October 3, 2015

A Poem By Lucia Robinson: "Hancock County Pilgrimage"

Lucia Robinson's  work has been published in The Southern Poetry Anthology, vol. VII, The Dead Mule School of Southern Poetry, Wild Goose Poetry Review,  and Iodine Poetry Journal (as Ellae Lawton), and is forthcoming in Kakalak 2015. She was born and raised a Hoosier but has spent half her life in the South.

"The Hoosier Poet's House" James Whitcomb Riley

Hancock County Pilgrimage                                     
The younger cousin–he must be sixty–helps
me and the older one, halfway past seventy,
into the van, then his wife, and pilots us            
out of Indianapolis in search of ancestors.
Ghostly heaps of  fragrant, tightly petaled
deep-pink peonies from my parents’ yard

edge my memory; I made this trip Memorial
Days with my mother half a century ago.

East on U.S. 40, the old National Road,
a few of the early motels–a new word
after Roosevelt’s war–nestle shabby cabins
among chickweed, tall grasses, dandelions,
pinoaks, and silver maples that outgrew
their saplinghood in the same years we did.
The old farm Turn Key remains, its barn
clad in the same bright yellow clapboard
Buckley's Sign
and green letters, but–I blink at strange new
shapes–among predictable horses sunning       
in its pasture, three llamas blink back.
Llamas in central Indiana?

Philadelphia is still a one-blink town;   
Cumberland takes two.  We often
stopped at Buckley’s restaurant there
for Sunday dinner after Grandmother
fell ill–I was still young enough then
always to rate chicken drumsticks, not
to taste for years the pale succulence
of thighs and breasts, though my sister         
and I were given wishbones to pull.

As we enter Greenfield, I watch eagerly
for the home of the “Hoosier Poet”   
with its marker and bunting and flag.
My grandfather once boarded there, a
handsome young newcomer to the town
with his Latin diploma from law school.          
It’s not that the house is special to me–
as a child I explored  its dusty crannies
though I failed to share my mother’s
love of James Whitcomb Riley’s verse
(having no wish to be got by goblins)--
but that soon after, just down Pennsylvania,
my grandparents’ last house looks–oh, smaller
than in my childhood, of course, but still
three high-ceilinged white stories, with spacious
porch and pie-slice third-floor windows
from which one could spy the Victorian Gothic
tower of the Courthouse.  I often walked with Papa
by the square where the red-roofed limestone
landmark defined solid, sturdy and gabled                      
as nothing in nature ever is, aware Papa
had  worked there long ago but not connecting
the black-and-white etching above the oak rolltop
in his study with knowledge that stone was piled
on stone and round clock hoisted to its tower
under the careful eye of Grandmother’s father,
county treasurer when it rose up century before last.
Farmers in overalls congregated around it after
Saturday markets as, I guess, farmers did everywhere,
played chequers on wood benches and spat tobacco
at the eternal pigeons. A city girl, I tried to look
polite when I really wanted to look the other way.
They greeted us, calling Papa “Mr. Charlie”
and me “Missy,” and all tipped hats.

As we drive around the courthouse square,
devoid of farmers and chequers now,                          
pigeons amble smugly, safe from tobacco juice.
We stop at a supermarket where I buy flowers–
yellow roses, Mother’s favorite, for my parents;
deep coral for my three grandparents–Papa rests
between the sweet woman I knew and loved
and the one whose gently studious portrait
above our piano ruled my life for years.
I bring one white rose for her firstborn son,
beautiful Charles Cooper whose breath
wafted softly away before it ever reached him,
and a pot of crimson mums for the metal stand.
My parents’ stones are etched with crosses,
but I knew who were the more devout
and made me feel most loved. My father’s
bears his Navy rank from World War II.

We four remount the waiting van, consulting
notes, exchanging memories and old family legends.
We’re seeking next a small country cemetery
we’ve never visited, where our grandmothers’
mother’s parents lie.  As we travel a dusty road
toward the edge of the county I marvel at how
prosperous the farms appear, corn tassels waving
well above my head, soybeans greenplumed in rows,
gentle beige Jerseys and handsome map-clad Holsteins
pausing mid-graze to inspect us. The indifferent swine
evoke memory of visiting an inherited farm with Papa,
balancing on the thick concrete wall of a round horse
trough so big bluegill swam in it, when a Poland China
hog ten times my size woke with a raucous snort that
startled me into the slimy pond. I never cared for pigs  
again ‘til I read Charlotte’s Web with my own children.

We recognize land once owned by a racing-mad great-
uncle, its windmill and weeping willows unchanged
though the octagonal stable of thundering steeds we
cheered at the State Fair succumbed to lightning long ago.
As children we vied for gentle jaunts in a sulky behind
a retired old trotter; Nan recalls cantering bareback           
between uncles’ farms with a girl cousin in summer
vacations, points out the pond where skinny-dipping
boys submerged as the blushing city girls galloped by.

Blue morning glories, creamy Queen Anne’s lace,
and golden black-eyed  Susans weave a cheery
border ‘round the fields.  We’re not finding any
cemetery entrance, but suddenly Bruce brakes,
says, “I think I hear my ancestors calling me”
(his second name’s their surname).  He backs up
the steaming strip–no other vehicle is in sight–parks
beside a barely detectable track too narrow
for the van, and we alight. No house is near;
a tall brick farmhouse stands a few miles ahead,
much like Papa’s father’s that burned the year
before its hundredth birthday, and his. Sun growing
higher and hotter on our heads, we trudge along
to a squeaky serenade of unseen insects. I’ve been                                                                     
away from cornfields for so long I keep expecting
baseball players to stride out from the towering rows.  
Abruptly a green square interrupts the ripening
corn, fresh-mown, shaded by venerable sycamore
and graceful maple. The peaceful sward is tidy               
as Grandmother’s parlor; old headstones appear
newly polished as if expecting company.  We       
find our great-great grandparents and–what we
didn’t expect–small gravestones naming our
great-grandparents’ two little ones who died,
one after the other, not to reach second birthdays,
at their feet. I think of Graggy, small and brave,
laying her babes where her parents could watch
over them while she raised the five living
and the three born after, along with her youngest
brother and an orphaned girl, and my eyes swim.
Her name graces many of our generations:
I inhabit it with her deceptive bird-bones;  
her storied strength of mind propels my daughter.       

Our older one grows tired; we must get on.
I pull out the camera; Bruce brushes a vine
away from ancestral stone and we suddenly
notice its three-leaved peril.  There’s no water
near to wash, nothing but cornfields; luckily,
though, I’m provided with Purell. We make him
use it again and again before we regain a town,
and nary a blister plagues him after.   

As we resume our tour the terrain becomes
more familiar –the farm where the huge hog
humiliated  me, acres forever called “Requi”
because after Graggy nagged him a long while
Great-Grandfather bought it and presented her
the deed one Christmas with the title “Requiescat
in Pacem” written on it.  Generations later it
came to her namesake my mother; my father
made a valiant effort to oversee it, but his notion
of country was eighteen well-manicured holes,
and after a few years Mother let him golf in peace
and sold it. She and my sister and I had enough  
of Graggy’s land-loving blood to mourn the loss                         
though none in the family had ever lived there.

        Soon after Requi I see Papa’s father’s acreage  
where the big federal-style house of bricks made
on the farm with its date, 1870, tiled in the roof
once stood. I have a faded photo of it new, and
a painting my father made of it from a later snapshot,              
but the memory is best. A legislator and justice
of the peace (my mother’s grandfathers in turn
represented the district in Indianapolis), he married
more than a hundred pairs, was called “Squire Ben.”
In a county history he’s called “a man without guile”--
my Papa was another.  Like Ben and countless other
sons of those who settled the Northwest Territory,
two more of my great-grandfathers bore proud names
of heroes of the founding of the Republic, fresh
in their parents’ memories when they were born.
How proud those ancestors would have been of Nan,
who became an Ambassador of that Republic–
and (except perhaps for Graggy) how surprised.

“Are you sure it’s on this road?” Bruce queries. I am,
and soon the white clapboard square of the area’s first
Protestant church, named for Squire Ben’s father-in-law
who gave (and probably felled) the logs for the original,
first pastored by Ben’s own father, crowns a sun-dappled       
emerald lawn that cradles the bones of countless greats-
and great-greats and cousins, best of all for me my Papa’s
parents and their parents and two more common ancestors
of us three cousins, our grandmothers’ father’s parents,
born on Virginia plantations.  Detesting slavery, they eloped                     

and  pioneered here decades before the war Great-grandfather
likely fought against unknown kinfolk. But here I feel only
peace; an aura of green and comfortable love embraces me
just as it did half a century ago. I’d be content to have my
own dust settled among these limestone and marble obelisks
and tiny graves of children stolen by measles or scarlet fever,
and though on earth my faith-filled industrious forebears       
likely would disapprove my frivolous city ways,
I sense they will welcome me when I go among them.

                                                       --Lucia Walton Robinson

         (written for the Honorable Nancy Ostrander)


Total Pageviews