Wednesday

Jan. 16, 2013

His Elderly Father as a Young Man

by Leo Dangel

This happened before I met your mother:
I took Jennie Johanson to a summer dance,
and she sent me a letter, a love letter,
I guess, even if the word love wasn't in it.
She wrote that she had a good time
and didn't want the night to end.
At home, she lay down on her bed
but stayed awake, listening to the songs
of morning birds outside her window.
I read that letter a hundred times
and kept it in a cigar box
with useless things I had saved:
a pocket knife with an imitation pearl handle
and a broken blade,
a harmonica I never learned to play,
one cuff link, an empty rifle shell.

When your mother and I got married,
I threw the letter away -
if I had kept it, she might wonder.
But I wanted to keep it
and even thought about hiding places,
maybe in the barn or the tool shed,
but what if it were ever found?
I knew of no way to explain why
I would keep such a letter, much less
why I would take the trouble to hide it.

"His Elderly Father as a Young Man" by Leo Dangel, from Home from the Field. © Spoon River Poetry Press, 1997. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

Today is the birthday of the English-born Canadian poet Robert Service (books by this author), born in Preston, England (1874). It's said that he wrote his first poem at six years old, in the form of a grace to be said over meals. It went, "God bless the cakes and bless the jam; / Bless the cheese and the cold boiled ham; / Bless the scones Aunt Jeannie makes, / And save us all from bellyaches. Amen."

He wrote his most famous poems while he was working for the Canadian Bank of Commerce in the Yukon Territory. He later wrote about World War I and other subjects, but his best-known and best-loved poems are the ballads he wrote about the Yukon. He published them in his first book, Songs of a Sourdough (1907).

Book One of Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes (books by this author) was published on this date in 1605. It's considered to be the first modern novel. It's about a middle-aged landowner from a village in La Mancha who stays awake at night reading books about chivalry, forgets to eat and sleep, insanely believes the tales to be true, and sets off on a skinny nag in a heroic quest to resurrect old-fashioned chivalry and heroism in the modern world.

From Don Quixote: "All I know is that while I'm asleep, I'm never afraid, and I have no hopes, no struggles, no glories — and bless the man who invented sleep, a cloak over all human thought, food that drives away hunger, water that banishes thirst, fire that heats up cold, chill that moderates passion, and, finally, universal currency with which all things can be bought, weight and balance that brings the shepherd and the king, the fool and the wise, to the same level."

It's the birthday of poet and memoirist Mary Karr (books by this author), born in Groves, Texas (1955). She had a rough childhood, growing up in a small town with alcoholic parents. Her mom was mentally unstable and used to escape from reality in books.

Karr has always thought of herself as a poet, and she's published four books of poetry, including Abacus (1987) and Sinners Welcome (2006). Her friend and mentor Tobias Wolff encouraged her to give memoir a try, and so — inspired by his memoir This Boy's Life (1989) — she did. Her first, The Liar's Club (1995), was so successful that she's written two more: Cherry (2000) and Lit (2009).

She said, "Memoir is not an act of history but an act of memory, which is innately corrupt."

It's the birthday of food writer Ruth Reichl (books by this author), born in New York City (1948). Her mom loved to cook, but she was terrible at it. Reichl's brother once said he was amazed that he lived to the age of 25, and he called their mother "a menace to society." The two of them would conspire to save guests from some of their mother's more disastrous creations, and they would flush their lunches down the toilet when she wasn't looking.

Reichl remembered: "My mother really would make these dreadful concoctions. She really prided herself on something called 'Everything Stew,' where she would take everything in the refrigerator, all the leftovers, and put them all together. One day I was watching her put in leftover turkey and broccoli and a little can of mushroom soup. And she's throwing things in. And half an apple pie goes in. [...] I'd sort of look at her and say: 'Mom!' And she says: 'Oh, it'll be fine.' [...] In defense, I started cooking, because I didn't want to eat that."

Reichl responded by learning to be a great cook herself, and she also became a restaurant critic, coming up with a dozen different personas — and disguises — she would put on when she was going to review an eatery. She was the editor of Gourmet Magazine for 10 years, and she's written many food-related books, most recently For You, Mom. Finally. (2010).

Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®

 









«

»

  • “Writers end up writing stories—or rather, stories' shadows—and they're grateful if they can, but it is not enough. Nothing the writer can do is ever enough” —Joy Williams
  • “I want to live other lives. I've never quite believed that one chance is all I get. Writing is my way of making other chances.” —Anne Tyler
  • “Writing is a performance, like singing an aria or dancing a jig” —Stephen Greenblatt
  • “All good writing is swimming under water and holding your breath.” —F. Scott Fitzgerald
  • “Good writing is always about things that are important to you, things that are scary to you, things that eat you up.” —John Edgar Wideman
  • “In certain ways writing is a form of prayer.” —Denise Levertov
  • “Writing is a socially acceptable form of schizophrenia.” —E.L. Doctorow
  • “Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” —E.L. Doctorow
  • “Let's face it, writing is hell.” —William Styron
  • “A writer is someone for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people.” —Thomas Mann
  • “Writing is 90 percent procrastination: reading magazines, eating cereal out of the box, watching infomercials.” —Paul Rudnick
  • “Writing is a failure. Writing is not only useless, it's spoiled paper.” —Padget Powell
  • “Writing is very hard work and knowing what you're doing the whole time.” —Shelby Foote
  • “I think all writing is a disease. You can't stop it.” —William Carlos Williams
  • “Writing is like getting married. One should never commit oneself until one is amazed at one's luck.” —Iris Murdoch
  • “The less conscious one is of being ‘a writer,’ the better the writing.” —Pico Iyer
  • “Writing is…that oddest of anomalies: an intimate letter to a stranger.” —Pico Iyer
  • “Writing is my dharma.” —Raja Rao
  • “Writing is a combination of intangible creative fantasy and appallingly hard work.” —Anthony Powell
  • “I think writing is, by definition, an optimistic act.” —Michael Cunningham
The Writer's Almanac on Facebook


The Writer's Almanac on Twitter

Subscribe to our daily newsletter for poems, prose and literary history every morning
An interview with Jeffrey Harrison at The Writer's Almanac Bookshelf
Current Faves - Learn more about poets featured frequently on the show
O, What a Luxury

Although he has edited several anthologies of his favorite poems, O, What a Luxury: Verses Lyrical, Vulgar, Pathetic & Profound forges a new path for Garrison Keillor, as a poet of light verse. Purchase O, What a Luxury »