Sunday, December 11, 2005

Old Ranch Dies

Mom grew up on a ranch.

At home she held court in the bedroom, propped against pillows on the king size bed, Dad's abstract-expressionist canvas spreading across the wall above her; a wingless angel in yellows and oranges looking down. I see her most often there, in a flowered caftan, my brothers strewn around the bed talking, Mom's legs crossed neatly at the ankles. I would lie at her feet, my fingers tracing the scar that curved around her ankle bone where they put the screws in.

Summers we went to the ranch. Grandma and Grandpa kept it going well into their eighties. Mom was different there, in jeans, riding a horse, in the garden with me and my sister, picking strawberries. We'd sneak a few into our mouths along the way, heavy with summer juice.

The ranch was alive to me then, games of Marco Polo with my brothers and cousins in the yard. A nest with robin's eggs just out the window of the upstairs bunkhouse. Shucking corn in the dooryard. A hand slipped under the fluff of a hen for warm eggs. Grandma bustling around the kitchen, apron over her faded flowered dress, Grandpa chewing on a piece of hay, pulling off his work gloves before sitting down.

The ranch is gone now, lost. Sold after Grandma & Grandpa's deaths, fallen into mud and neglect. But Mom saw its death long before. She knew a different time, when the bunkhouses were full of ranch hands, Mom as a girl, with her sisters, carrying pots of food to a tableful of men. When Grandpa called her Tommy, and she pitched hay at his side.

I wish I could bring it all back - Mom and the ranch, the poplar trees and Grandpa's hands around a cow's teat, ringing milk against the metal wall of a bucket - I try, with words, but it's never enough.

Mom, maybe, was more successful.

Old Ranch Dies
Uncle Tone played Bonies with us
in the dooryard dirt, between
the poplar trees; heifers,
horses, mares in stick corrals;
collected from their disconnected
skeletons, sun dried, bird cleansed
for our farms and barns.

Uncle Tone lived that summer
in one of a row of cowhand cabins
made of wood so old it held inside
the cool and ancient light.

We watched him shave
from an enameled basin, chip-pocked,
filled with soap scum on the water, cold.

He worked the leather razor strop,
lathered up. I thought saddle soap
would serve better on his tooled face,
than the floating bloated stuff.

He applied the edge and grated
upwards, laying swath by swath;
made a map like hayfields mowed,
with only fringes top and bottom
left, for a sidewise scythe.

His face wavered in the mirror
and he turned and flung the basin
empty to the dooryard,
water arcing a continuum
where poplars stood in rows
armed against the wind--

And made a sheltering place
for owl, pivoting his face
as he spoke--

Of how the pigs got out that day,
left us clinging to the screen door
while aunties grabbed their brooms,
sweeping courage in stampeding clouds
doubling the other way--

Of how we three rode sandwiched
flank by flank upon Old Ruth,
among the cottonwoods--

How, in the grainery we slithered
in within the bins of wheat--

And how we stood inhaling leather
hanging smooth inside the saddle house,
soothed in the gloom of the light.

Uncle Tone could swing a lariat
while headlong galloping the hills,
could bounce it, bellied out against
the wind, that spoke of white-eyed
panic from the day that Golden Racket
kicked his stall apart, reared
and neighed his way out,
splintering the fence.

Uncle Tone played Bonies with us
in the dooryard dirt. Now he's moving on.
His skeleton is in its mound--white bones
are disconnecting, making
bonies, underground.


jason evans said...

Is the poem your mother's?

Again, fine writing Chemical Billy.

Bones said...

I've traced those scars on another ankle.

My chest is full of memories, Chems. Gonna sleep on them.

Sylvana said...

It always makes me sad to hear of family farms/ranches that disappear. All that history and life. You and your mom do a right fine job of giving us a taste of that.

azuremonkey said...

She is, no doubt, holding court still.

Beautiful, her words and yours. And my jealousy for those who can weave words in poetic form grows.

BH said...

Beautiful. Heartfelt. Your words tug on far more empathetic strings than I imagined. Thank you for the smiles through the tears that this brought.