Appalachian Recovery

The morning news pushes into my head
like an unwanted dream,
slips into my bloodstream with my coffee:

Late last night,
seven bodies were recovered
from a fallen mine.

Grim-faced workers bear them
past the TV cameras,
the darkness of the night
swallowing the darkness of their
coal-stained labor.

I watch waiting families
collapse like the mine walls
while my own family calls out its history:
Lost to the mountains’ greed for man flesh
or dying slowly in black-coughed last days.

Eyewitness News assures me
these seven have been recovered.

Surely their bodies are past recovery,
crushed by the darkness they breathed –
A coal mine’s embrace isn’t meant to resuscitate.

The drama done, the cameras turn away.
My coffee cold, I see ghosted images of
families, carrying their terrible burden
to a small graveyard on a hill,
beneath sheltering hickories
and purple nettles
(beautiful
and dangerous),
to re-cover them one last time.

copyright © Kate Helper 2005, 2015

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Visiting the Poet

— for Chris Msosa

I can see you, running,
like a young Bateleur, dust plumed
behind your pounding feet
before settling back into the ground
as if you had never passed by.

Your eyes are copper pennies,
your breath bursting from you
in rhythm with your feet,
your heart a drumbeat,
a staccato song of joy and fear.

You reach the door at last,
the bold running boy left in the yard
while this suddenly shy boy
wipes the sweat from his palms,
the grit from his hair.

A deep breath,
a knock,
an open door.

But this is not the man you’ve come so far to see.
His family greets you
as if you are important
and not just a young boy
on a reader’s journey.

The poet’s wife smiles –
she’s had visitors like you before –
and pushes her sadness to the side
as she pushes her son forward,
a playmate for the day,
an appeasement.

For now, you must wait
and try again
to offer up the words you’ve saved
like a bright secret
just for him,
the ones you’ve hoarded and formed
into the shape of a small boy’s heart.

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Stay Tuned

My childhood was one of flight and narrow escapes. By the time I was five, my original father had signed over his parental rights to me. I was a rusted heap on blocks in the yard, and he handed the title to someone else. My second father gave me his name and his expectations, his storms and disappointments.

Before I was eight, I knew how alcohol could make a grandmother become a stranger, passed out and smelling of urine. Her absence made room for my grandfather’s groping hands, sneaky and demanding.

Before I was fifteen, I had spent far too much time thinking about suicide.

By the time my grandmother sobered up and my grandfather was so scared of getting caught that I could start learning to breathe, by the time my original father died without answering the only letter I ever wrote him, I had taken into my bones all their lessons about weakness, control, power, and pretending.

For all the bad in it, I actually manage to think of my childhood as being pretty happy most of the time, and I owe that to finding detours out of real life. At home with my parents, I swept down most of those roads in the pages of books that led me to Oz and Avonlea, London and Baby Island. Books were a hatch to other worlds, and staying quiet helped my dad stay calm and kept me off his anger radar. If I was careful not to get too lost in the pages and forget to do something he told me to, I could live impossible lives for a little while.
Because of all the big magic within them, books required quiet and a safe space; they were immersive and not an option when I had to stay aware of the world around me. Books were out of the question when my grandfather was lurking, waiting for a moment alone with me, waiting for my grandmother to take her first drink of the day. Luckily for me, there was always television.

When I spent summer weekdays with my grandparents, my mornings slipped away outside, finding things to “get into” around the yard or on the second floor of the garage that had once been my great-grandmother’s apartment but was now a shadowy, unlit storage heap. Sometimes I would ride my bike with my oldest friend on the lane or we would see if the twins were outside and play with them for a while. Eventually I would wander back to the house and fix something to eat for lunch. Sometimes I would pay half-attention to my grandmother’s “stories” on the TV screen, but Another World didn’t hold much interest. Sometimes I would watch the soap opera for a while; I had a little crush on the character of Rachel. There was something strong but soft in her face that pulled at me. I was too bored to watch an entire episode, but I tended to stick around the house even so, because when the soaps were over I was allowed to have the set to myself to watch Mr. Cartoon. After grabbing a Popsicle or a washed-out Vienna sausage can filled with red Kool-Aid powder and sugar, I would remind my grandmother, “Holler for me when Rachel is almost over.” Most days I could tell she had already been drinking and would be passed out long before the show finished, so I hovered near the porch where I could hear the closing theme music. After the credits rolled, WSAZ handed the next hour over to Mr. Cartoon and Beeper. By the time it was over every day, I was even more convinced that Tom was a very bad cat, that Wile E. Coyote must be pretty dumb to keep trying, and that Bugs Bunny was, indeed, a stinker. The best days included Witch Hazel with her crazy flying hairpins and that pre-Calvin boy who was always getting sent to his room to have delicious fantasies.

I didn’t see my grandparents as much during the school year and I spent most of my time reading at home, tucked in my tiny room. After dinner I was allowed to watch television with my parents; I thought Carol Burnett had the funniest show in the history of life and I had a little crush on Doc, sailing along on The Love Boat. It was a rare treat to get to stay up for one of my favorites, Fantasy Island; it came on past my bedtime, but sometimes I could manage to watch it if I gave my dad a shoulder massage and he sort of forgot what time it was. I was heartbroken that I wasn’t allowed to watch Taxi – stupid bedtime! – because it had the most beautiful theme music I had ever heard.

Most of my viewing at home was dictated by my parents, and I hated Sundays when my dad was in charge because he never wanted to watch anything interesting. Saturday mornings, though – cartoon day! I got up early, crept quietly down the stairs, fixed a bowl of cereal, and turned the television on low, sitting with my nose practically on the screen to hear it, happily skipping from channel to channel to watch my favorites. After my parents woke up and came downstairs, they indulged my love of Captain Caveman and Grape Ape, letting me retain control of the television and turn the volume up for Scooby Doo and Jabberjaw. Sometimes my mom would even sing along to the Jetsons’ theme song. Eventually all the stations would resume their normal (boring) weekend offerings of westerns and war movies, and I would find something else to do.

After my baby sister was born, my mom stopped working for a few years to stay home with her. During that time, I would rush home from school to play with the baby for a while and then settle in for an hour of CHiPs. I suspect my mom was a little amused at my love of this show, but the black-and-white of it appealed to me: there were clear good guys and clear bad guys, and cool motorcycles, and mysteries to solve, and the bad guys always got punished. In a childhood where the bad guys got away with it, the show presented a world I really wanted to be part of. Even though the program was supposed to represent real life, it was as much a fantasy for me as Fraggle Rock. That need for order and justice somewhere in my life also led me to The Rockford Files and Magnum, P.I. Even now that I have some distance and peace about my childhood and the crimes it hid, I am drawn to the satisfaction of whodunit shows where the mystery is always solved and the evil is always destroyed.

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Give Red Riding Hood the Ax

Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about fairy tales.

I was a big fan of those Grimm boys growing up – I’ve always had a taste for the macabre and tragic – and, as an adult, was delighted to discover the original stories (sometimes only a few sentences long) that spared no gory detail. I could spend hours poring over every grisly scenario, shut away in my room, happily immersed in the fantastically abysmal lives of the characters.

I grew up reading those stories, and it didn’t occur to me that I was getting short-changed. I was never one of those girls who went gooey over Cinderella dancing with her Prince or the romance of the Mystery of the Shoe. I was more interested in the horror of sleeping for a hundred years, while everything you knew disappeared, than I was with the awakening kiss. Then again, I had a mother who never waited around for a man to rescue her or do anything that needed doing if she could figure out how to do it herself. She was even known to open her own jars.

I was vaguely bothered by the bad rap that stepmothers always seemed to get – my mother was a stepmother to two kids, after all – but it didn’t occur to me to wonder why there were never any stepfathers. I was chilled by Hansel and Gretel being sent out into the woods to die, discarded by their parents, but it didn’t occur to me to be horrified that Cinderella’s father was so indifferent to her, after losing her mother at a very young age, that he married a woman who was actively cruel to her. As someone who had an indifferent original father, maybe it just didn’t register.

But lately I’ve become more aware of the messages children, little girls in particular, are getting from all directions. I think we’re all aware enough of reality television to realize there are a shocking number of women out there who think The Wedding Day is the important part. (Spoiler alert: The Marriage is the important part.) There are an appalling number of women who truly believe someday their prince will come and take them away from their miserable lives and sweep them off to some castle where they will live in bliss for eternity. Where were the mothers to teach them you only get a prince if you bring something to the table? Where were the fathers to teach them that they were intelligent, funny, bold, daring, insert adverb here, and that they were the prize any prince would be lucky to share space with?

I don’t think we need to lose our minds and ban fairy tales (or cartoons or movies or books) or any other kneejerk madness. I think we need to have balance; we need to tell our children that these were stories written a long time ago to entertain and to scare children into never causing their parents one second of frustration. We need to tell our daughters – and sons – it was a different time when girls and women were looked at as Less Than, and that we all now know that’s just crazy. The only thing that can make girls and women Less Than these days is if they allow it. And we need to teach our sons that it’s not their job to rescue or dominate or control; Partnership is always the goal, and ensures the slipper and foot are a perfect fit.

Let them know that Red Riding Hood didn’t have to lose her grandmother to the wolf and didn’t have to be devoured herself, only to be saved by the huntsman who just happened to wander past. Let them know – sons and daughters both – that if Red had had her own axe, she never would have been swallowed in the first place.

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Come On In and Sit a Spell

I’m glad you’ve stumbled onto my blog, and I hope you kick off your shoes and stay awhile. I’m a WV native who has now spent over half my life in northern VA. I don’t remember a time I wasn’t writing about something, but creative non-fiction is pretty new for me. I draw a lot on my family history, but I also have an hilarious husband and will post some of our goofier moments. I hope to provide you with a good range of reading – tidbits and snippets of lots of stuff, as well as more structured essays and maybe some poems.

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