Saturday, May 4, 2013

A Poem: Giant Dumb Cane

Giant Dumb Cane

We are working people, mostly Irish, our heritage lost in the bleach of Wonder bread, the rattle of September cornfields, the waters and blood hold still in clay soil until they are dust, lost in the whispers of secrets. Our music and recipes for mince pies and soda bread stand in ashes. Our tempers boil without curiosity, our smiles are long and slow as winter breaks into spring, our laughter hangs on the curve of the National Road.

We do not live in mansions, though we served in them, off the ship from County Cork, Derry, or Donegal, freed by our sweat, our persistent rage, our fear of cement forests, we fled to the east. Stopped just shy of the Mississippi and turned back to settle, looking for flatland roots in a place to lay claim to a new past, the future no longer a dream.

My grandfather was a quarryman, a WPA worker, an elevator operator, tall and imposing, quiet with charmed memory, thick white hair, and skillet-sized hands. He journeyed through slow summer days and long winter evenings, patient and anxious, to return to his garden, to his evening news as the Eisenhower skies faded into a new January, never far from his one true love.

We had enough money to pay the rent, homes were for the lucky. Though there was never dirt, not on our clothes, not on our faces, not on our doorsteps. We did not sing. Or play the fiddle. Or go to church on Sundays. The blessings of the Lord were lost at sea; passage killed the revelation with stolen souls. But we were Christians when it counted; at weddings and funerals. We did not starve, but knew the fear of hunger.  There was always an appetite for the latest Betty Crocker casserole, macaroni and cheese, ham on Easter, turkey on Thanksgiving, pot luck at Christmas, family reunions, west to the homeplace, to Illinois, under checkered tablecloths, tradition lost and found on the covers of The Saturday Evening Post.

My grandfather tended houseplants. His favorite sister raised African violets. Rows and rows of purple, pink and white dainty flowers facing west in her green shotgun house, an apple tree in her side yard, wicked high-fingered branches and the ghost of her husband to keep the neighborhood thieves at bay. Novi, was his name, a distant star in my memory.

My grandfather was fond of diefenbachias, tropical plants from Columbia, giant dumb canes, big leaves on spindly frames, like us. I have a black-and-white picture, my grandparents sitting on the couch, the plant towering over them in the background before I was born. My mother had his touch with plants, all my aunts and uncles did too, save one. The rebellious one, the first writer I knew, he grew dreams and drank Dr.Pepper hot off the stove.

My grandfather cut the cane, gave my mother a start. I watched it grow throughout my childhood, leaves falling off, notches scarring rings on the cane, a tree trunk turned inside out, marking my height, my own rebellion, my leaving home and coming back to the beat of my grandfather’s funeral march.

My mother procrastinated cutting the cane when it got too tall. But when she did, she made sure I had the knife in my hand to do it. There are more tales in those leaves and scars of the giant dumb cane. But I have not told all of them, tales I wish were not true. Lies and deceit, betrayal and lust, the other currencies of my blood. Hate has grown into a term of art.

Now the plant is my gold, my family treasure. It sits in my home, happy in the breakfast nook, tall and proud, reaching for the sun. The cane is curled at the bottom, and I have put off cutting it for too long. There is no one to show the way of the past, what little of it there is. I have no children, no kindred eyes or skin to touch the knife. Perhaps the story will end with me, the giant dumb cane will wither, be put out to the trash, the terra cotta pot covered with lime, cracked and useless. One more leaf will perish into the soil, along with our mince pies, our music, and our stories.

Giant Dumb Cane was originally published in The Raintown Review.

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