Thursday, April 28, 2011

Wrapping Up Monologues: Mabel's Story

The great English poet Robert Browning wrote many monologues, among them My Last Duchess, the one most likely to be encountered in high school. Browning was a prodigious and exuberant writer and I have often read him just to be uplifted.

He also rhymed his monologues, which even now remains a feat beyond my capability.

This last monologue is actually based on a real person, my paternal grandmother. My grandmother was an unimaginative, hardworking farmwife who came from Kentucky in the depths of the Great Depression with her husband and her little son, my dad. (I do not know whether my aunt Gail had been born yet.)

I know very little about my grandmother's early years, other than she loved school so much that she repeated eighth grade three times just to stay in school. This was back in a time in rural Kentucky when a high school education required having the money to board the student "in town."

Life was not easy for my grandmother after she married. Money was tight. My grandfather, although a strong worker, drank. My grandmother always had many health problems, all of them exacerbated and accelerated by her refusal to take care of her health. I remember her as a no-nonsense, unaffectionate woman who was always working at something: canning, quilting, cooking, gardening, gathering eggs, cleaning the house.

In the photo, my grandmother is the woman smack in the middle of the photo, her arms on the shoulders of her parents in front.


Maggie Mabel

I loved school -
     the chalky smell of it
     the flag hanging in the corner
     the neatness of Teacher's desk.
Loved it all so much I wanted to go on with my learning,
but there wasn't enough money to board me in town
what with all the youngsters still at home and Ma's weak heart.
They let me repeat eighth grade twice more as a kind of teacher's
helper, but then everyone said "That's enough,"
and Pa was doing poorly too.

What do you do when you are 17 and live back up a holler
with younger sisters all prettier than you?
They got the curly hair; they got the smiles that lit up their faces.
Me? I was built square and solid, close to the ground, my hair thin and frizzy.
Even when I was happy, I viewed the world
with a grim look of no expectations.
So when that tall, rangy boy came courting me, I didn't say no,
no matter what I thought.

We started out like so many others with a lick and a promise of
better things to come.
Jim'd drive if there was gas or else ride the mule
to where he was cutting wood for the day.
I stayed home, cooking and cleaning.
I tended the garden,
put up canned goods, quilted every scrap I could find, gathered eggs,
and scratched out our daily bread from that shallow, rocky soil.

When the Depression came, we didn't so much as feel it, times already being
bad in the hills. Then it got worse.
We eked out a life until our boy turned three,
then Jim came home and said we were headed to Ohio,
where the farming was better and
he could surely find work.

And that was that.

While he tuned and patched our old Ford, I sorted
and packed the household goods,
my face already hardened to the future.

1 comment:

see you there! said...

Well written.

Such a hard life. One wishes she could have had more "schooling" as that seemed to be a bright spot for her.