Erasers

mpm's 1st day of schoolIn two hours the school bus will pull up 100 feet from my door and the youngest kids in the neighborhood will climb on board with their new shoes and their little backpacks. I remember so clearly the day our youngest here did that.

Below is a poem evoking a school-related custom from when we ourselves were children. 

I too had nuns for teachers. I too found myself punished for what seemed to me unpreventable bursts of whispering, day after day.

Once, when I was eight, the nun made me go stand in the back of the First Grade classroom since I was ‘such a baby,’ she said. And once, nay, twice, nay, more than twice, I was sent outside there on the grounds of that convent school in Roxbury MA, to clap the erasers.

Mary Jo Salter takes us back here to those memories or freedom and freedom’s opposite in this lovely poem,  “Erasers.”

As punishment, my father said, the nuns
       would send him and the others
out to the schoolyard with the day’s erasers.

Punishment? The pounding symphony
       of padded cymbals clapped
together at arm’s length overhead

(a snow of vanished alphabets and numbers
       powdering their noses
until they sneezed and laughed out loud at last)

was more than remedy, it was reward
       for all the hours they’d sat
without a word (except for passing notes)

and straight (or near enough) in front of starched
       black-and-white Sister Martha,
like a conductor raising high her chalk

baton, the only one who got to talk.
       Whatever did she teach them?
And what became of all those other boys,

poor sinners, who had made a joyful noise?
       My father likes to think,
at seventy-five, not of the white-on-black

chalkboard from whose crumbled negative
       those days were never printed,
but of word-clouds where unrecorded voices

gladly forgot themselves. And that he still
       can say so, though all the lessons,
most of the names, and (he doesn’t spell

this out) it must be half the boys themselves,
       who grew up and dispersed
as soldiers, husbands, fathers, now are dust.

  

 

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On This, Another Short Day

“The bustle in a house the morning after death is solemnest of industries enacted upon earth…”

That’s Emily Dickinson, just after the death of her mother. You feel the truth of her words when a loved one dies. The hush does lift and the busy-ness begins.

Of course at the time when Emily Dickinson was writing, in the mid 1800s, most everyone died at home.

I was lucky because my one parent died at home too. In my home, right in this chair. That’s her cane resting where she left it. Really I just bring it out on the anniversary. Other times it stays in the umbrella stand in the front hall – unless little children are playing with it.

How comforting it has been over the years for me sit on the sofa opposite and look at this chair!  I feel as if she only just rose from it to get something and will soon be back. (And ah that’s the perspective all right, I realize writing it: the belief that have only just stepped away and we’ll soon enough see them again!) It reminds me of something else Emily wrote: “Dying is a wild night and a new road,” she said – “and we the Left Behind know not one thing about it” she might as well have added.

And that calls to mind a frequent remark by the oldest family member I ever knew, Great Aunt Mame born in the 1860s: “Not even a postcard!” she would hiss disgustedly and for comic effect, she who lived into her tenth decade, stripped of every last contemporary, sibling, and mill-girl chum from the 1880s. Not even a postcard: I love that.

And speaking of postcards, here’s one I came upon while looking for information about the school I attended as a young child.

It’s a picture of Notre Dame Academy in Roxbury, Massachusetts as it looked back in the 1880s. The message-side on the back was filled in by one “Mrs. B. Morris,”  who evidently thought she was better than the Catholics. Anyway it reflects the prejudices of that time and place: “A Catholic institution but a very pretty place,” she said of it as you can see here….
…which in turn reminds me of what young Emily Webb muses,  from her place in the Grovers Corners graveyard in  Our Town: “The living don’t understand, do they?” she says to another dead person in that  ground-breaking Thornton Wilder play. “No, dear, they don’t,” the dead lady beside her says back.
And that, folks, is the understatement to end all understatements – and reminds me of something my oldest child once said to me when she was all of 14, just after her father had said something to me that I found terribly vexing.
“Sometimes I just don’t understand Dad!” I said in a rare burst of candor.  
“You don’t have to understand him,” she said back. “You just have to love him.” 
And so it is with this life. We’re not called upon to understand it, its many partings and heartaches notwithstanding.