Thursday, April 24, 2008

MARY JO ATKINS BARNETT, 1927-1984

(December 1973)

Mama died at 4:04 in the afternoon on April 24, 1984. Lots of fours in that stop.

My first year of college, I was living entirely on my academic scholarship which was inadequate. My food budget was $8 a week, which meant I didn't eat two days a week. Still, somehow, I saved $25 to buy a photography package deal: I wanted my family to have an official photograph of us all.

In the back of my mind was the fear that it might be the last chance we had. Mama's mortality hung over me like an unreliable cantilever.

It meant driving to Wichita Falls, which pissed off my father. It meant being stuck in the car with all of us, which meant my little brother acted out. And Mama had only one dress which sorta fit her, no money for a hair salon, which shamed her.

But I hectored and harangued, and we went. The photographer was mediocre and rude. Still, here's the photo. The outfit I have on was my Christmas present from my lover then. It was called heather green, with a dark green turtleneck. My little brother and I had no idea, until the photo came back, how similar our hairstyles were.

After the fold are Mama poems which I've not posted here before. Time to light a candle. I guess I'll never stop needing her.



CHUCK-WILL'S-WIDOW

Driving home past a small woods
holding its own against the subdivisions
I heard a chuck-will's-widow
dopplering in my window
Fireflies are out tonight
and the moon is a smaller orb
resting on bright pagan horns

At home, a rib-showing tabby,
clearly in heat, flopped
herself down on my sidewalk
then flipped to the other side
like a beached bass. She looked
at me without hope, got up
and trotted into the dark

The studies say people who
live alone are likely to die
decades earlier. Mama stuck it out
with my father, your guess is
as good as mine. He is eighty
and I owe him a call. Mama
rides the moon, lights a tiny
thorax, squats in the waiting
eggs of a cat looking for
something she does not want
but needs


© Maggie Jochild, 29 April 2006, 10:01 p.m.


I MAY BE SOME TIME

That day before Thanksgiving, Mama took
me to the new mall, with energy in her
I had not seen since I was twelve
We drank Orange Julius and I told her
about Annie Dillard's writing, what
it meant to me. After emptying
our cups, we strolled over to B. Dalton
Bought Teaching A Stone To Talk
On the bench outside, my arm next to hers
I read aloud the quote by Captain Oates
Then burst into tears

Six months earlier, she had
four emergency bypasses
Cracked open before I could
even get to the airport
I came down the ramp
looking for my brother's face
The face that would tell me
if she still lived
How do we walk ahead
at times like these
air frozen and white
sound gone
alone


© Maggie Jochild, 9 February 2006, 10:00 p.m. (her birthday)


CONTAGION

The well-dressed teacher from New York who laughed out loud
at how we talked asked me to hand back spelling tests.
She picked me I would guess because I never acted up
I always knew the answer when I was called on
and I was new, too. She was a fill-in. Nobody
liked either of us. When she made me walk up and down
the woodfloor aisles, me trying hard to remember names
but not to look at the red letter grades, I kept my
skinny skinny arms pressed tight against my ribs
My dress was short-sleeved, it was May, and at my
solitary lunch I had seen a rash, fine and red
creeping up the inside of each forearm. I knew
it would not be good news, but maybe I could keep it
secret. Until I got to the row where
Peggy with the pointy glasses sat, Peggy who got
big laughs from from mocking me, and of course she saw
the rash. She said out loud and clear I know
what that is, that's measles. I called her a liar
which shut her up with shock, I'd never spoken to her
not once, but the teacher heard and I was led
down the green-tiled hall to the nurse's office

Mama picked me up and sat me in the back seat with my
four-year-old brother, said she might as well get it
over with, he was going to come down with it anyhow
She said she couldn't tell if it was red measles or German
On the way home she stopped and bought calamine lotion
I was put in a dark room, no books allowed, and by
that time the fever was coming on. Right before
I blinked out, I murmured about how I would not get to play
with the dachsund puppy of the downstairs neighbor lady
The downstairs neighbor lady -- Mama put her hands over her mouth
and said She's eight months pregnant. She left me alone, then,
with my little brother. I heard her run down the stairs
and pound on the door, then women's voices full of fear
and Mama saying over and over My god I am so sorry
I had no way of knowing


© Maggie Jochild, 30 November 2005, 6:57 a.m.


MAMA CARRIES THE CONVERSATIONAL BALL AT DINNER

Bonnie was a Gilmore before she married Sherrill
Not the ones out east of here, but trash
from down near Alvord. She has always looked at least
ten years older than him. You know that place
on the way to Queen's Peak where somebody's painted everything
the house, the barn, the metal fence
the mailbox and the driveway rocks
a shade of doctor office green? That's the house
where Bonnie's sister lives. I don't know how
Sherrill met her, I was out of here by then
They never did have kids. Sherrill was shot up, you know
while he was in the Philippines
Held his entrails in his hands as they jeeped him
to an army field hospital. That's why he drinks
Bonnie didn't drink at first, they say, but now
she's worse than him. The only job he's ever had
is at the school. The boys in Ag
do all his janitor work for him. He does drive bus
Thank God it's just dirt roads and he can creep along --
That tea is sweet enough -- And Bonnie
got her teacher's aid position because she is
his wife, though she can barely write her name
Don't you be telling anyone that Sherrill is my cousin
He isn't really, just the nephew of my aunt by marriage
But you be nice to him, he's had it hard
And don't imagine you will leave this table without
eating something besides meat and bread


© Maggie Jochild, 28 October 2005, 7:44 a.m.


SPACE CADETS

One day when Mama took a nap
we turned a corner of the porch
into a spaceship. Hammered nails
to push as levers on the rail
Painted dials and colored buttons
with leftover Testor enamel
and lettered labels: Radar
Oxagin and Retro Rockets
We had to make two Retro Rockets
because it was our favorite one
and we could not agree who was in
command. We dragged over metal
lawnchairs and between two slats
we jammed a broken baseball bat
to be our joystick. Countdown, then
we flew to Saturn. With warp speed
it only took a minute, dodging the
Van Allen belt and asteroids

Turns out, the rings are solid, smooth
You can slid around the rings
on your bottom. Jupiter's giant spot
is a sea of red root beer
and the polar caps on Mars
are ice cream. We came back
to earth after Mama woke
and shrieked this was a rent house
Who was going to fix this damage
Cracker kids do not grow up
to become astronauts, you know


© Maggie Jochild, 6 September 2005, 7:15 p.m.



BEULAH LAND

When Mama was this age I am, I went
as West as I could go
She waved me down the road; she knew
I would not make it back in time

Travelers to the west seldom return
We miss them most at funerals
Sometimes they come through in April bringing flowers
And stand at graves alone

The dead will not forgive us in their own words
We conjure it ourselves in dreams
After long enough, you can forget
how your own mother's voice sounded


© Maggie Jochild, 30 July 2005, 6:37 p.m.

5 comments:

letsdance said...

It always hurts to lose your Mother. Thank you for sharing your story and your poetry, Maggie.

Sue Katz said...

Maggie,
Amazing to find this post on my return from sorting out and emptying my late mother's condo. My dear dad died around this time four years ago (you see? another "4") and my mother - I disliked her a great deal - this summer. I went through the photos painfully and can only celebrate that you succeeded in getting this poignant one completed before she died. How wonderful to maintain a love so long - the one you have for your mother. After my grueling experience, it's a relief to have your so much more positive view.
Sue

Jesse Wendel said...

Interesting.

The story you tell of getting your photo taken has the rhythms of poetry to it.

And your poetry has the rhythms of story.

I am reminded of the poet -- whose name I can remember, but which had such a powerful impact on me, reading -- whose poem, on these pages, you called, the most important poem you have ever read.

I can hear her telling her story on the Golden Gate bridge, just as I hear you telling your stories about your Mamma. I do not mean to imply that your stories are tragic, only how rich and deep your poems are, that the narrative takes me places.

Jesse Wendel said...

Typo (*sighs*):

Missed the not.

Obviously it should read:

" -- whose name I can not remember, but which had such a powerful impact on me, reading -- "

Maggie Jochild said...

Well, DAYUM, Jesse, you're comparing me to Judy Grahn, aintcha? Just the best ever. Wow.

And yeah, her working class rhythm totally influenced how I write.

Sue, I hear ya. My father (the "bad" parent in my constellation) died two years ago and I'm still not done with his mess. I mean in the practical sense -- his mess in the family dynamic sense will of course live on after me, even. Some people just should not be parents. Of course, that means WE would not exist, either...

And thanks back at you, Jan.