Poem: What Lives

Aunt Jeanie and I

What Lives

My grandfather was a sharecropper,
living in the old house without a lick of paint.
The story goes is each year, with his share of the profits
he painted one side of the house,
which promptly swallowed the pain alive.
It took three go around before it became the white
you see today.

I never lived there.
For me it was summers and weekends.
Hot days hoeing peanuts with the black men,
so foreign in my world, more than workers,
they were my grandfather’s friends,
sharerers of work, laughter and fishing holes.
The day began with feeding hogs,
and ended in the mill pond back in the woods
where I rarely caught fish, but did not care.
I learned the value of silence.

I did not Iive there.
I came and went. WIth parents. Without.
On Sundays, we went to the old Methodist Church.
My grandfather sang in a baritone voice.
Familiar hymns of the ages, with gusto,
and with, something I had not seen before, with joy.
I learned to drive tractors, work in the garden.
I learned what was to become my own life,
without lectures or lessons. Simply living
in the shadows of the pine forests and cornfields.

I did not live there, in the land of cousins
tiny town halls for places that were not even towns,
crossroads. Little more.
It sank into me like osmosis,
coloring everything that was not skin,
and sent me on my way into the cities, assuring
I would never fit in, assuring I was enough
to not care,
I did not live there.
It lives in me. I see it each day,
hear it in my voice, my words,
feel it in the moments of peace
that moved me from cities and the rush of life,
to this small corner of Vermont
where I became a wise child, following my grandfather,
making the days rounds

About this poem

Last week I went down to Surry County, Virginia to see my Aunt Jeanie, At 87 she lost her husband a few months ago, and just recently lost her son to Covid, Jeanie is, as my son says,
“a light in this world.” Active, busy, smart, involved. She has learned over a long history, how to mourn and move on, neither one diminishing the other.

Jeanie lives in what was my grandfather’s house. He really was a sharecropper made good. That story is a long one, not for here, but it is a story of how treating people well pays off both in traditional ways of success, and in ways that typical dog eat dog success never pays off.

It was a good visit. I saw my sisters. My daughter. And this place, that, while I did not live there, formed me.



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