So here we are in Missoula again,
the last time was 53 years ago
when you were living
in that trailer court behind
the Mountain View Drive-In.
We could sit at the kitchen table
and watch a movie out the window
while we ate our Swanson TV dinners.
No sound of course, but it was
really something to see, that
pantomime on the big screen.
Later on, we’d drive downtown
to cruise the drag and gawk at the array
of flashing neon signs in the dark,
especially the “Holiday Village” tower—
like Times Square on the Vegas Strip.
You were so young, and I was a kid,
chubby and crew-cut as your hubby
who played accordion and guitar,
shot arrows at bales of hay.
He chauffeured us everywhere
in that 56 Ford—a cloud of blue
smoke followed us to buy bottles
of Coke and bags of potato chips.
You two were just married
and pregnant with Ricky.
Before my 8th birthday
I became Uncle Mark. By then
you’d moved back to Alberton
because that was the home
you never wanted to leave
and didn’t until now after 30
or so years of Parkinson’s Disease
has all but wasted you
and brought you back to me.
The drive-ins are gone, but
your TV set is always on. Too bad
Dr. Phil and Oprah have replaced
Gary Cooper and Doris Day,
you and me doing the dialogue
and dealing Crazy Eights—which seems
way better than these self-help clown’s
pandering their tragicomic routines.
Our giant tehno-steps have left
much of our humanity behind.
I guess that’s just part of the recipe.
Now it appears your fallen cake
has just about baked, and
they’re preheating the oven for me.
Selfishly I was glad to hear you were moving
closer to me—though I know
you’d rather die on Petty Creek.
In all our days these last 60 years,
we’ve never uttered those words:
I love you. I guess we can thank
our parents for that handicap
(if that’s what it is). The old man
distrusted that phrase more than
any other, and our mother was cut
from similarly tough threads.
On Fern’s death bed we joked
the chaplain about what we didn’t know
nor believe about this life or what’s after,
and he laughed at our candor or maybe
he too was a lamb astray (we agreed
that he was a damn good minister
to pagan grief). I recalled the story
Tommy Lee Jones’ character tells
at the end of No Country For Old Men
about a dream he had where
it’s getting dark and he and his dad
were riding through a blizzard
where they couldn’t see ten feet
in front of their horses. His dad told him
not to worry, that the horses knew
the way. He’d see him up the trail.
His father rode off and disappeared.
The boy was alone, yet he wasn’t afraid.
He knew his dad would have a fire
built by the time he got to camp
and be waiting to dish up the beans . . .
My voice cracked, picturing
my mother standing at the stove
frying bacon, no dentures, hair on end . . .
then I cried when I saw you crying,
and we laughed and cried
the way grown children laugh-cry
bucking up while their mother dies.
I loved you then more than I ever had,
and I have loved you every day
of my life, like those nights
we popped corn and danced
while Butchy “rolled out the barrel”
on his mother-of-pearl squeeze box
or that shark-toothed guitar
while we sang and circled and danced
and fell, rolled laughing on the braided rug.
You were so alive and so much fun
back then when we were young
and happy to be laughing . . . now
I know you’re wore out and our tour
is almost done, that this ode
is overly sentimental and sappy to some
(those smart-young cynics
and plenty of older ones)
but I didn’t write it for them. Odes
written for loved ones are the roots
of poetry best published on
refrigerators and bedroom mirrors.
The postmodern literary world doesn’t
abide clumsy love-letter poems, so
no one will ever read this
in Poetry magazine. That hardly
matters to you or me . . . so whoever
gets there first will remember
to stir the beans, maybe cut up
some hot dogs or bacon for the pot,
and keep an eye on that coffee can
before it rolls to a boil and puts
the fire out ’cause we’ll both be
more than ready to eat by that time . . .
and joke about our saddle sores.