FROM THE BOOK
Copyright © 2020 by John Gearen
At the Track
My grandmother came from a line
of lace curtain Irish schoolteachers
in western County Cork.
She managed the affairs
of her American family,
including its investments.
It pained my mother
to see her slide into senility,
but as kids, we laughed
at her confusion
until the day she took us to the track.
I remember the horses’ lathered haunches,
the jockeys’ brilliant silks,
the $2 bets my sister and I placed
after polling our younger brothers,
drawing on my grandmother’s $10 advance,
but most of all
I remember my grandmother,
dressed as if not just for any Sunday
but for Easter.
I’d never seen a round hat
with a lace veil,
never seen a woman instruct her grandchildren
how to read the daily racing form,
never seen her
pressed to the racetrack’s rail,
lifting her lace veil
for a sharper look
as her horse thundered
across the finish line.
An Irish Family Raising
said my aunt
when I skinned my knee raw,
her sympathy clearly fake.
The nine of us learned early
to be tough.
My mother’s dad, Grampa John Burke,
made common brick in a rickety kiln.
He had started his own oldest son John
driving loads of bricks to customers at age 14.
When John once accidentally
dumped a load in a busy street,
Gramp came to reclaim it,
saying just, “Only you, John.”
When I reported for my turn of summer work,
he grabbed with his mitt
one hot brick off the line,
holding it to my face.
The heat singed my eyebrows.
He told me to keep moving at work
“before the sun burns your ass.”
Our hearts went underground.
In Egyptian mummification,
before the body
was embalmed and wrapped,
the organs were extracted,
the lungs, the intestines,
the liver and stomach.
Even the brain was removed.
The heart alone was left in place.
In the afterlife with the gods,
all that matters is the heart.
Once in Marrakesh,
No matter what instrument he used,
the central market
past the snake charmers
and the grillers of shish kebab,
I saw a man sitting alone
in the lotus position.
when another man
came to him howling,
cradling the side of his face,
did I see on the ground
the pair of pliers.
The howling man paid.
The seated man inserted his pliers
into the howling man’s mouth and jerked.
The howling man walked away satisfied.
I had not thought
again about the pliers
until my dentist
wedged my mouth open
for what he called a routine molar extraction.
each piece of tooth he seized
shattered and splintered
across my tongue.
Finally, he dug into my gums,
excavated and showed me
one bleeding root.
“Now for the other root,”
It made me miss
that clean jerk in Marrakesh.
My Mother in Hope Town
My mother would have loved Hope Town,
the barrier island settlement
we have found.
Nothing is available,
so everyone makes it up,
as my mother used to do.
Her father earned millions making brick
but lost it all in the Great Crash
by investing in margin stock.
The next year, as a teenager,
my mother shared one pair of stockings
with her sister,
and to make up for what couldn’t be bought,
created games to entertain her younger siblings.
When I was young,
she gave me raw clay,
fired my creations in the oven.
She made me a Halloween costume so real
I was afraid to wear it home from school.
She directed her nine children
in an annual Christmas tableau,
stern with the actors,
even the ox and the ass.
In Hope Town, the respected hotel manager
makes his own go-cart,
enters it in the annual race
down the island’s biggest hill.
He once crashed it,
but entered again
the next year.
In the yearly golf cart float parade
a local matron won the prize
dressed like an angel
waving her wings
from the front of the cart
like the figurehead on a ship’s prow.
Hurricane Floyd struck the island
Waves threw sand from the Atlantic beach
into and through the houses,
leaving only bare ravaged coral.
Within days after the storm,
someone begged bushels of sea oat seedlings
from the mainland.
The next Saturday,
nearly one hundred people
formed a line down the beach
with their backs to the sea,
planting sea oats in the dune,
hoping the rhizome roots
would hold the new sand
thrown up by the waves.
The photo in the island’s Museum
shows the widely varying backsides
of those bent over, planting.
My mother would have loved
to beg those sea oat seedlings,
to plant them in that line.
Bonefishing with a Brother
Our bonefish guide
drives us full throttle
across the shallow flats,
weaving through the mangrove outcrops.
When we stop, we are alone.
Not another boat for miles
under the wide blue sky, the rising sun.
My old arm reaches for yours,
strong as old arms go,
to steady myself up to the foredeck
to take the fly rod.
The silver fish’s scales mirror
the mottled sandy bottom.
Our guide says, “First look next to the boat,
then cast your eyes away
as far as you can see clearly.
Pick up the slightest motion.”
He poles the boat from his platform.
Only the thrust and suck of his pole
break the silence.
Suddenly, he calls:
“John, cast 40 feet at 10 o’clock. Then
strip, strip your line
until the fish sees the fly and strikes.
Now . . . pull the line low in a sweeping arc,
so the hook sets in its hard mouth.
Let the fish run;
bend your rod high for tension.”
The fish races away
straight across the flats,
tearing blue line off the reel
down to the backing.
The fish stops.
I start to reel.
It races again,
this time to my left.
It stops. I reel.
Again and again this dance.
Finally, the fish tires.
As I reel it to the boat,
I see its shiny crescent form,
its big eye.
Then you take my arm
to mount the foredeck.
I watch you hunt and cast.
After riding back at day’s end,
water now churned by a fresh wind,
we again reach arm to arm
to help each other
from boat to low dock,
soaked slippery by the slapping waves.
Yeats in the Islands
Yeats recommends that we “come
proud, open-eyed and laughing to the tomb,”
and so it is on our out-island
where medical care
requires a ferry to the main island
and a flight to Florida.
Last year I sang
shoulder to shoulder with Steve,
the only other bass
in a tiny church choir.
Steve sang with joy.
He wrote and illustrated
children’s books about our island,
picked flowers from neighbors’ yards
which he arranged for each Sunday service.
Before the next Sunday’s choir,
Steve had a stroke.
Friends ferried him
to the main island,
ministered to him on the way.
His chartered flight crossed the Gulf Stream
to a Florida hospital, but he died soon afterward.
With age comes caution.
Some sell their houses,
move to the mainland.
But others like Adelaide keep returning.
At age ninety-four she swims
every day in the cold ocean,
commanding young men passing by
to help her in and out
through the breaking waves,
proud, open-eyed,and laughing.
Returning North in Early Spring
In the islands,
the warm, wet air is fecund.
Green film forms
inside my water bottle.
Mildew creeps up
We slice open
an overripe avocado.
from its seed
and eat into flesh.
Friends give us
clippings from their plants.
We shove them into our sandy soil.
The sticks sprout roots and grow.
Back north in early spring
on Lake Michigan,
the air is crisp and cold.
Whitecapped waves break
and tear at the ice
that still hugs the shore.
jangle our wind chimes,
bend our Douglas firs,
even faintly move the highest branches
of the hundred-year-old oak.
No flowers yet,
matted grass still pale
on the hard ground.
The Clarity of a Father’s Life
Early on, I envied the clarity of my father’s life.
In the Depression,
the only choice was to work harder.
In World War II,
men his age were drafted,
required to serve to the war’s end.
He led troops across the Rhine under enemy fire.
He returned a confident Army Major,
a daily communicant at Mass,
a family man, a successful real estate broker,
a community leader.
I couldn’t follow his path.
I meant to become a priest
until I felt the Church had failed.
I meant to serve in the Army
until I couldn’t support Vietnam.
I did find one good job with one good firm
for all my working life.
I did find one good woman to love,
a spiritual life right for us.
We raised three children
the best we could.
Now I watch our children
on their third and fourth good jobs.
One has suffered divorce.
They raise their children well,
but I think of the joke about modern discipline:
“If I count to 1000 and you’re still doing that,
there may be consequences.”
They see in me too much structure,
too much work.
As polar ice caps melt,
as African tribes leave ancestral homelands,
migrating over the Sahara to escape drought,
hoping to cross the Mediterranean into Europe,
as the finest nations in the world
build walls against outsiders,
I wonder if our children envy
the clarity of my life.
Maya at Age Three:
Her Mother Puts Her to Bed
“We need to start going to bed.”
“I don’t want to go to bed.”
“You know what we do:
story, brush teeth, snuggles.”
“But first I need to put my babies
to bed with a story.”
“It sounds as though
that will take a long time.
Shall I set the timer for three minutes?”
“I don’t like the timer.”
“I can use my watch instead.
Would you like three or five or four minutes?”
“I don’t like those minutes.
I want seven or ten minutes,
or nine or eight minutes.”
“Well, I can give you a one-minute warning.”
“I need you to help me put my babies to bed.
And I don’t want a one-minute warning.
I need a two-minute warning.”
“Okay, let’s go.”
Your Wedding Hat
We are moving again,
now for a place with fewer stairs.
This time we say
your golden straw wedding hat,
split and cracked after forty-three years,
won’t make the move.
I look back at our wedding album,
the hat’s shimmering brim
framing your smiling face.
I remember your face under other hats.
The broad-brimmed hat you wore
on our honeymoon on the back trails
as you trudged behind me,
sure we were lost.
My Cardinals baseball cap
you wore flat-brimmed in the bow
of our whitewater canoe,
ready for the rapids.
that classic face,
those straight black brows,
those laughing eyes.
I’m keeping the wedding hat.
For our 40th wedding anniversary,
we take again our honeymoon vacation
in a centuries-old hacienda
near the Mayan ruins of Uxmal.
The stone structures are unchanged.
Massive, stately quadrangles.
Temples are thrust to the sky by staircases.
Each step’s riser is higher than its tread is deep,
so from the temple mount
you see no staircase,
only yellow sun in blue sky,
wide green grass below.
Forty years ago,
we climbed the steps Mayan style,
zigzagging surefooted diagonally up and down,
tracing the pattern of the Mayan sacred serpent.
Now, especially in descent,
we use two feet sideways on each step,
body leaning into the stairs,
upper hand poised to grab a higher step
to keep us from hurtling
down the stone edges below.
But still, after all these years,
our weary bodies cup each other at night,
first this way, then that, hers always warmer,
and before that, thank God for me,
her low, liquid voice recounts the day,
her warm brown eyes always ready to laugh.