Cheryl Savageau

Wretched

Tonight I’m wretched. I thought these meds were supposed to work, but I’ve been slipping into a depression, getting worse each day. I’m irritable and pessimistic during the day, but at night I’m really despairing. I keep thinking I might as well be dead. I’m not planning anything, but life seems useless. My life seems useless.

I used to sleep and sleep. Now instead of just being tired, I’m desperately sad. I am really afraid I am going into another one of those mixed manias or frantic depressions. I still have no sense of whether what I am thinking, what seems to make sense comes from any real place, or just chemical soup. My unstable moods are not being controlled by these meds I agreed to take.

Sometimes I think we go crazy just so people will put us away somewhere and take care of us for awhile. Just to not have to think, not have to answer to anything or anyone. My brain, my feelings are all on overload, and I can’t get away. Like they say: wherever you go, there you are.

Sometimes when I feel sad, I see myself huddled in a corner, crying, but tonight I don’t have that separation. I am here, completely, in my body.

People say things. They say, You’ll never be a bag lady. Or, If you need anything, let us know. Or, If we can help…  They don’t mean it. It is just something they say. What do they mean, never be a bag lady?  I am out of money. I’ve lost my home. They don’t say, Come stay with me until you sort things out. Nobody says, Do you have groceries?

But that is not really true, I have to tell myself, it is only how I feel. It is depression talking. My sister does say, Come stay with me for awhile. She takes me out to buy clothes, towels, pillows for my bed. My son and his wife take me into their home. My brother pays to have my piano moved and tuned. He helps me move out of my apartment and puts stuff into storage for me. My friend from high school shows up and takes me out to concerts, out to lunch and museums, and cabaret night at the Club Cafe. When my car dies, another brother gives me the old one sitting in his yard. There are a lot of people supporting me, but depression says otherwise, says I am totally alone, nobody cares.

 

I call friends. Some of them are worn out. Some of them drop out of my life. Everyone it seems, is scheduled. No one can impulsively have a cup of tea. I grew up in a world where you just showed up, just went over to someone’s house and opened the door. Let me put the kettle on, they would say. Have you eaten?

 

Stories and Storms

Give a person a few objects, give them a place, an event, or a few characters, and they will see connections, uncover meaning, make a story.

When I was a girl, at the first sound of thunder, my maternal grandmother went from room to room, blessing each doorway with holy water, then setting a small saucer of it outside the front door. She closed the curtains, and gathered us around her, holding the baby as she rocked and sang to all of us, talking about the angels washing the floors upstairs, about bowling alleys in heaven.

My father preferred to watch storms up close. He pulled open the curtains and raised the blinds so we wouldn’t miss any zigzag lightning, or the size of hail stones that might fall.  Storms were to be cheered on, like a sports team when they did something well. That was a good one, he’d say of a particularly strong lightning burst, or a sudden clap of thunder. Way to go.

When I said thunder is scary, he told me, It’s the lightning that can hurt you. So if you see the lightning, it’s already missed you. Thunder is just reminding you that you’re safe. Every bright light, every crack and boom. One time we watched ball lightning land on the top of a telephone pole on the far edge of the field. It landed on top, rolled down the side and just before hitting the ground, exploded into sparks that disappeared into the humid air.

After my father built a wide concrete front porch, we watched storms roll in from the west. Under the protection of the overhanging roof, surrounded by the wet air, the rain splashing around us, we were part of the storm, the wind, the invigorating smell.

Watching a storm inevitably brought up memories of former storms, like the memories of baseball games or fishing trips, or the births of children. We told each other stories of storms we’d witnessed together, the ball lightning storm, the fallen birches, the cloud-to-cloud lightning, mighty voices of thunder. We told each other about the flooding of the front yard, wading through the cool water, the grass tickling our ankles, and how an hour later it was gone, absorbed into the underground rivers and lakes Dad told us about.

Together we remembered the time the eye of a hurricane passed right over us and we went outside into twenty minutes of blue sky, and how the winds raged afterwards around that that peaceful center. My father told about the fierce tornado of ’53 that started out in the Quabbin, twenty-six miles west, and traveled for forty seven minutes on the ground and left a swath half a mile wide here in Massachusetts where we hardly ever had tornadoes. What  I remembered was my grandmother holding tight to my hand, hurrying us home from St. Ann’s church, the green sky, hailstones we collected in buckets, and then going to see the houses and trees knocked down the next day just a few streets from our house.

When I was in eighth grade a storm came up during baseball practice and a boy at my school ran toward the building carrying one of the bases over his head for protection from the rain. Its metal clasp drew the lightning and killed him instantly. His story became one of many cautionary tales. Don’t stand under a tree. Carry nothing metal. Be the lowest thing around, under a canoe or rowboat or a bulkhead, or if worse came to worse, lying in a ditch or in the tall grass.

The stories about angels and bowling alleys were fun, but truth was on the front porch. The storms gave us rain and wind and the good deep breaths we took of charged air. We gave back our attention, our applause, our stories.

Poetry for Breakfast

It began at breakfast with my mother and grandmother telling me nursery rhymes. Old King Cole was a merry old soul, and a merry old soul was he. I sang and recited, in love with the music, the shapes of words in my mouth, thrilled and terrified by the image of the little girl with the curl in the middle of her forehead, who when she was good, was very very good, but when she was bad, she was horrid. How did they know that about me?

By fourth grade, I was in love with Poe. Edgar Allen Poe. Even his name sounded dark. The stories were scary, but the language -  “the silken sad uncertain rustling of each purple curtain,” was delicious. “I was a child, and she was a child / in that kingdom by the sea / and we loved with a love / that was more than love / me and my Annabel Lee.”  So magical, the sound, the love between children, he knows about that. One morning I surprised my father by sitting down and saying with quiet intensity,  “True! - nervous - very, very dreadfully nervous I had been and am; but why will you say that I am mad?”

When I was twelve, two books appeared in the bathroom library, books my father was reading in night school—a slim volume of poems by T.S. Eliot, and the complete works of Walt Whitman. It seems odd to me now, that it was Eliot and not Whitman who made me aware that poetry could illuminate the most daily activities. I remember reading Eliot’s “Preludes,” which begins:

            The winter evening settles down

            With smell of steaks in passageways.

            Six o’clock.

            The burnt-out ends of smoky days.

            And now a gusty shower wraps

            The grimy scraps

            Of withered leaves about your feet

            And newspapers from vacant lots;

            The showers beat

            On broken blinds and chimney-pots,

            And at the corner of the street

            A lonely cab-horse steams and stamps.

            And then the lighting of the lamps.

           

I had a paper route at the time, and every evening I opened doors into back hallways and the smells of peoples’ dinners cooking. I’d felt the wind and rain, the leaves blowing around my feet. The only horse we had in our neighborhood was the one that belonged to the union boss that we all had a chance to ride around the neighborhood bonfire on Halloween, and the lamps lit in our neighborhood were electric and came on all at once, but it didn’t matter. Here were the details of everyday life—of my life—caught in a music more subtle than Poe’s, one I wouldn’t understand for years.

Still later, in eighth grade, I discovered the sonnets of Shakespeare. I remember first reading “Shall I Compare Thee to a Summer’s Day” in study hall. The power of it moved me—very literally—out of my seat and into the hallway, me, the quiet, serious student, skipping out of study hall in an ecstatic trance. For me, it’s not the little hairs standing up on the back of my neck. I must get up and walk around, open doors, stretch, breathe deeply, dance, leap, hug someone.

I was like a bell that had been struck. I walked through the hallways filled with, elated by, the power and beauty of the poem that was so much bigger than its parts. I walked the halls until the end of that class period, as the fire subsided into a sure, warm ember. I spoke to no one about it. I suspected there was no one I could speak to about it.

You might think that I began writing at this point. I did not. I thought of myself as a reader, as a listener. These voices that came to me in books— across the centuries, from places as far away as Europe or as close as Providence, Rhode Island, I considered kindred spirits, ones who understood my heart before ever I was born, ones who loved the world with particular passion, the ones who could make magic with words. It never occurred to me that I could become part of that conversation.

Where I grew up people wrote grocery lists, left notes on the door, signed birthday cards, wrote down directions to a beach or party, shared recipe cards. They wrote estimates for plumbing or painting jobs, police reports, measurements and material requirements for making a dress. They did not write poems. They did not write books.

In love with the world as I was, with every bird, leaf, flower, insect, cloud, and river, I turned to science, which was broken up inexplicably into biology, the study of life—which left out the clouds, rivers and mountains—and the earth sciences where I could find the secrets of wind and weather, the secret passion of earth deep beneath her skin. For the stars I had to look to astronomy; for lightning, to physics.

At first it was all just description upon description. I loved it for the careful attention it paid to the world. I forgot the teacher who in first grade had said that water wasn’t alive, and how I put on my boots and turned my back and my heart on her. If she didn’t understand that water was alive, I couldn’t believe anything she said. I wanted to pay that kind of attention to the world. I wanted to get up close, and cherish every bit of it.

It was only later that I questioned a system that kills in order to study life, that divides the world into living and non-living, and assigns a hierarchy of worth to the entire world,  a system that negates spirit, that sees the world only in terms of its physical manifestation, a world without magic, in which mystery means simply a puzzle to be solved, rather than a numinous something to be experienced, the matrix in which we all live, the experience that the poets at their best, invite us into, make us remember.

The Death Turnpike

In the 1930s, when my mother was a girl, her sisters would come in a rowboat to take her to the island where they lived in small, winterized cottages that had been vacation cottages until the island became too crowded and unfashionable. It was cheap housing for the poor during the Great Depression.

Before the cottages, the island had been a park. My grandmother remembered riding the trolley from her home on Shrewsbury St. in Worcester down to the lake, where they boarded a ferry boat from the Marina on Rte 9. Families went there to picnic and swim. At one point there was a racetrack for horses or dogs. Our house was on one leg of what had been that track.

Before we lived there, before the park or the cottages or the racetrack, the island had been part of what the Nipmuc people called Quinsigamond, the pickerel fishing place. The lake is still called Quinsigamond, and when I was a girl, there were a lot of pickerel still, those small, lake-size barracuda with sharp teeth and lots of tiny bones and sweet flesh.

Sometime after the Hurricane of 1938, when the community house was blown down, never to be rebuilt, the state filled in some land on the south part of the island and built a highway. They made two small bridges, so small a passing motorist would barely notice them,that connected the island to Shrewsbury on the east and Worcester on the west.

The highway had as many names as a character from a Russian novel, only none of them were affectionate. Some just told you where it was or where it went to, or what number the state gave to it: The Boston-Hartford Turnpike, the Southwest Cutoff, Rte. 20. One described its character —The Death Turnpike.

There were many ways off the island, if you had a boat. Three if you were walking— the two ends of the horse track that led onto the Cutoff, and an old dirt road that crossed a dam on the other side of the island, with the big lake on one side, Flint Pond on the other. But if you were driving, there was no way to avoid the Cutoff.

It was a dangerous place. From the very first days of its being open, people began dying on its three lanes, one lane going in each direction, and the middle one for passing. You can see how that would be a problem. Two cars making the switch to the middle lane at the same time. Or misjudging their timing. Or black ice or rain or drunkenness, or maybe the lack of traffic lights. The Death Turnpike, it was baptized in blood.

But we didn’t call it that. To us it was the Cutoff, and we weren’t allowed there. Every day at noon we’d hear the firehouse whistle blow from the bottom of the hill, calling us all in for lunch. By the time we were twelve, we could ride our bikes down to the firehouse, and to Jim’s Gas Station next door where we’d put air into our tires, and watch the trucks go by. Next to Jim’s was the Edgemere Diner, where we’d get hot cocoa in winter, and later, breakfast at midnight with jukeboxes at each table, our last stop on a date.

When we were old enough, we walked to the Spa. This was not a place you went to for beauty treatments, with big towels and fancy drinks. It was a small grocery, with a soda fountain, comic books, cigarettes and batteries. We didn’t actually spend our time in the Spa, we had to buy things to stay inside. Going to the Spa meant hanging outside, watching the traffic go by, smoking cigarettes, meeting up with friends and deciding what to do next.

We watched a meteor flash through the sky from there, one that ultimately landed in New Jersey. My first dog, Prince, died there, and Mrs. LaMoine’s husband. Farther down by the bridge, my cousin Sonny died in a crash. Neighbors and relatives and people we didn’t know. The trucks didn’t slow down. Once, when I was eight months pregnant, my belly touching the steering wheel, a truck ran me off the road—I barely had time to make a sharp right onto Lakeside drive— one of the two legs of the horse track that ran into Rte 20.

One day, in my early twenties, I was driving to my parents’ house with my two-year-old son. The Cutoff was full of trucks as usual, and I thought nothing of it when I pulled over to the middle lane to take my left turn onto the island. Nothing until I looked in the rear-view mirror, and saw that a semi had pulled into the lane behind me, and had no intention of stopping. Another semi was passing me on the right, and a third was coming head-on toward me in lane number three. There was no way I could make a left turn in time.

I remember seeing my son, who’d been tossed to the floor. I thought it was over for both of us, and grieved his short life. And then I felt it, that peace people talk about. Death is the best high, that’s why they save it for last—who said that? Jim Morrison?  Who knows. But I felt it, euphoria, peacefulness, total acceptance.

I watched the semi that was approaching me veer off into a yard and nearly into the lake. The truck behind me squeezed by inches from my face, scraping the chrome, the door handle, and the mirror off the car. And then time speeded up again, and I reached for my son. I could see people outside Jim’s Gas Station watching, but I was too dazed to do anything. Finally, one of the men came over and tapped at the window. He motioned me to open the door, since there was no longer a handle on the outside, and when I did, he walked me over to Jim’s, then went back to get the car. That’s what I remember—that moment of peace and the truck scraping against the car. I couldn’t believe we were alive.

The man who’d walked me from my car, looked back at me and we locked eyes before he left. I recognized his face, but I didn’t know from where. I never saw him again. Thank you. I remember saying thank you.

We were safe. We were lucky. It should have been over. I should have appreciated the fact that we were alive, the beauty of each ordinary day. Isn’t that what’s supposed to happen?  It didn’t happen that way.

It was that moment of peace.  You’re not supposed to get that moment of peace unless you die.  But I’d had it, that intense understanding that it was all alright. I accepted Death and then lived. Now Death was gunning for me.

At first it was just fear on the highway. Cringing as a semi flew by. Who wouldn’t cringe after being surrounded by semis, after having one fly by six inches from their face. The Hartford Turnpike, Rte 20, the Death Turnpike, no longer went to Hartford, but merged instead with Rte 84, where the trucks traveled even faster. You could feel the air suck toward them as they flew past, tires whistling. My husband’s family lived in the Hartford area, and each time we got on the road, the anxiety would begin. What started as cringes, escalated into gasps, covering my head and hunching my shoulders against a crash, then finally, trying to get out of the car, away from danger.

I tried to open the car door— I have to get out, I have to get out—and my husband swerved as he pulled me back toward him, trying to reason with me. You can’t get out, we’re going sixty five miles an hour. I know, I know, but I have to get out. Not once, but every time we drove to Hartford.

My son was in the back seat, five, six years older now and terrified of his mother trying to jump out of the car, but nevertheless I had to escape. Danger. Everywhere danger. In the car, out of the car. No moment of peace. Just Death. Everywhere.

 

 

 

Cheryl Savageau is the author of three collections of poetry, Mother/Land, Dirt Road Home, which was a finalist for the Paterson Poetry Prize and nominated for a Pulitzer Prize, and Home Country. She has won Fellowships in Poetry from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Massachusetts Artists Foundation, and has been twice nominated for Pushcart Prizes. Her children’s book, Muskrat Will Be Swimming, was a Smithsonian Notable Book, won the Skipping Stones Award for children’s environmental literature, and Best Children’s Book of the Year from Wordcraft Circle of Native Writers and Storytellers. Her work has appeared most recently in Yellow Medicine Review, Cape Cod Review, and Hinchas de Poesia and in the anthologies, Sovereign Erotics, and Ghost Fishing: An Eco-Justice Poetry Anthology. In 2018, she will be teaching at the Bread Loaf School of English and Wheaton College. Her memoir, Out of the Crazywoods, is out for submission.