In a few hours I'm having lunch with an old classmate whom I haven't seen for many years. So last night I was digging through a box of keepsakes from high school and college days and came across something I wrote in high school.
I totally forgot about this poem. It is in my handwriting on notebook paper that I recognize. And as I typed it to make a digital record the scene became vaguely familiar, and reference to “the Chumbley place” meant that it had to have been a product of my imagination. Finally the odd words pinen and pecanen were the clues that made me remember. They were my own invention, made to match oaken as wood types. The characters were Sandra and her husband Cass. Together they spell Cassandra, a name that tells the future.
Since there is no chance it will ever be published by anyone else, in the interest of vanity I'm publishing it myself. I'm also vain enough to think it has held up pretty well after fifty years.
The fire was not as warm
As it was the hour before.The two were not the same
As they sat before it, sitting
As it glowed on.
A coal oil lantern
Was on the table,
That rough oaken stand
By the spinning wheel.
The packed dirt floor And open ceiling rafters
And the mud-plastered walls
All were a dark and dark-purple hue
The bricks on the hearth were of uneven lay
They were in great need
To be replaced
As did, in fact, the scene in its entirety.
Cobwebs in the corner were dusty,
Pegs in the chimney were loose.
The furniture was old
A cradle, occupied
A double bed, cold
A stool of three legs, pinen
A split-log bench, picanen
A straight-back chair, Sandra
And the table, oaken.
And when will you get back?
And he It shouldn’t be over six days.And in the meantime what will we do, me and little Cassy?
You can go up to the Chumbley place and tell them the problem.
They’ll understand; you can get with them and might get a job or something.
I’ll find him as soon as I get there and be coming right back.
He can fix us up to last till next year’s crops get harvested.
The Lord willing.
The Lord willing.
But we have to go to bed.
It’s after ten.
He left the following morning
Afoot he was down the roadway.
And beburdened with a bundle
A piece of dried beef
A tough little loaf
She drew a bit of cloth
Soft it was, and stained, her handkerchief.
And put it to an eye
Where it drank up
A warm tear.
Turning to the house…
And catching her breath…
She went to her baby.
Gathering the drowsy infant In her off-pink shawl,
That was old when given her,
She left her home,This was written when I was still in high school and even now, two days later from when I came across it, I still have only vague memories how it came about. My maternal grandmother was alive at the time but about to be admitted to a nursing home for the remaining year of her life. I'm sure the story derived from something she was reminiscing about and as a teen I was listening and trying to envision as she spoke.
That beloved room that was a shack and leaked
And trudged up the road In the opposite direction
That had taken her husband.
The shoes that she wore
Without socks, and formerly brown
Were once those of another
The heels were folded down
The side seams were very weak.
Her dress was black polka dots
Set on a background of red.
A tear from the waist at the side
Was held by a large safety pin.
The checked and faded cloth
Over her ebony hair
Was knotted in the front
Just over her forehead,
And her forehead was theColor of her shoes.
The names Cass and Sandra are obviously derived from that of the prophetess I had learned about in school. They were not only black but desperately poor, perhaps freed slaves or sharecroppers, dependent on a well-established Virginia family which prided itself in the kind of noblesse oblige charity for the poor which was the only hope of security for those at the very bottom of the social and economic ladder.
Apparently someone known to Sandra and Cass was able to escape the cycle of poverty in which they were still trapped. It may have been a sibling, cousin or other acquaintance more secure and able to loan them enough to get by until they could repay him, the farming equivalent of a payday loan.
I can envision my grandmother's telling this story with the same detachment that she later wrote from the nursing home that "We have white help here. I think in the kitchen we have colored help." Those were the matter-of-fact remarks of her generation that we know now are clearly racist. But to her they were descriptive, not demeaning. As the story-teller she would have been in the household of what she called "the old home place." As the listener I was imagining both sides of the story.
Within two years of when this was written I would be in the midst of the civil rights, anti-war and "women's lib" movements, coming home from school one summer to have the local draft board officially reclassify me from 1-A to 1-A-O (non-combatant) and drafted into the Army in the fall of 1965. Those were turbulent years for everyone.
I'm still trying to come up with a suitable title, something that reflects changing generational and social echoes in two or three words. Anything will do. The content is what drives the poem for me.