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Archive for April, 2016

Aunt Florence

Carry with you the teachings of those you admire.  St. James

Be yourself; everyone else is already taken.  Oscar Wilde

Accept no one’s definition of your life; define yourself.  Harvey Feinstein

It was Aunt Florence I was thinking about as we traced the shoreline of Lake Superior in northern Wisconsin on our drive four days ago.  She was Grandma Helen’s younger sister, and my mother’s favorite aunt.  And when I was little, my mother told “Aunt Florence stories” and I loved these stories my mother told.  Aunt Florence was in love once, maybe engaged, to the twin of a family friend, and when he died during the First World War, her heart was broken and she never married.  And my mother became like a daughter or a younger sister to her aunt — together, they traipsed the woods and shorelines of New England, Aunt Florence teaching my mother the names of things, showing her how to see the world with an artist’s eye.  I loved hearing how Aunt Florence brought watercolors along on their woodland adventures, how they sat, my great aunt and my mother, side by side, painting the landscape, and how, on one occasion, they took the train into the heart of Boston, watched Gone with the Wind, as it premiered across the country, walked out of the theater four hours later, stunned, unable to say a word.

I loved these stories and I loved Aunt Florence, the older version of Aunt Florence, the one I knew from church camp in Fryburg, Maine, and from Thanksgivings at my cousins’ house in Massachusetts.  She was the peppy great aunt with graying strawberry-blonde hair, the one who didn’t wear old lady dresses and clunky orthopedic shoes, instead choosing colorful silks, and sandals and sneakers and fashionable pumps, the one who made all eleven of us cousins silver twisted rings for our birthdays and bracelets with our names etched across the band.  Aunt Florence, not only painted with watercolors the beaches of coastal Massachusetts and the blooming hillsides of New Hampshire’s White Mountains; she worked her magic with gold and silver.  She was a jeweler, a master jeweler, creating ornate pendants and rings and necklaces.  She lived in an apartment at Harvard Square, and she loved the Red Sox.  I know this because I, too, loved the Red Sox.  And, during my preteen years, the years of Carl Yastrzemski and Rico Petricelli, my great aunt and I wrote letters back and forth singing the praises of the amazing men of Fenway Park.

I wasn’t thinking about all of this the other day as my husband Cam and I drove across Wisconsin, heading toward Duluth on our way to Rochester, Minnesota, wasn’t thinking about Aunt Florence’s artistic talent which found its way into all that she did.    I was thinking about my own cruelty.  I wasn’t cruel at first, that came later when Aunt Florence moved in with us after her stroke the fall that I entered ninth grade.  It’s not that I didn’t notice Aunt Florence’s cheek when I was a little girl, the way the spot oozed sometimes and was red and often was covered with a bandaid or a bandage.  Something had happened years earlier, before I was born, some kind of radiation burn — that I’m sure became a skin cancer –and eventually ate through her cheek.  When I was little this was just a part of Aunt Florence, the red spot, the oozing, the bandage, but, when she moved in with us after the stroke and the skin graft that left a flap-like gobble hanging down from face, after her words became gobbled up in this floppy graft, I found myself embarrassed of her.  And, when my friends laughed behind her back, I joined in.  I laughed too.  Many times that year I laughed.

That’s what I was saying, as Cam and I drove along, that I made fun of my Great Aunt Florence, that it is something I have regretted ever since.  But regret pulls us down and I wasn’t feeling like crawling in the muck on this particular car ride.  What followed flowed from me naturally.  “She was awesome!” I told Cam.  “She made me a gold seahorse ring with a tourmaline stone for my birthday that year.” I continued.  “And a good luck clover silver pin.  And she never stopped creating.  There she was in her eighties, plucked from her familiar studio and home at Harvard Square, crafting jewelry and copper-enameled dishes in our basement.”  I was filled with appreciation for my aunt, not just because she was still creating up until the day she died peacefully on her bed in our house while we were at school.  I also was filled with appreciation because she didn’t hide herself, even when the wound on her face became a gobble, even when the kids in Junior High laughed behind her back.  Even when people pitied her.  She wore kilts and knee socks and loafers like the rest of us and danced with Uncle Wally at my parent’s New Year’s Eve party and laughed heartily and lived fully.

It was no coincidence that five eagles, five of them, flew across the road as I was sharing this appreciation of Aunt Florence with Cam, as my voice was cracking, as I was saying to him that Aunt Florence is my role model now.  Right now — as I embark on this project of mine.  I am three days into a six week adventure at Rochester, Minnesota, an adventure that I am calling my gardening project — because it is a gardening project — literally — a process of gathering the seeds from my deepest marrow core, and purifying this marrow soil and transplanting these seed-cells back in.  And it is a rebirth, an upgrade, a strengthening at my deepest level.  I am strong and healthy going into this process and it is just the next step.  Probably the skin graft felt like that to Aunt Florence.  And like Aunt Florence, I plan to keep at my artistic practices as I garden, writing each day for ten minutes on a different topic selected by my writing friends who will be joining me in this practice.  And when I return home without my usual bleached-blonde hair, with a garden still fresh and new and not fully in bloom, I will remember how Aunt Florence didn’t let self-consciousness or concern about what she might seem like to anybody else stop her from blooming.  And her garden did bloom, magnificently.


Watercolor by Florence Whitehead: Fryburg, Maine





















I am filled with a Poem: Happy Poetry Month!!!

We all write poetry; it is simply that poets are the ones who write in words.  John  Fowles

Poetry is the synthesis of hyacinths and biscuits.  Carl Sandburg

No matter what we may be doing at a given moment, we must not forget it has a bearing upon our ever-lasting self which is poetry.  Basho

“I am filled with a poem.”  I’ve been saying these words to myself all week.  “I am filled with a poem.”  And it seems true to me, that I am filled with a poem, a poem ready to burst out of my depths and into some tangible form, perhaps into an opera or a ballet or a stand-up comedy act, into something that hasn’t quite found its footing yet.  And is it enough to let it be, this feeling of poetry singing its way through our inner landscape?  I think it is.  And that is what I am doing, savoring it, the poem that seems too big for words.  And yet, the words come.  Yesterday, in the growing light of April, at mid-day, I skate-skied on fresh-groomed tracks up and down hills through fairy-tale woods.  The snow floated down gently at times, then pelted me sideways as the wind picked up, then suddenly stopped as the sun peeked through.  It was all there in that afternoon ski, the crisp cold of winter with all that new snow, and the puddles of spring pooling among the trees and frozen over again with the recent dip in temperature.  The crows flew from tree to tree, catching the gusts of wind, and the squirrels raced across the trail and I think we were all filled with a poem.

And this is what came to me as I skied along — a memory of a time that a poem grew inside of me.  It was springtime, not the early spring of snow and mud and trails still groomed for skiing; it was later, maybe May, and dandelions were bursting though the cracks in the sidewalk, and the memory seems bright and sharp like the sun that was shining down on me that afternoon as I waited for my big sister to make her way home from school.  And that tells me that I must have been four, or five — not much older than my nearly four-year-old grandson– because I wasn’t walking home with my sister; I was outside our home ready to greet her when she made her way down the street.  And I’m not sure what I was doing before the snapshot of crystal clear memory.  Perhaps I was scooched down in my secret hideaway beneath the lilac tree in our backyard or mountain-climbing up the boulder that sat across the tiny deadend road from our house.  Perhaps I could sense that this was the blossoming season and life was filled with new possibility — perhaps that was why I was feeling so good.  Because that is what I remember, the good feeling.  I’m not sure if I said it in words that day, but I know I felt it, that I was filled with a poem.

And that is when a woman made her way up Beacon Street, the street on the other side of our house, the one with the sidewalk and the dandelions, a woman I didn’t know.  I think she was pushing a baby carriage; that part isn’t as clear.  And I think it was me, filled with the bigness of my poem, that began the conversation.  And though I don’t remember what we talked about, I do remember we spoke to each other for some time, and that it didn’t feel condescending or like idle chatter, at least not to me.  We were two people on a gorgeous spring day connecting, big poem to big poem.  And the conversation left me buoyant, skipping and dancing down the street, and I remember this buoyant feeling and this woman and this day, over fifty years later.  And yesterday, skate-skiing along, riding the waves of that same buoyancy, the memory rose up and presented itself center stage.

I believe it is in us all, a poem ready to be fed.  Tuesday, before the temperature plummeted and the snow coated our world white again, we, in the north woods, had a glimpse of the blossoming season that indeed will be with us soon.  The waters of Lake Superior sparkled and the sun warmed my skin and I sat in the grass by the sandstone shore and let it all soak in, the warmth, the breeze, the blue sky, and then I couldn’t sit still a moment longer, and I began a giddy walk-skip around the outer path of our city park isle.  And there they were, filled to the brim in their brilliant-colored hammocks draped among the trees, these college kids sprawled out and utterly relaxed, napping and reading and playing guitars, at least a dozen of them, sopping in the magic of that unseasonably warm afternoon.  When you are filled to the brim, when you are buoyant inside, when the day is sunny and warm and you are walk-skipping around an island or swinging in a hammock by a great lake, or when it is snowy in April and the trees are draped in white and the trail is perfectly-groomed, it is easy to say it, “I am filled with a poem.”

But isn’t there something in every day, no matter the outside weather, something that can feed us and fill us up and set our spirits soaring?  It is an inside job, to be filled with a poem, a poem that feels buoyant and uplifting.  It is an inside job to claim it, the poem blossoming in our depths, to claim also that our lives, the ones that we are living day to day, that they are poetry, more potent than anything we can capture on a page.  And when we embrace it, this feeling that is beyond words, this feeling that swells in our hearts and souls, when we allow ourselves to relax into it, the way the college kids relax into their hammocks on the shore of the greatest of lakes, when we breathe deeply and feel the goodness of it all, it is easy to strike up a conversation with a stranger and create a connection that lasts a lifetime.

Happy spring!!!  Happy Poetry Month!!!


Helen filled with a poem




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