(From a drawing by Beverly Furman
Partisan Press 1997)
In the program for the 2015 Works-in-Progress Conference at Virginia Wesleyan University, Sheila Moran Dinwiddie described herself as a “kitchen table poet.”
When I asked what she meant by that, her answer was.
“I wrote at home, in the midst of kids and everything that goes with them.”
Sheila is the mother of six children and–fallen like leaves into poems on every subject–the images of children inform this early volume.
In the opening poem,“It’s a Girl, Girl, Girl,” she writes
“It’s a girl, girl, girl,
It’s a boy, girl, boy
It’s a family
It’s a full load/ . . .
It’s raising cattle for slaughter/
It’s raising saints for god . . .
In “Letter from an Unknown Woman,” she wonders.
Maybe I couldn’t write
Or maybe it didn’t seem important at the time.
A lot of words were written down
about weapons and paint brushes and those who pointed them
But my hands were full with children.
Although it is important to read the whole poem called “Empty Nest,” I must confess that first line charms me as much as anything I’ve ever read.
They came one at a time and left the same way.
No one home but me and now I’m leaving.
A sag of bones and silver hair
headed out for some excitement
before it gets so quiet
I could hear a pin drop.
Pull up roots and wrap them around me
like a skein of yarn
and just go.
On the very next page is “Grandmothering.”
Is seeing an old movie again
after a cataract operation . . .
And in “Song of Life,” she admonishes us to
Sing city children huckleberrying up/
monkey bars before they’re three . . .
reading her poetry.
Riding the Ring of Years is a small book, loosely bound with glue and staples, pages turning brown, so fragile I am almost afraid to open it to read. But open it I do and, having read, I understand that Sheila Dinwiddie has come full-circle.
She calls the final poem, “The Crone’s Poem,” and in it the children return.
She stands in the doorway
catching her breath from the years that brought her here.
She stands in the doorway
counting her children
rocking the memory of her dead son.
She lingers in the doorway
with those that came before her
and prays for her children unto seven generations.
She leans against the doorway
counting her seasons and seeking amends
smelling spring flexing in her veins.
She stands in the doorway
then plunges in.
Dinwiddie, of course, writes about more than children. She writes about the wars of her generation, about the death of Golda Meir (“Golda”), of whom she says that she “Loved politics in her kitchen,” perhaps not an entirely impersonal observation from the kitchen table poet. But this is more than an obituary to the woman who “Stood firm, stood firm,/Then died.” This is a poem laced with the poet’s anger.
In the midst of her celebration of Meir, she recalls something her father once said.
“A woman is head of state.”
(“Turn them upside down and they all look alike,”
my father once said.)
A woman is head of state
and I will learn to drive.
I will return to school.
A good woman who is head of state has died.
(Turn them upside down.)
I will hope. And say amen.
Sheila Dinwiddie is more than ten years older than I am, and yet we have come up and come through with that same potent mix of joy and rage, of celebration and despair, of victory and utter defeat. To be a woman is to know, and ten years in this world isn’t so many years at all.
In 1954 Sheila was twenty and had four children. In 1954, I was eight.
In 1954, Marilyn Monroe married Joe DiMaggio, Senator Joseph McCarthy was censured and his hunt for Communists ended, and President Eisenhower warned against America’s involvement in Vietnam. In 1954, the mass vaccination of children against polio began.
The way in which we inhabited the world of 1954 was very different.
In 1964, Sheila was thirty; she had six children, ranging in age from three to nine. In 1964, I was eighteen years old and halfway through my freshman year in college. I was discovering Martin Luther King, Joan Baez and Leonard Cohen and was developing my first big crush–a young Civil Rights activist named Julian Bond.
In 1964, Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act into law and escalated the war in Vietnam. In 1964, Elizabeth Taylor married Richard Burton and the Warren Commission began its investigation into the assassination of John F. Kennedy.
In 1974, Sheila’s six children were between the ages of thirteen and nineteen. Sheila was forty. I was twenty-eight, and my only son was three.
In 1974, Richard Nixon was impeached and resigned and President Gerald Ford announced an amnesty program for Vietnam deserters and draft dodgers. In 1974, Stephen King published his first novel.
Today, I am seventy-one years old. Today, Sheila Dinwiddie is eighty-three. Those twelve years have evaporated, as we discover that we drank the same liquor, smoked the same cigarettes, broke the same laws, bore children when the world was heating up around us, and missed the parade only to catch up with it later, and on another street.
I first met Shelia over a year ago and then it really was no more than that–a meeting. We were introduced and we talked for a very few minutes Sheila is the mother of a friend, and I was glad to know her, but it was a good while before we crossed paths again, and then under very different circumstances.
In December of 2016, Mary, Sheila’s partner of thirty-five years died after a long bout with post-polio syndrome. Not many people have ever heard of this malady, nor had I until a much-loved cousin, after a lifetime bounding about on his crutches like a long-distance runner, contracted it. Affecting only polio survivors, this terrible, unexpected return, sometimes thirty or forty years after the initial illness, mounts a new assault on the muscles. It is disabling; it is slow; it is relentless. There is no cure. I watched my cousin move from leg braces, to a wheelchair, and to his bed.
Mary was 87 years old when she died. Five years earlier, she had just stopped getting up because it required too much effort. Finally, in August of 2016, she was unable to move herself at all, and although they tried hard, Sheila found she was too weak to lift her. Mary went into a nursing home and, from August to December, Sheila was with her five days a week, seven hours a day. Friends from church drove her over in the morning and her daughter, Ellie, picked her up in the evening.
I have read the small volume of Sheila’s poetry and I have listened to her read aloud her recent poem, “You,” the poem she chose, with not a moment’s hesitation, when I asked her to name her most important, her favorite, the one she would most like to have included here. “You” is the poem she wrote for Mary.
Who is she, this kitchen table poet, this woman grieving, this woman who has–as far as I can tell–lived her life fully, passionately, vigorously, with grand emotion?
“I am a mother; I am a gay woman; I am a grandmother and a great-grandmother.” And, laughing, she adds, “And a great-great-grandmother.”
Sheila and Mary met in April of 1981, moved in together the following February.
When I asked Sheila what she would say about that thirty-five years together, she said,
“Why don’t I send you the poem and a copy of what I said at the memorial service?” So I waited; and so she did.
You, of the clear eyes, and faithful heart
You, who made your own way over
Hurdle after hurdle
You, who brought me back from the brink
You, who helped pull me back together
You, who taught me to harmonize
Who tried to teach me to play guitar
You, who folded me into your family
As we folded you into ours
We, who made promises we kept
Who are wearing out
Let me thank you
with dinner and tela-baseball in bed
With Soaps and tela-ported movies
no matter the word we cannot remember–we are each other’s’ memory–and we will never forget this, our love song.
Sheila’s first words at Mary’s memorial service were the straightforward, concise, oddly lyrical words of a poet. They are words that make me wish I had known Sheila’s Mary.
“When a social worker asked Mary if she was a Christian – Mary said, ‘I am a believer.’ SUCCINCT. NO EMBELLISHMENTS. I know what she believed– she believed in God, family, country music, and the restorative property of poker – and me – also, probably from birth, women’s equality.”
On the subject of marriage, an anecdote:
“When I reminded her that two of our friends were married she said, ‘two women?’ And I said, yes – the Supreme Court said so – and she said, ‘Oh My…’
I have been asking Mary to marry me for years. It wasn’t really a running joke it was more like a running ritual.
This time I asked her again, and she said yes.”
By then, Mary was very ill and the marriage never happened, but Sheila has no doubts about the depth of their commitment:
“She really had said yes to our union from the day after groundhog’s day – 1982.”
And here is the kitchen table poet describing Mary’s introduction to her particular kitchen table, not all that much changed except the ages of the children.
“Mary was a little overwhelmed with becoming a stepmother-in-love at the age of 52 – to the Dinwiddie’s. And was bewildered, for instance when there was no milk in the house on Monday morning because I had given it all to my son after a family dinner the night before.”
And I cannot think of a more moving tribute to a life together than Sheila’s closing words:
“From the day we first shook hands, Mary reached in and steadied my heart, as we steadied each other.
I AM FOREVER GRATEFUL”
And I am grateful for Sheila Moran Dinwiddie–for her friendship and for the poetry of her words and her life. I believe her description of herself involves much more than having written her poems at the kitchen table.
As I read and read again this volume of her words, I understand that Sheila Dinwiddie is a kitchen table poet because she writes about the fundamental truths of our lives–free from all the trappings–the bedrock, the rudiments, those things that reside only in our safest and most comfortable place, for which the kitchen table is a splendid metaphor.
Thank you, Sheila.