A Personal Archeology
That day my sister had learned about plaque build up on her teeth and it plagued her. We lingered at the dinette set table, the two of us junior high school-aged, hands touching gold-flecked Formica only feet from the kitchen sink with its stainless steel-tiled backsplash, my mother’s mark of distinction, my father’s weekend project, in our ’60s split level home in New Jersey.
I don’t know where our parents had gone or which of us that night was to wash and which to dry. There were grapes from dessert still on the table and I thought somehow to advise my sister to cut a grape and rub its insides over her teeth.
“Will it work?” she asked as she did it.
“I don’t know. I just thought of it.” I shrugged.
She frowned, said my name with that familiar gurgle at the la part, as if it were ga, making me feel I was always clogging pipes.
I felt mean, like I had tried to trick her, but really it was just an idea, something I thought somehow might work, those grapes right there in front of us.
Did you leave?
Well, yes. I walked toward the sink.
And then what?
Years later, I read that grape seed extract is helpful in fighting dental plaque.
But it would go on like this, her disgust making me sorry.
Do you know where you are from?
I was born in Richmond, VA, at the Stuart Circle Hospital, perhaps during a thunderstorm of Gothic proportions, like when I visited the building recently and lightning struck the bronze statue of Jeb Stuart there in the center of the circle.
What did you think at the hospital?
I wondered where a declaration of independence lived in me, what its weight was and had been.
What of today?
My tall paper coffee cup sits on the table before me, it’s formal white torso topped by a black derby; it’s cummerbund of brown paper proclaiming “Hot Beverage” around what I might call its waist.
“Elegant” arrives on my tongue. Shall I write smoking jackets of silk and sparkles on ball gowns, hot hope and permission to behave jauntily and intoxicated, take the world into my lungs, take it all in and dance?
Your parents: What did they say?
How can you?
You are wrong to feel that way!
You will kill your father if you do.
Take care of your mother.
What did your sister say?
It’s my turn.
Why are you always first?
Why did they give it to you?
What do you see now?
In the center of my backyard, a field of orange calendula and the tall leaves of Shasta daisies.
At the edges of my backyard, purple foxglove, sword ferns, Oregon grape.
What do you write?
He never said that was a good idea, embarking on becoming a poet. “What was I going to do?” he asked.
From my first collection: my father snoring locomotives, our aspiring front lawn. When he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s, I wrote about hushing the tremors in one arm with the other, about holding himself as his parents between their feuds had never held him.
What was I going to do?
What I always do.
for Judith Kitchen
I’ve washed a winter’s worth of collard greens,
torn the leaf from stems and veins, steamed
the greens in broth, adding red pepper flakes,
cayenne, too, then ate the fans I’d frayed
and mixed with rice and beans.
I triple washed the beets, separating greens
from bulbous roots. Steamed and boiled,
they helped me pull away from winter,
start remembering it’s spring.
The peas go in, the onion sets, more fava beans,
soon cauliflower and tomatoes, the orange,
yellow, green, and maybe striped as well.
I plucked last year’s shriveled figs, born too late
to ripen on our maturing tree, tossed them behind
our fence with prayers that figs might sweeten
sooner now that years are moving faster toward an end
that I refuse to really see, though I know how fast
the growing and faster still we eat.
Sheila Bender is the founder of http://writingitreal.com, an online resource dedicated to those who write from personal experience. Her books include the memoir, A New Theology: Turning to Poetry in a Time of Grief, the poetry collection, Behind Us the Way Grows Wider, and the instructional books Writing in a Convertible with the Top Down, co-authored with Christi Glover, Sorrow’s Words: Writing Exercises to Heal Grief, and Creative Writing DeMystified. Bender teaches online for several writing sites as well as at writers’ workshops and conferences around the United States.