2002 Pulitzer nominee Poetry

Cheating the Greeting Cards with Revolt for Originality

Loose Leaves column, 1st run Sunday 22 April 2001 in The Morning News of Northwest Arkansas

By Ben S. Pollock
Copyright 2001 Donrey Media Group

BIG CEDAR LODGE, Mo. — What can be worse than amateur poetry? Perhaps only off-key singing by a relative you dare not criticize. On the other hand, what is better than specifically local verse? Nothing, provided such recitations come in short doses and at the right times.

A family friend, back in Fort Smith, used to write poems for special occasions. The last couple of times, he was taken aside and asked not to recite them anymore. He told me this over dinner a few years ago and then gave me a half-dozen of them, hoping for kind words.

He got them.

There was one for a young cousin on his wedding, some to honor birthdays or anniversaries of friends or family and one honoring a colleague’s retirement.

No one would have mistaken them for works of Tommy Eliot or Johnny Donne (or Bill Shakespeare), but they were personal and sincere. If the rhymes sometimes were forced, they at least were clever puns in the spirit of Ogden Nash.

Sadly, my friend — really my mom’s friend — was not well enough to come here for my mom’s birthday.

My big brother flew in from California and big sister from North Carolina. The reunion followed four months of planning, e-mails and toll calls (for this long-established, generally classy place does not have a toll-free number).

I presented Mom a couple of poems. She doesn’t need any more earrings or purses, especially now that we kids went in together on nice ones.

This seems a good time, weeks before the contrived Mother’s Day, to call a revolt against greeting-card companies, greeting-card shops and greeting-card aisles in multipurpose stores.

Etiquette experts agree handwritten notes outclass greeting cards, no matter how much one customizes the printed message.

A box of blank cards, from any of the above enterprises, can cost little more than a single, fancy greeting card.

Before or after “Happy Birthday,” “Happy Mother’s Day” or whatever, pen out a dozen words or a dozen lines about and to the recipient.

“I love you” is spoken or written too rarely. But for this, the Three Magic Words truly are not enough.

Folks might also use fancy pens and careful penmanship. I have to believe in the authenticity of crossed-out words. There is no choice, for I tinker with word choice, am easily distracted and am just sloppy. A last resort is to type it in and print it up.

Unfortunately, not everyone reads etiquette books. Despite good stationery and intentions, you may be rewarded by being thought of as cheap for not buying a $7.95 deluxe greeting card that takes two stamps even if you hand-deliver it.

Thank goodness I am married and no longer date women who think they know better. My wife actually does know better.

Fie, of course you can write as well as Hallmark. If your unique sincerity or cleverness dismays the recipients, get new friends. And new relatives while you’re at it.

My mom’s sonnet, however, would not come together. Desperate, already the seven of us seated at the 7 o’clock birthday dinner in Top of the Rock at Big Cedar, I returned to the lobby. In two minutes I wrote up two couplets on one of the index cards I always carry. It was just right, not to being mention short and timely.

7 at 7

Here we are, seven at seven
To celebrate a day stolen from heaven.
With Mom at the center, we turn
About, focus, years of love discern.

Two mornings after B-Day — “Hey, Mom, you don’t look a day over -0,” we joke — my sister-in-law insists I read the delayed sonnet at this, our last meal.

Life Is Not a Gift Shop

It takes something like a birthday
To group us in a lodge, after so long.
We could look back as … say-what? Say
“What if’s?” “What happened’s?” But, Mom, we are strong.
Surely a woman is more than her pride,
Yet that is all we, the three cubs, can see.
So entitled, we story-tell, not snide,
But, our picture of her, it may have to be.
What then to number? Count a string of jobs?
Count homes, hometowns; dare we tally her men?
The woman has to be more than these parts,
Must try to see the whole, for our sake, then.
We move day to day like bread by the slice.
From your end, the loaf with odd cuts is nice?

* * *

Before 1941, Ernie Pyle traveled across America. Those columns described small-town life. Pyle then traveled with the troops during World War II. The columns were unadorned and brisk. He merely wrote down what the boys said. This had not been done before. Or since. A Japanese sniper killed Pyle on April 18, 1945, a day now called National Columnists Day. It has no greeting cards as yet.


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