Cutting Our Own Tree

April_Snow_(2)_(25733256894)Zebu and Daisy bounded forward, pulling on the braided bailer-twine connecting them to an old runner sled.  They bleated small frosty clouds.  The light dings of their bells resonated across the snow-covered hayfield.  Alfalfa lay dormant below.

Dottie and I trailed the goats.  Feeling like a boy from a Currier and Ives scene, I sang jingle bells as we headed out to cut a Christmas tree.  We’d found an old two-man crosscut saw in the basement. I’d never even seen my grandfather use it, so I was excited to give it a pull.

Zebu’s mostly dark chocolate body stood out against the snow.  She was an Alpine-Nubian mix.  Daisy was a Toggenburg with her typical light fawn coat and appeared more like a pale shadow.  They were both does, just a couple of years old.  I was a husky twelve-year-old boy, and my sister a thin eighteen-year-old.  Bundled up against the cold, we both looked bulky.

We’d followed the road along the east end of the hayfield where the Minneapolis-Moline pulled the hay wagons and crossed through the gap of the faltering fence that bordered the Old Pasture, then more scrub than grassland.  We paused by the spring that never seemed to freeze over to give the girls a drink.  Glancing across the logging road, I stared at the glaucous black raspberry briars that grew under a large elm surrounded by leafless honeysuckle and briefly wished it was summer, but the chime of the goat bells urged me to pull the goats away from the water.  We had a tree to find.

As the road veered eastward, we passed the orderly rows of white pines my grandmother’s brother had long ago planted.  They were way too large for the living room, and their boughs too flexible to hold our ornaments. The road turned north again and began to rise.  Through the bare trunks of yellow birch, sugar maples, and beech, I spied the stand of hemlock that grew along the steep slope circling back to the ravine that ran at the back of our family’s property.  We took a northern fork in the road and began to scan among the mountain laurel and rhododendrons along the slope for just the tree we wanted:  six to seven feet tall, less than five feet wide.  It needed to fit in the space in front of the silent grandfather clock, between my grandparents’ color television and the roll-top desk where my grandmother kept wrapping paper and tags from my father and aunt’s Great Depression childhood.

Leaving our sled at the road, we climbed up to the hemlocks, holding onto branches and vines. We discovered an irregular oval area where the snow was thin and the evergreen leaves of the partridgeberry could be seen against the brown mat of the surrounding deciduous plants’ winter debris.  We had discovered a deer bed among the protective low branches of the hemlock. A trail of their two-toed prints marked the surrounding snow, leaving a trail of upside down hearts. Following an intersecting rabbit trail, I spotted our tree midway between the hemlocks and the road below.  I didn’t know exactly which kind it was.  It wasn’t a white pine.  Its needles where too short, and it wasn’t a hemlock, but it was definitely fuller than Charlie Brown’s tree on the television special.

“Look there, Dot.” I pointed to the tree rising near the base of an outcropping rock on the hillside.

“You really want that one?  It’s too steep to get there.”

“Not if we slide,” I said, plopping myself down on the snow and pointing my boots towards the goal of the tree.  I drug the saw behind me.  Dot soon followed.  Just before the desired tree, I pressed my boots down and reached out for surrounding branches to slow me.  I swung the saw away from my sister.

We had a hard time working a way into the trunk past the lower branches, but the intoxicating smell of the needles encouraged us.  We pocketed our mittens and grasped the handles at either end of the saw.  Hhhckk.  Hhhckk.  We pulled back and forth.  Foolishly having started on the downside of the trunk, our blade was getting bound by the weight of the tree.   We moved to the topside of the trunk and periodically pressed its trunk down towards the road.  The tree toppled with a crack at the base.  A stubborn strip kept it attached to its stump. A final couple of cooperative strokes set it free

Rotating the trunk towards the bottom of the hill, we pulled it down to the sled, centered it along the slats with its top hanging off the rear.  We secured it with old twine I’d brought in my pocket. Tired from sawing, Dottie and I guided goats who pulled the sled, happy for them to do the work.

The afternoon had nearly escaped us as we headed back along the road, past the white pines, past the spring, and through the gap in the fence of the Old Pasture.  The sun was setting behind our family’s farmhouse.  If we didn’t hurry, I would have to put the goats back in their pen in the barn in the dark.  We picked up our pace with the house in sight.

We had to drag the tree through the back door, through the kitchen, and through the dining room, and across the living room to get it to the traditional location for the tree beside the grandfather clock.  My mother’s initial pleasure in our find, turned to concern as the challenge of maneuvering an unbound tree through the house became repeatedly evident with each turn.

Finally positioned in the living room, we tried to place it in the stand.  The base of the trunk was simply too wide.  We had to cut off numerous low branches and cut more than six inches off the tree to get it to fit.  Stepping back from the tree, screwed at last in the stand, I sighed in frustration.  Starting two-thirds up, the tree bowed to the right.  Who wanted a crooked tree? The tip tilted towards the radiator pipe that usually went unnoticed.  It ran up in the corner behind the clock to the second story, but now stood out like a pole in a fire station.  I twisted the tree so it curved toward the back and anchored it with a string. I hoped now no one could see the radiator pole. Somehow cutting your own tree didn’t seem so simple anymore.

“Oh, David,” said my mother.  “Don’t worry.  Go ahead and cover the tree with ornaments, run the garland at crossing angles, and tilt the star just so.  No one will notice the tree’s top.  The focus at Christmas lies at the bottom where once lay a manger and soon will lie your presents.”

With all the extra work of setting up the tree, I ended up having to go out in the dark and feed the goats.  I prayed as I stomped loudly in the barn and rattled the feed drum to scare off the rats I feared.  I thought of Jesus as I placed hay in the goats’ manger.

I got back to the house just in time to be my mother’s tall boy to stretch up and adjust the star.  I knew then what I know now.  My mother was right. Christmas is more about giving than looking just perfect, and most about the humblest boy who came to lie in the manger to bring the world light.

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2017 Writing from Inlandia Reading

Since my plans to travel this weekend had only recently changed and I had not signed up to read, I went to the reading for the 2017 Writing from Inlandia today to listen to other local writers and not to read myself.  However, just as the last scheduled reader was preparing to read, I was urged to follow her at the podium.

I shared three of the five poems I have in this new anthology:

Standing Ground

Rest in the Grove

Hope

Two Hollows on a Hill

At Last a Black Lily

“Birdie, birdie, birdie, / calls the cardinal,” I chirped out as I began “Standing Ground,” which features the territorial calls of a cardinal perched above a hanging carcass.  My mother loved cardinals.  She would have hated this poem.  “Why write about such a gruesome scene?” she would have said, but she was not there.  She and my father were interred at Hickory Grove Cemetery just two weeks ago.  My mother passed early in January and my father less than a year earlier.

I struggled to lift my eyes to face the audience.  Maintaining periodic eye contact while reading is a part of my daily routine.  I’m a teacher.  But I found myself desperately struggling to maintain composure as I thought of my parents.

As I read the dedication, “for Benjamin Mileham Stone,” I felt my voice begin to waver.  I came close to crying, but made it through the poem. “Rest in the Grove.”

I hadn’t introduced the poem, but after a deep breath at its end, I shared about the recent loss of my parents, feeling a need to explain my quavering.  The compassionate faces I saw in the audience, many who I have known for years now, steadied my nerves and voice as I read through the four stanzas of “At Last a Black Lily,” which reflects on the death of a raven from the West Nile virus.    Rest and beauty came for the bird in my poem as courage and peace came for me.  I am grateful for the community of writers I’ve come to know through the programs of the Inlandia Institute.

 

 

 

 

One Man at a Women’s Club

Over thirty women filled the luncheon tables of the Beaumont Women’s Club on Sixth Street when I arrived.  “Would you help us with an extra table?” asked Ruth Jennings, the Program Secretary of the Club.  Getting put to work, I immediately felt like I was at a family event where the men had all escaped to another room.

A few weeks earlier, Mrs. Jennings had written me a beautiful handwritten letter in response to my Inlandia Literary Journeys column, The Lost Art of Letter Writing. She had invited me to join Cati Porter, Executive Director of the Inlandia Institute, to discuss the work of Inlandia and share some of our poems.  Written on gray cotton stationary, Mrs. Jenning’s formally formatted letter described her own remarkable personal letter collection, including letters written by relatives describing scenes of the American Civil War and the funeral parade of President Garfield in 1881.

Although in my childhood my grandmother Margaret Stone was a longstanding member of the Waverly Women’s Club in Pennsylvania, and my mother, a housekeeper, had been paid to wash the dishes for that group’s meetings, I had never been privileged to view the proceedings of any of their meetings.

When the women in Beaumont stood to start their meeting by saying the pledge to the American flag as I brought in the last of the extra chairs they had asked me to retrieve from the hall closet, I paused in the door and placed my hand over my heart, feeling like a kid in school.  I quickly joined Cati Porter at our back table in time to listen to the women recite the Women’s Club Pledge as they held hands.  At first I felt compelled to join the women in committing to virtue and service, but hearing my own lower voice, I fell silent and scanned the room.  The youngest were middle-aged like myself.  The oldest, Blanche B. Fries, sat directly in front of me.  At a hundred years old, she told me she still teaches piano lessons to children.  She has five students.

President Joan Marie Patsky, chairing the meeting from a podium at the front, encouraged members to pass a clear plastic jug and give “Pennies for Pines.”  A thoughtful member told me of the Club’s service project, how they collect money to purchase property and to plant trees.  I followed the example of most of the members and emptied my wallet of some green bills and not copper.  A container for a fifty-fifty raffle soon followed.  One lucky member takes home half the pot, and the Club earns the rest.  They asked Cati to draw the ticket for the day.  The winner shouted when she determined she held the winning ticket.

Cati and I filed to the back of the room to pick up one of the antique clear glass luncheon plates with a corner raised ring to stabilize a cup.  Disappointingly, no matching glass cups were set out for this meeting.  I have never dined with that form of dinnerware.

Stretched over several tables were finger sandwiches, deviled eggs, crudités, sweet breads, and fresh fruit.  Back at the table, I pleasantly startled myself as I ate what I thought was a pitted natural olive, but turned out to be a homemade chocolate.  I enjoyed the sweet treat just before I stood up to speak.

President Patsky introduced Cati and I to the members.  Cati described the mission of the Inlandia Institute to promote literary activity in the Inland Empire region of California through writing workshops, readings, and the publishing of books through Heyday Books and more recently under the Institute’s own imprint.  She announced the inaugural Hillary Gravendyk Poetry Book Prize.    Cati read a poem from her book Seven Floors Up inspired by a sticker that came home with her son one day, “Caution Please Do Not Turn The Head Forcefully.”

Inspired by the fine penmanship in Ruth Jenning’s letter of invitation, I began my portion of the program with “If We Stop Teaching Cursive” and “Reading Time.”

Attempting to highlight the range of Inlandia publications, I read several of my poems from the 2013 Writing from Inlandia:   “On Seeing the Cost of Time Change,” “Riding the Flexible Flyer,” and “A Dammed Life.”  I displayed broadside prints for each of these poems with the block print illustrations I had created.

From Orangelandia:  The Literature of Inland Citrus, I read “Wishing for a Ladder” and “Redlands Sunset.”  From Inlandia: A Literary Journey, the official online literary journal of the Inlandia Institute, I read “Creosote,” and “A Rare Night Air.”

I closed with “Two Eggs,” “My Father’s Amputation on Tuesday,” and “My Top Drawer.”

The members asked Cati and I numerous questions about Inlandia and the topics brought up in my poems.  They also spent several minutes in animated discussion of Timothy Green’s Inlandia Literary Journeys column “Poe and Poetic Discovery.”

More than thirty years after my mother had shooed me out of the kitchen at the Waverly Community House and told me a Women’s Club meeting was no place for a boy, I decided it was a great place for a man to visit.

The Letter that Made Me Write

My mother’s failure to write me for three months after she had written me regularly for over thirty years scared me.  I feared I had received my last letter from her.  My Inlandia Literary Journeys column this Sunday, December 14th in the Press Enterprise came from my personal reflections and research into the world concern about the decline in personal letter writing.

Household Tales

This fall ABC’s Once Upon a Time airs for a fourth season along with NBC’s fourth season of Grimm. The captivating power of fairy tales remains strong two hundred and two years after the publication of Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm’s collection of folktales commonly known in English as Grimm’s Fairy Tales. The book’s German title Kinder- und Hausmärchen, translates to Children’s and Household Tales. I haven’t become a fan of these television shows yet, but I remain an avid fan of household tales.

Household tales are the stories passed down from generation to generation within a family. You might consider them microcosmic folktales. Household tales typically don’t have the broad appeal of folktales, but for their family of origin, these stories are powerful. As a family’s myths, household tales often explain the origins of a family practices.

I grew up in my family’s old farmhouse in Waverly, Pennsylvania built in 1876. Stately for a farmhouse, the two-story home had a formal front staircase and a parlor, but the backstairs were never used. I don’t think I knew the stairs even existed until I was in the third grade. I had always thought the first floor entrance was merely a closet. The door that covered the entrance stood behind my grandmother’s padded rocking chair in her office. Most of my Grandmother’s space was forbidden.

My parents, my t1876hree siblings, and I lived upstairs in my grandparents’ house. We always used the front stairs. The backstairs connected to our bathroom and to a storage room. The storage room was called Grandmother’s room. It had indeed been hers at some point, but she never used it during my lifetime. She slept downstairs and never came upstairs. She occasionally came into the hall and whistled to gain our attention. We would then come to her. She never came up to us.

At some point, I had tried to peek into my Grandmother’s room upstairs, but slammed the door shut when I was met with the haunting stare of a stuffed grouse that I can only imagine was positioned in the door to ward off unwanted visitors like myself.

The door off the bathroom to the backstairs was never referred to as the door to the backstairs; rather, it was the back hall. I was sent periodically to the back hall to fetch a jar of home-canned tomatoes, green beans, or sauerkraut. They were stored in a tall cabinet. Until I had grown tall enough to see over the cabinet and could begin to see there was a large dark space behind the cabinet in the back hall, I had never wondered what was there.

I can remember peering over the top of the cabinet for the first time and seeing the steep, dust-covered stairs. The bottom was lost in shadow, like the bottom of a well.

As I remember it, my siblings and I all shared the same story as to why the stairs were closed off. My great-grandmother, who I had never known, had fallen down the stairs. Considered then a hazard, they had been blocked off, remaining unused for decades.

When I told my father this tale when I was in my twenties, searching for a fuller version of the story of why the stairs had been blocked, he told me the story was bunk, but he didn’t have any other story to replace it.

My omnipresent grandmother reigned larger than life in our home, even though she was strikingly short. She watched us constantly, enforcing numerous rules, such as a rule against tree-climbing. When I asked my mother why my grandmother was so protective, she reminded me that my father’s sister had drowned when she was two-and-a-quarter. The household tale of my Aunt Margaret became the following poem:

Aunt Margaret

I touched the concrete
beneath the dirt, beneath
the yew above the stone
that marks the spot without
words.

I knew I was there.

I’ve held her baby shoes,
barely emptied by age.
I’ve seen a few of her dresses
ivoried in a bureau safe.

I’ve even felt the leather
of the fatal football helmet,
but I’ve never heard the story
told by anyone who was there.

My mother says the maid lost
track of Margaret as she played,
and later found her face
down in the lily pond below
the house. They think she

must have slipped, strapped
playfully in the safety
of my father’s leather helmet,
staring at some fish. She couldn’t

have floated like Ophelia,
angelic face up, surrounded by
free flowing hair and a white dress
billowing like a cloud.

The carp must have been confused
seeing the open face of a flower
under a padded head.

This fall before I get enchanted with a new season of television, I think I’ll entertain my children by retelling some more of my family’s household tales. I would enjoy sharing with them household tales from other families. Take time to share one of your family’s stories in a comment below.

Orangelandia

Over a hundred and fifty people gathered at the Sunkist Activity Center of the California Citrus State Historic Park for the launch of the anthology edited by outgoing Inlandia Laureate Gayle Brandeis. Orangelandia: The Literature of Inland Citrus.

More than half of the anthology’s contributors read from the anthology which includes poetry, fiction, essays, drama, memoirs, and recipes.

Reading my own poems included in the anthology (“Wishing for a Ladder,” “Redlands’ Sunset,” and “The Navel Line”) and listening to the writings of others reminded me how much oranges are symbols of the golden dreams so many of us have formed in the fertile landscape of Southern California.

David Stone and Inlandia Laureate (2012-2014) Gayle Brandeis at the launch of the anthology she edited, Orangelandia:  The Literature of Inland Citrus

David Stone and Inlandia Laureate (2012-2014) Gayle Brandeis at the launch of the anthology she edited, Orangelandia: The Literature of Inland Citrus

David Stone and Anne Chaffee

David Stone and Anne Chaffee

Ben and Naoma Stone on their first visit to California in 1996

Ben and Naoma Stone on their first visit to California in 1996

Words of the Witch

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Mrs. Male taught me eighth-grade science during her last year of teaching.  Her bulletin boards were covered with pictures of lighthouses and lobsters from Maine where she planned to retire.  She had taught all three of my older siblings.  Her husband, Father Male, was an Episcopalian priest, so every one called her Mother Male.  However, this tall, stocky woman with short hair, who almost always wore a lab coat, never struck me as maternal, but rather as a clever teacher who made learning fun. 

Oddly, I don’t remember any labs in Mother Male’s science class—we must have had some, but I do remember dancing around her classroom in a mamba line.  Alternating which hands we raised, we sang repeatedly the classification levels of the scientific kingdoms:  There’s phylum, class, order, family, genus, species. Go! Phylum, class, order . . . .  Another day, we circled the room singing twice as fast the divisions of the Metric system:  deci, centi, milli, deci, centi, milli.  More than thirty years later, I sing these songs as I dance around my English students, hoping to convince them of the power of repetitive rhythm as a mnemonic device for remembering material for a test. 

When I introduce Benjamin Franklin’s Poor Richard’s Almanack to American literature students, I tell them of Mother Male and her book of adages.   A renaissance person like Franklin, Mrs. Male enjoyed collecting short proverbs or aphoristic statements that cleverly express a general truth in a sentence or two using simple words, grammatical parallelism, and word play.  I tell my students I learned the word adage from my science teacher. 

I tell another story of Mother Male to my students when I’m teaching rhyme.  I tell my students that rhyme makes poems memorable.  “I can only recite one of my own poems.  It’s one of my first.  I wrote it when I once got a detention,” I begin, “for talking.”  When this makes them laugh, I stare at them in mocking disbelief.  “Yes, I was quite the talker in class until the day Mother Male gave me detention for asking for a piece of paper.  I learned not to mess with teachers that day.” 

Since most of us were exercising our jaws while talking to our classmates instead of exercising our brains and hands to complete the mimeographed worksheets she had passed out, Mother Male declared martial law, rapping her meter stick against the chalk tray.  Mouths closed and pencils began to scratch papers around the room. 

I had already rewritten a research report for Mother Male because my writing was illegible.  My handwriting was indeed notoriously bad.  I had gone to pull out sessions for reading and writing from Kindergarten through the fourth grade. I decided I better rewrite the answers to the worksheet on a separate sheet of paper before Mother Male gave me the ultimatum: copy it over or get a zero.  I patted the arm of my classmate Steve, whose mother was our music teacher:  “Do you have any paper?”  Before he could answer, Mother Male told me I had detention.

 I don’t know whether I yet knew the expression righteous indignation, but I knew I had been wronged and my life was in danger.  I would have to stay after school, write an essay, take the late bus home, and walk an extra mile home straight past the high school neighbor who thought my butt was a practice target for his BB gun.  At that end of that peril, I would face my parents.  Since I had never had a detention before, I had no idea what they would do. 

I don’t remember what I wrote in my detention essay except the anger that came out in verse:

Words of the Witch

Just one peepand the Devil will reap,

keeping your soulas the toll.

You may screamtill you hit a beam,

but you will still steamtill you’re a thick cream.

Then your head will be spreadon a thick piece of bread,

and you will be crunchilymunched for lunch.

I don’t remember Mother Male ever talking to me about my essay, but my English teacher talked to me about my poem.  I often wonder what words they shared about me in the teachers’ room that day when they read my essay.  I imagine Mrs. Male’s maternal instincts could have been seen as clearly as her laugh must have been heard.  She was clearly not a witch, but she discerned the future and saw me as a poet.  She taught me much of the spell-power of words.