“That Deep Eye Beam of Fiercely Gentle Love”
If you’ve visited me at my various apartments and rented houses over the past eight years, and if you’ve asked to use my restroom, you know that I keep a copy of Marge Piercy’s poem “Something to Look Forward To” posted on the mirror. A remnant from my American Studies days during which I read a lot of work by Angry American Women Poets. This photocopy came from some textbook of an anthology, so another of Piercy’s poems, “The Book of Ruth and Naomi”, appears on the right hand side of the page. I’ve been working on these words about mothers and firstborn daughters for a couple of months, and when I cast about for other connections I could weave here, I looked up this second poem. I discovered that I’ve been brushing my teeth for eight years, staring at a poem that lacked its significant final stanza. After talking about Ruth and Naomi’s relationship, the interconnection of the fibers of their beings, the lives they created that have been reported through a patriarchal lens for millennia, Marge Piercy ends with this:
At the season of first fruits, we recall
two travellers, co-conspirators, scavengers
making do with leftovers and mill ends,
whose friendship was stronger than fear,
stronger than hunger, who walked together,
the road of shards, hands joined.
And so, from a front porch in a burning valley on a breezy Tuesday night, I want to use those words to talk about Clara, Evelyn, Dianne, Elizabeth, and Nelda.
I recently told a friend that sometimes I don’t know whether I chose the field of folklore, or if it chose me. Connections between people, generations, situations have always caught my attention and shown me where I am anchored in the universe. My father recently returned from his homeland with a bunch of scanned photos I’d never seen before, and I’ve been opening up their folder a couple of times a week just to scroll through them again and again, the connective tissue more obvious each time I look through them.
The angel-haloed little girl in a yard squeezed between houses in a Polish neighborhood of Buffalo, NY is my grandmother Evelyn. Her mother, Clara, smiling in the background, one fist on the hip of a 1920s dress. In about ten more years, Clara would die in childbirth, leaving behind three children, a husband who worked in a textile mill, and a streak of determined independence deeply embedded in her Evelyn. Evelyn grew up to be the mother in the middle photo, holding her firstborn Dianne sometime just before her husband would find himself on the far side of a world war. The woman on the right became Evelyn’s daughter through marriage in the 1970s. Elizabeth walked her firstborn up and down gritty driveways of San Diego when she wasn’t working as a dialysis nurse. Today I am a year shy of the age my mother was when that photo was taken.
It isn’t a clean, direct connection, but a connection nonetheless, and one that situates me in a pattern of women I will confess that I do not know as well as I should. Death, the entire midwestern United States, and the demanding realities of breadwinning interrupted the growth that could have sealed my knowledge in this connection. The Ruth-and-Naomi friendship that Marge Piercy talks about exists between none of the women and babies pictured above. This is no one’s fault; it’s just how these lives have rolled out. That being said, these women and babies have each had to come to grips with making do with leftovers, scavenging, walking long roads of shards, in their own ways. They also had to figure out, and continue to figure out, what to do with the friendship, or the memory of friendship, that did exist.
I spent the last three days in a training where every self-introduction that I heard began with the speaker’s name and the number of children the speaker had. If you consider the fact that I spend most of my conversational time with single people and English Language Learners, you can imagine how strange this was to me. Now that I think about it, though, those introductions are really proclamations of connection. One of my favorite conversational questions that I heard when I lived in Folkloreland went along the lines of “Where are your people from?” This is not a question that I hear in the West (in so many words). This question’s answer, and the mention of children when introducing oneself, are shorthand ways to say I have people on whom I look with fiercely gentle love, like Marge Piercy said. I have people who have looked like that on me. I have connections where, in their very core, you will find unrestrained compassion, divisive betrayal, utter heartbreak, voluminous joy, the memory of singing, eating, and sleep. Here I am, but there are others, and I am not here if they are not.