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.
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.