written for the launch of Amplify, a Cultural Plan for the Columbia Area
with thanks to the many friends who responded to my question on Facebook about their first experiences of arts and culture, many of which appear in the poem
I give you the macramé owl, the one with broken pinecones for eyes.
I give you the candy dish on the coffee table, its hard nuggets of sugar and color stuck together.
I give you the turkey made from a drawing of your hand.
I give you those big picture books with cracked spines that your mother read to you, the way her voice changed to shape the story.
And then there’s your dad, putting on the Rolling Stones’ Exile on Main Street, turning it up and dancing around. Not gracefully, a little unhinged, but with a lot of passion.
I give you that first concert—was it Michael Jackson? You memorized the names of all five Jacksons, memorized the songs. You were jealous of your cousin’s pierced ear, that dangling glove earring. You slept with his albums under your bed in hopes that you would dream of him and his tiger. You were eight.
Can you see the little girl in pigtails, dancing in the dining room till dinnertime?
Or the little boy obsessed with mime?
I give you that moment someone explained to you that when someone dies onstage it’s make-believe.
I give you that moment you fell asleep during the musical, or during church, and then when you woke up during the last song, you thought you had woken up in heaven.
What was the first song that made you cry?
Do you remember the first time you smelled a darkroom?
I give you the bright plaster tropical fish swimming across Aunt Betty’s bathroom, fish not found in nature, but found in Aunt Betty’s bathroom.
I give you the bronze and copper statues of deer in your grandfather’s office, the way they felt in your hand when you played with them. You were not supposed to play with them. The doe with a relief image of a fawn on her stomach.
I give you the stiletto heels you mother spray-painted gold and placed elves inside, your favorite Christmas decoration.
I give you the carnival glass cup your grandmother drank her coffee from, iridescent, you thought it beautiful, and the demitasse spoon she used to stir in the Pet Milk.
Who was the child in that framed portrait at the back of Granny Lola’s house? Was the child dead? They used to do that. I give you that dark, hand-carved frame.
I give you the old man at your grandma’s church who taught you to sing with shaped notes. It was serious business. It was like a foreign language.
I give you the women’s syncopated clapping, the shuffling of feet, the bending and rising of bodies with the lyrics of the song.
I give you that moment you picked out your mom among the other women, sure you heard her voice alone.
I give you Mrs. Slavin’s weekly music class, the five-line chalk holder she used to draw a musical staff on the board, the way it would sometimes squeal, then she’d write in the notes. You loved her weekly visits and the songs she taught you. You still remember “Hava Nagilah.”
I give you Leontyne Price and some guy singing on PBS when you were flipping through the channels. It was Samson and Delilah. You didn’t understand what they were saying, but you were, for that moment, in another world.
I give you Bugs Bunny and The Rabbit of Seville.
I give you that place under the piano where you’d sit while your aunt played.
I give you the first time you saw deaf people waving their hands in applause. It was after a dance performance. Their silence and motion was as beautiful as the dance.
Do you remember the May Day celebration at Earlewood Park, decades ago, your dress made of crepe paper—it was the prettiest dress in the world—crepe paper like the streamers, weaving in and out, plaiting the pole.
I give you your mother laying out the pattern for a dress on the dining table and cutting out the fabric pieces.
I give you Spirograph, Etch-a-Sketch, string art, Light Bright, Play-doh, and that little plastic handmade potholder loom.
I give you your grandmother’s quilt, made of old clothes, tablecloths, sheets, anything. They were not traditional patterns. They were beautiful. They kept you warm.
I give you the oriental rug in the floor of your family’s military housing. It mesmerized you. You could ride the elephants all day.
I give you the black and white prints of classical architecture—Ionic, Doric, acanthus leaves—hanging in the cramped rooms of a tract home.
Your aunts would tell stories in the living room, and your uncles would tell stories outside under the oak trees. When did you realize these were two very different sets of stories?
I give you your uncle’s swanky Eames chair.
I give you the tacky ashtray of an exotic topless woman that your dad and his buddy passed back and forth every Christmas. The lei of flowers was perfectly placed, her figure perfectly balanced to rock back and forth. It was the 1950s. You grew up to be a feminist.
I give you the drum solo in In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida by Iron Butterfly. You listened to it with your dad in the car. It’s the reason you took drum lessons.
I give you your mother singing, her clear powerful soprano, until chemotherapy and radiation took her voice away.
I give you the organ in the corner no one ever played.
Your father brought it home from the war, that little Swiss-made wooden music box. Your mother used to wind it up and place it on her pillow when you lay down for a nap. When your father died, your mother gave it to you.
When was it you realized you were tone-deaf and started to sing only in the car or in your head? I want you to sing again.
I give you Aunt Mary’s sound system, the red velvet panels and wood carvings, and the sound of Billie Holiday.
I give you Billie Holiday’s voice and the crackling sound of a needle on vinyl.
I give you the crackling sound of a needle on vinyl.
[Note: A shorter version of this poem was read aloud at the Amplify Launch Event on January 29, 2018]