West Virginia on My Mind

Possibly it's due to the recent death of my father. Or maybe it's just a matter of my own aging, but I've been finding West Virginia coming into my poems lately. It was the place my father was from, the place my paternal grandparents lived and where my family often visited when my brother, sister, and I were small. 

My paternal grandmother was Mary Elizabeth Gordon. I was named after her. The first time I ever found myself starstruck was seeing her in her Moose Lodge finery the year she was crowned queen.

Actually, I may not have seen her at all. It was the photo I remembered. It lived in one of our family photo albums, and there was no other photo in there like it. Not our Easter pictures, not our "fancy" professional portraits—nothing could compare to what Mamaw looked like that day. To me she was impossibly glamorous, though I'm sure glamour wasn't in my vocabulary back then. 

After I wrote the poem, I went back to find the photograph. I couldn't believe how well I'd remembered Mamaw's appearance or the specific qualities of her outfit. The details of her had clearly been seared into my brain. I remembered the things, and only the things, that had struck my child's mind. 

Looking at it now though, I'm startled by the elements I'd completely forgotten: the black lacquer wall hangings my parents had brought back from Vietnam, the sturdy telephone that always sat on its little table, atop the skinniest phone book I'd ever seen to this day. The white aluminum blinds that covered all the windows in the entry room. No one else I knew had blinds like these. And I'm certain that Mamaw didn't know anyone else in 1969—or ever—who had a family like the one that became hers after my father returned from Vietnam. In that little town, Oak Hill, West Virginia, the simple military operation that grew into the Vietnam War came home to roost. And though we were very, very far from the battlefield, we were still in the midst of it all. 


It was a big deal when Mamaw
was crowned Sweetheart Queen

of the Oak Hill West Virginia
Loyal Order of Moose

my sister and I sitting on our knees
on the living room carpet

wondering at the goings-on
behind her bedroom door

and when she emerged we oohed
and aahed at her shoulders bared

in the first strapless gown we had ever seen
the tight red bodice

the layers of taffeta
encircling her legs hiding her feet

its flare so wide
she couldn’t be hugged

her white arms gloved in whiter satin
up past the elbows

a bejeweled tiara tucked
in the stiff swirls of her hair

a Polaroid was taken
and we watched them go

her and our Papaw
in his fancy dark suit

off to a place I’d been to only once
fifty months before

the family’s five-year-old
Hula Hoop hotshot

shoop-shooping that plastic ring
all day on the summer lawn

thrilled by what my little body
could will the toy to do

moving it high to the top of my chest
arms stretched to the sky

or down my terry-covered thighs
a spinning whirlwind around my knees

then up the torso again
traveling over and over

giving Mamaw an idea
of what to do with me

clip a flower to my hair
fit me in a grass skirt

transform her foreign grandbaby
into something Hi-why-an

wreathed in an artificial lei
a woman’s borrowed bikini top

looped around my neck
finally Mamaw had found

a use for all that tawny skin
and though children were not permitted

at the monthly Moose Lodge dinners
they made an exception for me

the entertainment
there to charm the bleak mountaineers

bring a whirl of the exotic
to their coal dusty lives

she took me by the hand
past all the dining tables

to the front of the hall
where I stood barefoot

on the small wooden stage
the hoop lowered over me

the smiles as the music was cued
and the too-high grass skirt

got in the way
as did the too-loose top

and the hoop refused to behave
in front of the all-white onlookers

who shrugged their shoulders
who applauded politely

when I was led back through them
the beautiful flower

plucked from its shrub
wilting in the thicket of my hair.


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