The Dowry–Part One

Have you done it?  Have you had your DNA tested to see the percentages of your ancestry?  If so, were there any surprises?

My biggest percentage was Italian on my mother’s side.  Followed by Irish on my father’s side.  Then there are the lesser percentages of surprising origins.  And the curiosity around how did that get in there.

All of this to say that a few years ago, I wrote a short story for an assignment in a Creative Writing class.  One can’t always know where their inspiration comes from or how it is going to express through words or art.  Perhaps it is rooted in the DNA and that cellular memory.  Perhaps I channeled one of my Irish ancestors.    There is some historical significance.  It is presented here in two parts.  I hope you enjoy it.

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The Dowry
©by Christine O’Brien

“Cursed we is,” Mum says, “to have so many survivin’ daughters…seven girls and one blessed boy.  If not for young William, we’d have no one to leave the farm to.”

Mum’s voice scratches like grainy sand across a washboard.

My older sister, Kathleen, is getting married in a month.  Mum has saved and put together a dowry for her and one for my second sister, Louise.  The chances of a girl getting a match are next to zero unless she has a dowry.  Kathleen says she loves James Flynn, but love isn’t what’s important.

“A girl has to have something to offer besides what’s under her petticoat,” Mum says often enough.

With a good dowry, she’s more likely to get a decent home.  She should be strong of leg too, not sickly, like my youngest sister, Patticake.  She’s got to be able to get out in the field and work beside her mate when times are tough, which times normally are.

Mum just started putting away for my dowry.  I’m three years from being 18–the marrying age around here.  Mum says she doesn’t see how she’s going to save enough to attract a mate for me.

“Chances are,” she says, “you’re going to have to go into the convent.  Father Cullen says he’ll kindly take you and your younger sisters if I can save ten pounds for the lot of you.  You’ll be provided for then and you can pray for all of us.”

“I don’t want to go to no convent!  I don’t want my head shaved!  I won’t wear those ugly black dresses and stupid veils!” I blubbered.

When I first stood up and said this to Mum, she slapped me hard.

“Be grateful you’re going to have a home and God’s own priests to look after you.  You get to do good works.”

“It’s nothin’ but slavin’,” I said, my nose red and running, a fresh welt on my cheek.

“Who’d want a red-faced girl like you anyway?”  Mum yelled.

Yelling is Mum’s forte.  Forte is my new word this week.  I’ve taught myself to read.  Mum knows I read but it’s a secret from my pap.

“A girl readin’ can make a man feel small,” says Mum.

Mum sticks the bible under my nose and points to the tiny print,
“What’s it say?” she crows.

“And why be anxious about a garment?  Consider the lilies of the field how they grow; they toil not nor spin, but I say to you that not even Solomon in all his glory was arrayed as one of these,” I read.

“Ah,” she says, “the lilies.  Ah well they do not have ten mouths to feed, now do they?  Get back to your work,” she says slamming the book closed and dropping it heavily on the splintered wooden bible stand.

I gather my mending from the willow basket.  I’m the third eldest girl with my share of chores.  The five younger children leave me with a pile of well-worn skirts and knickers.  My brother, Willy, is the worst on socks.  Every day I stitch up the holes in a pair of his socks and every day, there’s two more socks to mend!

“Willy,” I say sounding a bit like Mum, “Willy, can’t you for once keep your shoes on and stay out of the brambles?”

Willy looks at me with a crooked grin and long-lashed blue eyes.  He slowly shakes his towhead “no.”

(To be continued)

 

Poetry Today (in Perilous Times)…1

Wouldn’t every previous generation say that they lived in “perilous times” or as in the Tao, “interesting times” at the very least?  So many of us have a connotation of poetry as  an archaic (if not boring) language and irrelevant to “modern life.”

How do we get potential readers to cross that chasm of calcified thinking regarding poetry to a reinvigorated and revalued view of poetry?  Is there a place in a relatively newly minted culture where poets and poetry are elevated, revered?  That poetry activates both one’s emotions and values could be one reason that it isn’t welcomed in a society that wants to control its constituents.  There isn’t often comfort in living outside the box.  However, there is power in it.

How does anyone realize that within him/herself, perhaps a dormant inner poet or artist lives?  Sometimes the inner poet comes to life out of despair.  Nothing else seems to suffice.  Nothing else calms or soothes.  Sometimes, she is revived through love.  Sometimes, it is when change is forced and the hand you’ve been dealt doesn’t seem to have an open door–poetry can provide the doorway.

Poetry is not only a bolster for the faint of heart.  In fact, poetry is for everyone and especially in these times.

Consider Wendell Berry, novelist, poet, essayist, environmental activist, cultural critic, and farmer, an earth-connected poet of our times.  I love his bit of a poem about salad

“Wash your hands, get them good and clean,
Hurry and find a basket
Let us gather a salad, and so unite
To our passing lives this seasons fruit.”

How relevant is this four line stanza to your daily experience of life?  These days, you better be sure to wash your hands!  Of course, too many of us don’t have a garden to gather lettuce leaves for a salad.  Perhaps there is a farmer’s market nearby or at least a marketplace that gives you that feeling.  However, you gather your salad fixings, to pause and remember our unity to the food that we consume is like a prayer.  Our lives are fleeting and the food we eat to sustain us lends quality to our lives (or it doesn’t)…well, it’s all expressed in this stanza.

Poetry can bring awareness and value to the things we take for granted.  It provides the pause we need in our overly busy lives.  Giving attention to such things makes for a more conscious society.

 

 

My Sister

It’s one month past the year mark of my sister, Kathy’s passing.

Kathryn Jane O’Brien, November 17, 1955 -December 19, 2018.

Over the past several years, I have witnessed my sister, Kathryn, up close as she continued her battle with cancer.  I have seen the qualities of courage, strength and love personified through her.  Love being the constant force.

Selfishly, I did not want her to leave.  Finally, with love, I coached her to leave.  As did other siblings.  She fought the long hard fight with great dignity and respect for herself and others.

Once she committed to Hospice care, her capabilities decreased rapidly.  Over the past few years, she had been managing increasing pain, wearing a compression sleeve for the lymphedema in her right arm, having her lungs drained weekly, thoracentesis.  Her open wound had to be cleaned and bandaged daily.  She hardly complained.

A month before she engaged hospice care, she emailed me in the morning to say that she was a “shipwreck.”  I told her “I’m coming down.”  We spent that afternoon together and a few hours the next day.  For the moment, she had regrouped and was going to go continue the fight for her life.

Then, three weeks later, she was done.  She called our other sister who lived nearby, Susan.  Susan cleared out a room for Kathy in her home.  A hospital bed was delivered.

Bandages, swathing, wrapping, weaving
what battle has she returned from, has she?
The wasteland of her body resounding
reflections of an earth in jeopardy.

How does she heal what seems like a riddle?
Which rhyme does she summon, where lies the key?
In such a haystack, is there a needle?
How does she unwind this tangle, does she?

Is there an apology forthcoming?
or a salve of forgiveness to be applied?
Questions in midair, balance beam teetering
spanning a chasm that seems far and wide.

What falling before this Phoenix rises?
resurrection modeled in each sunrise.

 

 

 

“Truth”

I live in the mountains of northern California.  In early 2018, my sister, Kathy, moved one hour south of me at at a lower elevation.  Prior to moving, Kathy had fought cancer for several years.  She followed her own instincts in treating it.  In January, 2018, she opted for chemotherapy.

Following is an excerpt from my journal at this time.

Angels meet and greet.  Glances exchanged, hearts engaged, hands touch–sisters–when the end is near, the truth becomes clearer.  I couldn’t drive her to her first chemo appointment.  It was yesterday.  It was rescheduled from last week.  Last week, I had a good excuse–a big snowstorm.  My sister, lymphedema in her right arm–swollen beyond recognition.  A warrioress with literal wounds.  A bandage is swathed under her arm and across her chest.  This wound that hasn’t healed–the bandages need to be changed daily.

My word today is truth.  Her word is courage.

I told her that I couldn’t drive her because I couldn’t sit there beside her in the hospital as she underwent this intravenous process.  I wouldn’t have been the best support.  She thanked me for telling her my truth.  If we can’t be straight with one another now, when?

She got her hair cut short.  She asked me to knit her a hat, which I began working on immediately.  I painted her a picture of a woman surrounded by butterflies.  I think that she’s going to make it.  We need optimism.  Truth is, I don’t know very much.  The mystery is here, is in us, is around us, is us.  Nature helps.  I send her daily photos of the nature where I live to calm and center her.  To support her with beauty.

Truth is, some days I think that she’s doing better than me.  Truth is, love is a strange animal–she is always showing up at odd times, giving us opportunities.

Like that night I sat on a log beside my driveway, stargazing.  It was so peaceful, I shut my eyes.  A visiting cat sat beside me.  Out of the shrubbery beside me, a rustle. Opening my eyes, I see a creature emerging.  I can’t name it immediately.  And then,
Skunk.  A few feet apart, we stare at one another.  Neither of us felt threatened.  I watched him waddle away.  Truth is, it felt like love.  Does recognition equal love?

Truth as an expression of love.  I love you enough to tell you the truth.  Is there something that stands in the way of truth?  At least, I can try telling it to myself.  When my parents were in their declining years and the family was in chaos, I began a poem with this line:

“Truth lies in a shallow grave
while perspectives hang out everywhere…”

transformation.

 

“My name is love…”

“My name is love
supreme my sway
The greatest god
and greatest pain,
Air, earth, and seas, my
Power obey,
And gods themselves
must drag my chain.

In every heart my throne I keep,
Fear ne’er could daunt my
daring soul;
I fire the bosom of the deep
and the profoundest hell
control…”

from Don Quixote Part II
by Miguel de Cervantes

L O V E

Love.  It amazes me that we fall in love.  As if it were a puddle, pool or lake.  Do we trip and fall? Are we walking, unawares, and suddenly we’ve fallen in loveInto love?

Everyone writes about love at some point, right?  Do they?  Do you?  How do you define what seems ineffable?  Intangible.  And, has attached to it one’s particular perspective on the definition of what love is.

When you say “I love you,” what are you really saying?

In the quote above, Cervantes has personified love–made it into a person with great power.

This poem, written and read by Edna St. Vincent Millay, surprised me on many levels.

First, the quality and tone of her voice.  Secondly, I had not read this poem before…listening to it for the first time, I felt a certain trepidation–where was she going to land?  And, finally, hearing the conclusion, I felt deeply moved.

Contemplation:
A poem touches us because we fit the meaning to our experience.  Does this feel true to you?  When writing, how do you personify love?

 

Valentine’s Day

heart2

© by Christine O’Brien

The heart wants to love,
that capacious muscle
to open outwards
in trusting embrace
to loosen its tight grip on pain
to soften.

The heart wants to love
free of constraints
of fear, past hurts, rules–
to break apart
releasing butterflies
like an open air arboretum
fragrances floating lightly
on sweet spring’s breath
turning one around
towards love.

♥♥♥♥

WRITING PROMPT:
Do you have a love poem?  If not, find one or write one.
Share a love poem with someone this week.