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Thursday, March 21, 2013


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Early Morning Refrain

It was very late, no more than a hour before sunrise.
We sat at the kitchen table; we had been up all night.
Four decades had passed, more than forty years
Had separated the grown-up woman from the story
She was telling me about her early life.

Her grandmother was not beautiful.
No one ever claimed that she was brilliant,
But she painted well, an artist.
Today her family treasures and enjoys,
Landscapes and still lifes,
Wonderful evidence of her output and gift.

She applied the oils heavily,
Using trowel and brush, and even a putty knife,
And once she readied her board upon an easel,
Grandma finely captured wood and river,
And the rural architecture, the scenes
All around her north New Jersey home.
She also remarkably rendered the wonder,
The special furl and spray of the Atlantic Ocean waves
Which rushed upon her state’s southern shore.
And following the common adage,
Different time and place, who knows the fame,
The renown she might have attained?


For all intents and purposes,
Her granddaughter, a toddler miss, was orphaned.
The child's mother was sick,
And was to spend a long-time in sanatorium,
When prevalent medical wisdom prescribed quarantine,
That was the era before the antibiotic cure.
With no real prospect for long-term survival,
Doctors used isolation in hope of preventing reinfection,
That and brutual surgical procedure won a few some extra time.
The father was gone; he wandered off,
And he started another family.

Hard to explain the every detail here,
But rumor has it that jealousy reigned;
The new wife was demanding and her man
Had to sever all connection to his previous life.
The father of three never visited the children's mother,
And rarely visited the girls he had left behind.

The child, whose story enfolds here, was the last born of three,
She had two older sisters, likewise deserted,
And to manage their care the siblings were divided.
The elder two were sent to the paternal grandparents.
She, the third, the youngest of the girls,
Was brought to the home of her mother’s mother and father.


Grandma dressed her granddaughter in pricey sets,
And family and neighbors seem to appreciate it,
“Oh isn’t Elsie wonderful!” They often said.

The girl was tall with curly blonde hair,
And cheek bones high enough to make for real beauty.
Possessing natural, happy disposition,
Her eyes beamed, and when all-dressed-up,
She looked as though she might model
For catalog or children’s fashion magazines.

But Elsie, she did have her ways.
(I am told to put it nicely!)
She paid little heed to the child's underwear,
Mainly interested in outward appearance,
Yes, we might think it over,
Consider grandmother's perspective for a moment.
No one else would ever see it,
Though the cotton might be tattered and old,
And Lord knows should have been replaced,
Especially when one considers the small expense.

Otherwise, she never hesitated at the dollar amount,
Never thought twice about any outfit’s cost,
Had no regard, whatsoever the garment's price,
If she thought it the right look, she bought it.

And, too, Grandma was a master seamstress,
Who dressed herself in wool coats whose linings
Matched her hand-made silk dresses; her sewing favored subtle
Flower prints, nothing garish and she used the same
Sense of design and talent to dress the little girl like a doll.

She was a healthy woman, who loved her dogs and cats,
Fed those both inside and outside the house,
She took in every kind of stray, animal and human.

A former dancer,
She had her training in the chorus at LUNA PARK,
And, all who knew her swear,
She practiced over-head kicks, when
She had already celebrated birthdays past her seventieth.

Did she swap a place for her star on the walk,
Take lead role in gilded cage instead?

No way, she was tough and worked hard,
Created a wonderful home and with natural talent,
She cultivated a big garden, a green-thumb delight.

And guess what? To top it off,
She married well, a union man, a good provider,
A leader, he was respected and adored by all.
Sure he was a hard-nosed guy.
He had his trouble with the Schuberts and the mob,
No easy matter getting a salary for men,
Who changed the bulbs on marquee boards,
Who hauled wire, and painted the sets,
And who had jobs which often meant
Long days of going up and down ladders.

Her grandpa guaranteed a decent wage
For the man whose job it was
To clean and bag after circus elephants.

Over the years, testimony holds,
-- Here we have no mean feat --
They fostered twenty-five kids, adopted four,
And then wound up having a girl of their own.


But something went amiss;
Grandpa went upstairs to bed,
Grandma slathered in oil of wintergreen,
Slept on living-room couch at night,
Hard to believe,
How long a time they spent their lives that way.

As many might have already surmised,
More to the story here.

Five years had passed before the grandchild's mother
Was finally released and then allowed to return home.
The quarantine had not allowed her children to visit.

And how the little girl had missed her mom!
Her supplications reverent, she asked God,
She prayed every night, and all through the day.
Hard to imagine, feel the hurt inside, how sad,
The young daughter's yearning her mother's soon return.
Though not entirely surprising, given the weakness
And mortal fault at root in human character,
Her grandmother balked when it came time to return
The grand daughter to whom she had grown attached,
The girl she helped to educate and rear.

She had come to believe that the child was her own.

She used every kind of conceivable excuse;
Why grandma found herself unwilling,
She had no desire to relinquish,
And she did not want to return the girl to her mother.

She tried to keep the daughter and mother apart.

Hope for Charity at some future junction
May often temper us from strict moral judgment,
Yet from the child's eyes grandma's conduct was unforgivable.


It was very late, less than the hour before sunrise.
We sat at the kitchen table. We had been up all night.
Four decades had passed in the life of the grown woman
From events she told of her early life, yet now it seemed
That for her no new day had ever lit the horizon.

I heard the granddaughter wax on the refrain,
Though she said it quiet and perhaps she was tired,
But from her story I doubt very much she was ashamed,

“I can not wish my grandmother were here.

“I do not wish she were here today.”

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