Morning Thanks

Garrison Keillor once said we'd all be better off if we all started the day by giving thanks for just one thing. I'll try.

Monday, February 11, 2008

Stories and poems

A Year of Morning Thanks

Stories and Poems

This morning's Writer's Almanac poem, "Someone I cared for," by Cid Corman, feels like the third verse of an old hymn that won't leave me alone.

Someone I cared for

Someone I cared for
put it to me: Who
do you think you are?

I went down the list
of all the many

carefully -- did it
twice -- but couldn't find
a plausible one.

That was when I knew
for the first time who

in fact I wasn't.

(c) Coffee House Press, 1987.
Third verse, because the first was "The Bris," a rather indelicate story by Eileen Pollack, included in this year's Best American Short Stories, a story most males won't forget easily because it concerns a father's preposturous final request to his son. On his death bed, Marcus's father divulges an incredible secret--he's been hiding his Gentile-ness for his entire life, even though, as Marcus himself recites, his father was a likely a better Jew than most of his old buddies in Boca.

But the old man can't be buried next to his beloved Jewish wife if he's not circumcised, and the fact that he's still foreskin-ed will be shockingly on display during the holy rites his body will undergo at the hands of Jewish brethren. The madcap scheme the old man himself has planned to accomplish this late-in-life surgery goes sadly awry, which means that his son, quite literally, has to take matters into his own hands, not only because his father has asked him to do it, but also because he feels constrained by this filial instinct that none of us can quite quantify because it is so profoundly complex--"what, really, do we owe our parents?"

Tomorrow night my students will respond to "The Bris," which means they're likely reading it now. Ought to be fun. There's far more about male genitalia--of the nursing home variety--than I care to read; I can only imagine what they think.

Me?--I liked the story, and I liked it a great deal. Eilleen Pollack is tapping an ancient tradition, a genre my students likely don't know. "The Bris" has that comic feel one finds in the stories of Izaak Bashevis Singer, as well as the early stories of Bernard Malamud--and others I'm sure. The characters come close to comic book exaggerations, including devious rabbis who, oddly enough, comport themselves in a fashion that somehow, almost miraculously, translates into baldly transcendent or religious vision. Such stories are really elaborate parables, earthly story (trust me on this one!) with heavenly meanings--a line I learned in Sunday school.

The effect of such story-telling--when it works--is deep and affective, even though, as in this case, the reader is brought into a situation that seems, well, not only discomforting but downright shocking. One could pun badly for a long time here, but let me just say that the story cuts to the quick. Really.

Read it yesterday for the first time in the Albuquerque airport, and when I put it down, I called my mother, who's almost 90, and lives in an old-folks home in Wisconsin. My wife told me that she'd called while I was in New Mexico. She told me that it would be a good idea if I called her, if I had some time on my way back home. And this is the second verse of that hymn that won't leave me alone.

We talked for quite some time, longer than usual, in fact. And then she said something that she's never said before, and I didn't know how to take it--still don't. "I just don't know what I'm going to do for the rest of the day," she told me, not angrily, no bitterness either. She didn't know what to do with her time.

"Read a book," I told her, questioningly. She told me she couldn't do much of that anymore. "Watch TV?" I asked, but I knew she'd tell me there was nothing on for someone her age.

My mother was staring at a perfectly lifeless Sunday afternoon and evening, and her son--her boy who hadn't called--was sitting in a New Mexico airport.

What do we owe our parents?--that's the question.

And here's the irony. I'd spent most of the weekend listening to senior citizens, aging Navajo folks who were more than happy to tell me stories about their lives. My own mother doesn't know what to do with her Sunday. What do I owe my parents?

Today I read papers and get ready for class, having fallen behind in New Mexico. My wife hasn't seen me for four days, and I missed a trip her folks yesterday, the whole family in tow, even the grandkids. I was gone. The world calls me.

But what do we owe our parents?--that's the question.

If there were an easy answer to that question, Cid Corman would never written "Someone I cared for," Eilleen Pollack wouldn't have taken a shot at "The Bris," and I wouldn't be as haunted by my mother's alone-ness one quiet February Sunday afternoon--three verses, same looping hymn.

I've got to resolve to do more, but this morning I'm thankful especially for poems and stories that tell the whole human truth and let me know I'm not alone trying to answer unanswerable questions.

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