Dec. 6, 2007

Grandma's Grave

by Freya Manfred

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Poem: "Grandma's Grave" by Freya Manfred, from Swimming With a Hundred Year Old Snapping Turtle (buy now) © Red Dragonfly Press, 2008. Reprinted with permission

Grandma's Grave

Mother and I brush long drifts of snow from the gravestones
of my great grandfather and grandmother, great uncle and aunt,
two of mother's brothers, each less than a year old,
and her last-born brother, George Shorba, dead at sixteen:
      A Mastermind. My Beloved Son.
But we can't find the grave of Grandma, who buried all the rest.

Mother stands dark-browed and musing, under the pines,
and I imagine her as a child, wondering why her mother
left home so often to tend the sick, the dying, the dead.
Borrowing a shovel, she digs, until she uncovers:
                   1889 — 1962
                   Mary Shorba

Mother almost never cries, but she does now. She stares
at this stone as if it were the answer to all the hidden things.

Literary and Historical Notes:

Today is the anniversary of two terrible explosions: the Monongah Mining Disaster and the Halifax Explosion. The Monongah Disaster took place at about 10:00 in the morning on this day in 1907 in Monongah, West Virginia. An explosion in the mine shook the ground as far as eight miles away. Nearby buildings were destroyed, streetcars were knocked over, and people in the local town were thrown to the ground. In all, 362 men and boys died from the explosion and the cave in. It was the worst mining disaster in American history.

And it was on this day in 1917 that an accidental explosion destroyed a quarter of the city of Halifax, Nova Scotia. It was the height of World War I, and Halifax was serving as an important port city for many of the ships carrying supplies for the battlefront. One of the ships coming into the port that day was a French supply ship called the Mont Blanc, carrying 200 tons of TNT, 2300 tons of other explosives, as well as ten tons of cotton, and thirty-five tons of highly flammable chemicals stored in vats on the ship's upper deck. On its way into port, the Mont Blanc collided with a Norwegian freighter, which started a fire, and the crew of the Mont Blanc piled into lifeboats and then paddled frantically away.

The fire on the Mont Blanc drew a crowd of onlookers along the shore of the channel. The docks filled with spectators, trams slowed down, people stood at office windows and on factory roofs to see the blaze. Then, a few minutes after the fire had started, the Mont Blanc exploded. It was the single most powerful man-made explosion at that point in human history.

The blast wave of water hit the shore, sweeping away buildings, bridges, roads, vehicles, and people. City streets split open. Houses, churches, schools, and factories collapsed. Virtually every building in the city had its windows broken. About a quarter of the city, was completely destroyed. More than 2,000 people were killed and more than 9,000 were injured. It was the worst disaster of any kind in Canadian history.

One of the only people who had known about the cargo of the ship was a dispatcher at the yardmaster's office. As soon as he'd realized what was happening, he began telegraphing warnings around the city, and he kept sending out warnings even though he knew that an explosion could come at any minute. He died at his post.

It's the birthday of novelist and short-story writer Sylvia Townsend Warner, (books by this author) born in Middlesex, England (1893), whose first novel, Lolly Willowes (1926), was about a woman who makes a deal with the Devil and becomes a witch in order to get away from her restrictive family. The novel became the first-ever Book of the Month Club selection, and it was a best-seller in the United States.

It's the birthday of poet (Alfred) Joyce Kilmer, (books by this author) born in New Brunswick, New Jersey (1886), who wrote the famous poem "Trees," which begins, "I think that I shall never see / A poem lovely as a tree" and ends with the lines, "Poems are made by fools like me, / But only God can make a tree."

It's the birthday of lyricist Ira Gershwin, born Israel Gershvin on the East Side of New York City (1896). He's considered one of the great lyricists of the 20th century, best known for writing the lyrics to songs like "I've Got Rhythm" (1930) and "Let's Call the Whole Thing Off" (1937).

It's the birthday of photographer Alfred Eisenstaedt, born in a part of Prussia that is now Tczew, Poland (1898). He was just over five feet tall, so people never noticed him, and he was often able to capture surprising moments between real people. It was he who took the famous photograph of a sailor kissing a nurse at the end of World War II.

It's the birthday of a novelist important to Canadian history, Susannah Moodie, (books by this author) born Susannah Strickland in Suffolk, England (1803). As a young woman, she went with her husband to live in the backwoods of Canada, which she thought would be exciting. But in fact the winters were horrific, and the work was unending. Moodie decided that someone needed to write about the reality of pioneer life to warn other people away from it. But in the course of writing about her experiences, she found that she actually loved her adopted country. The result was her book Roughing It in the Bush (1852), which became a classic of early Canadian literature, and it's now read by most children in Canada, the way most American children read Little House in the Big Woods.

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