I Wish You This

“Family reunion.”  Most people have a reaction to the phrase, good or bad.  For us, it is very good.  Every other year my five siblings and I—the Janssen clan—gather from the East coast and the Midwest for several days of catching up and simply enjoying each other’s company.  We make connections from time to time in between, but this is our traditional touch point, highly anticipated and treated as sacred.

This year we met in Hendersonville, North Carolina, where we enjoyed southern food, the farmer’s market, hiking, and of course Biltmore.  It was our biggest shindig yet, with 28 present at one point, three generations playing games, swapping stories, laughing and crying, and comparing symptoms of growing older.  It was glorious.  Two poems came from it, the first about the resident dog, and the second upon reflection a few weeks later.  I hope you enjoy them, and even more, I wish you the kind of love we share—have shared—through thick and thin, all these years.

Reunion 2018Chester

Chester was skittish at first.

All these strangers,

too many smells

invading the comfort

of the home he has come to know

as safe, with human caretakers

letting love do its slow work.

 

He feels himself returning

to his earnest self

curious, tentative master

of his doable domain

couch, floor, grass,

ground-level patrol

providing a purpose.

 

He resigned himself to

the presence of these strangers

while the mothers reassured,

holding his questions safe,

their hands lowering the same dish,

saying his name again like

the comforting refrain

he learned that first day.

 

These strangers

seem to hold one another

in the same way,

allowing each other

enough space to be

their true selves,

reassuring one another

with the same mellow refrain

as always.

Their laughter is life.

Their tears caress and heal.

 

Chester knows:

these humans are safe.

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The Why

 At the turn of the year—

every even-numbered one—

we begin to feel the pull

of the family reunion.

 

The hows and whens and wheres

are passed back and forth

weighed, tested, settled.

 

The why is left unsaid,

unquestioned, assumed

bearing its own shape and heft

exerting its gravitational force

stronger, steadier

as the biennial circuit turns,

and the dream promises

to materialize

again.

 

It draws us

on our pilgrimages

to the convergence,

the day when

two and

one and

four and another

appear,

happily helpless against

the fierce

soft attraction,

careless in the wild explosion of

recognition

re-union

re-vival.

 

It settles and breathes

holds

listens

calls the dance of

memory and mourning and

bears witness to what

it keeps creating.

 

Into each ear it whispers

of wonder and resilience,

of time’s sweet endowments

and healing

as it reclines underneath the stories,

the shared history remembered six ways,

lazily tracing lines

of inevitable, invisible connection

on our skin.

 

And then

it offers its benediction as

it colors each embrace

for vivid remembrance,

claims its authority

in each gaze.

Lingers in the air,

in the blood as

each one turns away

released into its larger

orbit, until

next time.

 

Gettysburg

In July my husband and I took a side trip to Philadelphia and Gettysburg before meeting my family in North Carolina for our biennial reunion.  He has enjoyed reading about the Civil War, so we were excited to have the chance to stay in Gettysburg itself (right next to the house where Abraham Lincoln polished his famous address!).  We hired a personal guide who took us chronologically through the fields and ridges of those three fateful days.

It was sobering, of course.  The next morning I penned a couple of poems about my thoughts.

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Gettysburg I

On a tour of the battlefield

the chess moves of Meade and Lee

were described, the relentless

volley of bullets and mortar

faintly sounding, letting up

in periods of advance and retreat.

 

The thud of our sons’ shattered bodies

meeting the soil of planted acres

assaults any noble thought of

war’s elusive aspirations.

 

The ends cannot justify any means.

They are one and the same.

Ends of lives and hope,

meanness exposed

after the smoke clears.

It is hard to justify what is no longer there.

Little Round Top
Little Round Top

Gettysburg II

There is endless analysis

of the strategies and circumstances

of a battle waged on ordinary hills.

 

What I will remember is

our guide explaining such simple factors

with enormous consequences:

the assumption that guns were loaded

when they weren’t, the lighting of

cannon fuses that were defective,

the failure to send a message.

Mostly the refusal of a handful of leaders to quit.

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