Thursday, June 28, 2012

It takes a long time to get the long view

The following poem is a fictional account of actual people and events; only the names have been changed to protect the innocent the guilty whomever.

Florabelle Oxley (1918-2007)
by rhymeswithplague Robert H. Brague whomever

Born Florabelle Stillwater, part
Choctaw Indian, or maybe it was Cherokee,
in a little town in Central Texas;
she married Bud Oxley, a nice enough guy
who owned his own plumbing business
in another little town
and who also drank
maybe a little too much
a little too often;
she had two sisters, one in
North Las Vegas, Nevada,
and one in Tulare, California.

Florabelle raised Poland China hogs on
a forty-acre farm she and Bud owned
two miles north of town;
she also raised a
son named Jimmy Wayne who
didn’t do well in school
but loved to hunt squirrels, loved
to drive a tractor, loved to
swim in the pond where the hogs
and a small herd of cattle
came often to drink,
loved most of all to fish
in the selfsame pond,
and after leaving home
he became a fishing guide
somewhere down in
East Texas.

We could hear Florabelle
calling her hogs
every afternoon at four-thirty,
regular as clockwork,
sooooooey, sooooooey,
suey, suey, suey,
sooooooey, sooooooey,
a siren beckoning to Ulysses,
or Circe wooing Ulysses’ men
in from the fields to be
slopped and penned up for the night,
fattening them up for the kill
but not before winning prizes at
the annual Livestock Exposition and
Fat Stock Show in Fort Worth.

Florabelle had a heart of gold,
telling my parents, “So sorry
about your well,
of course you can get water
from the spigot and hose on the
side of my house,” which we did
for three long years,
or rather I did,
I, carrying drinking water
in buckets across the pasture
between our houses every other day,
I, pulling an old Red Flyer wagon
with a large aluminum garbage can,
shiny and new
and filled with water,
balanced on top
across the same pasture
twice a week,
I, hauling water so we could
bathe and wash dishes
and have clean pots and pans,
I, whose mother had earned
a teaching certificate from
West Chester State College in
Pennsylvania but
died of cancer anyway
in October of my senior year,
I, whose father never finished
high school and didn’t intend
to part with good money
just to dig a new well or
install indoor plumbing
for a sick wife,
I, who did quite well at school
and became valedictorian
of my class,
dependent on a country woman
with little education
who raised hogs
and had a son who
didn’t do well in school
didn’t do well
at all.

After fifty-three years of
living with Bud, Florabelle
became a widow and lived
thirteen more years
to the ripe old age of
eighty-eight; she was
confined to a wheelchair
for the last three years of her life,
but that didn’t slow her down much
because Bud’s niece, Jolene,
his sister Gaye’s youngest daughter
whose father had been mayor of the town,
Jolene, who as a teenager thought
dancing was a sin and told us all
she was going to become a
Southern Baptist missionary,
Jolene, who instead became
a registered nurse and
a three-time divorcee,
and decided to learn how to
square dance when she was
in her fifties,
Jolene, who fell in love
for a fourth time with
David, a Mormon guy from Utah,
and told him, “If you agree
to learn to square dance for me,
I’ll become a Mormon for you,”
and he did, and she did,
and they lived happily ever after,
that Jolene, at the age of sixty-three
assumed full responsibility
for Florabelle who was eighty-five
and confined to a wheelchair and
needed help getting dressed
and into and out of bed and couldn’t even
go to the bathroom by herself
and had a touch of the
to boot,
assumed responsibility for her aunt
because Jimmy Wayne was still
somewhere down in East Texas
helping all those city people
catch fish on weekends;
she and David, her fourth husband,
toted Florabelle all around the country,
driving all the way to North
Las Vegas, Nevada, and Tulare, California,
and back east to North Carolina
to visit Jolene’s sister, Bernice,
and all the way up to Washington state
where they flew kites on a beach
by the Pacific Ocean and took
photographs to prove it,
and out to Kaysville, Utah,
several times each year
to visit David’s children
and Jolene still found time
to produce and distribute
a quarterly newsletter complete with
scanned photographs
on her laptop computer
for her old classmates.

On the night all forty-six members
of the class of 1958
marched across the football field
and sang “Moments To Remember”
as sung by The Four Lads to the crowd
assembled in the stadium seats
and I gave my valedictory address
and we graduated from high school,
Jolene was my date, although date
is the wrong word because I
didn’t know how to drive yet
so we sat in the back seat
of my Dad’s car while he and
my soon-to-be-stepmother
took us somewhere to eat
and drove us around for a
couple of hours, pretending to
have a good time
when they probably wanted to
be somewhere else;
it was Florabelle who had quietly
suggested one afternoon
that it would be nice
if I asked her niece
to go out
after graduation.

A couple of years ago
Florabelle, Jolene, and David
spent a Saturday night with us
in North Georgia
on their way back to Texas
from North Carolina;
Florabelle didn’t know
who we were or where she was
but she did remember
Ruth, Ted, and Billy,
her old neighbors from
fifty-some years ago, and she
flirted shamelessly with David
at the dinner table,
and they all attended Easter service
with us the next day because
Jolene wanted to hear me
play the piano once again,
and Jolene seemed to enjoy our church
even though Florabelle said
the service was too long
and David said it was
more exuberant than he was used to,
and before they left
to get back on the road
Jolene snapped some pictures
and scanned some photographs
to use in a future newsletter.

Last week Florabelle died. I sent
flowers to the funeral home and
signed the online guest book
that was provided by the
obituary department of the
Fort Worth Star-Telegram;
I left a note saying what a
good neighbor she had been,
always ready with a laugh or a tear,
whichever fit the occasion,
and that Mama and Florabelle
were neighbors once again;
the next evening
one of the class officers
called and said “I went
to a funeral today and
your name came up; it was
mentioned from the pulpit.”

According to the Bible,
love covers a multitude of sins;
I would simply add that
love lets your neighbors have water
when they have none,
love makes you more than happy to
rearrange your life
to care for an elderly relative
who can no longer care for herself;
love doesn’t mind all the equipment
you have to lug around or
all the trouble it is
to produce a quarterly newsletter
for your classmates.

Dancing is not a sin;
being divorced three times is not a sin;
drinking maybe a little too much
is not a sin;
wanting to be a fishing guide
is not a sin;
not having enough money to be able to
afford to have a new well dug
is not a sin.

Sin is that which causes you,
upon receiving a brand new
telephone directory, to look at
your own name and address first;
it is loving yourself
to the exclusion of others,
it is concentrating on your own needs
and ignoring anyone else’s;
it is the complete self-centeredness
that makes you secretly pleased
to hear that your name
was mentioned from the pulpit;
it is trying to write a poem
to honor a neighbor or a friend
and ending up making it about yourself;
it is the missing of the mark altogether,
the coming short of the glory of God,
the glory in which, I hasten to add,
Mama and Florabelle now reside.


  1. In my ever so humble and probably worthless opinion, this is a fascinating piece of writing which accidentally captures some of the real spirit of America - how ordinary people have lived and what is meaningful in their lives. However, and here I risk your eternal wrath, I am not convinced that it is truly a "poem", more of a monologue with some poetic touches here and there. Are you reddening and yelling at the screen? Damn that Yorkshire Pudding!

  2. was this written originally by billy j barnwell? i seemed to have read about that fellow from utah, a mormon david and you once told me it was not ME you were referring tooooo<><><>???i dion't think you could personnallly write a piece that perfectly or beautifullly><><<>i don't know much about peoms but to me it is a peom because you told me it was

  3. Yorky, thank you for the kind words. The piece started out as prose. I submitted it to, and it was published by, Garrison Keillor's A Prairie Home Companion website a few years back. Then I changed it to poem form and published it in Chapter 33 of my other blog (which is a Rolls Royce), Billy Ray Barnwell Here.

    David, what a good memory you have, grandma! See my comment above to Yorkshire Pudding. And in case you have forgotten, Billy Ray Barnwell and I are the same person. At least, we share a brain and a body.

  4. i think a registered nurse and a three time divorcee is much cooler than becoming a southern baptist misssionary aand learning how to square dance in her 50's

  5. I agree with YP, in that I also think this captures beautifully a slice of America...Lovely writing, whatever the genre you consider it to be.

  6. There's a poetry blog I've been reading. She participates in poetry challenges. You might like to take a look at it.

    Art Happens 365


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