Saturday, September 05, 2009

Linda Pastan's LAST UNCLE and My Last Aunt


(reflections on poetry by Linda Pastan, collected in THE LAST UNCLE.)


Blanche Frisch Maier, my aunt Blanche

I packed Linda Pastan’s collection THE LAST UNCLE for the trip north for my aunt’s memorial. A couple of years ago, Aunt Ginny died, and Aunt Harriet died in February, so Blanche is my last aunt. I’d read Pastan’s book a couple of times, so maybe my fingers knew where to look, but it seemed that every page I turned to was analog to what I was seeing and thinking.

“After a Long Absence, I Return to a Site of Former Happiness” (p.61) is an apt description of any visit I’ve ever made to the home of Aunt Blanche and Uncle Jack. For others, it’s a grand old house; for me, it’s a personal Garden of Eden. It's where she and Uncle Jack raised eight children, their six cousins, and occasionally three cousins visiting from far away (my brother, sister, and me); and where she hosted thousands for a perpetual open - house "Monday night dinner" throughout her adult life. I sat last night in Blanche’s garden for the first time without Blanche, and thought, with the poet, “This is what the world will be / without me,” and would have to agree that this knowledge does not make me want to write a “poem of affirmation” without “a shadow of self-pity.”

On the road, I saw “the same green road signs / the numbered highways / of home” while “the radio blares familiar music” (“Wherever We Travel” p. 54). With Tennessee mountains in front of me, I opened to this line:
I always take a book along
raising it between my eyes and
whatever landscape I've come
so far to see -- blue mountains...
(58)
For Pastan, the last uncle has “pushed off” as on a boat, and “locked the doors behind him / on a whole generation” leaving “us the elders now / with our torn scraps of history” without a map "on the shore" of the new century (29). In another poem, Pastan remembers her mother’s long illness, like Aunt Blanche's, and “wanting her to flee that ravished flesh / but willing her to stay” (28).

Spoke to my Dad about memories going back to his teen years, when Blanche was like an older sister to him and Mom. On the thirtieth anniversary of her father’s death, “March 5,” Pastan regrets not having asked her father more. Looking at her own grown children, aging as I and my cousins have done (all of us within one to ten years of sixty, older than my grandmother was when I was born), Pastan writes, “Ask me, I want / to tell them. Ask me now” (23).

Pastan’s collection CARNIVAL EVENING includes another one that came to mind: “Cousins,” which begins
We meet at funerals
every few years – another star
in the constellation of our family
put out – and even in that failing
light, we look completely
different, completely the same.
(CARNIVAL EVENING 246)

1 comment:

W. Scott Smoot said...

Aunt Blanche's husband, my Uncle Jack C. Maier, passed away before Blanche.

The following letter from my brother Todd was part of Tom Smoot's eulogy for Jack C. Maier at a service in Cincinnati on Friday, February 4, 2005.

Blanche,

The sad news of Jack passing this morning did not come as a shock, but the news brought an immediate rush of loss to us all. Today is a sad day to all that have been fortunate to have been taken under his wing. There is the loss of a husband and brother to two strong women. There is the loss of a father to all the children that your family raised. There is the loss of a man who balanced authority with love, intelligence with humor and determination with humility.

My summers spent in Cincinnati where always a special time for me. The Monday Night Dinners, days at the farm, cross country trips, playing tennis, playing golf, going the a Red's game or simply seating in the kitchen are all vivid, happy memories for me - and Uncle Jack is a part of each memory. He was not actively in each event, but his presence was felt at all times in Cincinnati. I never wanted to displease Uncle Jack - his approval was always needed and desired.

As we have gotten older, I have an even greater respect for what you two accomplished as husband and wife. I look at the strength of your family. I look at determination against odds that members of your family have faced and beaten. No doubt the love that binds your family offers the will to overcome. The love that started with you and Jack has multiplied with each child, each grandchild and I dare say with a few nephews and nieces.

Please know that the love that started with you and Jack will now come full circle and embrace you with all of the power and grace begun with you two.

Please know that Uncle Jack will always be with me - and I am a better person because of him. I will miss Jack, but I will never be without him.

Love to you and the whole family... Todd L. Smoot