Cheers!

If I were a drinking person, I would definitely be toasting with whiskey the anniversary of the death of my dearest friend in this life: Ethel Pochocki. Whiskey was her drink of choice.

It was four years ago today, very early in the morning, that she breathed her way quietly into the next life. She and I had been figuring she was good for another ten years, but that wasn’t to be. To celebrate her last birthday, her 85th, while in a care facility, she asked for an apple pie instead of a cake. She may have had one bite of it.

Ethel was the award-winning author of many children’s books, some of which are still in print. A storyteller in the vein of Hans Christian Andersen, whose tales she lived for reading over and over, her favorite story was “The Little Match Girl.” The protagonist was a child of the streets at Christmas time, looking through windows at happy families warm and snug inside, while she sat out in the street in her rags, dreaming her dying dreams, seeing her visions in the light of a struck match.

The theme of the outsider was a frequent one in Ethel’s writings. Although she herself had been raised the somewhat pampered only child of a lawyer and homemaker in New Jersey, her soul was large with kindness and compassion, and she easily slipped into another’s shoes to tell their story. That story in turn gave rise to  compassion in the reader, who might be moved to act in a more loving way herself or himself, although that was neither Ethel’s purpose nor intention. Never preachy, she was funny and smart, even wily in her wit and in her writing, all of which writing was true. I believe the deep, human truth of what she wrote is why it affected readers as it did.

She loved dill pickles, coffee, all things Scottish, reading, cats and kittens, her kids, grandkids and great-grandkids, and competitive Scrabble. She had a gift for friendship, and if I surveyed her friends, including her own kids, I think the majority might say, as I did above, that she was the dearest friend they ever had in this life.

Ethel herself is most clearly revealed in her poems, collected in The Women of Lockerbie, published by Sheltering Pines Press in 2005. To give you a sense of who she was, I selected two poems from the collection, the title poem, “The Women of Lockerbie,” and “Recycling,” the poem we read at the time and place of distribution of her ashes.

The Women of Lockerbie

Village women prepare clothes
of crash victims for return
to kin.––TV News Broadcast

their good plain faces
linger briefly on the screen,
sandwiched among dancing raisins
and singing toilets and starving children
beset with flies

gentle sparrows
lifted from obscure nests
so we might observe
their quaint behavior.
“It’s the least we can do
to give a bit of comfort,
you know how mothers are,”
says one.

gathering in the laundered
remnants plucked from shrubs and rocks
and barren Advent trees in fields
where sheep will graze unaware
in spring,

smoothing these last things
blown sweet in the wind,
folding sleeves just so,
ironing precisely pleated skirts,
(you know how mothers are)
as if needed tomorrow

they are the women at the tomb
who pay respects in niceties
of fragrant balm and soothing linen,
who nurture even after death.
I could live in such a land
of valiant women.

Recycling

when it is time
for me to leave
this old house
I have molded to my comfort,
this outerwear worn
threadbare smooth to perfect fit,
throw a goodbye kiss,
lock it into memory,
level it to ash
in quantity to fill
a mayonnaise jar
and several coffee cans

then on a spring day
of gentle wind, or in October
when the maples blaze gold,
bestow it on the gardens,
the old lilacs and thistle hill,
the wildflower patch on the leach field
and the woods I haunted for berries,
around the horse chestnut trees
and the little house where I wrote poems
and watched the generations of
big fat spiders repeat their mothers’ lives
in the upper right-hand corner of the window,
and every other place I worked and sat
and pondered the mysteries of slugs
and difficult children
and what the Pope really believed
and if Brahms and Clara Schumann
ever consummated their love
and what to have for supper

do this in memory of me
and I’ll come back
in the crisp, feisty pickle,
the scarlet silk of gypsy poppies,
the wild sweetness of blackberry pie,
the chestnut you fondle
and cannot throw away,
the rose that finally
blooms

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