My husband Stuart gave me a book for Christmas I did not know existed–a pleasant surprise indeed. Helen Alderfer, an early woman leader in the Mennonite Church and someone I have long admired, has published a book in her 90th year. I have always loved reading about people who keep achieving their dreams well into old age–Grandma Moses types. Well, Helen, you have done what Grandma Moses did–took the natural inclination to relive childhood in old age–and turned it into art.
The primary metaphor in the book comes from the grinding mill, an archaic piece of machinery that for hundreds of years was essential in the transformation of grain into flour. The longer the life, the more grist for the poet’s mill. The fact that grinding produces a useful, even beautiful, product means that the poet employing this metaphor might be tempted into sentimentality.
But Helen takes a remarkably unsentimental, almost stoic, atttitude toward tragedy. Understatement becomes her. Her father’s death when she was a teenager could have been the subject of saccharine moralizing. Instead, Helen uses the image of a new brown suit hanging in the closet to express all the pathos of that terrible moment. Later, another poem about a dream she has in old age about her young father, closes when he says, “Come, I want you to meet some friends.”
Helen is not afraid to reveal her own feelings that would have been labeled selfishness or pride by many Mennonites. Sometimes these admissions produce a smile on the reader’s face, and a reader who knows the poet can see the twinkle in her eye. Take, for example, this ending to a poem about the old horse that the children sometimes hated because they wanted a young pony instead:
One November morning Aunt Lena called us for school
“Hurry,” she said, “there is a surprise downstairs.”
Please God, I begged, let it be a pony.
Dashing downstairs we found Grandmother
sitting in her low chair at the kitchen stove
holding a new baby–our brother.
At that moment we knew we would never get a pony.
Helen’s poems speak clearly about universal themes with very particular imagery. They are memoirs–small particulars–pieces of grist, that the poet grinds in her mill. I loved the tribute to Rayma Rawson, who taught English at Sterling (IL) High School and who “combed her dark hair almost over one eye./She wore red, red lipstick and a ring watch./I could have swooned when she gracefully/flung her hand into the air to check the time.”
Helen is a tall, graceful, even elegant woman. This poem explains the mystery of how she became what she admired in that teacher–not only elegant, but literate, willing to take risks to live deeply.
Memoir teaches us that all lives are connected. A woman like Helen who read, and taught, and edited, and traveled, and voiced her opinion, and wore long, flowing garments was essential to a younger woman like me who longed to do those very things–and more–yet still maintain the connection to roots and the land of ancestors. I never knew Rayma Rawson, but she influenced me by influencing Helen.
As Helen reveals the spiritual and literary mentors who shaped her–Merton, Blake, Dickinson and many others I also love–I feel spacious and timeless. But I feel this most when I also see and feel, through the power of imagery, the hard shell around a single grain of wheat–Helen’s answer to Whitman’s blade of grass.