This is a poem which is mainly factual, within the limits most of us can assign to our own self-awareness and self-knowledge. It’s about a time in my life when I was fairly naïve and unknowing, and I’ve written it for two friends of mine who were, I think, concerned when they read another poem I’d written and wondered if it were true. This one is.
The Traitor (A True Story, for Della and Tom) I can remember what was once the new grade school From when I, too, was new; I remember the high, tall trees behind it, No good for climbing, because the branches Were so far up from the ground, Like a prince's cleared forest, And no underbrush. There was picking up acorns to put in piles, One acorn I recall, And wondering if I should take a bite As I had seen the squirrels do. And then the teachers shushing us to the hallway again, In a line, And we filing back into the long, low, brick building. Now there are times When I think of being one of many, Mostly the same to others looking in from outside, Our biggest difference who was rowdy, who was quiet. I was quiet, except that I talked in class To others, whispering, getting caught, But having no close friends Until a few years had elapsed. A test divided us into two different groups, One "more gifted," one "less gifted," To make two sections of each grade From one to six, And I furrowed my brow over the test And was deemed more gifted, While some happier-go-lucky souls, Probably just as quick, Were destined for the "slow" group. The second year, We were supposed to be grateful Because the big trees had been cleared away To make the boys a basketball court And the girls a volleyball court, Although I still preferred the round games And ring games we girls played Down in the dell below where the trees had been; There was at least still grass down there. For that, "I was going to Kentucky, I was going to the fair, I met a señorita with sparkles in her hair--" And "Round, round, round she goes--" Third year, fourth year, fifth year, We grew and grew, And for one year, at least I had a little double chin, Which promptly disappeared the next, Due to parental diligence. Sometimes, there was occasion To get punished: Being paddled in front of the class. In those times, it was allowed Just for laughing at a teacher's quavery voice when she sang with us, For unkindness used to merit Strict measures. And then, getting taken To the principal's office For not doing a homework assignment, "Because if you don't do it, And you're a good student, What will the other students think?" Helping keep up the side for the teachers, Clearly, was an important matter. Or, maybe, being stood out in the hall Outside the classroom For using the word "lackadaisical" In a poem, a word the teacher didn't know, And which he suspected therefore Must be copied from somewhere, Stuck out in the hall for when the principal, Who often strolled by on his rounds, Would come by and demand an explanation. No fodder that time for punishment, however, Since despite suspicion, I was able to give A dictionary definition. I knew they thought I was a smart ass, and normally I cared. All of these small adventures, And having my mother hear me recite Required memorizations at night, And doing previously forgotten projects With her help at the last minute, Getting frustrated because She made me come up with the answers myself, All lead up to the year Dad got sick, the fifth grade continuing to the sixth; And there was the slight accident With me in the car and his blind spot In the forefront of the matter, For then he was allowed to drive No more. It was, as I recall, in the middle Of a Saturday afternoon, maybe, Or early before dinner on a weeknight, Or maybe even some midmorning when she had taken a break That my mother called me into the basement And said, "I think Daddy's going to die. But don't tell your brother; he's too little To understand." I didn't understand either, Though "cancer" was a word I'd heard often enough, And "brain tumor" sounded lethal too, Since I had been taught so early To respect my brain and all its works and days. There were no tears, And "separation anxiety" wasn't a thing I would've known about either, Because it was a term from later on, A thing people discuss now. I think I felt a blank, no anxiety, And the blank continued to function. Not denial, really, But just a space Where other things might have been. I even think I stopped loving him then, sometimes, And was callous sometimes, in the way of children, Angry at him, perhaps, Dissatisfied that now I had to be one of those Who were different. There was a day before the end When someone, perhaps him without permission, Took me out to the lake where we had a lot, And he and I walked in the woods, Which I know now to him meant peace. And looking for signs and symptoms, I noticed not his sudden slenderness as we walked, His wan face and occasional stumble, But his arm, where the veins stood so prominently. Whether it was vicious of me to say, I know not, But I touched his arm and asked, "What's wrong with your arm, Dad?" He just looked at it, then at me, and said, "Nothing, I don't guess." Maybe that was a child's way Of asking after his health, Or maybe it was a way of acknowledging things better not spoken of out loud, Or maybe he felt glad to be able to deny Any culpability or wrongdoing On the part of that limb. I fought with myself at the funeral, But after, I had no tears, To my mother's fear and upset, So one night in the kitchen, Only female relatives sitting around In a circle, I was gently ambushed, Forced to cry by overdone sympathetic gestures and words, And then I think they were satisfied, And left me to myself. For the years afterwards, There was the hardening of my heart In adolescence, A necessary thing, by some accounts Of experts we read now, But it was the end of childhood True and proper At my mother's frustrated words, "Honey, you can cry, He's your father!" Refusing To sanction the traitor who had left us, My heart at almost twelve retorted, "No, he's not! Not anymore!" And as with that of others, Life went on. ©Victoria Leigh Bennett, 2/18/17