There must have been plenty of Labor Day partying going on at the skilled-nursing facility where ElderSparks gathers weekly. When we arrived the day after, American flags still lined the driveway, balloons sat wilting on tables, and two of our five regulars were apparently still in bed at 10:30 am. Of the three who were in attendance, two dozed off repeatedly. I only wish my weekend had been as much fun.

The plan was to read several poems and share any memories they evoked. I started with Signing My Name, by Alison Townsend, thinking that J~, a journalist before his stroke, and S~, a longtime quilter, would especially resonate with it:


An artist always signs her name,

my mother said when I brought her my picture,

a puddled blur of scarlet tempera

I thought resembled a horse.


She dipped the brush for me

and watched while I stroked my name,

each letter drying, ruddy,

permanent as blood.


Later, she found an old gilt frame

for me at an auction.

We repainted it pink,

encasing the wobble-headed horse

I’d conjured as carefully

as if it were by da Vinci,

whose notebooks on art

she was reading that summer.


Even when I was six, my mother

believed in my powers, her own unsigned

pencil sketches of oaks and sugar maples

flying off the pad and disappearing

while her French pastels hardened,

brittle as bone in their box.


Which is why, when I sign my name,

I think of my mother, all she couldn’t

say, burning, in primary colors —

the great, red horse I painted

still watching over us

from the smoke-scrimmed cave of the mind,

the way it did those first years

from the sunlit wall in her kitchen.


Speaking is very difficult for J~. The most he could communicate was that his first byline appeared in a local newspaper while he was still in the Navy. Or at least that’s what I interpreted him as saying. What his story was about, he was unable to convey.

The next poem I read, Sunday Night, Driving Home, by Judy Goldman, was written from the viewpoint of a young girl, a keen observer of small details. She is half-asleep in the back seat of a car with her sister. Her mother and father are talking in front as the family travels home from an outing. As the car pulls into the driveway, she knows how the day will end — her father carrying each daughter into their bedroom, and tucking them in for the night. The poem is a lovely remembrance of childhood. I could tell that the residents really related to it because two of them fell promptly asleep again.

After a couple of shoulder rubs, there was slightly more energy for our own creativity. I gave each student a stack of Poet’s Poker cards and asked them to keep pulling words from the deck until they could assemble a phrase or short sentence of lyric interest.

As each finished, I copied their work onto a large easel pad so everyone could see and discuss it.

E~ went first and came up with this:

Teachers build few large words that hold momentary hopes.

Unlike many creative types, she was amenable to omitting a few words after some feedback:

Teachers build few large words that hold momentary hopes.

J~’s initial construction was altered a bit to yield this:

Lush dreams, wild soaring journeys.

And out of these two lines, came this beautiful paean to creative writing:

Words hold lush dreams, hopes, and wild, soaring journeys.

A second round got off to a promising start before it was time to end the session:

 A child born touches love, opening the heart.

After five weeks devoted to poetry, we will now take a break from it.