Sunday, October 29, 2017

Emma Smith: A Flower of the Heart

Emma and Robert Smith at the Mason Ball


Flowers of the Heart Five October 29, 2017

For Emma Smith

We met nineteen years ago. I was buying
this house and land, and she and Robert 
lived next door. I came with Liz, my real
estate agent, who was black. Emma said,
“You’re like us.” Robert is black, and she’s
white. She welcomed me from the first, as
did her three-year-old grandson, Demetrius,
who hugged my knees. Robert was more
cautious, but before long I talked him into
going to get horse manure with me. When
puppy Lucky came to live with them in
2000, when we had our big snowstorm, 
Lucky and Demetrius came over to watch
me plant flowers in front, and vegetables
in back. People asked Harold, who was
working with me against a low-level
nuclear dump, if I were Emma’s mother.
He said yes. It was Emma who did the
mothering. She told Robert’s friends
to bring me firewood. One cut down a 
dead tree for me. She’d come over and
tell me about her life. Robert was
difficult, but she stuck to him. When
he got cancer, she was right there
through surgeries, chemo, radiation.
Robert kept moving and held off
dying as long as he could. Emma was
always ready to give me a ride, to my 
mechanic or to the hospital. Once she
loaned me her car. When it was time
for her to sell their house, she stipulated
that my new neighbor had to promise
to help me. Emma said I should still
call her if I needed a ride. When I fell
in the road near my house in July,
she heard about it and came to check
on me. She has her health problems,
but they don’t slow her down much.
She always says what she thinks, even
more than I do. For that I love her, and
for her impulse to help other people. She 
lives for her grandsons. We lost Demetrius
when he was only thirteen. Emma grieved
but now that new baby has her glowing with
with pride, and Omari. She makes sure he 
does well in school, and she goes to all his
games. How lucky I am to have Emma in

my life: a few miles away but still close by.


Demetrius Alston with his father Kenny and his mother Novella (Missy)

Sunday, October 22, 2017

Elaine Goolsby, A Flower of the Heart

Flowers of the Heart Four  October 22, 2017

For Elaine Goolsby

Her voice was never loud, yet
she stood firm when it mattered.
She listened well and then asked
penetrating questions beyond the
skill of most social workers, trained
though they are to get to the bottom
of things in other people’s souls. I
first met Elaine when her poet
sister Virginia visited me. I came to 
know and love her when I taught a
writing class through Durham Tech, 
and asked my students to bring in
a letter they, or someone else, had
written. She brought her pen pal’s, 
from when she and Graham began
their correspondence right after
World War II. This first letter,
recovered, set off what she called
her “letter in a bottle.” She wrote
to find him, and he called her up.
Their correspondence came back
to life. She showed me the letters,
and we decided to publish them, 
and did.  Graham came for the
occasion. Later she would go
to England, and I would meet him,
too, when I was in Wales. Elaine
and I became close and had lunch
together every few weeks, first at
the Greek restaurant, Mariakakis,
and later at Nantucket, both in
Chapel Hill. By the 90s, at Fortune
Garden or their Thailanna, near where 
she lived in Durham. Elaine, a good
listener, was occasionally fierce,
but only when it mattered. She knew
more about me than most people did,
and then she was always helping me.
In the 80s, my Carolina Wren Press
became a Durham Arts Council
affiliate, and all those boxes had to be
moved several times, and her husband
B.D. would help, too. When I left the
house on Barclay Road to move to
Saxapahaw, she and her son Chris helped,
despite icy rain, on January 1. One very
hot July day in 1995, she and B.D. moved
me from the room I rented in Saxapahaw
to a storage unit. We ate watermelon for
electrolytes. When I flew out of Raleigh-
Durham they’d let me sleep on their 
couch and then take me early to the airport.
When B.D. got sick, I’d call a cab. She
took nearly every class I offered, and
kept writing poems. She lost B.D. and 
other good friends. She has had a lot of 
losses, but she’d talk to those dying
and offer comfort. Slowly her mind
has drifted into early dementia, but she 
keeps reading. When she couldn’t take
care of her daughter, Heather began taking 
care of her. Now they have her quarantined
because she might have tuberculosis. No
one can go into the house, and she can’t 
go out until they know. As long as I could,
I took her to Thailanna and brought her
library books. She’d still ask those
penetrating questions, but she’d forget
my answers. Anna and Gif came to love
her, and we all miss her. She’ll soon be
eighty-eight. She doesn’t complain about
all her losses. Sometimes she laughs.
A very sturdy, sane friend, who, through
these years, has found the grace to accept
what she can’t change.

Sunday, October 15, 2017

A Rare Poet: Jaki Shelton Green

Christmas Cactus in my Kitchen Window.

Flowers of the Heart Three October 15, 2017
For Jaki Shelton Green

We live in racist times. It was bad
here in the early seventies, but Jaki drove
to our old farmhouse set off away from
the farmer’s new brick one, with a
briefcase full of poems. Slight, but 
determined. Brave, undaunted. I’d had 
a postcard: “We are two black writers. 
Are you interested in our work?” I wrote
back to send it. They did, and then Jaki
arrived alone. I was shocked to read:
“The moon is a rapist peeing in my
window,” but I recognized a different
cultural take on the moon in the Ku Klux Klan
South. I published her first book Dead on
Arrival. She had two young children, as
did I. Sometimes I picked up Segun when
I got Ginia from the Victory Village Daycare.
Once I hosted local poets for a potluck at
our farmhouse. Another poet’s teenaged
son, when Jaki was working with a wok
in the kitchen, thought she was the maid.
We laughed. It has been forty-four years. 
She has won so many honors: Piedmont
Poet Laureate, North Carolina Award, North
Carolina Literary Hall of Fame. Once she was
angry when I refused one book, but I published
Dead on Arrival and New Poems. Later,
those who took up Carolina Wren Press, 
brought out newer ones. When her daughter
Imani died, after a short and terrible fight
against a raging cancer, her sun went into
a shadow realm. She was terribly sick, even
paralyzed. Finally, a holistic doctor helped
with diet and other treatments. Jaki began
to heal and once more gave readings. Now
she has a major art show of remembrance
for her lost Imani. Years ago she was
invited to a poetry event in the mountains
for the Fourth of July. We had her third baby
with us, little Eva. We sat outside, and
Jaki wrote a poem in her notebook;
“Simmering in blood. Simmering in blood...”
Those lines repeated over and over. I published
it. Her candle has burned bright these forty-four
years, except for that darkness when Imani died,
and grief imprisoned her. Our friendship held.

Sunday, October 8, 2017

Someone I can always count on

Flowers of the Heart 2 October 8, 2017

For Katherine Wood Wolfe

Katherine drove to Durham from her 
home in Goldsboro every week to my
writing classes in the late 1990s. I was
selling bread, and Katherine always bought
a cinnamon loaf and ate some driving home.
When she stopped commuting those ninety
miles, she worked with me by mail. She 
had been crippled by arthritis, but her 
spirit was so strong and determined, we 
forgot to notice. When I taught Proust, 
she had re-married, and I mailed her notes 
and my comments on her writing. She 
helped another woman write and publish 
her book. When my first mystery 
Killer Frost came out in 2012, she 
arranged a reading in Goldsboro and 
pulled in all her friends. I’ve been
each year since with new mysteries and
books of poetry. I go next Tuesday to
talk about my grandmother Grace. She
always indulges me, gives me flowers, 
prepares snacks for the occasion, and
late at night we talk about our lives and 
our writing. She publishes more of her
own work now. Her voice is strong
but not loud. She imagines the feelings
of children and gives them voices. She
notices things other people skim over. 
We were both born in 1937, I, in May; 
she, in September. She’s someone I can
always count on. Other people’s needs
don’t frighten her. She quietly adds
them to her “to do” list.

Sunday, October 1, 2017

Flowers of the Heart

Cosmos from my garden October 2011

Flowers of the Heart

One. October 1, 2017

For Marja-Sisko

We met in 1981 on a boat train out of London
to Harwich. I had waited hours for my standing-
room-only ticket. You had one, too, came over
to ask if I’d like to board with you, find a couch
in a lounge where we could spend the night.
You were twenty-one, had toured Europe and
North Africa on a youth pass. You pulled out
a sleeping bag, and slept at my feet, giving me
the couch. You were a teacher of learning-
disabled children, and my son was one. You
held onto me when we parted at Hoek Van 
Holland. I got cards: “It’s spring. We go
ice fishing.” and “Come to Finland!” In
1985 I visited you, Matti, and baby Eero for
two days. We picked berries and fed them
to Eero, made coffee from a clean stream,
ate roasted hot dogs. You taught me the
sauna ritual and explained it was a place
and time to speak of everything, even God
and sex. We visited an art gallery. In 1988 
I took Ginia, a vegetarian who wanted world 
peace. Ossi and Timo had joined the family.
We picked strawberries and went to an 
outdoor play while Matti bathed the boys, 
made supper, and even a pie. If world peace
begins at home, you and Matti were the
models, and your sons were learning to
make peace. They rarely quarreled. You 
and Matti shared the home chores and gave 
each other vacations. He went to Lapland to
fish, and you went to Russia, to Karelia,
where your roots were. We celebrated
Ginia’s sixteenth birthday with a berry
cake. In 1990 I took Tim, twenty-one
by then. We were traveling to Russia
for the first time. You took us to an
exhibit of Russian paintings, and I understood:
the Russians did not want war. I returned
in 1992, after two months in Russia. Always
there was the sauna, berry-picking, open talk,
fresh fish, even caviar, and very strong coffee.
In 1995 I came on my way to Russia for four 
months, and you had invited me to spend January-
April in your summer house on Maxmo Island, 
so I could write. I worked on my Russian books
and told also of my Finnish family. The boys
spoke English by then, and they helped with the
chores: making the sauna, laying out breakfast,
making the fire, going ice-fishing. You called me 
your window on the world, treasured me, and 
listened to my love song. Now I’m eighty, and
and you’re sixty. Your boys are grown. Matti
will retire, but you want to keep on working.
When a therapist asked me if I had any friends
who were my equal, I named you. In 2007 we 
went to Russia together. You entered gladly into
all our meetings. The Russians had seized Karelia
in World War II–your homeland--but you wanted
peace with your big neighbor. All this richness

began because I had a standing-room-only ticket.