Saturday, May 26, 2012

A Different Sort of Memorial Day Parade

I almost always attend a Memorial Day parade. Last year I walked to the end of my street and watched a modest assembly of veteran and active servicemen and women pass by, along with town officials, school bands, and a variety of children sports and service groups, honoring the day.
I expect to watch pretty much the same retinue from the same corner in a couple of days – Memorial Day 2012, but tonight I will attend a different sort of parade – a parade of poems – at a Memorial Day reading at The Buttonwood Tree in Middletown, CT.

Yes, you heard right -  a Memorial Day Weekend poetry reading including works by U.S. military veterans and featuring the work of Michael Lepore and Lisa Siedlarz.

I’m familiar with Lisa’s debut collection I Dream My Brother Plays Baseball, about her brother’s life as a soldier in Afghanistan, published by Clemson University in 2009. Her powerful and varied points of view emerge through three sections: Sister speaks, Brother speaks, and Pictures speak. The collection brought the climate, conditions, cause, and calamity of the war to me as no news story could.
Last year Lisa followed I Dream My Brother Plays Baseball with What We Sign Up For: War Poems, a continuation of her brother’s experience. In the past she has also facilitated a 16-week writing workshop with Vietnam veterans at the V.A. Hospital in West Haven, CT, and edited an anthology of their writing called A Season of Now. She is continuously active in veterans' causes by participating in public service announcements for Post Traumatic Stress Outreach programs and organizing annual Stockings for Soldiers drives.
I’ve always loved a parade. I expect to be even more moved by tonight’s parade of words, a prelude to which I’ll start ( from the pdf of I Dream My Brother Plays Baseball, available online).
Memorial Day by Lisa L. Siedlarz

Down the street from where Private

First Class Lenzi used to shoot

baskets, his nephews untangle

a flagpole rope from the branch

of a White Oak tree.

The boys hear dribbling and whoops

a pick up game on the same courts

where Uncle Joe taught them layups,

free throws. Untying the knot taxes

their six and eight year old fingers.

Morning sun is criminally bright.

The boys secure and hoist the flag

over the newly installed plaque

in memory of the twenty year old pfc.


My brother’s e-mail tells of a BBQ

just like ours, burgers, dogs, salads.

There was music and wiffle ball.

Yes, he writes, its one hundred degrees

dusty as hell, and I played wiffle ball.

They even gave us a special treat

get a load of the picture I’ve attached.

On screen my brother, red faced

and smiling, holds two lobster tails.

Beside him a whole case on ice,

lined up in rows, a mass grave.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Old Glories

Article first published as Old Glories on Technorati.

I woke up to a heavy thunderstorm last Memorial Day. The morning news reported a few parades throughout the state had already been cancelled; festivities rerouted to school gymnasiums instead. I figured there’d be no fanfare at the end of my street this holiday.

Distant drumbeats surprised me at ten, echoes as light as the ebbing rain. Since I wasn’t expecting a parade, I wasn’t dressed for a parade. The rat-a-tat-tats grew more distinct as I quickly changed into sneakers, jeans, and a floppy hat to combat a drop or two - which, by then, mostly fell from wet trees. The rain had just about stopped. Skies were getting brighter.

I could see a cluster of parade watchers at the end of my dead end (signed “no outlet” these days). I walked passed my neighbors’ small homes, houses built before the Spanish-American War. The group nodded silent greetings when I reached the corner. One took on the role of designated candy-catcher as the high school marching band blared its fight song before us.

Men and women in uniform passed by, vets in full dress and enlistees in camouflage. A Daisy Girl Scout with an expression as bright as her sky blue tunic came up to me, handed me a silly band in the shape of an unidentifiable animal. Then a Boy Scout in khakis veered from his formation to hand me a flag. A full 10X15 inch Old Glory.

“No thank you,” I said. “I don’t need one.” I already had a flag hanging from my side porch. Drilled the holder in myself, yesterday. Recently, I had felt greater pride in being an American.

But the boy in uniform didn’t know about my flag at home. He looked at me puzzled. Don’t need one? he must have been thinking.Before he could march out another stanza I accepted the banner. I waved it toward him. He looked pleased.

The handful of us at the corner walked home together,after the parade. “You missed half of it,” one said to me.

“No, I saw half of it!” I replied. His wife laughed.

“What am I going to do with this?” He half-heartedly waved the flag he had been handed.

“I’m bringing mine to the cemetery. My father was a veteran,” I said. He looked interested, so I continued. “World War II. My father-in-law too.” My neighbor paused. I was the widow on the street. He didn’t expect me to speak of an in-law.

“My Dad was a telegraph operator in Alaska. Even broke a few codes. And Gramps flew a PBY over Panama. The plane’s engraved on his tombstone“

“Then take this, ” He handed me his banner.

“No. You keep it.I have this," I replied,lifting my flag.

“Put one on your father-in-law’s grave too. Please.”

I took his flag and saluted.“I’d be happy too.”

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Monday, May 14, 2012

Sendak's Lessons Go Beyond ABCs

I didn’t grow up reading stories by Maurice Sendak, who died last week. His signature children’s book, Where the Wild Things Are, came out when I was in high school. Just before I graduated from college In the Night Kitchen made its controversial debut, featuring a floating tyke whose pjs vanish in a dream, exposing his private parts. The unclad boy then falls into a bowl of batter - and gets half-baked – before he escapes from the oven.

Neither book was typical kiddie-lit fare. Some adults deemed the first too scary. The second, too explicit. Provocative.

Yet, in the mid-eighties, my son and daughter looked forward to spending their reading time with Sendak’s Max and his wild things. And before my children celebrated double-digit birthdays, they were dancing along to the animated television production Really Rosie, based on the four books of Sendak's Nutshell Library.

The Really Rosie series has a Sesame Street feel to it. Alligators All Around teaches the letters of the alphabet, and One was Johnny – how to count. Calendar months are featured in Chicken Soup and Rice. Three very educational texts - none of which, however, come close to conveying the "suitable moral" in Pierre, the fourth book.

Parents know that as sure as February follows January, B follows A, and two follows one, testy toddler personalities can take the place of cooing babies – almost overnight. Pierre is that anti-infant. He doesn’t give a teething dribble about anything - affection, breakfast choices, clowning, or parental reprimands. He makes this very clear by chanting “I don’t care,” ten times over - to Mom and seven times - to Dad, both of whom leave their son alone with his indifference – an indifference a visiting lion finds quite appetizing.

Pierre soon finds himself inside the lion's gut, reconsidering his world view. He pops out after a doctor holds the creature upside-down – and shakes.

Sendak’s stories will continue to lead children to dark dens of forest and mind. But there’s an escape hatch on every oven door, a way out of the wilderness - and even a beast’s belly. The getaways take the “s” out of the scare he is sometimes faulted with putting his young readers through, and get his impish audience to – like Pierre at the end of his tale - care.
Article first published as <a href=''>Sendak's Lessons Go Beyond the ABCs</a> on Technorati.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Happier Mother's Day

I woke up today, thinking about my mom, gone three Mother’s Days now. I decided to post her picture  -- in remembrance – on  Facebook -  This way, I knew my cousin network on FB would be reminded of her too.

I uploaded a photo of Mom with Dad, young newlyweds, pre- kids. In it, they look as if they do not have a care in the world.   Then I recalled the message a dear friend emailed me just yesterday. Tagged  flowers , the text read: Had a flashback to your mom today. On our way to Auburn, we saw a lawn with almost no green – it was all those “pretty yellow flowers.”

My friend and his wife live hundreds of miles away from me now. But they had read my memoir last fall and just yesterday they found themselves remembering a story about my mother. I’m sure they were grinning ear-to-ear too.

The story recalls when I was eleven years old and my family uprooted from Brooklyn, NY to northern Connecticut. Mom, experiencing her first burst of spring in New England, went to the local nursery seeking seeds for “those pretty yellow flowers on everybody’s lawn.” Dandelions.
You’re grinning now. Right?
That's just the tip of Mom’s deep-rooted dandelion tale in the memoir, a tale that digs through generations of her Italian background.  Writing the memoir led me to discover the layers of that story. My friend’s email reminded me of the power of memoir, writing immersed in memory. “Full of Grace,” the piece about Mom in Staying Alive: A Love Story had not only made Mom present in my life again, it was making her present in others’ lives too, as spontaneously as on a ride through a suburban neighborhood. This unplanned series of events then made me more glad than sad– for the first time in three years – on Mother’s Day. Ready to celebrate it with my own children.