What must it be like
waiting among strangers
to die?

The past has been wiped like
puddled milk from the kitchen

Vanished like the coffee cup
constantly misplaced, liquid
grown cold,

Devoured like the oatmeal
raisin cookies in the green
glass jar.

The weeping willow where she
and grandad box-stepped,

the apple trees in the orchard
that supplied her sauces and pies
and cobbler:

Now, all are withered and wasted;
small, hard fruit worm-ridden,

rotting on the ground,
waiting for decomposition.

City mouse, country mouse

When I am in the city
I dream of the country.
Fields of marching cornstalks
Gravel roads disappearing over hills
Stands of pine trees by invisible creeks
Queen Anne’s lace along the roadside
Tiger lilies and red-winged blackbirds
Lean yellow cats and fat raccoons
Wind hissing across treetops
Whistling through barn rafters
Spinning and squeaking the windmill
The fragrance of hard-packed earth
Of the burn pile in the backyard
Of the acres of casual green grass
Of the hidden green even in drought
Tractors buzz in the distance
But more often there is silence
A few birds chattering, an owl
Nights so completely dark and silent
That stars willingly reveal their secrets
Scorpio, low on the late summer horizon
Northern Cross, if you crane your neck.
Country skies humble me.

When I am in the country
I dream of the city.
Stone and steel climbing, hoping
To peer over their neighbor’s shoulders
Windows hold staring contests to prove
Wright or Sullivan or Pei was better
Red, yellow, and green eyes blinking
Blue lights pulsing from the lakefront
Warning boats to stay far from shore
El music: rumble, swoosh, ding-dong
Doors closing, now approaching…
The subconscious breathing of traffic
Until an ambulance or fire truck screams
Then fades into the white noise machine
Night shines with millions of bulbs
The golden glow of parking garages
Harsh whites of washed out stairwells
Giant lighted notes from CNA or Aon
Cryptic colors on skyscraper spires
Green could mean leukemia or St. Pat’s
Silent Technicolor pictures play
In condo windows across the street.
City lights comfort me.

Dancing with Loretta

Over twenty-five years ago
On a muggy summer night
My grandparents put a cassette in a beat up tape player
And danced together on the front lawn to Loretta Lynn
The coal miner’s daughter from Kentucky

Grandma and grandpa swaying under the willow tree
Glasses of iced tea waiting on the porch rail
My sister and I chasing each other through the grass
Swinging on the willow branches until they broke
Knocking breath from our bodies

Over twenty-five years later
I sat in a Berwyn bar
Listening to Tom Russell sing about coal miners
And old men in dying southern towns
And I wondered about my grandpa
Midwestern tenant farmer
How proud he must have been to buy his own farm
To start the family auction business
To paint the fresh black lettering on the barn
That read Evergreen View Farm

And I thought about my grandma
Reading grammar books in a two-room schoolhouse
Books that still lined the hallway shelves when I was a girl
Her stories about skating on winter ponds
And fighting with her sisters over dime store candy
And party line phones

They cut down the willow tree after grandpa died
And soon, like ice cubes softly melting
My sister and I vanished from grandma’s memory
Became the strangers at Thanksgiving dinner
Leaving only a branch or two on the family tree

But I wonder if sometimes
On summer evenings
When the glasses of iced tea drip
And children play on the nursing home sidewalks
She remembers that night twenty-five years past
When she danced under the willow tree
With her husband and Loretta Lynn

Where I’m from*

I am from gravel roads and evergreens,
the pine needles drifting like snow banks.
I am from the harvest of apple trees
and freezers crammed with pies and sauces.
I’m from porch swings on summer days
and the lazy buzz of the tractor –
from steep, creaking farmhouse stairs
leading to unheated bedrooms in winter.
I am from the rusty windmill
and the well water beneath it.
I’m from the smells of thirsty corn
before the storm and the moist earth after.
I am from sale barn bleachers and cattle pens,
long-absent cows replaced by hoops and foul lines.
I am from the empty mile between neighbors
and the lone car fading in and out of hearing.
I’m from the county line road – neverland
between school districts and church parishes
and lucky winner of the longest bus ride.
I’m from the land of make believe and amuse
yourself, bereft of cable or public television.
I am from the vanishing rural school –
consolidated and renamed to boost
class size to a whopping 42.
I am from the ruthless practicality
of the farmer, who knows
the animals will be eaten,
the drought may or may not end, and
life happens as Mother Nature dictates.

*In response to a poem by George Ella Lyon.