Grandmothers

Recently, in an online Zoom class, the discussion went to “What’s a good story you’d like to share about your relationship with one of your grandfathers?”

I came up with zilch! Good stories about either one of my grandfathers’ relationship to me were non-existent. This wasn’t the first time where I felt a longing for a grandfather (remember Heidi and her grandfather in the Swiss Alps). My Irish grandfather on my father’s side was an alcoholic for most of his life. I have a sad image of him slumped in an old upholstered chair staring out the window from the second story of his house in Bernal Heights. I remember someone saying that he had only six teeth left, his hair was white and sparse and he had nothing to say to a little girl. The other Grandfather, the Italian one, would slip out of the house rather quickly when my parents arrived with their nine children in tow. He had a beautiful garden out back in the open fields of Mountain View and I only remember being allowed to go out there a few times. He wore a beat up hat and overalls. I understand that he was an accountant and wore a suit during the work week.

However, I do have memories of my grandmothers. The Irish/German Grandmother on my father’s side was diabetic. She tucked boxes of chocolate in drawers, cabinets, under beds. One week she would come to visit and her legs would be swollen with fluids; the next week, she twirled her skirt and ta-da, skinny legs. She once gave me a pink and purple feather duster. I guess she knew that I was one of the little serfs in my parent’s house. That’s how I thought of us at times, like a feudal system. We, the children, the serfs, had to do the work to keep the kingdom thriving. I have other memories of her, Lou short for Louise.

My Italian Grandmother Anna was born in Palermo and she was brought to America with her brother and parents when she was six months old…Ellis Island. She is the one I witnessed into her old age…she lived to be ninety-one years old. As a girl, I didn’t feel either favored or disfavored by her. When she pronounced my given name of CHRISTINE, it sounded stern to my ears. I was usually Chrissie. She was an authoritarian figure, the matriarch. I got the impression that my grandfather was the submissive one. She was groomed by her mother to be an opera singer. She did sing in some of the churches in San Francisco. The family had moved from the east coast to the west coast. Those stories are sketchy.

One year, I bought a cassette recorder. Two of my brothers and I thought it would be a good idea to interview Grandma especially in regards to our Italian lineage. She was in her late eighties at the time. I have those tapes to this day and have made copies for family members. When we showed up on her doorstep, her greeting would sound so weak…”I have nothing to say really. I live the life of a recluse.” By the end of the conversation, her voice had regained the old strength and she was once again the final authority on everything, the matriarch that we remembered.

My grandparents, I can only guess at what life stories, traumas and dreams they did not disclose that affect me and the future generations in this lineage?

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So do you have stories of your relationship with your grandparents? How do you preserve them or pass them on?

In Retrospect (1)

The next two posts offer poems that revisit the past to inspire present day writing.  At any stage of life, the past might have a new lens through which we view it.  Memories, good and bad, can become foggy, blurred or even dreamlike in retrospect.  Some things STAND OUT while others fade into oblivion.

Beneath the Shadow of the Freeway
by Lorna Dee Cervantes

We were a woman family:
Grandma, our innocent Queen;
Mama, the Swift Knight, Fearless Warrior.
Mama wanted to be Princess instead.
I know that.  Even now she dreams of taffeta
and foot-high tiaras.

Myself:  I could never decide
So I turned to books, those staunch, upright men.
I became Scribe:  Translator of Foreign Mail,
interpreting letters from the government, notices
of dissolved marriages and Welfare stipulations.
I paid the bills, did light man-work, fixed faucets,
insured everything
against all leaks.

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How very real!  I love this poem.  I love where it takes me and who I meet!

Writing Prompt:
How about writing a copycat poem here?  Choose one of your ancestors and in the first stanza, disclose some of your observations about him or her. When you think of him or her, what thoughts pop up immediately?  Go with these.
In the second stanza, shift to yourself and relate something about yourself (back then).  What was the role you played in that family?  Describe it poetically.

gessoface4

with relish

with relish
© by Christine O’Brien

in the land of white bread

and red kool-aid

where secular thoughts

are proscribed

there’s bologna sandwiches

for lunch

and mom makes

chicken pot pie for dinner

we believe what they teach

at sunday school

and that the president is

a wise leader who really

cares about his constituents

where blind trust is rampant

and you get only one true love

the happily ever after package deal

hollywood endings are gospel

i swallowed such lies

with Relish

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Writing Prompt:
Preview the landscape of your childhood.  List a few memories that quickly come to mind–the ones that generally symbolize something that seemed to be true then or that you wanted to believe.  Let any of these memories be the prompt.  Write a poem or prose following this lead.  “Present the thing”, that is the experience and within it, guide the reader to the feeling.

Note:  What is the feeling behind my poem?  I would say it is “cynicism”.

flower

Remember Your Body (part one)

Today, let’s begin with a…

WRITING PROMPT (1):
Sheila Bender, poet and writer, reminds us that “The body is the starting place for what we know.”

How do you interpret this quote (from Sheila Bender’s book, Writing Personal Poetry)? Write for twenty minutes. When you feel satisfied with your first writing, ask yourself “Is there anything else that wants to be said?”  If so, write some more.

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In our times, we hear talk of “cellular memory” or “body memory”.  Some say this is fictitious, an unproved theory.  My body has proven itself to be a wise guide. My body brought the awareness of early trauma to the surface of my psyche before I was cognitively conscious of it.  Then the work of healing began.  In laywoman’s terms, “body memory” acknowledges that the body has stored life experiences in its organs, bones, tissues and cells.  It can also refer to generational trauma that our ancestors carried in their cells which was passed onto us as their children. Without getting scientific (I don’t have that background), I’ve found that my body holds many stories and memories along with the old trauma. Something that many can identify with is when you get goose bumps or when suddenly you have an upset stomach in a tense situation. The body recognizes something and reacts.

In this regard then, the body is a field to be mined, a point of entry for your writing. Over the years, I have mined my body as a means to understand and heal myself and to integrate what has, in some way, been disowned.

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WRITING PROMPT (2):

Try this if you like, choose one part of your body (women sometimes choose their hips)–and give it a voice to tell its story.

Poem by Lucille Clifton entitled Homage to My Hips

“These hips are big hips.

they need space to 

move around in.

They don’t fit into little

petty places. these hips

are free hips.

They don’t like to be held back.

These hips have never been enslaved,

they go where they want to go 

They do what they want to do. 

These hips are mighty hips.

These hips are magic hips. 

I have known them

to put a spell on a man and 

spin him like a top.”

Today, thank your body.