Three-Penny Memories ~ A Poetic Memoir
by Barbara Leonhard
Having read some of the poems in Barbara Leonhard’s Three-Penny Memories ~ A Poetic Memoir as they have appeared in her blog (Extraordinary Sunshine Weaver) and at online journals, I welcomed the opportunity to read the entire collection prior to its October 15th release.
“How can a daughter question her love for her mother
while helping her to navigate the progression of Alzheimer’s?
Can she learn to love the stranger
that her mother has become?”
With that opening, Leonhard takes us on a journey rooted in experiencing grief without living in (being bound to) the past. The author as daughter seeks resolution for a lifelong mother/daughter relationship fraught with conflict while recognizing the love that is woven through it. From the prologue, Excavating the Heart Wall of Grief, it’s clear that she has no desire to let her mother’s sorrow seed her own by leaving the past unresolved with “abandoned excavations.”
And, while Mother’s Light tells us “all mothers sigh in unison,” at a child’s birth, we’re reminded that the child may be shadowed by her mother’s own past. In LIGHT, the first chapter of this collection, Leonhard proceeds to show us the source of those shadows as she wonders if we are distant even when we are near and if she has become as much a stranger to herself as her mother has become to her.
Struck by measles encephalitis at a young age, the author recovers from a coma that has erased her memories and clouded her focus as she is tended to by her mother’s loving care – roles that are reversed much later in life – only to be faced with paralysis. In This Brittle Seed, she shows a determination to not be a prisoner within her body, that “hope was not a loss.” That she went on to teach herself to walk again is a testament to that.
“I’m still in here.
Don’t forget the light
inside this frail seed”
With I Love You So Much It Hurts and Mom’s Little Mommy we find that when the birth of the author’s youngest sibling brings her mother near to death the final outcome is a hysterectomy that foreshadows the author’s own trials, with further foreshadowing of her as surrogate mother while her mother recovers.
This comes to light in Mom’s DES Baby: The Hardest Pill to Swallow, when a daughter’s resentment over the cause of her infertility – her mother’s medication to assure her own delivery years earlier and her mother’s fading memory of that reason – does not stand in the way of being her mother’s caregiver.
“Unearthing my trauma,
I swaddle my aging mother
to birth myself.”
With Ode to the Embryo that My T-Shaped Uterus Miscarried we understand that miscarriage is a loss held ever close.
“Your fears I’ve abandoned you?
No, Honey. No! I’ll never forget you.
The t-shaped womb
couldn’t hold your brilliance.
Your tiny, beautiful self,
washed away. Your light
sparkles in each of my cells.
My core, your forever home.
Your essence, my creative labor
in verse and art.”
Understanding herself proves to be as much of a challenge as understanding her mother. How can a woman not be “complex essence and ambiguity,” as Woman tells us, when all that is known about her is only shown in her own light?
This is, after all, a memoir, and the life that unfolds in Leonhard’s words continues in the second chapter, DUST, as her understanding of her mother faces a new challenge with health issues and forgetfulness. As Erosion reveals, what shines from within takes on a new light…
“Wisdom of soils and seedlings,
now crumbles to dust.
Her secret garden.”
Taking in an ill mother is only a solution when nearly full-time attention is possible. An independent living facility becomes a compromise. And yet, while the mother adjusts, shines even, she shows her daughter a different face, resentment at being abandoned, in Playing Cards Right. In Bundling Blankets and Mom’s Pickles the author searches for reason in the unreasonable, finding there is none.
When Alzheimer’s finally raises its ugly head the author struggles with whose ordeal this truly is. In Irish Spring, she wrestles with deceit, her own, in crafting tales to navigate the insurance maze that requires the word of a patient who can’t be reasoned with. After all, as The Caregiver’s Craft reminds us, the teller decides what is truth and what is tale.
Both Leonhard and her mother have been near to death, and with Mom and I Play Lassos with Our Hysterectomy Scars she seems to wonders if, as her mother’s namesake, they really are so unalike, as both have experienced a hysterectomy and brain damage. Do both allow their misfortune to dictate their lives?
As the chapter closes with Mud Maid, both Leonhard as author and her mother as subject seem to be in stasis, awaiting the final outcome.
As chapter three, ECHO, opens, her mother’s Alzheimer’s progresses and assisted living replaces “independence,” but a new facility, and with it new staff, creates new anxiety for both mother and daughter. When the attendants are just as combative as the patient and a daughter cannot be her twenty-four hour advocate, assisted living is no more than a House of Sand and the reward is just Fools Gold.
A sudden decline in health leads to terminal care and a family vigil. When we hold the hand of a loved one as she is Departing from Gate 3, encourage her to join those who have gone before her as she goes into the light, how can we be sure she knows who to seek when we have witnessed the loss of her memory. Do we relive her dreams as a reminder, within our own? Mermother: A Rogue Dream Poem and Mother’s Dreams take us there, with Leonhard fully understanding the love her mother has had for her when she says…
“Mom, rest assured. Your oversight
and affection taught us
how to weave our worlds
gilded with your love.”
With The Phone of the Wind, Leonhard seems to long for those early days in her mother’s care.
“Each finger traces the circular path,
releases and sighs. I wait for you
to pick up.”
Itaru Sasaki’s Wind Phone, a phone booth with a disconnected rotary phone, became a way for the survivors of the 2011 earthquake and tsunami in Japan to overcome their grief by talking with those who were lost. Leonhard’s line, “The rising waters / washed you away,” echoes that grief.
In Marie Kondo Cleans My Purse at Starbucks, she considers the negative baggage that she has carried over the years, hers and that of her mother, and recognizes that it no longer has any power over her as she learns “how to fold joy / three times,” while at the same time understanding the value of hindsight in Mom’s Promise.
While Farewell, My Flower reminds us to consider the things we never get around to saying until it’s too late, I consider her closing poem, “Thinking of You” – a card from Mom, to be a reminder of a mother’s love over the years, even when it’s written between the lines.
I highly recommend reading Barbara Leonhard’s Three-Penny Memories – A Poetic Memoir, published by Experiments in Fiction (EIF) and available in paperback and Kindle versions on October 15th.