In November my mother recited Thomas Hood. “No sun – no moon!/ no morn – no noon – /no dawn – no dusk – no proper time of day …” Sometimes it seemed she had a poem for every circumstance, and years later, when she could no longer read or watch television, unspooling those remembered verses kept her entertained.
I can’t help hearing her voice this time of year, the studied way she recited poetry, probably learned from grammar-school recitations. And I can see her, too, outdoors with a kerchief tied around her head, ripping dead tomato plants from the garden or filling the bird feeders or hanging towels out to dry, hoping they wouldn’t turn to cardboard by day’s end.
She was born in November, and this year marks the centennial of her birth. In a bit of irony, the Fates decreed I should spend the past year immersed in 1919, as I wrote the centennial history of our local hospital. I have read 1919 newspapers and pored over 1919 documents and imagined myself into the head of a woman of that time, Caroline Hazard, the philanthropist who started the hospital.
Yet it was only recently I made the connection.
My mother was born at home, on Nov. 25, 1919, in a house on Franklin Street in Westerly that no longer exists, taken up over the years by a day care center and various other businesses. There was no Westerly Hospital yet, and South County had just opened its Cottage Hospital.
I thought I should do something to mark my mother’s 100th birthday – maybe post one of her poems every day on Facebook. I pulled out her notebooks and leafed through them, trying to decipher the crossouts and revisions, the notes about which ones had been published, which rejected.
There were nature poems and children’s poems, sonnets and lyrics, all carefully indexed on the back pages. I found odes to Thoreau and to Emerson and to Emily Dickinson, dramatic adolescent poems, adult poems so restrained only the dates hint at what was really on her mind.
But after a while I piled the notebooks up and returned them to their box in the closet, not really sure why I couldn’t seem to choose anything from their browned pages. Afterwards, I felt vaguely disturbed. Maybe she was trying to tell me she didn’t want her work plastered all over social media.
No recognitions of familiar people –
No courtesies for showing ’em –
No knowing ’em –
What a bleak month in which to be born. Her mother’s fifth child, my mother never felt she had much of a childhood. Her younger brother came along two years later, on her father’s birthday, and he was the apple of everyone’s eye. She was the fourth daughter of six children, sensitive and quiet and a little awkward, a perpetual misfit. No wonder she loved poetry: It was a way to say what she couldn’t in ordinary conversation. It was a language she alone spoke in that boisterous Yankee family.
I knew what it was like to come along late, but thanks to her I did not feel like a misfit. In our house writing was in the air. It was on the coffee table (The Writer magazine, with its covers of weird abstract art) and it was on her desk (with its black Royal typewriter and onion-skin paper). It was on the book shelves. It was in the talk at the dinner table.
My journal never sugar-coated November. “The sky cracked open.” “Winter … descended, strangling me with her icy clutching hands.” “Winter has pounced on our summer-spoiled bodies early.” I was a hedonist confined to a drafty house with little to look forward to. I sat at the desk in my bedroom, looking out over the roof to where the trees blackened after sunset, hearing “a faint and distant music of another time.” I was 17.
November means ninth month, the period of human gestation, an odd time to be thinking about birth in the natural order of things. It literally was ninth in the old Roman calendar, before Julius Caesar inserted July and August. Does this mean November was once a summery month, more along the lines of September? Maybe November, too, was once summer-spoiled, and resents those Julian late-comers. But November, like my mother, was always next to last.
No warmth, no cheerfulness, no healthful ease
No comfortable feel in any member –
Mother’s birthday was overshadowed by Thanksgiving, a holiday upon which it occasionally fell. At the five-and-dime called Fleming’s we bought her trinkets with our babysitting money – dish towels or fancy soaps or stationery for writing to her sisters. My father would tell her to order herself something from the Sears catalog or Lillian Vernon. My grandmother, her mother-in-law, made the cake, one layer with sugary white icing, and brought her an apron she’d sewed or a scarf she’d knitted.
After that, we could turn our attention to Christmas. My birthday followed quickly, in January, and I probably already had a list working. Mother’s was swiftly forgotten.
By now November has undressed. I can see phoebes flitting in the trees, and one cardinal suns himself, barely camouflaged by the last of the oak leaves. The bare landscape brings a certain clarity. Parts of the world hiding since May are now open for inspection. But November’s transparency is a ruse. Whatever we think we know at the beginning of the month can be swiftly upended at the end. December brings cold, and change, and sometimes death.
Hood ended his poem with “no fruits, no flowers, no leaves, no birds,” a bit of an exaggeration. The poem is called “No!” – not “November,” an important distinction. Who is saying “no,” and to what? Is he railing against the very bleakness he describes?
Now I can only think of my own sorrows – “no sisters,” one long dead and one recently gone. “No father,” for 13 years now. And, perhaps saddest of all in her birth month, “no mother.”
But just as Hood equivocated about the birds – if anything, they seem ever-present now – so too I exaggerate her absence. She is all around me, in the woods and brush of this old yard. She is in my head whenever I sit to write. She is there in the books I read, the audiobooks I listen to, sometimes the very ones she borrowed. Her voice comes out of my mouth, all those proverbs and strange Yankee expressions and, yes, poems.
So this November, I will say yes: to the cardinal flashing red, to the notebook with its blank pages, to the husband who tarries with me, to the grown children who make me proud, to the friends who never fail to buoy my mood, to the students who surprise me every day with their insights, to the whole world, really, which is endlessly fascinating. And to the memory of Mother, who should never have been next to last in anything.