Monday, February 9, 2015

Violets Gathered on a Funeral Morning: A Poem Commemorating the Anniversary of a Grandfather's Death

A few days back, I shared a story of the final days of my grandfather's life, a memory of an experience I had as I sat in the hospital waiting room during his final illness. Today's the anniversary of my grandfather's death in 1976, and so I thought I'd share with you a poem I wrote not long after his funeral. 

When my grandfather died, my grief was sharpened by the sense that I had never really known him. After his funeral, I remember looking at the empty chair in which he customarily sat in his sitting room and thinking, "I have no idea who sat in that chair." 

He was a quiet man, my grandfather — not taciturn and certainly not sullen or churlish. Simply a man of few words. Perhaps it's a family trait (and, if so, Lord knows I don't have it, the way I carry on here). Several biographies I have of his uncle and namesake, Benjamin Dennis Lindsey, a Texas Ranger, note the same about that older B.D. — a man of few words, firm in his principles, so that yea meant yea and nay meant nay. Biographies of B.D. Lindsey's first cousin Dennis Edward Lindsey, who joined him in Texas as a Texas Ranger, say the same of him. 

Quiet men, but also men who could be very voluble when visitors arrived at their door, especially if the visitors were pretty and female. Stories I heard growing up make that point about the two Texas Ranger Lindseys, and my grandfather certainly behaved that way. He was, my mother liked to claim (her in-law prejudice was directed at her mother-in-law, not her father-in-law), the quintessential Southern gentleman, decided in his commitments, not given to entertaining nonsense, but hospitable, courteous, even lively when guests arrived at his door. And now the poem:

Violets Gathered on a Funeral Morning

In a knot of violets
The world will soon be lost.

Take that scrunched-up handful
I picked upon my grandfather's burial day:
Fragrant dark stars shining forth
Under even darker leaves,
Enamel to the eye,
Against the drabness of a pinestraw nest
Where brown and gray had not yet dreamed
This large before, in leaf and bloom
Annealed with just this gloss, 
And just this vibrancy on such a winter day. 

I picked them:
One perfumed bloom upon another,

And took them outheld offering
To where my grandmother stood,

Inside a square of new year's green,
Beside her screened front door,
Framed by bright spring sky,
Bare branch and still-furled leaves of trees,
Waiting for the funeral car
To bring her to her husband's grassless grave.

Wear these, I said.
They're just the thing to match
The violet of your eyes,
Touch up the plainness of your dress.

My grandmother stared —
At me, the flowers in my hand —
Stepped back as if I held a snake and said,
Why, what would people think,
Me wearing flowers to my husband's grave?

But times are different now, I begged,
The child inside me tiptoe to be heard,
My downheld violets pointing to the ground.

My Mama looked again, 
Then turned her back on me.

I let the blossoms slip,
Each gorgeous resurrection beside its fellow,
In silence to the earth.

What else to do with violets
Gathered on a funeral morn?

The photo is one of my grandfather taken in 1916 in Red River Parish, Louisiana, around the time of his marriage to my grandmother.

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