one house, like in the Walton’s Christmas movie (Homecoming), the kind that makes a person miss the kind of Christmas they used to have with their parents in the good old days of years gone by, those years when we saw our siblings so often we could afford to quarrel with them.

Arriving home for Christmas, when I was very young, began with the crunch of our Missouri tires on my grandmother’s Arkansas gravel drive. Not once in my years of arriving did she fail to appear, hurrying down the steps from her front porch, hands dusting off on her apron, before we could get ourselves out of the car. She had made cookies and cakes and ham and turkey and the house smelled of it all. One year Santa brought me a Mary Poppins doll. I slept with my grandmother on the double bed in her spare room, made up with hot pink sheets that she always declared were “too loud” to sleep on.

For a good many years, my grandmother and my aunt and cousin came from Arkansas to our house in Missouri. We would play the piano and sing. My mother would have one entire counter filled with tins of cookies and fudge that she would bring out after supper. The tree was hung with birds and pears, and we would use my parents’ Waterford crystal glasses for Christmas dinner, the ones that only the two of them would wash by hand afterwards, in the kitchen where my cousin’s dog stayed when they came. On the day they left for Arkansas, we would go to St. Louis and out to dinner or to a play, so we wouldn’t have to be sad, left amidst the discarded wrapping paper.

Our first Christmas away from home, home came to us. We had an apartment in Rhode Island and one room had red carpet, so we taped a Christmas tree cut out of wrapping paper to the wall and put our presents in front of it. My parents and brother brought us fudge and sweaters and books to sustain us through the long New England winter, and made Arkansas cornbread dressing so it would smell like home.

We had Christmases with babies tucked up in a crib in the corner of my old bedroom or my brother’s and older children sleeping on cots or in the basement. Everybody had a stocking and there was room for them all on the long mantelpiece, along with the candlesticks with Chinese characters that my father always said probably read “I’ll sell this for too much to a stupid barbarian” in some obscure dialect. My father would make a fire in the fireplace on Christmas morning, and my mother and brother would taste the spices for the cornbread dressing, conferring.

There were a few Christmas mornings at the other grandparents’ house, where no matter how early you got up, it wasn’t too early, and there was often snow and birds to feed and stories about fishing on Arkansas lakes while we ate fried crappie.

We made a couple of quieter Christmases at our own house, with stockings for my parents and us and children and cats. There was one Christmas eve when an entire Playmobile spacehab had to be put together, and one when Eleanor asked her grandmother to tell her what Santa looked like, since she and grandfather were sleeping on the fold-out couch right in the living room in front of the fireplace. Walker was allowed to wake everyone up when it was 7 am, and he was always right on the dot.

We spent a few Christmases in Chicago and at my brother’s house, with a dog and a two-story-high Christmas tree and big-city museums and plays at some point in the trip. There was a final Christmas with my father, when we took him to see White Christmas, featuring the song he sang most often, “Blue Skies.”

This year I had an early homecoming with my mother, texting me in from the airport as her own mother would have liked to, I think, and then waving from her rehab room window as I pulled up in the parking lot.

We will have a small Christmas this year, with a new cat since the last time we hung our stockings here, and grown-up children beginning their own process of homecoming.

So, my grown-up children, here is what I know about homecoming: no matter how far you have to go to get there, home will always be the place where the people who love you best do some of the things you’ve always liked in an effort to erase the passage of time and make each Christmas the one you’ve always looked forward to most.

2. Thoughts about “Home” by Jeanne Griggs

Marilynne Robinson’s novels seem to be the sort that a person has to be in just the right mood to read and enjoy. I never found that mood with Gilead (I think the religious trappings put me off), but I did find it with Lila. So when my friend Carrie said she’d really enjoyed Home and I found an audiobook of it at the library, I checked it out.

This was last spring. I was driving around listening to this story about adult children who had returned to live with their father in their childhood home, and was by turns horrified by how old and frail the father seemed to those children and swept with waves of longing for my own adult children to come home. Which they did, coming in after Walker’s college graduation, Walker for only a couple of weeks, with his girlfriend, and Eleanor for a couple of months, working part-time at the local college, getting a respite from her cockroach-infested rental house, and staying to help me through the worst parts of my knee replacement before she returned last week to move into a new apartment.

Today marks four weeks that I’ve been confined to home. Right now some of my most sentimental attachments have dimmed, in light of the fact that I’m really tired of seeing these same four walls.

In honor of getting to leave home tomorrow (for a 35th-wedding-anniversary lunch and a follow-up appointment with my orthopedist), I was leafing through a copy of Home to remember how well Robinson captures the feelings of parents and children, like the part where the father exclaims “’such times you had!’…as if the present slight desolation were confetti and candy wrappers left after the passing of some glorious parade.” I feel that way often, especially in the garage, noticing the birthday party decoration I used to bring out each August or the pogo stick still standing in one corner.

Walker says he is coming back to stay with us for a few weeks at the beginning of September, and I am looking forward to it as much as the father in Home looked forward to his son Jack’s visit, stocking the pantry with “everything he thought he remembered Jack’s having a liking for.”

We are all aware of the mixed feelings that an adult child has when he returns home, however. When Glory, the adult daughter, is thinking about her return home she wonders “did she choose to be there, in that house, in Gilead? No, she certainly did not. Her father needed looking after, and she had to be somewhere, like every other human being on earth. What an embarrassment that was, being somewhere because there was nowhere else for you to be. All those years of work and nothing to show for it.” That seems a very American attitude to me, to be embarrassed because you don’t have a clear answer to the question “what do you DO?” (for a living).

The plot of Home, centering on the return of Jack, the prodigal son, is set in the past (early 1960’s), and so extremely predictable. I guessed the reason for Jack’s unhappy love affair with the first or second letter he got, as I imagine most readers will.

The feelings about home and family, however, are so nicely delineated that the plot doesn’t matter all that much. I particularly identify with what the father says after he’s spoken a truth out loud in front of his adult children: “I wish I could take it all back, everything I’ve just said. But I supposed you did know it already. Still, it’s different when you say things like that out loud. It already seems like I didn’t mean it. Now I know I’m going to just lie on my bed and worry about it, and wish I’d held my peace. I did that for so long.”

And I will always hope to do what Glory does when my adult children come home:
“How to announce the return of comfort and well-being except by cooking something fragrant. That is what her mother always did. After every calamity of any significance she would fill the atmosphere of the house with the smell of cinnamon rolls or brownies, or with chicken and dumplings, and it would mean, This house has a soul that loves us all, no matter what. It would mean peace if they had fought and amnesty if they had been in trouble. It had meant, You can come down to dinner now, and no one will say a thing to bother you.”

Eleanor stayed to cook for me, but Walker has the faith and, perhaps, detachment to not worry about how I’ve been getting along, planning to return only when I’m able to get around in the kitchen again.

At the end of these weeks of being home-bound, when I’m depending on Ron and other friends to keep me from climbing the walls and drive me back and forth to physical therapy appointments, I feel the hard truth of the kind of joke the father shares with his oldest friend:
“The joke seemed to be that once they were very young and now they were very old, and that they had been the same day after day and were somehow at the end of it all so utterly changed.”

Maybe one of the secrets of living at home in a way that makes adult children want to return is to keep sharing the things that are the same day after day, even while everything else keeps changing—horizons, girlfriends, knees, furniture, pets, trees.

3. Thoughts on “MAKE BIG MONEY AT HOME! WRITE POEMS IN SPARE TIME!” by Jeanne Griggs

I’ve been thinking about Howard Nemerov, and how big a fan of his poetry I was as a graduate student in the 1980s, when my friend Laura and I attended a poetry conference downtown at the Folger Library in Washington, D.C. There were all kinds of big names there–including Katha Pollitt, Carolyn Forche, and Andrei Codrescue–and then there was Howard, skulking out at the same time as the graduate students to walk the downtown streets towards the Metro stop, and giving us paranoid looks over his shoulder as we seemed to follow him. I would have loved to have gone up to him and expressed my undying admiration, but clearly that wasn’t an option.

Why have I been thinking about that conference? Because of an article in this month’s Writer’s Chronicle entitled “Darth Howard, Ashurbanipal & a Defense of Poetry,” in which the author, David Wojohn, recounts the experience of acting as Nemerov’s assistant at a Breadloaf Writer’s Conference in the mid-1990s: “the Nemerov that I saw during those weeks was embittered and misanthropic. The charitable characterization would be curmudgeonly, and in some respects, Nemerov was expected to act this way–he was the conference’s elder poet, trying to fill the shoes of Frost, that most curmudgeonly of curmudgeons, and his great Breadloaf predecessor.” Wojohn sees how “it pained him to see students so wrong-headed and so ill-read, to have to teach people who had no knowledge of poetry written before about 1970.” In short, he paints a portrait of Nemerov as an embittered human being.

I like to think that Nemerov’s old-fashioned manners would have kept him from publicly expressing his disdain for naive readings of his poems preserved in blog posts, but he was certainly capable of spewing vitriol. Wojohn observes that “the sorts of gestures that might have worked in one of Howard’s satirical epigrams came across as boorish when practiced on human subjects.”

The tone of self-deprecation at the beginning of his poem “MAKE BIG MONEY AT HOME! WRITE POEMS IN SPARE TIME!” shows a perspective that he might have lost in his later years, as famous as he became.

It took a good amount of self-confidence to be able to articulate what became his trademark mix of humility and satire in the late 1950s, when he was still relatively unknown:
‘Oliver wanted to write about reality.
He sat before a wooden table,
He poised his wooden pencil
Above his pad of wooden paper,
And attempted to think about agony
and history, and the meaning of history,
And all stuff like that there.”
The last line of the first stanza, of course, is his attempt to be not only self-deprecating but folksy, as if poetry isn’t something only a few, highly educated people can do.

It wasn’t years of reading other peoples’ poems but a sudden whim that inspires him, he claims when he says “Suddenly this wooden thought got in his head/A Tree. That’s all, no more than that,/Just one tree.”

After considering possible metaphoric and/or symbolic possibilities for the tree, this poet turns outward instead, seeing his place in the world, even as he would years later, a public figure watching his fans out of his peripheral vision:
“’A Tree,’ he wrote down with his wooden pencil
Upon his pad of wooden paper
Supported by the wooden table.
And while he sat there waiting
For what would come next to come next,
The whole wooden house began to become
Silent, particularly silent, sinisterly so.

We have to admire the cruel humor of the ending, in which the would-be poet starts to perceive he has been played by what he regarded as his instruments.

And we can all breathe a sigh of relief that we never came across this poet’s field of vision for long enough that he actually turned his burning gaze our way and made an Example of Us.

4. Thoughts on “The Barber’s Fingers Move October” by Jeanne Griggs

I’ve been sitting through a lot of awards ceremonies, watching in a kind of half-daze as the children of friends and acquaintances and strangers move across the stage, shaking the presenters’ hands and accepting envelopes. While I’m glad that my children are doing well in school, I’m not sure that these kinds of ceremonies are a terribly good thing, especially when a couple of kids dominate all the awards or the same group of kids and parents have to go to two ceremonies a week in a three-week period in May. Because such school celebrations usually offer cookies, my kids have taken to referring to any celebration of their scholastic merits as a “smart fat kids” event.

But I do think that if someone wants to give you an award, you should show up. So we do. And I sit there in a haze, sometimes not clapping–I don’t mean to be rude, but I get distracted. There’s a lovely lemon-yellow dress! There’s a kid I haven’t seen for two years since he was in an after-school club with my older child! Look, there’s a teacher with mismatched socks, and the clock on the wall is ten minutes slow and the curtain on the side of the stage is such a deep, deep red….

These occasions for reverie made me think of a few of the beginning couplets from “The Barber’s Fingers Move October,” by Samuel Amadon:

“If I watch two white cats play in a window
which is not the window I should be watching

when a window I watch through is the window
I should be washing, then we know today

is going to be a difficult to listen to all his talking
when his shirts are open, when his face is

pulsing.”

And the ending couplets, with thoughts spilling from one sight to the next:

“see how I can make my chair stop or keep
my chair spinning, either way I must be up for something

has made one white cat try hard his face against
the glass until a vein appears which, followed, leads

us back to apparently my bicycle was taken off
the shelf. What if I rode it with my knees spread down

the four flights of stairs out this building
into the street without checking the cars’ side

mirrors for if I still pedal with my mouth open?
Better you leave it too precarious in the doorway

for me to follow after the door is knocked
by the wind from a window I will open now

that it’s safe to say this has been a full morning
of staring through the half-reflection of my face

figuring out how it would sound
to understand every word you were saying.”

I also particularly like the middle lines about how “sometimes listening takes/stealing a bus, or finding a way to parking lots/large enough in which to fishtail.” They really evoke the feeling of drifting through an awards ceremony until the moment when someone trips and loses a shoe, or a kid flashes a grin and frames his face with his hands in a show-offy way. It pulls you back.

Or am I the only person who sits through such things watching the mouths move but not always focusing enough to “understand every word”?

 

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