I’ve Got the Ring But Not the Story

It’s funny how a little thing can send you off on a tangent. This being National Poetry Month, I followed a prompt to write a poem about something precious to me. Seven pages and some online research later, I had no poem but a lengthy meditation on my grandmother’s engagement ring.

It’s a beautiful ring, which I never noticed before my father found it in an envelope in my mother’s nightstand after she died in 2002. In her perfect handwriting, Mom had written “For Sue.” The ring, which my research shows comes from the 1920s Art Deco style, has a large European cut diamond surrounded by sapphire “baguettes” mounted on filigreed white gold. The band was well worn, one of the sapphires was missing, and the ring didn’t fit my fat finger, so Fred and I took it to Diamonds by the Sea in Newport to have it resized and refurbished. I wear it when I dress up, always afraid I’ll lose it or damage it. Now that I have done some research, I’m going to be even more careful. Rings like the one pictured above sell for $4,000-$5,000 these days. (Read more here)

Holy cow. I have never owned any jewelry worth that much. Most of my jewels are cheap and quirky and won’t last much longer than I will. My engagement ring for my first marriage had such a small diamond you needed a magnifying glass to see it. When I married Fred, I said all I wanted was a gold band. There’s a story behind our matching rings, just as there is behind Grandma’s ring.

I’m bothered that I never noticed my grandmother’s ring when she was wearing it. Now I scour old photos trying to see her ring finger. I remember her dark eyes, her blue and black dresses, her thick elastic stockings, her flat shoes, and her voice—high pitched for children, low for adults, often lapsing into Portuguese—but I don’t remember that ring.

I want to know the story. Anna Souza and Albert Avina were both children of immigrants from the Azores Islands. Both lost their fathers when they were young. Both left school after eighth grade to go to work. I don’t know how they met, probably through one of Anna’s brothers or the cannery where Al worked, where all the women did stints cutting apricots and other fruit. They weren’t rich people. How could Grandpa possibly afford such a ring? Nobody had credit cards back in the 1920s when they were married. Did he make payments at the jewelry store in San Jose?

Was there a romantic proposal? Did they go on dates alone or with a chaperone, as was the old-country custom?

I have no memory of my grandparents kissing, holding hands, or even agreeing on anything, but I was child, a child who didn’t think much about such things. My own parents were visibly affectionate, but not my grandparents. Of course, they seemed old to me, and old people didn’t do that sort of thing. Actually, when Grandpa died at 66, he and Grandma were both younger than I am now.

As a child, I didn’t think about rings. My own small hands were usually stained with paint, ink, Playdough, food, or mud. For dress-up, we 1950s females wore white gloves. Was Grandma’s ring hidden under her glove? Did she wear it while cooking spaghetti or frosting chocolate cakes? Did the ring flash when she gave us a palmada—a slap—when we were being brats?

If only I could go back. I have so many questions. I wrote a whole book titled Stories Grandma Never Told. I don’t have many stories from my own grandmother. Now all the relatives from her generation are gone. A decade after she died in 1982, I took my questions to other Portuguese women, writing their stories and urging everyone to ask questions of their elders before it’s too late.

I don’t have children or grandchildren. If I did have a daughter, I’d like to think I would sit her on my lap and tell her the stories of my jewelry. See this ring? It belonged to Grandma Anna Avina, born Souza. Her husband, your Great-Grandpa Al, gave it to her when they got engaged to be married. They were poor, but he found a way to buy it.

Both of their families came from the Azores, beautiful islands in the Atlantic Ocean full of green fields, black and white cows, lava rocks and blue hydrangeas. It was hard to make much money, so people left for America to create a better life for you and me . . .

I wouldn’t tell just that story. I would move on to my parents’ stories and my own, down to my husband Fred’s romantic proposal and our life together. I would want my children to know I was not just “Mom” but a person named Sue who had a whole life of my own. Just as Grandma was a person named Anne who slipped this ring onto her finger and agreed to marry a tall curly-haired man named Al.

Dear friends, ask for the stories. Tell your own. Tell the stories of the rings.

***

Speaking of stories, remember last week when I had trouble with the apple pie? A few days later, I decided to make the cookies from the recipe on the back of the whole wheat flour bag. Somehow, I mixed up my measurements. I was supposed use 1 3/4 cup flour and 3/4 cup brown sugar, but I put in 1 3/4 cup brown sugar, way too much. I didn’t realize it until I was about to mix in the flour. Now what could I do? You can’t unmix the sugar from the eggs and butter. I was out of butter so I couldn’t double the recipe.

Knowing I’d probably have to throw the whole mess away, I added more flour and another egg, shaped the dough into circles and baked them. Guess what? The cookies were delicious. A miracle.

Stay tuned for further misadventures in the kitchen.

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I’m Not Going Anywhere, But My Schedule is Full

I’ve never been so stir-crazy in my life. I want to get in my car and go somewhere, eat out, stay in motels, swim, work out at a gym, sip a beer while listening to live music, write in a coffee shop, and eat donuts with my friends after Mass. I want to sit in someone else’s house or ride in someone else’s car. I want to go into the vet’s office with my dog and to sing to my friends at the nursing homes. I want to jam with my musician friends. I’m so sick of Netflix and Zoom I could scream.

My calendar is loaded with events, nearly all of them online. The photo shows the Post-It version. I have the same information on my Google calendar, but I like to be able to see what’s coming up. I get great satisfaction out of peeling off a note and throwing it away once the activity is over.

Yesterday, I spent four and a half hours in Zoom meetings, first a reading for the upcoming issue of Presence, a Catholic poetry journal in which I’m blessed to have a poem. We had a wonderful group of poets from all over the United States. In normal times, Presence’s in-person readings are usually done on the East Coast, and I would not have been there. It was an honor.

That was followed up by an Oregon Poetry Association board meeting. We had a lot to talk about: money, membership, publications, and online events for the upcoming months. Stay tuned for information about readings in March and weekly workshops during April, National Poetry Month.

It was all good stuff, but I kept looking out my window at the almost-sunny afternoon that I was missing. Like my restless dog sighing in the doorway, I wanted out. It was Sunday. I’m supposed to be able to go out and play on Sundays.

The schedule continues to be busy with classes, readings and meetings. I have books to promote. Physical touring is out this year, so I need to get the word out online. Tomorrow I’m being interviewed for the UnRipe podcast out of Australia for childless women. Australia! Imagine that. A while back, I was part of a discussion by childless “elderwomen” that included women from Australia, Ireland, England, Ohio and Oregon. Listen here. How cool is that? As a result, I’m selling copies of Love or Children: When You Can’t Have Both in countries where I have never been. Very cool.

I can read my work at open mics or invited readings almost every night of the week. I can take workshops that would not have been possible pre-Zoom. I can go to Mass at many different churches via YouTube and attend concerts online.

And yet, I want out. I’m my father’s daughter. On Sunday afternoons after church, he’d tell us all to get in the car because we were “going for a ride.” Deep into his 90s, when he finally let me or my brother do the driving, he loved to just get in the car and go. Up in the mountains, down to the beach, through the old neighborhoods, it didn’t matter. He just wanted out. We often wound up dropping in on friends or family. In the time of COVID-19, we can’t do that anymore.

I thank God for the Internet. I don’t know how I would survive so much alone time without it, but I sure miss “real life.” How about you?

***

Annie the dog, featured here a lot lately with her two weeks in the hospital with Vestibular Disease, continues to get stronger and less dizzy, although she still falls a lot when she’s not on solid ground. She likes to dive into the bushes and wade in muddy water, and then she crashes. But she gets back up. Her bedsores are healing, and there’s nothing wrong with her appetite. We are scheduled for a follow-up vet appointment tomorrow. Thank you for all your love and prayers.

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Why mess with poetry when it doesn’t pay?

In her book Poetry Will Save Your Life, Jill Bialosky takes an unusual approach to memoir. She pairs short passages about her life with poems that she connects with those times. She begins with nursery rhymes and Robert Frost poems and moves through the poetic cannon to the more challenging poems of Sylvia Plath, W.H. Auden, Adrienne Rich, Denis Johnson, and others. After each poem, she offers information and interpretation of the poet and the poem. In many cases, these are poets to which I never paid much attention, but the poems take on new meaning here. The snippets of Bialosky’s life are intense. She has gone through some hard stuff, but she doesn’t wallow in it. Instead, she reaches for a poem. As she writes on the last page, “[poetry] gives shape to those empty spaces within us that we have no words for until we find them in a poem.”

For Bialosky, life and poetry have always been intertwined. She reads it, she writes it, and she layers it into her memoir to enhance the memories and sometimes to say what she could not say in ordinary prose.

April is National Poetry Month, a time when poets become more vocal about reading and writing these nuggets of thought crafted into lines with metaphors and juxtapositions that infuse them with meaning. We also compete in numerous poem-a-day challenges. I’ve got two new poems so far.

I credit my Grandma Rachel Fagalde for hooking me on poems. She showered me with books of famous poetry from the time I was a little girl. She wrote poems herself and read them aloud when we visited. It drove my parents nuts; they were not poetry people. They did not understand why I was always scribbling in my little notebooks.

But I was a poetry person. I wrote my first poem at 7, something about the joys of Thanksgiving. I often turned in poems for my homework at school. The teachers weren’t thrilled. They weren’t poetry people either. A wooden plaque with Joyce Kilmer’s poem “Trees” sat on my desk throughout my childhood. Written in rhyme with a sing-song rhythm, it sticks to me even now. “I know that I shall never see a poem as lovely as a tree . . .” A good poem, like a good song, stays with you.

Most of the people I know are not poetry people. Few have read a poem since they were forced to do it in school. They can’t imagine voluntarily reading poetry. And writing it? Anything beyond “roses are red, violets are blue” seems impossible and pointless. But look at the Bible. Look at the book of Psalms. Those are poems, too, and we revere them.

The statistics about poetry reading are staggering. We who cling to it seem like a small community of weirdos. But we keep at it.

Because so few people read poetry, poets don’t make much money writing and publishing it. Agents won’t represent poetry books. Mainline publishers won’t publish your poetry books unless you’re Bob Dylan or Maya Angelou. Or Bono. You publish it yourself or get published by small independent publishers that do it for the love of poetry. You send your poems to literary magazines edited by college students or volunteers who edit on nights and weekends, supporting their work by grants, donations, and contest submission fees.

Yet there are thousands of us poets writing and sending out our work in the hope of getting it published. I’ve been doing it off and on, mostly on, since I was in high school. Rejections still outnumber acceptances. In fact, I’m participating in an online group that strives to get 100 rejections in a year. The theory is that if you submit enough to get 100 rejections, you will also get some acceptances. And I have. So far, three poems have been published this year. You can read “An Ordinary Afternoon” in the Winter 2018 issue of The MacGuffin. Read “Widow’s Rags” and “Smoke Signals” in the spring 2018 issue of the online journal Willawa. 

But still, why bother? The chances for acceptance and profit in poetry are so slim they make the music business look like a sure thing. I can make more money standing on a street corner singing for tips. At least someone will hear me and toss a dollar or two into my guitar case. And yet, because poems are freed from commercial considerations, I feel freer with poetry than with any other type of writing. I can focus on writing the poem instead of wondering who will buy it.

Why poetry? It’s magic. In a few lines, you can say so much. You can paint a picture, share an idea, express a feeling that you can’t express any other way. You can say things you wouldn’t dare tell anybody in plain English.

Poetry today is not the poetry of nursery rhymes or Shakespeare. It doesn’t need to be silly or incomprehensible—although it can. It definitely does not have to rhyme. It just has to say something.

I just drove all the way to Tucson for a poetry master workshop. Why would anybody spend the time and money to do that? Shouldn’t I be studying something useful? Ah, but to me poetry is useful. It keeps me sane. Besides, I turned 66 March 9. I’m not retired. I’m always writing, and I’m still doing the music thing at Sacred Heart, but I have enough retirement-type income to go write poetry in the desert if I want to.

Looking at the poets in Bialosky’s book, I find myself compulsively checking their birth and death dates. So many died before they got to my age. John Keats, Percy Shelley, Dylan Thomas and Sylvia Plath didn’t live to age 40. I see the young faces featured in Poets & Writers magazine. Just kids. I worry that I might be too old. But it’s also encouraging to see a new generation embracing poetry.

We older folks keep going. It’s never too late. Billy Collins is 76, Donald Hall is in his late 80s, Mary Oliver is 82. Robert Frost was 88, Carl Sandburg was 89, Maya Angelou was 86,and Lucille Clifton was 74.

These days, you can read poetry online any time you want. Check out The Poetry Foundation,  Famous Poetry Online, or Poetry Daily. If you lean toward politics, especially in the era of Trump, try New Verse News. Or try one of the sites listed here: http://coloradoreview.colostate.edu/10-places-for-daily-poetry/

It’s like guacamole or quinoa. Just try a little. Maybe you’ll like it.

If you’re a poet looking for prompts, there are plenty online. Here are a few:

Megan Falley’s “Dirty Thirty” Writing prompts

NapoWriMo.net

Robert Lee Brewer’s poem-a-day challenge

Take a chance. Read a poem or write one. I welcome your comments.