Apr. 4, 2011

The Boxers

by Cathy Smith Bowers

When my father, after twenty years, came home
to die, circling, circling, like an animal
we believed extinct, it was my crazy aunt
who took him in, who told later
how the taxi had dumped him
bleached and whimpering on her porch.
And she who had not lived with him
thought his sons and daughters cruel
not to come when he began to call our names.

He died, and soon after, a package in brown wrapping
arrived at my address. My sister, who did not
attend the funeral, kept urging me to open it
and I kept saying I would, soon. Every day
when I came home from work, there it was
sitting at my back door, the remnants
of my father's life—years in the mill
spinning and doffing, then drinking into morning
as he railed at the walls, the cotton
still clinging to his fists. Weeks had passed

when finally my sister and I, after two stiff bourbons,
began to rip the paper, slowly in strips
like archaeologists unclothing a mummy.
And all that was there were a few plaid flannels,
the jacket to a leisure suit, and a pair of boxers,

white and baggy, Rorschached in urine—a smaller size,
my sister said, than the way she remembered him.
Then she offered to drop the things at the Salvation Army
store she passed on her way home. In July

we went shopping for swim suits and I could
see her in the curtained stall across from mine.
She was pulling her slip over her head when I saw
she was wearing them, her thighs like the pale stems
of mushrooms emerging from the boxers' billowy
legs, whiter, softer now, washed clean. I still

can't say why my sister, that day in the Salvation
Army store, glanced up, as I've imagined,
to see if anyone was watching
before she slipped those boxers from the soiled heap
of our father's clothes. Nor why
I took so long to open that package, both wanting
and fearing whatever lay inside. Like a child
huddled by the campfire who cries out in terror
at the story someone just told
and, still weeping, begs for it again.

"The Boxers" by Cathy Smith Bowers, from The Love that Ended Yesterday in Texas. © Texas Tech University Press, 1992. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It was on this day back in 1818 that Congress decided the U.S. flag would consist of 13 red and white stripes and 20 stars, with a new star to be added for every new state.

It's the anniversary of the record-breaking day that the Beatles held the top five positions on the Billboard Hot 100 pop chart in 1964. The band also held 12 positions on the chart overall that week.

The top five songs were, in this order: "Can't Buy Me Love," "Twist and Shout," "She Loves You," "I Want to Hold Your Hand," and "Please Please Me."

It's the day the World Trade Center was officially dedicated (1973). At the dedication, Chief Architect Minoru Yamasaki said, "The World Trade Center is a living symbol of man's dedication to world peace."

Microsoft Corporation was officially founded on this day in 1975. But it would be 10 more years before "windows" referred to something to master, and not something to look out of while daydreaming. In December of 1974, 19-year-old Bill Gates dropped out of Harvard to form a partnership with his childhood friend Paul Allen to develop the popular computer programming language BASIC (Beginner's All-purpose Symbolic Instruction Code) for use on an early personal computer called the Altair.

After reading an article about the Altair in Popular Electronics, the pair predicted home computers were going to take off and knew there would be a need for the software to run them. They called up the makers of the Altair, Micro Instrumentation and Telemetry Systems (MITS), and falsely claimed to have developed BASIC software for it. MITS was eager to see their nonexistent BASIC, and so Gates and Allen got to creating it quick. Gates mostly wrote the code and Allen made sure it was compatible. They completed the software in eight weeks. When Allen went to meet with MITS, it was the first time he had ever actually touched an Altair.

Five years later, the small company developed Microsoft Disk Operating System, or MS-DOS, for the IBM Personal Computer. MS-DOS was based on QDOS (Quick and Dirty Operating System), developed by Tim Paterson of Seattle Computer Products. They bought the rights to QDOS and kept their deal with IBM a secret. Gates negotiated for Microsoft to keep the rights to MS-DOS, so they could market it separately from IBM.  Virtually every personal computer ran on MS-DOS in those years and made the young entrepreneurial upstarts from the fledgling Microsoft their first fortune.

On this day in 1968, Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. He was shot while standing on the second-story balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, having come to Tennessee to support a strike by the city's sanitation workers. He had just given a speech at the Memphis Temple Church, in which he said: "I've seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight that we, as a people, will get to the promised land."

In Indianapolis, Robert Kennedy told his campaign audience the news; they wept. On Broadway, actors announced the death from the stage. There were riots all over the country.

It's the birthday of Dr. Maya Angelou(1928) (books by this author), born Marguerite Ann Johnson in St. Louis, Missouri. She was raised in St. Louis and Stamps, Arkansas. When she was eight, her mother's boyfriend raped her, and when she told someone about it, he ended up dead. She was mute for five years after that. During that time, she memorized poetry, including 60 Shakespeare sonnets.

She got a scholarship to study dance and drama at San Francisco's Labor School, gave birth to a son a few weeks after her graduation, and from there has led a remarkable life of artistic achievement — as an actress, a dancer, a teacher, a writer, and an editor in Egypt and Ghana, where she met Malcom X. She returned to America to work for his cause, and after Malcolm X's assassination, Dr. King asked her to work for him. After his assassination, which was on her 40th birthday, she was devastated.

For years she couldn't celebrate her birthday. She sent flowers to Dr. King's widow instead, and talked to her on the phone, and said a prayer.

The novelist James Baldwin encouraged her to write her autobiography. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings came out two years after Dr. King's assassination, and it was an enormous success. She has since published 30 more books and earned 30 honorary degrees though she never attended college. She teaches at Wake Forest University in North Carolina, where she is the Reynolds Professor of American Studies. In February, she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, our nation's highest civilian honor.

She still writes on yellow legal pads. She said, "I see a yellow pad, and my knees get weak, and I salivate."

She said, "the writer has to take the most used, most familiar objects — nouns, pronouns, verbs, adverbs — ball them together and make them bounce, turn them a certain way and make people get into a romantic mood; and another way, into a bellicose mood. I'm most happy to be a writer.

She said, "There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you."

It's the birthday of Robert E. Sherwood (1896), born in New Rochelle, New York. As a boy, he loved the circus, and when he was seven, he was so moved by a production of Uncle Tom's Cabin that he had to be carried out of the theater — he was sobbing.

He was gassed in the First World War, and the tension between maintaining peace and defending justice became his life's work — that and show business. By age 26, he was the leading film critic in the U.S. and one of the wits sitting next to Dorothy Parker at the Algonquin Round Table. He earned three Pulitzers in five years for his plays about the moral implications of war — Idiot's Delight (1936), Abe Lincoln in Illinois (1939), and There Shall Be No Night (1941).

He was friends with Franklin D. Roosevelt too, and wrote speeches for him, and served high political posts during the Second World War. Later, he wrote the book Roosevelt and Hopkins (1948), about how the president and his advisor Harry Hopkins negotiated with world leaders. It earned him his fourth Pulitzer.

And he wrote screenplays, including the one for Rebecca (1940), Alfred Hitchcock's first Hollywood film, and the one for The Best Years of Our Lives (1946), about World War II vets struggling after the war. In that film, one of the characters says: "I dreamed I was gonna have my own home. Just a nice little house for my wife and me out in the country in the suburbs, anyway. That's the cock-eyed kind of dream you have when you're overseas." It earned Sherwood an Academy Award for Best Screenplay.

He said, "To be able to write a play ... a man must be sensitive, imaginative, naive, gullible, passionate; he must be something of an imbecile, something of a poet, something of a liar, something of a damn fool."

It's the birthday of novelist, memoirist, and screenwriter Marguerite Duras (books by this author), born in French Indochina near what is now Saigon, Vietnam (1914). Her parents had left France to teach there, but her father died of dysentery and her mother, distracted and destitute, forgot to enroll Duras in school. She said, "For two years I ran wild; it was probably the time in my life I came closest to complete happiness."

She moved back to France when she was 17, studied at the Sorbonne, got married, was a member of the French Resistance, and wrote the screenplay for the film Hiroshima mon amour (1959), a cornerstone of the French New Wave cinema. The film is about being overpowered by memory, and it's explored through a French woman's affair with her Japanese lover, and a city decimated by nuclear disaster.

She knew the power of memory. As a teenager, Duras had met a wealthy, older Chinese man on a ferry and began an affair with him. She would write about him for the rest of her life, in autographical novels like The Sea Wall (1953), The North China Lover (1991), and The Lover (1984), which was an international best-seller and won France's most prestigious literary prize.

Marguerite Duras said: "Men like women who write. Even though they don't say so. A writer is a foreign country."

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
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