Category Archives: Sisters

Bewildered: Gray Walls with Boxes


Gray Walls with Boxes

Once I knew words that fit together.
Now my mind still has the answers,
but rarely lets me in to find them.

People who seem to know me
bring pizza in a box
and we eat it in front of another box I’ve forgotten the name for––
a small world with other people moving in it that I don’t know.
Sometimes words appear in a ribbon on the bottom edge of that box
and I wonder if I understood them
if they ‘d tell me what I’m supposed to do.

On the walls are other flat boxes
with people frozen in them
and I think it is my fault.
There is something I am supposed to be doing.
There is something I am supposed to be doing.
“They are your pictures, Mother.
They’re there for decoration—
for you to enjoy,”
a woman tells me
when I ask her
if she’d like to take them
home with her.

I don’t belong here.
My high school boyfriend
must be wondering
where I’ve gone
and my daughter is as confused as I am,
claiming to be her own child;
and then one day my sister comes
and I have to laugh because they all
look so much alike—
my sister and her niece and her niece’s daughter
whom they try to convince me
are my daughter and my granddaughter––
so many layers of daughters
that it is too hard to keep them
all in mind.

But then that floats away
and I am trying to remember
when I am leaving this hotel
and I feel I’m not suited to run for president
although all those people
cheering at that big convention in that little box
want me to––
that little box they turn off and on each day,
sometimes before or after I’m ready
to have it turned off.

And they take me to that large room
where all those silent older people sit.
I do not want to go into this room,
but I am lucky, and we move through it.
Someone’s daughters have come to put me
into a box that moves us through the world
without walking. At first, I am so surprised by it,
then I remember what it is
but can’t remember the word for it.
As we sit in it, the world moves by
too fast, scaring me, and I try
to weep unnoticed.
But then they take me out of it,
give me popcorn
and lead me into a very large room
with many people sitting down
and an entire wall with larger people
moving on it, and it is so confusing, like déjá vu,
for I remember being in a room like this before,
but I don’t know if I’m supposed to
make them do something other
than what they are doing
or if I’m already controlling them with my thoughts
or if I’m supposed to be
up there on the wall with them.
I can’t remember whether these people
on either side of me are my sisters
or my children or strangers,
sitting chair after chair down the long aisle.

Most days, I am so sad all day long,
but sometimes my real self
comes to visit and I think,
how did I become a martyr like my grandmother
and why can’t I stop myself from crying, just like her?
One gray wall meets another at the corner
and I’m sure
that I am being punished
for things I did but can’t remember.

That blank face
in the mirror
has me in it,
but I can’t get out
and for a moment I know, then forget
that this is why I cry
and cry and cry
and cry.


I think the deep stage of bewilderment that Alzheimer’s brings us to is the biggest fear of many of us who are over the age of sixty.  I’ve written poems about earlier and later stages of this dread disease, but  this poem describes as closely as was possible for me the way my sister Betty seemed to be feeling at a couple of different stages of her dementia.  Her delusion that it was she who was running for president the year Obama was elected, her befuddlement over the television and later over the art on the walls, over the identity of family members, and finally her astonishment over being in a moving car and at the movies.  This may have marked the last time we took her out of the care facility where she still resides. I went to see her a few months ago and still plan to write about her present state. Anyone who has a loved one in some stage of this heartbreaking disease will know haw hard it is to imagine how they may be feeling and how equally hard it is to write about it.  That is why I keep putting it off. I’m running this poem again after five years because it seems to fit today’s prompt, which is bewildered.

Double Betrayal


Double Betrayal

Her thoughts in parting were most candid,
her emotions, clearly branded
on her face. They reprimanded
him for how he cruelly stranded
her within their love affair—
how he left her standing there
alone, heartbroken, vulnerable.
How he’d burst her true love’s bubble.
Thus was her earlier promise broken
before a single word was spoken
when she met them, face to face,
engaged in intimate embrace—
that one who was to be her mister
with her faithless younger sister.


The prompt today is candid.

NaPoWriMo, Day 3: In the Market

I had a reading to go to this morning, where I read both “At 67” and “Once Upon a Lime in Mexico,” but you heard them both here first!  “At 67” will also be published in Ojo del Lago, Mexico’s largest English Language newspaper/magazine, which is both in print and online.  Before I left at 9:30 for the reading, I got part of today’s blog post finished and I completed it in the Walmart parking lot, where I’d gone to do a bit of shopping.  Dreading the stop-and-go Semana Santa traffic, I decided to finish it so it would be ready for posting when I got home,  which it is and I am!!!  So, here goes.

I’ve been trying to combine the NaPoWriMo and the WordPress prompts each day. The NaPoWriMo prompt today was to write a “fourteener” poem where each line consists of seven iambic feet (i.e., an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable, times seven.) This form is also called a ballad.

No topic was given, so I took a WordPress Prompt and went to a friend’s book and turned to page 11 and took the 11th word, which was “Should,”  and started a poem entitled “She Should.”  I later changed the title and the first line, so the words that started the poem no longer are part of it. The purpose of a prompt is to start, not serve as an end-all. So, here is my ballad.  Please let me know what you think.

In the Market

Her mother tells her not to talk to strangers in the streets–
to count on all her kin to provide everyone she meets.
But this man has such lovely eyes, so what could be the harm?
And she’s not often left to stray this far from father’s farm.
When he walks by, she gives a smile and looks him in the eye.
He looks away, but his shy smile still gives away the guy.
She drops her basket, but he still continues on his way.
It’s only then that she decides that this one must be gay.

The store where she is going is not so very far,
and yet she takes the longest way that leads there from her car.
Although it should be blocks away, instead it is two miles.
She only has this route and back to practice all her wiles.
Whenever gentlemen of note meet her questing glance,
Her winsome smile becomes a grin, her walk becomes a prance.
Some of the men seem to be shocked. The others move away.
She’s sure it is just married men she meets this market day.

But finally, one man in plaid does not avoid her glance.
She smiles at him invitingly, afraid she’ll lose her chance.
She sees him turn as she walks by and follow in her wake.
It seems she’s finally hooked one. It was a piece of cake.
When she arrives and goes into the store, he follows her.
It’s just so he can meet her, of this she’s fairly sure.
Aisle after aisle she meets his gaze by boldly looking up
while he pretends he’s looking for food on which to sup.

Pork and beans he passes up, chili and green beans.
He adjusts his shoulders and hitches up his jeans.
She knows that he’s not used to this. He’s not so debonair.
He will not meet her flirty glance or even her bold stare;
and yet she sees him peeking when it seems that she’s not looking.
It’s clear enough to her that something’s definitely cooking.
She’s been around the livestock so she knows the signs and causes,
yet a bull just gets right to it and a rooster never pauses.

The action quickens in the aisle where the bread shelves start.
She finally takes the upper hand and swerves into his cart.
The metal baskets scrape and crash and make an awful din.
She does not mind that people gawk. She finally has an in!
He blushes when she talks to him, and she is sure he nearly
takes her hand and flirts as he says, “Pardon,” very clearly.
He turns and walks her down the aisle. It is a date, almost.
Side by side they stroll until parted by a post

that splits the aisle in two and makes them part, then join again.
Though she is small and portly, and he is tall and thin,
they make a handsome couple. She can see their wedding stills.
She will pick the gown and flowers. He will pay the bills.
When they approach the registers, he tells her to go first.
They chat as the checker works. It almost seems rehearsed.

He asks about her family and certainly seems rapt.
The lives of mother, father, brother, sister clearly mapped.
Details others might find boring are engagingly related
and all the while his pupils stay entirely dilated.
He puts his thumb right through a peach, then grabs up a red apple,
and tells her that he’s noticed her in front of him in chapel,
sitting by her sister and wearing a blue hat.
Her sister’s hat was yellow.  He is sure of that.

When she asks him home to supper, he says, “Yes,” in nothing flat.
He talks to all her relatives and even holds the cat.
When her annoying sister talks and talks and talks,
he responds politely–he never even balks.
He finally admits that he’s engineered their meeting,
but still the news of it does not set her heart to beating.
Now it is family legend, the story of this mister,
with an unexpected ending. He was there to meet her sister!

The Sticky Fingers of Things

The Sticky Fingers of Things

Over the past year, I have started to feel so encumbered by things that I feel like they are choking me.  Even my art-filled and carefully arranged house, which I love, has started to make me feel like I’m trapped in one of my own collages.

I once wrote that I like to do assemblage because it is an arrangement that is glued down so other people can’t rearrange it, but recently I’ve begun to feel like one of those objects.  I just can’t get myself unpinned from my present life.  It is not that there is anything terribly wrong about it.  Just that I no longer have a feeling of freedom..

Recently, I was asked what I would save if my house were on fire and I could only save five things.  My answer would be an album of childhood pictures, an album of pictures from Africa and Australia, my computer and two backup drives.  Then I’d put them in storage, buy a new computer and go on another trip around the world with no planned itinerary and no planned start or stop dates.

Why can’t I do this on my own?  Who knows why we let ourselves be controlled by things? Maybe it is because we know we can’t take them with us and so we strive to get as much pleasure out of them as possible while we can.  Perhaps it is because we fear that without things, we ourselves are nothing.  Perhaps it is because we cannot see that the beauty is within ourselves.  Perhaps it is because we fear that others give us value simply because of the things around us.

I once heard my eleven-year-older sister tell someone that she liked to visit her younger sisters because they both had such interesting lives and friends.  I felt so sad that she hadn’t said that she loved to visit me because I, myself, was interesting and loved.  I think this has influenced my feeling for her ever since.

My sister is now in the stages of dementia where pretty much everything has been taken from her.  She no longer knows what most common objects are for, but my niece recently told me that she had been given a life-sized baby doll that she holds and rocks and talks to and that the other day she called it Judy. I guess she waited too long to express any feelings of love she might have felt for me. Now, she is seemingly expressing that love toward an object when all these years she could have been expressing it to the person who could have returned it.  Is this what I’m doing by refusing to surrender the objects that fill my life?  Maybe it is time to find out.

The Prompt:  What five objects would you \save from your burning house?



“I’ve lost my bearings,” she said to me, perplexed. She was sitting alone in her room, piles of clothing on the bed and floor around her—the collapsed small tents of abandoned full skirts, the shards of scarves and small mismatched clutterings of shoes.

She had been abandoned in a world that only she lived in, that she knew less about than any of us who tried to visit her there. For her, even changing clothes became an insurmountable obstacle—a challenge that rivaled childbirth, her master’s thesis, an unfaithful husband, an addicted son, an autistic grandson. It rivaled the war she’d staged against her much-younger sister—the power she held over that sister by her rejection of her. It rivaled her efforts to enter the world again as a single woman and to try to win the world over to the fact that it was all his fault. It rivaled her insistence that it was the world that was confused in refusing to go along with all her beliefs and justifications.

She had barely if ever left a word unspoken when it came to an argument. It was so simple, really. She was always right. That everyone in the world, and more particularly her younger sister, refused to believe this was a thorn in her side. The skin on her cheek itched with the irritation over the unfairness of the world. She had worn a path in it, carving out a small trench so that the skin even now was scaly with that road traversed over and over again by one chewed-off fingernail. “Are you she?” She asked me, and when I admitted I was, she added, “Oh, you were always so irritating. Even as a little girl. Why could you never be what anyone else wanted you to be? You were always so, so—yourself!”

It was my chance, finally, for an honest conversation with this sister 11 years older—more a crabby mother always, than a sister. A chance if she could keep on track long enough to remember both who I am and who we both once were.

“So what was wrong with how I was, Betty? With how I am?”

“Oh, you were always so—“ She stopped here, as though struggling for a word or for a memory. I saw her eyes stray to the floor between the door and the dresser. “There’s that little fuzzy thing there,” she said. I could see her eyes chart the progress of this creature invisible to me across the room.

“But me, Betty. What do you find wrong with me?”

Her eyes came back to me and connected, suddenly, with a sort of snap that made me think we were back in the same world again. I tried to keep judgment out of my own gaze—to keep her here with me for long enough to connect on at least this one question.

“You were,” she said, and it was with that dismissive disgusted tone she had so often used with me since I was a very small child. “You were just so mystical!”

I was confused, not sure that the word she had used was the one she meant to use.

“What do you mean by mystical, Betty?” I sat on the bed beside her and reached out for the static wisps of hair that formed a cowlick at the back of her head—evidence of the long naps which had once again taken over her life, after a long interim period of raising kids, running charities and church prayer circles, and patrolling second-hand-stores, traveling to PEO conventions and staying on the good side of a number of eccentric grandchildren.

“Oh, you know. All those mystical experiences! The E.S.P. and all those other stories you told my kids. And Mother. Even Mother believed you.”

Then a haze like a layer of smoke once more seemed to pass over her eyes, dulling her connection to this time and reality and to me.

Her chin trembled and a tear ran down her cheek. She ran one fingernail-chewed index finger over and over the dome of her thumb and her face broke into the crumpled ruin of a child’s face who has just had its heart broken, the entire world of sadness expressed in this one face. I put my arms around her, and for the first time in our lives, she did not pull away. We rocked in comfort to each other, both of us mourning something different, I think. Me mourning a sister who now would never be mine in the way that sisters are meant to be. Her mourning a self that she had not been able to find for a very long time.

“Oh, the names I have been called in my life,” I was thinking.

“Oh, the moonshadows on the table in the corner. What do they mean?” She was thinking.

The last time I gave my sister a fortune cookie, she went to the bathroom and washed it off under the faucet, chuckling as though it was the most clever thing in the world to do. She then hung it on a spare nail on the wall.

When I asked her if she needed to go to the bathroom, she nodded yes, and moved in the direction of the kitchen. Then she looked at the news scroll on the television and asked if those were directions for her. If there was something she was supposed to be doing. And that picture on the wall. What was it telling her she was supposed to do?

In the end, I rubbed her head until she fell asleep, covered her and stole away. I’d fly away the next morning and leave her to her new world as she had left me to mine from the very beginning.

Back and Forth

Back and Forth

If I should find a time machine, I might or might not buy it.
And even once I bought it, I might or might not try it.
To think about the future always makes me sweat,
for I am trepidatious about how bad it might get.
I foresee live-in bubbles for one or two or three
who merely turn on YouTube for whomever else they see.
Pollution would be too advanced to venture far outside—
the world turned way too violent for most folks to abide.

If I visited the future, chances are I’d see
the death of friends and loved ones—perhaps the death of me!
See our country crumble due to earthquakes or to slaughter.
See Monsanto poison food crops after ruining our water.
Our seasons turned to drought, tornado, hurricane and flood—
by turn made dry or spinning or blown away or mud.
I know there are alternatives, but I can’t help but doubt
that current politicians will let it all work out.

But if I went into the past, perhaps I’d also rue it.
I might just be happier if I chose to eschew it
I might see as a toddler that I was just a brat—
a little squirming dervish—graceless, spoiled and fat.
I might hear that my singing voice was just a bit off-key
and see the looks the others gave as they were hearing me.
If I encountered me, we might just end up in a fight
like ones I had with sisters—and discover they were right!

Yet, this probably won’t happen and perhaps it might be fun
to have another look at what I’ve seen and what I’ve done.
And though to relive some things would leave me feeling queasier,
I know that it would certainly make memoir-writing easier.
What fun to relive Christmases from year to year to year,
To see my mom and dad again, what’s more, to get to hear
all the stories of my dad and this time to record them—
to spend time with my sisters and to show how I adored them.

What fun to watch me with my friends— Rita, Lynn and Billy—
to see when we were children if we were just as silly
as little kids I see today who just seem to be reeling
with energy and foolishness and excesses of feeling.
I’d drive on roads with fewer cars to spots no longer there.
Go roller skating in Draper gym. Fall on my derriére!
I’d have a Coke in Mack’s Café and then I’d shop at Gambles.
Buy love comics at Mowell’s Drug and then expand my rambles

down to the playground monkey bars, where I would do a flip.
Then to the Frosty Freeze where I would have another sip
of orange slush and then I’d have to buy a barbecue.
(I fear that in my tiny town, that’s all there was to do!)
I’d skip ahead, then, many years, to 1971,
and fly off to Australia for adventures in the sun.
Then Singapore and Bali, Ceylon and Africa.
See everything as it once was, when it was new and raw.

Regrets? Of course. I’m human, and so I’ve had a few,
but over precognition, I prefer déjà vu.

The Prompt: One-Way Street—Congrats! You’re the owner of a new time machine. The catch? It comes in two models, each traveling one way only: the past OR the future. Which do you choose, and why?



When my father died forty years ago, it was in Arizona, where my parents had been spending their winters for the past ten years.  They maintained houses in two places, returning to South Dakota for the summers. But after my father died, my mother never again entered that house in the town where I’d grown up.

Our family had scattered like fall leaves by then—my mother to Arizona, one sister to Iowa, another to Wyoming. Both the youngest and the only unmarried one, I had fallen the furthest from the family tree. I had just returned from Africa, and so it fell to me to drive to South Dakota to pack up the house and to decide which pieces of our old life I might choose to build my new life upon and to dispose of the rest.

My father’s accumulations were not ones to fill a house. There were whole barns and fields of him, but none that needed to be dealt with. All had been sold before and so what was to be sorted out was the house. In that house, the drapes and furniture and cushions and cupboards were mainly the remnants of my mother’s life: clothes and nicknacks, pots and pans, spice racks full of those limited flavors known to the family of my youth—salt and pepper and spices necessary for recipes no more exotic than pumpkin pies, sage dressings and beef stews.

Packing up my father was as easy as putting the few work clothes he’d left in South Dakota into boxes and driving them to the dump. It had been years since I had had the pleasure of throwing laden paper bags from the dirt road above over the heaps of garbage below to see how far down they would sail, but I resisted that impulse this one last run to the dump, instead placing the bags full of my father’s work clothes neatly at the top for scavengers to find—the Sioux, or the large families for whom the small-town dump was an open-air Goodwill Store.

It was ten years after my father’s death before my mother ever returned again to South Dakota. By then, that house, rented out for years, had blown away in a tornado. Only the basement, bulldozed over and filled with dirt, contained the leftovers of our lives: the dolls, books, school papers and trophies. I’d left those private things stacked away on shelves—things too valuable to throw away, yet not valuable enough to carry away to our new lives. I’ve been told that people from the town scavenged there, my friend from high school taking my books for her own children, my mother’s friend destroying the private papers. My brother-in-law had taken the safe away years before.

But last year, when I went to clear out my oldest sister’s attic in Minnesota, I found the dolls I thought had been buried long ago–their hair tangled and their dresses torn—as though they had been played with by generations of little girls. Not the neat perfection of how we’d kept them ourselves, lined up on the headboard bookcases of our beds —but hair braided, cheeks streaked with rouge, eyes loose in their sockets, dresses mismatched and torn. Cisette’s bride dress stetched to fit over Jan’s curves. My sister’s doll’s bridesmaid dress on my doll.

It felt a blasphemy to me. First, that my oldest sister would take her younger sisters’ dolls without telling us. Her own dolls neatly preserved on shelves in her attic guest bedroom, ours had been jammed into boxes with their legs sticking out the top. And in her garbage can were the metal sides of my childhood dollhouse, imprinted with curtains and rugs and windows, pried apart like a perfect symbol of my childhood.

Being cast aside as leftovers twice is enough for even inanimate objects. Saved from my sister’s garbage and cut in half, the walls of my childhood fit exactly into an extra suitcase borrowed from a friend for the long trip back to Mexico, where I now live. I’ll figure out a new life for them as room décor or the backgrounds of colossal collages that will include the dolls I’m also taking back with me.

Mexico is the place where lots of us have come to reclaim ourselves and live again. So it is with objects, too. Leftovers and hand-me-downs have a value beyond their price tags. It is all those lives and memories that have soaked up into them. In a way, we are all hand-me-downs. It’s up to us to decide our value, depending upon the meaning that we choose to impart both to our new lives and these old objects. Leftovers make the most delicious meals, sometimes, and in Mexico, we know just how to spice them up.

The prompt: Hand-Me-Downs—Clothes and toys, recipes and jokes, advice and prejudice: we all have to handle all sorts of hand-me-downs every day. Tell us about some of the meaningful hand-me-downs in your life.