Poems & Essays

21 Dec

Gogi’s Christmas Stockings

General/Column No Response

“The stockings were hung by the chimney with care” reads Clement Clarke Moore’s famous poem about Santa Claus, and we also lovingly and carefully hang our handmade stockings on the mantel each year. We reverently remember Gogi, my grandmother, who over the course of thirty-five years gave us this most cherished Christmas tradition. Wrapped in tissue paper for safekeeping, the hand-knit stockings are kept in the hall closet in a box covered with images of Santa. Each year, we carefully take down the box, remove the tissue paper, and hand each child his or her stocking to hang on the mantel in the family room.

From their prominent perch, the eight stockings, each with a name knit across the open end, warm the hearts of Gogi’s family just as the hearth below them warms the home. The stockings bring back memories of the shy, industrious woman who lovingly and patiently made them with her slender hands.

My grandmother’s real name was Mary Elizabeth, and her nickname was Bette until my older brother nicknamed her “Gogi” when he was two. Whenever she came to visit, she would take my brother to the park, or to the library, or to the soda fountain shop on South Main Street, and so the minute my brother saw her walk in the door, he would excitedly shout, “go, go, go,” which later became Gogi. Her knitting skill was acquired when she was a young girl helping her mother and other women knit hats, scarves, and mittens for World War I soldiers.

Exceptionally good with numbers, Gogi was an expert bookkeeper, and this talent may explain her unusual ability to alter or create her own knitting patterns. According to family lore, she found a pattern for a Christmas stocking featuring Santa Claus that she loved, but she altered it slightly to make it even more to her liking. Gogi seemed to use Clement C. Moore’s description in the poem as a guide, for indeed, her Santa had “cheeks like roses and a nose like a cherry.” To make Santa’s beard “as white as the snow,” she used white yarn or, in some cases, white fuzzy material. “The right jolly old elf” on Gogi’s stockings appeared “chubby and plump” with a “broad face and round belly.” Unlike Moore’s portrayal of St. Nicholas, Gogi added a small jingling bell at the tip of Santa’s hat. This became the pattern that she used to knit stockings for her grandchildren and then the spouses of those grandchildren. Her nimble fingers stitched together stockings as family memories were stitched together over time. As each new great-grandchild was born to her large family, she excitedly pulled out her knitting pattern and created yet another beautiful stocking, expertly adding another name to the new sock and to the family genealogy.

As Gogi aged, her fingers became less nimble and her eyes less keen. The Santa on her stockings took on a different shape, often not as round and chubby. The details in the later years became less defined, and yet our lives were lovingly defined by Gogi’s compassionate care and concern. Her presence graced our lives. She shared “pearls of wisdom” as she patiently made “purl stitches” in knit dresses or skirts or scarves. As an involved grandparent, she set the pattern for our lives as a role model who taught us to be creative, patient, and kind, to work hard, and to find joy in the small things.

From the time I was born until the time I got married, the Christmas stocking Gogi made for me hung in my childhood home on the wind-whipped Nebraska prairie. Then it hung beside the stocking Gogi knit for my husband in our tiny apartment near Duke University. Our first child’s stocking hung in a townhouse in Bonita, CA and after our son was born, four stockings hung in a small villa overlooking the Mediterranean Sea in Naples, Italy. Later, four additional ones hung in a split-level house in Washington, D.C., America’s hometown.

Now they hang in a large southern home in a small farming community in eastern North Carolina. As the years unraveled in quick succession, the stockings traveled with us and adorned several different mantels. At Christmas time every year, as they are “hung by the chimney with care,” they are always a steadfast reminder of home and family, and the grandmother who skillfully, patiently, and joyfully knit Christmas stockings, but more importantly, knit a family together with her love.

 

Lori Drake is the mother of six children and the founder and former Headmistress of Roseleaf Academy, the only STEM-focused middle school for girls in eastern North Carolina. She taught the writing classes where she emphasized poetry. Her essays and columns have appeared in the Gaithersburg Gazette in Maryland, the Farmville Enterprise and Daily Reflector in North Carolina, San Diego Woman and the Daily Nebraskan. She previously received three Honorable Mentions in the Writer’s Digest National Competition. 

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18 Dec

Epiphany–POETRY CONTEST HONORABLE MENTION

General/Column One Response

is the day this year,
as it is every year in our house,
that the wise men, Mary and Joseph
and the child, the shepherdess
and the little drummer boy, march from
the mantel back into the cookie tin.
It is the day the ornaments are
stripped from the tree –
the bears, balls, bells, and birds,
the skateboarder and lacrosse player,
and all the angels in their midst,
the day the lights are unwound in a reverse
maypole dance. It’s the day that glitter sticks
to fingertips and needles fall like confetti
on the rug where for months they will be the
season’s lingering gift, along with the candle wax
splattered red on the wall and green on the tabletop.
Today is the day the wreaths and the bows,
the plastic ivy with its impossibly bright berries
and the poinsettias dropping their leaves
are packed away or tossed into the compost.

When the undoing is done, it is also the day
to note the light lingering a bit longer, to think
about miracles. The morning dawned pink
and our star, the sun, is shining. Another
year has passed, another year of heartache
and joy, and we are still here. And today,
is the day to hope we’ll be ok, and that next
year there will be another

Epiphany.

 

Christine Kouwenhoven lives in Baltimore, Maryland with her husband and three kids. She works as Communications Director at Baltimore School for the Arts, a public arts high school. Christine has an M.A. from The Writing Seminars at Johns Hopkins University. She shares poems and reflections regularly on her blog poempost.wordpress.com. Recently she’s had essays published by The Mid, Grown & Flown and the Baltimore Fishbowl and poems in MAW and The Poetry Box.

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16 Dec

Book Review: The Unaccompanied Tour

General/Column No Response

By Book Review Editor, Jennie Robertson

When I was asked to review Laura Monagan’s The Unaccompanied Tour, I first read the excerpt available on Amazon. Those first few pages that described packing tape that “shrieked and shuddered off the roll” found me at a time when I was spending a lot of time packing up my own house. I was hooked. “I’d love to read it,” I replied, “Please send.”

The plot of the book revolves around Evelyn Tucker’s journey to find her daughter, a college student, after a nuclear explosion destroys Washington, DC. A slew of other national tragedies occur throughout the course of the book, but Evelyn’s journey seems singularly blessed as, against the odds, just about everything goes right for her. At first, I enjoyed this serendipity. I’m not really comfortable on the edge of my seat. After awhile, it became so improbable that I was ready to write some pretty critical words about it…but that was just before all these coincidences turned the corner to becoming a little spooky, a little unnerving, in the best way possible! Even a novice writer wouldn’t make everything peaches and cream, and believe me, this story does take an interesting turn. I won’t treat you to all of my theories and unanswered questions, but there were many. (Ok…I’ll tell you just one. Do Evelyn and her daughter actually speak to her presumed dead husband towards the end of the book? I’d like to think so.)

In the meantime, we are introduced to many interesting settings, including my favorite, the container ship that takes Evelyn from Germany to Canada, and a host of colorful characters. Monagan’s strong point is description, with sentences like, “…pleasure craft bubbled along like runaway brides leaving foamy trains in their wake” and “Evelyn swallowed hard at the lean courtesy of the underworld.”

The big achievement in The Unaccompanied Tour is protagonist Evelyn Tucker. Early on when a female crewmember trades places with stowaway Evelyn, their strategy is described this way: “The two women had taken advantage of their greatest asset: the transparency of a woman in her fifties.” It turns out they aren’t the only ones taking advantage of that transparency. The great thing, though, is that Evelyn is the hero of the book not by doing anything out of character but, in fact, by being exactly who she is, a middle aged mother. This isn’t just speculation; in the denouement, another character actually says, “All you had to do was to be reliably yourself.” The book ends just where most action stories would take place, and that is exactly what drives home the point, exactly what prevents Evelyn’s courage and accomplishment from being eclipsed by noisier or showier heroism. As a woman and a mother, I appreciated this so much.

When I say that Evelyn is true to her character, I don’t mean that she is a static character at all. She starts out a by-the-book rule follower, and by the end is a bona fide felon. This is interesting commentary on the nature of law—few readers will disagree with her actions, though I hope they will find them thought provoking—but is even more important in terms of her personal growth.

While I loved most of the book, there were details here and there that I found a little forced. When Evelyn bakes the apple pies on the ship, I wonder what it adds to the story. When a bum asks her for a quarter to make a phone call, I find myself doubting that global catastrophe would bring back payphones. The church family Evelyn encounters seem really odd to me, with their frequent exclamations of “Bless my soul!” Are there people who say that on a regular basis? These details are fairly minor, they just felt a bit out of place.

Laura Monagan, like Evelyn Tucker, is married to a Foreign Service officer. She has written another book, A Strange Place Called Home: My Walk Across America on the Great Peace March. I’d love to know how these experiences informed her writing in The Unaccompanied Tour; I suspect they contributed a great deal. And I’m not saying that this over-the-top tale has any basis at all in reality, but I do find it pleasing that there are just enough details similar to Monagan’s real life to make you say, “I wonder if…nah…”

Laura Monagan Author photo

Laura Monagan is yet another mom who is always writing — song lyrics, professional handbooks, dream journals, instructional materials, and more. When she isn’t working on her own prose, she is often helping students with theirs. She recently facilitated a writing workshop that matched senior citizens with high school students as “Writers and Scribes,” and she is currently working to promote the annual Day of the Book festival in her town of Kensington, Maryland.

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14 Dec

Bygone Elegance

General/Column One Response

I was always close with my grandmother—lots of sleepovers as a small child, dressed up lunches and shopping in the city as I got older. Her house had an elegance, especially her dining room and the china closet filled with beautiful, fragile treasures and mementos.

The journey was long. It started in Japan—my father, a young GI finishing a tour in Korea and Vietnam, looking for something special to send home to his mother. They were purchased, carefully packaged with tissue paper and padded dividers, and shipped on November 21, 1963—the last day of innocence for a generation.

Lots of different pieces and sizes—pieces for serving, pieces for drinking, pieces for main courses and pieces for desserts—all in fragile porcelain. And all in a warm cream color, delicately rimmed in two tones of gold. They traveled an ocean, then traversed a country and arrived at my grandmother’s house—still perfectly intact and straight like soldiers. Five boxes were unpacked and artfully arranged in a cabinet made of honey-colored wood, with glass and delicate metal that created a crisscross pattern on the doors. That cabinet was their home for more than 30 years.

At the beginning they were used frequently. Sunday dinners where four sisters and their families gathered. The adults at the expansive dining table. The children at card tables set up in the living room. Set out with care like snowflakes for the holidays—over turkey and stuffing at Thanksgiving; ham and pierogies at Christmas—where three generations gathered to talk and laugh. It was very traditional; the women conversed and worked together in the small kitchen, going back and forth through the white swinging door to the dining room with bowls and platters of food. The men were sprawled in the small game room, telling jokes and laughing over glasses of deep amber whiskey. The kids played in the basement where there was more room to be energetic—boys with Hot Wheels and girls with Barbies.

The dishes were there for coffee and dessert with neighbors. They were also there for monthly card club where close friends for decades lingered over finger sandwiches and pie, sharing stories of their children and grandchildren.

The years passed. Everyone got older. The Sunday dinners became less frequent—the parents were busy with work, and the kids were busy with activities—extra hours at the office and baseball practice and ballet. Some of the neighbors moved away. The card club eventually stopped meeting—a result of a combination of health problems and no longer being able to drive.

Eventually they weren’t brought out as often. Get-togethers became more casual—paper and plastic became the replacement. It was so much extra work to take care of them. So much extra work to set the table, so much extra work to put them away. Younger people needed to be there to help.

I missed the old times—the specialness of taking that extra effort. I was always ready to help because I always admired the dishes—thought they personified a bygone elegance. I loved the time that they represented. I loved the memories they held and the relationships they represented.

A promise was made—they’re yours when you get married. In fact, take the cabinet and table too—they all intertwined and should stay together.

I got married, but we didn’t have a home for them. The dishes remained safely in the cabinet at her house—still perfectly arranged, but just pretty much just decorative at this point. A faint layer of dust dimmed the gold.

A few more years went by. Things continued to change. While her spirit was still strong, my grandmother became frailer, more fragile. It was too much effort—and no longer safe—for her to continue to stay in the house. She needed people to help her. She needed to say goodbye to her home and move to assisted-living. It was time for me to take the dishes—to give them a new home, new uses, new memories.

I went to her house and stood in the rooms—I was transported back. I was six years old again. We went to the cabinet and slowly took them out like treasured artifacts, one at a time. We talked about how she met my grandfather—they grew up in the same neighborhood and he used to wait for her by her front gate to make sure she made it home safely when she was out with her friends. We talked about the Thanksgiving when my father was deployed and she stood by the cabinet and at the table, not sure if he had been injured or killed in action. We talked about how excited she was when I was born and she finally had a girl to spoil after three boys. As we talked, we emptied the cabinet and gently packed them up in the same boxes where their journey began.

The boxes were transferred to my car. And another journey began—this time to my home a thousand miles away. A few weeks later the cabinet and table arrived. I stood at the table and as carefully as I packed them, I unpacked them. I remembered the order from her house and recreated things as best I could. I stood by the table and though it was like to think and feel like her.

A few years later she passed away, and a few years after that I moved back home. Now I host the holidays and have dinner parties. Gently I pull them out, carefully I set the table. New, wonderful memoires and a new generation of happy times.

 

Susan McLaughlin is a freelance writer living in Pittsburgh, PA with eight-year-old twin girls and a 14-year-old black lab. She enjoys the possibilities of creative non-fiction and is excited to be featured in Mothers Always Write for the first time.

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