The Road Taken: Poetry Session

I love poetry and, in my youth, I was quite prolific. I wrote these poems during the time I was taking a creative writing class with Rick. These poems can each stand on their own. But, they do have a back story.

The first one is about the time Rick and I skipped out of class. You can read about it in my story, The Road Taken: Running. You’ll learn the story behind the second one by reading, The Road Taken: Strawberries on a Blue Plate.  Enjoy!

One Wild Night

We tore off our mittens, stashed them away,

Pressed our hands together and ran down the street:

So Free!

The chilling night swirling on our knuckles,

Spinning fantasies on our souls,

Felt good…

A man with a saxophone,

Hot sounds in the icy wind,

Made you laugh and I almost told you then,

But it was all so perfect, so rare,

Rubbing our hands together, my tingling fingers reached for yours,

You laughed some more as I leaned closer,

Thinking we were two crazy people on a wild night,

Out for a good time,

So Free!

Rites of Summer

I remember the strawberries,

Oh, God they were good!

On that long-ago day by the Hudson,

Where we sat on a hill,

Sharing a brief moment,

Longing it to last forever,

Feeling that it could,

A quite breeze,

Your soft laughter,

Your folded hands,

All seemed so golden, so serene.

Summer reflecting on the blue plate between us,

Dusted with breakfast crumbs, morning jam,

Unspoken words.

You leaned closer,

Reaching for a strawberry,

The last one,

I whispered something,

Perhaps a dream?

I watched the strawberry

Slip through your parted lips.

Missed a chapter? Read past installments, by visiting the page, The Road Taken.

The Road Taken: Strawberries on a Blue Plate

The following week, I was ready.  Ready to sit as far from Rick as possible. Ready to pretend nothing had happened the week before—and really, nothing did, except, maybe, in my head. No sparks, no hearts on fire. I was pretty sure it was simply my wild imagination, getting the better of me.  So now, I was ready to focus on the class and on my writing.  I would even make it a point to talk to some of the other students. Yes, I could do this and achieve great success.  It was just a dumb crush, after all. A 24-hour bug. And my plan almost worked, except for one thing.

It didn’t have a chance.

At the break, the lady who wore a green sweater to the first class, grabbed a pink floral one that she had earlier flung on the back of her chair, and stepped out of the classroom. Other classmates followed, chatting aimlessly, carrying on conversations about who knows what.  They were happily heading outside for a 10-minute smoke or maybe just for fresh air, completely oblivious to any feelings, any pining, on my part, for Rick. I was conflicted. I wanted to talk to him, yet knew what could happen if I did. So I decided to stay put and use the break to work on the poem I had read in class. It was one about strawberries on a blue plate. I wasn’t satisfied with the ending.

View of Hudson River from Vanderbilt Mansion. Photo courtesy of TripAdvisor.

Like the others, Rick, too, stood up. He used both arms to push his chair away from the table so he could stand. This made the table tremble a bit, much like my insides. His arms looked strong, firm and limber, yet not too muscular. Just the right amount of tone. Like he’d been kayaking all day on Lake Washington.

Instead of making a hasty exit as the others had, Rick ambled over to where I was sitting.

“Let’s go outside,” he said softly, in barely a whisper, as if we were conspiring something.

I looked up at him. Gray flecks in his green eyes cast a light on his smile that made my heart churn. So much for my fortitude. So much for my resolve. I was under his spell. He was like Bela Lugosi in Dracula and I was his next victim. If he had asked to suck my blood, I’m pretty certain I would have said, yes.

I followed him out of the building, down four steps to the walkway.  To the right were the other students, deep in conversation, in groups of three or four.  Rick walked towards the left, a safe distance from the others. Still in sight, but out of earshot. The night chill made me realize I’d left my jacket on my chair in the classroom. I began to shiver, but not enough to want to retrieve it. Not enough to want to spoil the moment.  He sat down on a low brick wall, and motioned me to sit beside him. Great, now my rear would be cold, too.

“Tell me about the strawberries.”

For a second I was puzzled. Then, I realized he was referring to the poem I had just read to the class.

“What’d you want to know?”

“Well, I love the imagery. How did you put it? Summer reflecting on the blue plate between us, with breakfast crumbs and jam? Is that how it went?  I do remember one line, ‘Longing it to last forever.’ I feel that way sometimes. Like now. But, just who were you writing about? “

Frankly, I was surprised that Rick was even quoting my poem. I’d only read it aloud once and yet, he seemed to almost have memorized it. Which excited me, but also made me wonder, was he really just interested in my poem?

I thought about G, who rarely showed interest in my poetry, which was probably for the best, since quite a few were about him and the insecurities I felt about our relationship, ever since I found him with another woman when I visited him back in college. And ever since Joanie stopped talking to us upon learning that G had proposed to me. Ever since.  Yet, he did encourage me to keep writing, and he was most enthusiastic when I signed up for this class, but I just figured it was because it helped assuage his guilt about not being around much anymore, now that he was in grad school. Little did he know, little did he know.

I started to tell Rick about the inspiration for the poem, how I wrote it for an old family friend from Venezuela. It was on a day that he spent with us, which turned out to be one of his last, for he died soon after.  We drove up to Hyde Park, New York, to visit the Vanderbilt and the Franklin Delano Roosevelt mansions. We only made it through the first mansion, though. He was already ailing and appearing frail. The trip and walking around the grounds had proven too much for his middle-aged, diseased body.

So, while the others toured FDR’s home, he and I sat on the river’s bank, taking in the serenity of the day. He’d been so kind to me then, happy to indulge this young girl’s fancy that she could write, and listened contentedly while I read my poetry to him.   He treated me like a grownup and not the kid I still was.  How I cried when I learned of his passing, barely a month later, causing me to write this poem.

Rick listened attentively. When I finished, the pain of losing our family friend seemed to course through my veins all over again. I was about to tell Rick that I felt the poem needed more work, that the ending felt incomplete, but, when I looked up, I noticed that the other students were pretty much gone. Besides us, only one other student remained outside, and that was some skinny guy who was smoking the last bit of his cigarette. No doubt, he, too, felt that ten minutes was not long enough for a break.

“Looks like we better go back,” I said halfheartedly.

Rick hesitated. Clearly, he was still thinking about my story. Perhaps he felt he needed to console me in some way, or acknowledge the connection between us. For the next thing I knew, he reached over. Taking my hand in his, he began to lightly brush his fingertips along mine.

This is where I should have pulled away and said something like, “I beg your pardon!” Or, “How dare you!” Something to that effect. Anything. Instead, I met his touch with gratitude, with sheer pleasure, welcoming the fleeting feel of his fingertips on my skin.

Then, grasping my hand, he pulled me up and continued holding on to it while we raced back to class. My head was reeling with emotions, and they all said one thing: Don’t let go.

Missed a chapter? Read past installments, by visiting the page, The Road Taken.

In Good Company

My mother’s in good company, and by this I mean, she died in good company.  This month marks the anniversary of her passing, as well as  the passing of such notables as Frank Sinatra, Phil Hartman, and Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, to name but a few.  And, of these, Jackie O passed away the same year as my mother, but a couple of weeks earlier. Jackie’s life was celebrated with scores of magazine special editions that came out in the days following her death, and I went out and purchased a few.  I grieved for Caroline Kennedy who, like me, was still in her thirties, as I felt a connection with her that dated back to our childhood years, when she was in the White House and I was playing hopscotch in Queens.

JFK & Jackie, circa 1960. Photographed by Frank Fallaci.

But no sooner did I learn of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis’ passing, that my own mother had a seizure and fell, hitting her head hard on the bathroom floor.  Brain dead, was the verdict upon arriving at the hospital in the early hours of Memorial Day. I was awoken by a call from my sister telling me the news.  Not sure what to do, my sister’s words sprung me into action:  “Come. You need to get on a plane and come.”

I flew out the next day and on the way there, I wrote a poem for my mother, not realizing that this poem would end up becoming the eulogy and that I would be the one to read it.  The words poured out of me, along with my tears and pain, and when it was finished, five pages later, I was devoid of any feeling except one:  The moment in my life that I had dreaded most had arrived—I had lost my mother.

Unlike for Jackie, there was no televised funeral, no dignitaries in attendance.  But there were a lot of friends and family, and even come cousins and one of her sisters, who flew in from Caracas for the occasion.  Together, we shared our sorrow, love and relief.  Relief that the Alzheimer’s could get to her no more, and could not frazzle her brain any further.

The week is mostly a blur now, but I have fleeting memories. Of seeing folks I hadn’t seen since I was a kid in Queens. Of posing for pictures with my siblings and playing in the front yard with my nieces. Of collapsing twice, under the weight of my grief—once upon saying goodbye to my brain dead mother in her hospital room, and once while on a walk with friends.

I remember sitting in the office of the funeral director, going through the motions of choosing everything from the casket to the service, and how, at the last minute, one of my brothers insisted on buying a wooden cross to put in the casket, tucked into her folded hands. I remember the funeral procession and how the police escorts were able to control the traffic lights so that they stayed green for us all the way to the church. I recall, too, not being able to console my father, and arguing with my sister over what flavor ice cream to buy for the wake. Finally, I remember placing a copy of the poem I’d written into my mother’s casket, and wondering whether Caroline Kennedy was faring any better.

Since then, I brace myself at the start of May.  For me, it is a month of reflection, starting with the feelings elicited by Mother’s Day. During the month, I quietly remember Jackie, Frank Sinatra, and Phil Hartman (who was tragically murdered by his wife), who each contributed greatly to this world and were favorites of ours.  And when Memorial Day weekend rolls around once again, my brain compels me to relive that  time, 17 years ago. Which is when it hits me:  May must be a hard month for Caroline, too.

So I leave you today with an excerpt from the poem I wrote for my mother.

There is so much more I want to say:

I want to thank her for showing me the moon, the stars,

For making a romantic out of me,

A Dreamer.

For taking me into her garden of creativity,

Filled with roses, tulips, pussy willows,

Lush with life and grace,

For taking me to story hour at the library,

Encouraging me to read, to discover,

To Feel

The Wonders of my youth…the unexpected possibilities,

Amazing me time and again,

Over and over,

With her passionate love and devotion,

Strength and resilience.

For forgiving me my rebellion, my trespasses—

Sometimes frightening, sometimes maddening—

For allowing me to pursue my own life on my own terms.

For loving me–Right or Wrong.

Before the Alzheimer’s began to take her from us,

Mercilessly, relentlessly.

Before she lost her memory, her identity,

I can remember her.

My Mother.

My Selfless, Fearless, Loving Mother

I want to thank her now but I know,

I can never thank her enough,

Yet I want to thank her,

For to me she is still the most beautiful mother in the world.