All photographs on this page are by Karen Greenbaum-Maya
Introduction: Turn, Turn, Turn
We can honor them, but we seldom can run from them. We might hope to avoid them, to outwit them (and in the process, to outwit time itself), to stay in the moment we knew and liked (or even didn’t like), to refuse to move into whatever change is being foisted on us.
The reality, though, is that we seldom get to do either — to celebrate the moment or to mourn it, to embrace it or hide from it. Because, most often, we don’t even recognize it until well after it has happened. Until there is no turning back.
We are affected not only by the turning points that happen in our own lives, but by those that happen in the larger world as well, outside of us, beyond our control, but nonetheless shaping our lives (and us). And just as with our own turning points, we often miss the moment, waking up to wonder when did this one happen? When, for example, did the Republican Party turn from being a party that favored business, global capitalism, and minimal government intervention, and come to embrace instead censorship, racism and sexism, even insurrection? When did they stop even pretending that they might try to save the planet from climate catastrophe? When did this become a world in which enormous wildfires, devastating hurricanes and tornadoes, hotter than hot summers, and constant flooding became everyday occurrences? When did it become impossible to place effective controls on firearms that have no other purpose than to kill as many people in as a short a time as possible? When did women lose the right to make decisions about our own bodies, and how soon will it be before gay couples will no longer be able to marry, heterosexual couples no longer be able to practice birth control, and trans people be denied even the pretense of equality? When did another world war become possible, spreading from the Russian invasion of Ukraine to the rest of Europe and beyond? When did the two-state solution become a phrase no one was allowed to say?
The world’s arrival at these turning points was so gradual, so insidious. There was no sharp, clear turning point, no single moment when we could have said, no, stop, we aren’t going to allow this to happen. Or was there – and we missed it?
There are, however, turning points that the talented women who have contributed their writing, music, and art to this issue did not miss, and they share those moments with us in brilliant prose, poetry, and painting that will alternately thrill, amuse, delight, or alarm us. Indeed, there were so many contributions on this topic – and so many of them were so very good – that we could publish only some of the very deserving entries here. We are holding over the rest for our fall issue.
The poems in this issue’s Short Takes were written by Kathleen McClung and six members of her poetry master class. The class has met via Zoom on alternate Friday afternoons throughout the pandemic. Responding to prompts from Kathleen, the students – all San Francisco Bay Area women over 60 – workshop new poems, focusing on both craft and publication strategies. For this issue, Kathleen and six students each wrote a short poem on the topic “Turning Points.” We invite students and teachers in other poetry and writing classes, to follow their lead and submit your work as a group to future editions of Short Takes.
Sylvia, My Lighthouse in Whose Beam I Live
He just arrived, 7:55 pm, clutching a wilted bouquet
from a financial district corner stand,
his trench coat dripping—this, every night.
His communion, “These are for you, little Pooh bear.”
He set them on my hospital tray next to a glass of water,
a juice jar with a chewed, bent straw hanging out.
Fidgeted, checked his watch when he heard, “Visiting hours over.”
Turned, waved, trench coat swaying as he sauntered out.
I looked over to the newly occupied bed, medical people who’d
brought her, hovered, trailing away. She turned the head she could
hardly lift towards mine, smiled, eyes closing, “I’m Sylvia.”
Thus began our days unfurling, spinning a spider web
of us on the oncology ward—silken threads golden,
our goddess whispers spinning light amidst the darkness of my
excised tumorous scapula bone and her blackened cancerous lungs.
“If you smoke,” she said, “give it up. I am only 38, and look.”
She wrote her husband’s thesis while he slept around. She supported
them as a lab assistant and gofer for the rising male stars at Harvard.
Once she’d left him, she worked three jobs to get her Ph.D., did
groundbreaking research, turned a key into the autistic mind, her passion.
She watched my husband, absent, spend 5 minutes, walk away.
She said, “You can do anything you want. I am glad I started
believing in myself—you can too.” She touched my longing,
a secret dream, was my mentor, though she never knew—
died that morning I was rolled out for tests. It is Sylvia who helped me, cancer-
free, pass the tobacco store, leave him behind, head for college and beyond.
What a Widow Knows about Love
Tiny wet flakes whisper to the windowpane, instantly melt, slide down the pane like tears. It is my first winter alone.
In this morning’s gelid dark, I brushed a dense, wet blanket of snow from my car, scraped a scrim of ice from the windshield and then shoveled the driveway. Bend, scrape, lift, toss. Bend, scrape, lift, toss. I scooped up driveway salt and sprinkled it on the concrete with arms still shaking from the effort of shoveling.
He always did this for me. On dark winter mornings, he rose with the alarm while I stole a few more minutes of half-sleep under fluffy down. While I showered, blow-dried and made up for the day, he was out in the cold in galoshes and old gloves, shoveling, salting and clearing. Bend, scrape, lift, toss. He stamped in the front door, clumps of snow dropping wetly from his boots and clinging to his cap. He’d toss his gloves aside and rub his reddened hands together, his glasses fogging in the sudden warmth of the house. “Your car’s warming up,” he’d announce, and I’d casually call back, “Thanks.” I would have been more grateful if I had known how hard it was: bend, scrape, lift, toss, your nose running, your glasses fogging, your fingertips going numb, the ache in the back with the bend, the twinge in the elbow with the lift. I wish I had known to be more grateful.
I wish I had known, the last time we made love, that it was the last time. The last time to see his face above mine, his eyes at once hungry and tender, skin on skin, the familiar fullness and release, the drowsy burrowing together and teasing afterward, the contented murmuring. Exactly the same almost all the time, now that we were old. Comfortable, easy to take for granted, less fireworks than the gentle glow of candlelight. Never again, I realize about once a day, and I am cut by despair and – still – disbelief.
The evening before his last heartbeat, he got home from work ahead of me. Evening light, as thick and golden as honey, streamed into the kitchen where he was making a salad: iceberg lettuce, tomato, cucumber, grated carrot, sliced celery. My heart sank a little: some darker greens, maybe? Some mushrooms or olives or goat cheese? He smiled. “I picked three tomatoes today. Smell.” He held out a sun-warmed red globe. I inhaled its green, prickly, just-picked smell, and he planted a quick peck on my lips. He gestured to his salad. “Look good?”
“Looks great,” I answered. “I’m starving.”
I Could Have Been Another Shirley Temple
In 1938 during a vacation in California
my mother and I were walking on Sunset Blvd
when a tall sun-tanned MGM talent scout
stopped us he asked her to bring me in for a screen test.
He said I could be another Shirley Temple, discovered when
she too was three years old.
NO my mother said. She said I was entitled to a normal life
not one of endless uncertainty.
NO two little letters and my life changed.
I could have learned to sing,
tap dance with Bill Bojangles Robinson
steal scenes from W.C. Fields
spoof stars like Mae West
and Marlene Dietrich
swish my head of bouncy curls
smile adoringly at the camera.
NO two little letters and
I could have been immortalized
with my own star on the Vine Street sidewalk.
NO two little letters
A wise mother’s choice
NO for me is being married for
sixty loving years, two caring daughters,
and enjoying life as a poet with every letter of the alphabet.
Once upon a time there were three little chickens. Unlike the more famous ducks Huey, Dewey, and Louie, these remained nameless and indistinguishable. They wore no colorful clothing, were not only naked but two-dimensional, and were only revealed sporadically in weekend newspaper ads.
These three headlined modest advertising illustrations for Chicken Delight and topped a list of names, addresses, and phone numbers to call when ordering a chicken dinner delivered “right to your door.” Years before Uber, Lift, Grubhub, DoorDash, and the like, this provided quite a popular – if limited – meal.
The trio came under my supervision when I took my second job out of college, working as a copywriter for an advertising agency. The first had been composing descriptions for the large cards describing fashions in department store display windows. I was coming up in the world by moving from window to newspaper exposure (with the goal of eventual fame).
I wrote nothing. Exposure does not mean creativity. The pre-set text filled the newspaper ads with information on ordering food. The chickens were hooks, responsible for drawing the attention of potential customers.
When I started my assignment, all three marched, facing left, across the top of the ads. To heighten excitement, over the next weeks, I ran them down the left side, then the right side, and, finally, across the bottom, always facing left. I had no idea how to reverse their direction.
Ultimately, I rebelled, broke up the row and scattered them into corners, finally placing one, solo, at the top. What a shame it was not a crowing rooster, but that might have signified a tough bird and undercut the possibility of a soft, delicious chicken dinner.
This was not the career I expected after earning a university degree in English! The degree seemed worthless. I could not get hired for anything more substantive than playing duck-duck-goose for a fast-food franchise. Why had I spent four years reading, writing, and analyzing stories instead of learning poultry illustration?
One day, I took out my scissors and began cutting out the ads. While filling page after page of a large scrapbook with the variations of chicken placement, I suddenly had an epiphany. This was the turning point of my life and saved me from madness.
“I do not have to keep doing this,” I thought. “I could do something else! I could go back to graduate school.”
My parents agreed, with one condition. This time I had to be more practical: stop reading, writing, and analyzing stories. I had to enroll in education classes and acquire a skill I could apply intelligently to the real world – teaching. So I chickened out of the fowl conditions of advertising and grew my own wings to seek a better roost in a future where I might ultimately perch with a flock of wise old owls on an educational branch.
Waltz No. 3 in E major
the Twin Towers in 1974 and over Jerusalem in 1987
Philippe, I wonder at your steel spine, your grin, your trust as you step into dissolving air. How you venture into the void, shift your weight, toe-heel, heel-toe, black slipper poised 1350 feet above the ground. You pace back and forth from North Tower to South, those now-fallen symbols of despair. I watch on film as you cross and imagine invisible bodies jumping. Yet here you are, buoyant, radiant. Your precise calculations as you plot each move, seize the moment, fully focus on the high wire. No matter the sway of the wind. No matter the dove of peace you release from your silk purse. The dove lands on your head as you walk between enemy sectors. You laugh, sit on the wire, even risk looking into the abyss. The people below are tiny dots as sound waves carry high the rhythmic clapping of Arabs and Jews, who have come together to rally you across Jerusalem. You balance with your twelve-foot pole. No tether, no net. Only joy.
My House through Lives and Time
I feel her presence every day in her new house, now my old house. Built in 1812, it was three years old on the day her world changed forever. Irena Wilse Mather was a young wife with a baby son called John. Her husband, Richard, was the chief boatbuilder in a Long Island waterfront village where boatbuilding was the major trade.
From the windows of her house, Irena could see the water, could watch the boats that sailed from the village to New York City, sixty miles away. Yet I don’t imagine she had much leisure time to spend gazing from her windows. There was the baby to care for and bread to bake in the cellar’s brick beehive oven, at which my guests still marvel. She had three levels plus an attic to dust and sweep, fireplaces to stock with wood for winter warmth.
Still, as I gaze at the water of Long Island Sound, I imagine Irena drawn to these same windows again and again through her hardworking days. She thinks of Richard at work in the harbor. She is eager for late afternoon when she can hope to watch him walking uphill toward her. She anticipates the moments when he lifts the baby into his arms, when he slices into her newly baked loaf, announces the next improvement he plans for their loved house.
I know (how can I know?) they imagine other children who will be born in this house. They anticipate the eventual need for bedrooms in the attic.
I investigated the history of their marriage at the village Historical Society. That’s how I know about the end of their story together. One day when Richard’s newest ship was nearly complete, he climbed the mast, fell, and was killed. I hope Irena was not at a window. But nothing shielded her from the moment life with Richard ended and another life began.
Irena lives on as a heroine in my heart. She raised her son to become a respected citizen of his birth village. His own adult home now serves as the history museum.
A twenty-first-century crossroads is approaching for the two-century-old house. I like to say my husband and I are growing old. But in truth, we are old. No longer do I run up and down the several staircases with the speed and energy of Irena. I cling to the banisters, imagining broken hips.
I am giving possessions away.
Memories will be cherished.
Visions of Irena will never fade.
Skin and Water
I stare at the thin blue vein skimming the surface
of your pale chest, a tenacious arc around your little-girl nipples.
You plunge recklessly in the slick bathtub, glowing,
translucent as you thrash back and forth the full six feet.
You call this surge “astercizing,” slapping water rhythmically
over the edge of the tub onto the tile floor.
I sit on a stool, dazed and watching, aging new mother
stunned by this spark of a daughter. The years
of infertility, the taste of its bitter disappointment
forgotten in the crushing overwhelm of sudden parenthood.
I study my toenails, long and untended, too tired
to reach for the clippers. I try to ignore the nagging fear
that I’ve finally taken on too much. For now
we are tethered together, land to sea.
You are my slippery talisman, small watery companion,
skimming through bobbing rubber ducks and a whale,
still giddy from your transatlantic crossing.
I look up to see you with a brown and white cow
at each nipple, rocking side to side, your eyes closed.
You press their hard mouths onto each breast,
crooning one of your mysterious Slavic melodies,
your voice so deep for a child, and inform me,
“my cows missed their dinner, I milk them for you.”
You are pink and pure against the porcelain.
With or Without You
Your dented white minivan rolled slowly across two lanes of opposing traffic and over the curb, stopping just over a low concrete wall, hanging gently by your two front wheels. Three palmetto trees stood close to but not touching your front bumper. You were still upright when the paramedics arrived. We’ll never know if you knew what was happening or if you were already gone. If you were afraid. If you were careful not to hit another car. If you were in pain. Why does it matter so much, the last few minutes of a lifetime? Why does that last week, when your kids didn’t see you as much as they could have, trouble them so? Why does the last time I saw you — when you wouldn’t walk on the beach with me, our favorite way to step away from everyone else, and I became impatient and less sympathetic than I almost ever have been — replay itself in my mind?
On the radio yesterday, I heard a stoic philosopher — by which I mean a philosopher of stoicism, not a philosopher who’s stoic — recommend we play the “last time” game: To appreciate what really matters, imagine this is the last time I’ll (fill in the blank). How would I have lived my moments, knowing the great treasure of your company would end? For one thing, I would surely have been a stellar sister that last evening. But the thing is, we both knew from too young an age that someone we need can die, that someone we need can leave us, that no one will ever replace them.
I keep picturing you, that seven-year-old boy with the mischievous grin and curly blond hair, hands on hips, singing “Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah.” I can’t see myself then, at nine, when we were sent so far away—but you always saw me. I can picture adult me with two young kids, when I thought I would lose my home again, and you were kind and quiet and didn’t require me to know what the fuck I was going to do now. Now I see you dog-paddling in the water with your floppy, old-man hat, while I swim curving strokes and loop around you; or hamming it up on the stage, your dancing hands practically pirouetting across the keys, your grin the same one fifty-plus years later; or laughing with your grandson at Taco Bell on Jolly Ollie Tuesdays, unless I was visiting and it was Jolly Ollie and Molly Day. You deserve a holiday, too.
Now that you’re gone and I go on without you, I have to swim straight. I have to remember on my own to breathe three times slowly. I have to make a holiday for you that’s a different day from the one, two years and fifty-one days ago, when your van rolled across the street, with or without you.
Lost and Found
first an email then phone call then daily calls
after fifty-four years apart
asking if I remembered guiding me through the week
we spent together in 1967 when I called you distraught
because Jerry the man I left you for took his own life
blank I did not remember
how you drove 500 miles kept me afloat brought me back
to myself then you were gone and I bereft erased
you but your heart held me wanting to tell me
of your love we were twenty-two learning to live
you recalled our first date first kiss skinny-dipping
in Jones Lake building a fire for our first dinner
you knew my intensity my strength my joy
now midway meeting anew between Oakland
and Salem a month later at my apartment
two weeks at your house days in bed
photos you in the army your five-foot salmon catch
your mother Sadye’s worn leather manicure bag
tortoiseshell clippers scissors tweezers
you gift me a new Leatherman multi-tool
pliers screwdriver metal file
a tiny sewing kit for mending
two safety pins six colors of thread
and a woven gold purse of quarters just in case
Everything Has Changed
Please don’t tell anyone, it’s a secret. They asked us not to tell. Please don’t tell anyone it’s a secret. Do you see the difference a comma makes? Please. Don’t tell. My secret. They begged us not to tell. Are we ashamed? We are not ashamed! How is this a secret? He’s on the sex offender list! Someone will see and think he belongs there! His wife and her sister called and said, We are telling you because you are his mother and it’s terrible it’s too late and he did not even do it. There is a point system, and if you download (Say it!) child pornography even accidentally you will be arrested. At work he was arrested, and because he would not tell them why, they took his job away. He has been at home all these months. I knew that, but he said it was the virus. He was the victim of downsizing, and of course he was at home with the girls. He is the best father in the world; it is his mission to keep his girls safe and oh, they adore him, he will do anything for them. He did not do the thing they say he did; he ordered something legal, benign, and something else invaded his computer — something vile, something hideous — but what he actually ordered took so long to download he shut the laptop and went to bed and spent the next day as he always does, being there for his daughters, the twins, not quite six, the girls he will protect from anything, and when he saw the hideous thing on his computer that night he was repulsed, aghast, terrified. He deleted, deleted, deleted; he did whatever it is you do to wipe your hard drive clean, because it was horrifying. How can such a thing exist? How can anyone want that? He would go to the ends of the earth to stop that happening to any child and there it was on his screen; when he saw it he cast it out. But they knew. And they came, two of them, to his office and took him away. And even though he told them what really happened, and even though his wife told them in no uncertain terms what an amazing father and husband he is, it didn’t matter. The public defender, the private attorney, everyone he thought would pry open the trap, told him he had no choice, and a 70-month plea deal was good, the best, which of course it is for someone who actually asked for perversion like that. And now everything has changed; there are five words I am not supposed to say to anyone outside the family, the pod, the seven of us, nine if you count the girls, even though it’s what I’m thinking All. The. Time. My son is in prison. Don’t tell anyone. It’s a secret.
Unruly Sonnet After January 6
O, to be you, dear spiders, spinning your
platinum discs over the wind chime water
of Fern Creek, grooves rippling in reflected
waves, as divine rays from Mt. Olympus
cascade through the crowns of coastal redwoods.
While the trail below is littered with burnt
foliage and my blundering footprints,
you weave the terrible stories, daughters
of Arachne, undeterred by the one
who demands fealty. In our cities
you are shaking out the debris brought by
wind and human breach, hoisting once again
your stout strands between fence and garbage bin,
your spinnerets announcing, We’re still here.
Goa is on another continent
Barely a bunk to call your own. Payments home on the portage bill. Name might be Gonzales, Gomez, or Pereira. Your height singled you out. Some jumped-up engineers, chunky young men in monkey jackets, complained about your attitude. In A-deck staterooms the VIPs escaping five months of English winter. Down aft, tourist class: cockroaches and burst pipes — the hazards of assisted passage.
You failed to serve breakfast. Colleagues are quizzed, charge sheets prepared.
You will be summoned before the ship’s master. His somber voice on the public address system. Slicing through the spray, twenty-thousand tons of steel must turn back towards that wave when you were last seen on board.
The blur of someone’s sun hat swept away in the gray swell. A telegram had come. Thin strips of paper turned you, three months away from leave, into the father of your family. The ship rumbles and shudders, she is trying to make up time. Tomorrow they will queue for refunds on the shore excursion: a fire dance on the Dakar quayside.
Wizard of Oz Abecedarian
for Clara Blandick
Auntie Em, believe her. While you, Henry and the farmhands huddled
below ground, Dorothy ran with Toto in her arms,
crossed dry Kansas soil, her gingham
dress slapping like a ship’s sail. She used
every muscle to pull against the storm cellar door.
Frantic, she stomped again and again with her shoe.
Girls everywhere witnessed the advancing tornado, wished
her family underground would hear her, rescue her. But no,
instead, we saw your house swirl into the sky, Dorothy inside,
journeying alone, so far from her kin. Em, you must be
kind. Be patient with her. Reconciling may take a
long time for you both. She has slept among poppies, seen so
many colors you never will, appraised radical
new ideas, dreaded sand draining through a witch’s hourglass.
Oz has changed her.
People do return to their roots, embrace wholeheartedly their
quiet kin, resume crocheting projects, braiding
rugs, canning for winter. Listen closely to her
stories, though, Em. She may speak fondly of scarecrows, lions,
tin men. She may stammer about dark sky
under the wings of flying monkeys, a man’s
voice and face enormous in a hall until Toto,
with his small dog mouth, pulled back a curtain
exposing an unremarkable fellow, a huckster in a bolo tie.
Your faith will be tested, Em. Sit together in the parlor, repair
zippers in trousers for the farmhands. There’s no place like home.
I moved the box of your ashes from the coat closet in the hall to the file cabinet in the garage today and peed my pants. It was bad Feng Shui seeing the box every time I opened the door. I tried covering you with scarves and hats, but even in death your vibration permeates our home. The mailman delivered you in a box marked Cremated Remains Priority Mail. He gently extended a clipboard for me to sign, wondering which way this widow was going to blow. “I’ll be OK,” I said. The cat ran and hid under the bed and wouldn’t come out for a week.
When friends ask how I’m doing I say, “Raw at a new level of grief.” I omit the part about peeing my pants while carrying grocery bags up the stairs. I’m mad all the time now. Your death unleashed a rage that surpasses all tantrums to date. Furies flew from my heart when the bathroom light blew out. I don’t know how to fix a leaky faucet or my bladder, and it’s all your fault. I’m lost in this body, in the house, in this new life. No wonder I’m pissed. You died and I hate you for making me get old.
I wasn’t old last year, but now why bother? I’ll just piss my pants and cry even harder than I did yesterday. I could buy diapers, but instead I’ve altered my wardrobe. Those size eight European jeans you loved have been replaced by old-lady clothes purchased at Goodwill. No more Lucy yoga pants, the ones that made my gams look sexy. I no longer rock those Lululemon skorts, now folded in a pile in the back of our closet, the “I’ll get back to you” clothes. Nope, I’m a frumpy vision in black nylon stretch pants, size large or extra-large depending on the day. I never wear the sexy underwear you bought me anymore. I’m mortified at the thought of peeing those pretty white lace briefs you loved.
Bladder issues are common in women my age, but after years of yoga practice and tantric sex I’m appalled at my lack of control. I will not be discussing this issue with my physician because adding another medication is untenable. Hell if I’m going to tell her I stopped taking two antidepressants. Perhaps it’s the withdrawal from reuptake inhibitors that has affected my sphincter muscle.
I’ve learned where all the bathrooms are on my daily route. The bank tellers don’t like it when I ask if I can use the facilities, but they’ve been kind to me since your death. You were such a good customer. Walks in the park or by the river are out of the question. It’s me and the homeless people frantically searching for a friendly loo.
The cosmic joke’s on me, peeing my way through my widowhood. Lost husband, lost control, dignity, hope that I will ever be happy again. Humility through incontinence is my new spiritual practice. I’m living with uncertainty and wet undies.