Remembering JFK and a bygone era …

500px-John_F._Kennedy,_White_House_color_photo_portraitOUR MOST BASIC COMMON LINK is that we all inhabit this small planet. We all breathe the same air. We all cherish our children’s future. And we are all mortal.” John F. Kennedy (1917-1963), 35th President of the United States, serving from January 1961 until he was assassinated in November 1963, fifty years ago today.

Like 9/11 and other shared tragedies, John Kennedy’s assassination is branded indelibly on our minds and hearts. I was thirteen years old then, a freshman in high school. The news didn’t reach us until late in the day. Television and radio were not encouraged at St. Joe’s.

It was a Friday and after our last class those of us who lived on the convent grounds scrambled to the rail station to head  home to our families. Unaware, we apparently behaved just the way you might expect silly teenagers to behave when they are giddy with sudden freedom.  We didn’t notice that the adults on the train were somber and perhaps some were teary-eyed. To us, it was just another Friday. We joked and gossiped and one-by-one got off the train when it came to our stops; one-by-one we were met by our shocked and grieving parents. From them we learned the sobering news and wondered who would do such a thing – the communists? – and what were the implications. We all knew that no president in this country had been assassinated since President William McKinley in 1901, our grandparents’ and  great-grandparents’ time. It seemed unreal.

It also seemed unreal to return to school on Sunday night as though everything was normal. It wasn’t. The girls, the nuns, the school and convent, like the country, were in mourning. The majority of our parents and probably virtually all of the nuns, had voted for Kennedy, though not all thought he was a perfect man (who is?) or even a perfect President. I do remember one father speculating (the Bay of Pigs rankled) that Kennedy might have been good for the time and place in history and, after all, he was President of the country we cherished….and still do.  Respect the office if not the man.

Our own sadness wasn’t reserved just for the “President” and the country. It was for the man as well, for the handsome young man who’d fought in the war beside our fathers and uncles, the hero of P.T. 109, the author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning Profiles in Courage, and the dad whose life was cut short. We were sad for his now fatherless children. We felt for Jacqueline Kennedy too and admired her grace and courage. We wondered what it would mean to have the large, crude and boisterous Lyndon B. Johnson as President.

Those of us who rode the rails home that Friday were taken to task the next week by the nuns for our behavior on the train. Other passengers had registered complaints with the school about our “disrespect.” The nuns didn’t realize we hadn’t known about the murder. None of the other passengers bothered to tell us. I remember standing with our heads bowed while we were lectured. We took our punishment without defense or complaint. Something bigger than this moment of being misunderstood and falsely accused had happened. To this day, my mind can play back the news reports and see the newspaper articles, but I cannot remember what punishment was meted out for our perceived lapse in decorum.

I think after Kennedy’s assassination, we girls began to watch and analyze news and politics more closely than we had before. Among other things the evolution of Robert Kennedy, women’s rights and the growing support for the Civil Rights Movement, the horror of the Viet Nam War, and the murders of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert Kennedy in 1968, dramatically marked the place and the era as one of growth and grief, triumph and tragedy.

© 2013, essay, Jamie Dedes, All rights reserved, licensing for online publications is nonnegotiable and requires permission, attribution, link to this site, my copyright, no modification, noncommercial only and does not imply permission to include the work in the site’s printed collections or anthologies.
Photo credit ~ the Executive Office of the President of the United States and as such in the U.S. public domain

played on the jersey shore . . .

800px-Spring_Lake,_New_Jersey_Beach_at_SunriseThe days were as golden as the sunsets
when we played on the Jersey shore,
dusty and fevered in the summer heat,
the sun fading our hair and swim suits,
the evenings finding us motley, hungry,
ready to ply our grandma’s old tin forks
to Aunt Julie’s mac and margarine. After
dinner we tossed our gritty bodies into a

claw-footed bathtub. Sand swirls settled
where once the tub was white and scoured ~
We’d move on, impish, soap-scented and
clean from the bath to our cots to lay on
worn sheets. We were quick to transition to
a sound-proof sleep, comforted by breezes
lapping at the open windows, leaking
promises of more romp and wrestle days.

While the moon-lighted nights pondered
and kissed unkempt kelp and broken shells,
a cold custard of salty-damp beach sand
looked for us and the dawn and our bare feet
in blithe dance to a joyous morning swim . . .
but these were short stays. Sunday would
arrive, unwholesome and unwelcome, time
to pack our bags and our laundry, our aunt
and uncle – raw-edged nerve – and we kids,
our spirits subdued, our skin browner-hued

© 2013, poem, Jamie Dedes, All rights reserved, licensing for online publications is nonnegotiable and requires permission, attribution, link to this site, my copyright, no modification, noncommercial only and does not imply permission to include the work in the site’s printed collections or anthologies. 
Photo credit ~ Nick Harris, via Wikipedia under Creative Commons Attribution 2.5 Generic license

squeezing a penny

my mother never knew the names for things
the trees were just trees, the flowers just flowers,
but she knew life as a sigh and love as a linchpin
and how to get to work and maneuver in the dark,
she could squeeze a penny and was known to force
tired feet into worn shoes, she could make them dance
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© 2013, poem, Jamie Dedes, All rights reserved, licensing for online publications is nonnegotiable and requires permission, attribution, link to this site, my copyright, no modification, noncommercial only and does not imply permission to include the work in the site’s printed collections or anthologies.
Photo courtesy of morgueFile

The Blessing Is in the Seed

file000479090708“Nourish beginnings, let us nourish beginnings.
Not all things are blest, but the seeds of all things are blest.
The blessing is in the seed.”
Muriel Rukeyser (1913-1980), American poet

In the beginning, when we are children, everything is new and magical and we have an appetite for detail that lends itself to poetry . . .

As children, for me and my cousins, there were trips from Brooklyn to New Jersey. Sometimes we went to Green Lake (swimming) or Parsippany (relatives).  We went often to Paramus to visit my godfather and his family. In the ’60s there were still a few small family-owned farms and some unpaved roads. Back then, the now huge and famous Bergen Mall was a modest plaza. There was a diner with cream colored counters, a slate-grey floor, and watresses in bleached-blond beehive hair and pink lipstick. We ate onion rings for the first time there. They were sweet, beer battered and deep-fried to a crisp golden-brown.

No matter where we traveled in Jersey it was a good time, but Watchung was best. In those days, the population was a scant 2,000. My Uncle Charlie’s house sat tranquil on a hill layered with green lawns, tall trees and orchards. It was at his place during summer vacation one year that the writing seed planted itself in my child heart.

I wonder if that old Watchung home still stands
or has it been demolished by developers building
rows on rows of barracks-like housing where
big maples used to rise to line the roadway
·
Driving up in an ancient V8 Ford Woody, ramshakle
and well-loved, a kaleidoscope of colors greeted us -
The burnished bronze of our uncle’s skin and the
brown-black of his doe eyes and dense curley hair
The azure sky and snowy clouds tumbling down to
top the perfect juicy purple of ripe Italian plums
and the brisk reds of beefsteak and plum tomatoes
The true-green of the too-long grass feathering the
rich chocolaty shades of the well-mulched earth
·
That antique home was pristine white with green trim
and such a busy, welcoming, wrap-around porch,
often with bushels of fruit and vegetables standing
in the company of freshly cut flowers piled and tossed
All waiting . . . for what and for whom?
The airy rooms were waiting too with windows
and doors thrown open to children like me breezing
in from the The City with our pallid skin and eyes
burning to see our uncle and some untouched nature
·
Well-worn carpets, Persian and Arabian, brushed bare feet
as searching room-to-room for hidden treasures and history
I marveled at the accoutrements of other decades -
the water pump, the dumb-waiter, the pull-chain water closet
Each room was a marvel of furnishings, fine wood and hand-turned
Dresser drawers lined with newspapers, yellowed and dissolving with age
advertising corsets, questionable cures, and other ephemera of this
same place in times mostly forgotten except for stale news
telling its stories to the silence in chests mostly empty and untouched
The mammoth tables in the large, white, high-ceilinged kitchen and
the stately dining room with its chandelier and heavy drapes spoke of
more formal multi-generational dinners before these days of greater
mobility and the tech distractions of iThis and smartThat·

The peaceable, sturdy safe-haven of that white Watchung home
matched the steady embrace of its woods and orchards
where a child like me could lie on the hardy ground,
sun blinding bright, browning spindly arms and legs, small body
soaking in rich damp earth, mind yawning, stretching, awakening
Imagination rising in mists of violet-grey shot with silver stories
and flaxen poems finding their way into the pages of a notebook
Such plump-sweet visions set free by that mystical place -
I wonder if it still stands in Watchung, if it remembers me
And how I loved it - I still do

This is an old, old poem with some minor modifications, an update (changing TV for tech toys), and an intro. 

. . . and thus we begin another week . . .

©2007, 2008, 2013, poem, Jamie Dedes, All rights reserved, licensing for online publications is nonnegotiable and requires permission, attribution, link to this site, my copyright, no modification, noncommercial only and does not imply permission to include the work in the site’s printed collections or anthologies.
Photo courtesy of morgueFile

The Fragrance of Ma’amoul

Lebanese Shortbread Cookies stuffed with dates

Ma’amoul: Lebanese Shortbread Cookies stuffed with dates, figs or nuts (the original fig newtons?)

The year we shaped our lives in the redwood forest,
you brought a wounded salamander inside to heal.
We gathered woodsy things, thistles and pinecones.
We made rose-hip syrup, dried the last of the herbs.
I decorated the cabin in an ensemble of earth tones,
a spicy blend to match the fires you built in the hearth
and the scent of the East in the ma’amoul baking. Our
seasonal hibernation was swathed in sweets and books.
Our winter warmed on the gold-dust of our dreams.

© 2013, poem, Jamie Dedes, All rights reserved, licensing for online publications is nonnegotiable and requires permission, attribution, link to this site, my copyright, no modification, noncommercial only and does not imply permission to include the work in the site’s printed collections or anthologies.
Photo credit ~ Lebanese shortbread cookies stuffed with dates via Wikipedia by fugzi under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license

Joy! Beauty! Delight! … an evening with Maxine Hong Kingston

Maxine Hong Kingston (b. 1940), Chinese-American atuhor, educator and activist

Maxine Hong Kingston (b. 1940), Chinese-American author, story-teller, poet, educator and activist

“Keep this day. Save this moment;
Save each scrap of moment; write it down.
Save this moment. And this one. And this.”  

Reblogged from February 2011, updated with a book review at the close

As part of the two-week-long celebrations of my sixty-first birthday, the CitySon Philosopher took me to dinner on Tuesday night at Cafe Barrone. Afterward we went next door to Kepler’s Books – a favorite among family and friends, the local independent – to meet a friend and to hear Maxine Hong Kingston talk about her new book, I Love a Broad Margin to My Life.

“Story gives form and pleasure to the chaos that’s life. By the end of the story, we have found understanding, meaning, revelation, resolution, reconciliations.” 

This newest book is a memoir in free verse, a long poem in effect like the old-country tradition of writing a poem on a scroll. Flowing.  It was occasioned about six years ago by Ms. Kingston’s sixty-fifth birthday. I have already dipped a ready toe into its rippling waters of free-verse. The opening shows promise.

Going to author presentations is one of our nicer family traditions, though my daughter-in-law was unable to join us for this one. Having already read The Woman Warrior: Memoirs of a Girlhood Among Ghosts, we looked forward to hearing what Ms. Kingston had to say. Ms. Kingston is a Californian, born in Stockton, and she is Professor Emerita at the University of California at Berkeley. She is rooted in a family of Chinese immigrants with a culturally inspired story-telling and poetry tradition. This family experience combined with some years in Hawaii and travel to China and elsewhere lends vitality, color, and perspective to Ms. Kingston’s writing.

“Am I pretty at 65?
What does old look like?”

Ms. Kingston immediately addresses the  issues of aging, both in her presentation and in the book itself. She talks about being superstitious and thinking that as long as she has things to write “I keep living…” She tells the origins of the title: Thoreau. It’s a line from Walden that, she says, also hangs framed over her desk. She explains the Chinese custom of “writing poems back” and tells of her dad who would write poems to her in the margins of her books. She is currently translating these for publication, though that was never her dad’s intention. Or so I would infer. She encourages us to write our own poems in the margins of her book.

Ms. Kingston stands in front of us, like a fragile little bird, reading excerpts from the book, delightful to hear in her voice. She is ten years older than me but we’ve lived through the same events and movements: civil rights, women’s rights, Vietnam, Iraq … and so on. She’s lived the immigrant experience. She sounds like a Buddhist, has the Buddhist sensibility: respect for life, for silence, for present moment.

When Ms. Kingston finished her presentation and Q & A, my son excused himself and kindly went to buy two copies for us. We stood in line with other guests, waiting for Ms. Kingston to sign our books. Every moment spent attending to writers of good conscience, talking about books and writing, is precious…even more this one, because I am with my son and the writer happens to be one with whom I share values, gender, and the context of time. She also is a mother with one child, a son.

Finally it is our turn: Ms. Kingston sits tiny and cheerful with pen in hand. She greets us, as cordial as she has been with each reader. She writes my name in bold sprawling black letters and “Joy and beauty and delight” and signs her full name with “Hong” in hanzi (Chinese characters).

Our family friend left early with her copy. I’m sorry she didn’t wait to have it signed. My son and I head for his car, for home, for good reading, just as we so often have over the past forty years. I feel sated. As long as we have cherished children, valued friends, conscientious authors and quality books, we have everything. Life is indeed joy, beauty, and delight.  

_______

July 14, 2013: A belated – and rather mixed – review …

Among the charms of I Love a Broad Margin to My Life is its gentle meandering. It made me think of the way books meandered before the modern preference for brevity and before computers and word processing and the ease technology brings to rewrites, cuts, and tight line-by-line editing.

In her promising opening, Ms. Kingston is immediately engaging, bemused in her self-awareness as she examines questions of aging, appearance, and vanity. As the book moves on, she blends nonfiction with fiction, a few references and viewpoints from characters that people her novels. This long poetic memoir is a backward look at a time some might enjoy revisting and others might want to learn about through the memory of one who was there. One of its strengths is the contemplation of the life of a dedicated activist whose creative work helps the reader see.

If this effort falls short, it’s in the slight aftertaste, an underlying sense that somehow Ms. Kingston is putting on the poet like a new dress and is not a poet in her very bones. It just doesn’t feel organic. Perhaps prose is a more natural mode of expression for her. Unlike other poetry books in my library, this is not one I’d read over and over or even a second time.

. . . and thus we begin another week …

© 2011, 2013, essay, Jamie Dedes, All rights reserved, Licensing for online publications is nonnegotiable and requires permission, attribution, link to this site, my copyright, no modification, noncommercial only and does not imply permission to use the work in the site’s printed collections or anthologies.
Photo credit ~ Ms. Kingston at Kepler’s Books on February 22, 2011 by the City Son Philosopher,© 2011, All rights reserved