The First and Only

(This essay appeared in the Death Blues Ensemble album here.)

The first and only poetry prize I ever won was for a love poem. Written to my older cousin, Kevin, the youngest of four siblings on my mother’s side. It was a radio contest and the winners were announced one morning on the local AM station. I can’t remember if my poem was read over the air. Regardless, I had won my age group, and my mother was over the moon. 

In our home, the radio was a constant, especially in the mornings. Amid the local news and weather, we occasionally heard songs such as Dancing Queen, or something by Gordon Lightfoot. We always listened to Paul Harvey later in the day. After my father left for work at Mower County Soil & Water Conservation, having heard the day’s grain prices, my mother settled down with a second pot of coffee and listened to “Party Line,” a call-in show that was not only emblematic of the social fabric of our community, but helped my mother feel connected because we lived so far from town. She had lived her whole life in small cities, in churches, in schools, and being alone with herself seemed to drain her dry. My poem put me in esteemed company, if only for a very few minutes. 

I don’t remember what my poem said or why I said it. In my mind now, I see it written in crayon on otherwise blank notepaper, hearts drawn near the top of the page, but I doubt I was that young, and I doubt my mother would have allowed me to submit it as such. Perhaps she even rewrote it on lined paper with her precise schoolteacher handwriting before we walked the envelope down our long driveway and tucked it into the mailbox, misshapen from too many scrapes with the road grader, for pickup. 

Because she died when I was twelve, I cannot ask her about these things, things that I suspect are fiction, but for which I have no more reasonable memory. No doubt I extolled my cousin’s virtues in the poem, in schoolgirl terms, though I actually knew him very little since he was at least 10 years older than me and living in Minneapolis, a veritable Oz two hours north of our farm, which instantly escalated him to star status. 

Kevin had a job, and money, or he must have, because he would show up late for Christmas gatherings every year with some expensive and hastily-bought gift that, instead of offending us with its obvious lack of planning, thrilled us because we rarely had a lot of money spent on our presents. (My favorite was the Simon electronic memory game, even if I did have to share it with my brother.) We came to expect those gifts, so when he stopped attending the annual Christmas get-togethers because he was spending time with his girlfriend, our Christmases lost the sense of surprise and indulgence, even romance, he brought with him.

It could be that the poetry contest was the first time I believed I could be a writer, or maybe I never thought I couldn’t be one. My mother had been a 1st grade teacher before moving to the country to marry my father, so reading and language and storytelling was something I’d taken to early, not because it was genetic (we were adopted), but because the house was filled with books for young children, and, also, her expectations. 

Most of her old school books were lined up on built-in shelves in the unfinished basement, but she had a small set of bookends on her dresser in my parent’s room that held just a few treasured volumes. Most were religious, and I particularly remember something by Anne Morrow Lindbergh, but tucked between two hardcovers was a hand-bound book of poetry, with very few pages, handwritten, and illustrated in pencil. Even now, I can nearly feel the silky twist of rope that threaded through the pages because I stroked it with my thumb whenever she would let me investigate her things, usually on rainy days. 

I can’t remember what her poems were like, or whether they were any good, or if the book was anything more than the result of a school project she’d had to complete many years before, but what I did know is that they were written by my mother. My mother had a book of poetry. A whole book! And it was evident to me then that if something was in a book, no matter the size, it was valuable. And it was precious, not just because she kept it in a place of some honor, but also because it was tidy, and deliberate, and somehow alive with a person’s history. 

Years after my mother died, my father got remarried and anything that my mother had owned of value, antiques collected by a family of collectors, was sold. The profit was used by my new stepmother redecorate the house, erase the lingering presence of my mother, reverse the decay that had started to eat at its edges. Anything that wouldn’t bring in money, like that handwritten book of poetry, was moved down to that partially renovated, but still prone-to-flooding basement. Not carefully placed on shelves, but piled in boxes, one on top of the other like a small city of remembrances. I had no interest in rescuing the objects of my childhood because I was about to leave for college. Well practiced at packing my own memories into boxes labeled simply “Better Times” and storing them in some dark corner of my mind, I had little affection for what I would leave behind. 

Their marriage lasted less than a year; the renovations had not been enough to make two people unfit for each other stay together. My mother’s things remained in the basement as water seeped in each spring and mold grew up the new drywall, my father living alone upstairs, maybe believing the memories stored in the basement would be enough to hold the house, and himself, up.

Our basement had always frightened me as a child, its many rooms hiding spots for spiders and mice, and any other kinds of menace I could imagine. When I was very young, the basement had been used to clean, weigh, and carton the eggs our chickens produced, and the process left behind bits of feather and residue from cracked and leaking eggs long after the chickens were gone.  

When our washing machine broke down and we couldn’t afford to replace it, my mother rolled out a decades-old monster of a machine that had lurked unused under the stairs for years. It washed our clothes in its round gut, but didn’t remove the water that a spin cycle would. She had to wring each piece dry through a press that resembled a large pasta maker. It was hard work, and we didn’t yet know about my mother’s glitchy heart. Later, even after a new automatic washer made the laundry easier, she never descended the stairs to the basement without a small brown bottle of nitroglycerin pills tucked into a pocket.

After she died and the laundry became my responsibility, I’d go into the basement as infrequently and as briefly as possible, dash up the stairs when I was done, especially after seeing my first horror movie, “The Evil Dead.” The basement stairs were free-standing and the large space underneath, with built-in shelves and cupboards, had served as a pantry. There were still jars of my mother’s canned goods—peeled peaches and bulbous tomatoes, yellowed cucumber pickles in pale green brine growing a grotesque virus of garlic and dill—stored amid opened paint cans and retired pots and pans, like bloated body parts in jars in a mad scientist’s lab. 

When my father died five years ago, having spent the majority of 22 years alone in the home he and my mother had had built during the first year of their marriage, my husband and I were tasked with emptying out the house for sale, and we confronted what turned out to be the actual horrors of the basement. After years of flooding, the resulting mold, and my father’s growing poverty and passivity, most everything abandoned in the back rooms of the basement had disintegrated, forming a two-foot undulate layer of debris that had to be shoveled and scraped off the floor. 

We picked through the mess, searching for survivors. An old stuffed bear looked to be in good shape, but, unearthed, it was missing half its face, like some storybook phantom, eaten away by mice looking for nesting material. Even the shelved books were ruined, musty, their pages reduced to dust at the corners or stuck together with damp. I now have four plastic tubs stacked in my own basement that hold a spare number of rescued items moved from that house to mine.

I don’t know what happened to my mother’s poetry book, the one I imagine she had kept on her dresser to remind herself of who she had once been. I’d like to have it now, so I too could have a tangible representation of the faded but inextinguishable passion for words that seemed always to burn within her. Perhaps that’s why she was so thrilled by my poem, that winning poem, despite the obviously questionable object of my affection. Maybe in that poem, she could see herself in me. And she was relieved to know that despite my adoption, I was her daughter, that she had successfully lit a flame in me to write something just as tidy, deliberate, and alive. I wish now that I had written that love poem for her, but then, maybe, it was. 

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