Happy Poetry Friday! January is hobbling to its frigid, icy end. It’s been a cold month in Maryland, as the blue hues of my temperature scarf will attest.
The annual February Poetry Project members are warming up for our month of daily writing. This year’s project theme is “Ekphrastic at Home.” Each day, a member of the group will share a piece of art that they own or keep on display at home.
Today’s warm-up prompt is one of three paintings I own by my grandmother, Joy Dickson. A New Yorker, child of a German Jewish engineer and his Romanian wife, Joy was destined to be a concert violinist. While studying at Julliard, she met my grandfather, a percussionist who had moved to the U.S. from France as a young child. His name was Charles Dickson. They married, struggled to start a business together, had three children (my father was the eldest). I don’t know whether she completed her degree at Julliard, but Joy never picked up a violin again.
Still, my grandmother had a creative spirit. At some point, she took classes at Parsons School of Design. I remember her always in the midst of a project. There was the large loom taking up space in her living room, a fabric made of wool and tree bark half-woven on its strings. There was a trio of monarch butterflies from her print-making class, a found-wood sculpture she signed with the pseudonym “Jandelay” so she could ask for — and get — the honest opinions of family members on her work. There was the Thanksgiving we found out she’d gone to clown college. (She was a hobo clown.)
Although she died nearly 15 years ago, I feel like my children have grown up around Joy because her art has always been a presence in our home. The piece I shared today, a portrait of her mother Rachel (known as Rose), was probably painted when Joy was in her teens or 20s.
It was an honor to Joy’s memory to read the poems everyone wrote in response to her painting today. Some people wrote about the deep connection between mother and daughter, as if they knew the story behind this portrait.
My own poem is a memory of the last words I heard my grandmother say. It was the summer of 2003, and she was doing hospice at my parents’ home in mountains.
Come Like Shadows
By Laura Shovan
We circled her like three witches,
stripped her clothes, the old
button-down shirt she favored
since my grandfather passed.
No one had heard her voice in days.
Her hair, once auburn, thick,
wrapped in a scarf to keep
the tumor out of sight. The shower
bubbled and when we three women
pushed her under its stream,
Joy said, “Wait a minute.”
She’d told me weeks before
she was ready for this, but
as the world rolled into shadow,
she clung to its fabric. My aunt
washed her hair and I held her,
and my mother held her. No eloquence
in her words – my grandmother’s last —
but what other demand
could she make as she leaned
out of the spray to plant
a kiss on my bare shoulder?
On Monday, I’m participating in a guest-post at Nerdy Book Club about distance reading groups. If you geek out about middle grade books, give it a read!
Currently reading: No One Waits for the Train, by Waqas Khwaja
Oh, my goodness. You took me right to my mother’s bedside where we washed her hair just before her passing. There is something absolutely sacred in a person’s dying. It was such an honor to be with her. The poem is absolutely lovely. And….even more so now that I’ve seen other responses to the painting. How could all these poets know the kernal of truth in the oil on that canvas? What an experience….and this is just the warm up!
Thank you, Linda. That act of washing a loved one near the end of life is universal. I’m so glad this poem touched you.
I looove poems about grandmothers, and this one especially got me right in the heart. Witches (I noticed the bubbles), shadows, and kiss goodbye. *swoon*
Thank you, Tabatha. My grandmother was a foundational person in my life.
I adore this poem.For my “circled her like three witches” just pulls you in and captivates the reader. I felt like I was actually watching a very intimate and touching moment. Thank you for sharing and for the warm up!
Thank you, Rebecca. It’s taken me years to figure out how to write about this moment.
What a beautiful moment… everyone should have 3 witches beside them as them move into those shadows… thank you, Laura. Joy reminds me of my Grandma Oslund who was always involved in some artsy endeavor… I carry her with me. xo
Same, Irene. I’m very grateful to have had such a role model.
How moving, the poem and your back story. Hugs.
Beautiful, poignant poem, Laura! What a moment!
Looking forward to reading all the February project poems. What a great theme. 🙂
The last four lines packed such a huge emotional punch:
“but what other demand
could she make as she leaned
out of the spray to plant
a kiss on my bare shoulder?”
How powerful these images are.
Thank you, Myra. All true! This moment has stuck with me all these years.
Reading this and holding back tears…
The more I re-read your poem Laura, the more I comprehended, and the more I understood. What a treasure to have this last encounter with your grandmother. Thank you for sharing it with us.
Wow. I could picture this moment in every detail. It brought tears to my eyes.
Oh, Laura. What a deeply beautiful and moving story. We are honored that you shared both the artwork and experience with us. I’ve been transfixed by the image since I first laid eyes on it, and it haunts me. Now it has new meaning. Thank you for this and for the poetry project. We are really flexing our writing muscles.
Thank you, Christie. I hope my grandmother would be pleased that her painting inspired so much poetry.
Laura, this is such a powerful poem. Each time I read it I take more away from it. Beautiful. Thank you for sharing the story with us.
My honor, Molly.
Wow – Laura, it’s a stunning poem and such a tender family story. It’s been special to read some of the poetic responses of others, and then make my way here for the backstory on this painting. What a gorgeous, creative soul your grandmother must have been… and her beauty is evidently living right on.
She was a curmudgeon who couldn’t wait for all of the grandchildren to be old enough to go on adventures and outings. We all adored her.
Laura, your backstory was so full of love for a woman who was beloved. These lines struck me: “but/as the world rolled into shadow,/she clung to its fabric.” I watched my mother in her last hours before death and knew that she was clinging on so her whole family could be with her. There is something solemn and unforgettable about the last moments of life. Thank you for sharing this beautiful poem.
Thank you, Carol. I’m so glad that you connected with this poem.
Here they are—the tears—I knew they’d come. Good tears. Tears of understanding. Tears of gratefulness that you allowed me to share that moment. Pulling myself together, I wanted to tell you, Laura, that I’ve been catching glimpses of the wonderful poetry that’s already been bubbling up with your February project. I long to be more involved, but have been holding back since I’m trying to stay focused on my own ms which I’m now about 3/4 of the way through. My hope is that if I can finish that within the next couple weeks or so, I’ll be able to join in with your challenge at the tail end. Happy poeting to you and all the rest of the ekphrastic writers.
Aw, Michelle. Good luck with your book project. Cheering for you!
When I first read your poem, I was struck by the deep love in it, and after reading the story behind it, the love shines through even brighter. What a lovely tribute to your grandmother. She sounds like an amazing woman. Thank you for sharing her art and a bit of her story with us.
I’m glad you were here to read the back story. Joy was such an important person in my life.
I feel I have a deeper sense of your poem from reading the backstory you shared with us Laura. I like the, “Wait a minute.” in the middle of your poem–slice of life–it’s hard to finally let go. What a wonderful, talented and fun person your grandmother was.
Yes — those words carry so much weight, mundane as they seem.