Tuesday, February 10, 2009


I first met George Hathaway Littell in his underpants. It was October. The afternoon on a cold day when the sun was refusing to set. I was meeting Mr. Littell at his house with my mother who was a nurse and for awhile worked to help elderly people find some help around their homes from cooking meals to shoveling driveways. George was 98 years old at the time and really, he didn't need much help. Up until that past spring, George still drove the three blocks to collect his mail, went to his coffee club once a week, and he had already employed someone to dust his room and vacuum the rugs. But his three sons were worried about that fact that George had decided he didn't want to go to North Carolina that winter. George wanted to stay in Leland. His sons wanted someone to read the Wall Street Journal to him, make a warm meal a couple times a week, and they wanted someone to talk with him.

I was that person. I arrived early for our appointment that October late afternoon which might explain why George was wearing his boxers. He hadn't quite finished getting dressed. Don't get me wrong, George was not a man of leisure or laziness. He dressed himself everyday in trousers, a button down shirt and always a sensible sweater. He still kept his correspondence going by typing letters with one hand and a flashlight held up to the page with the other. He did his taxes. He kept up with the stock market daily. And George loved to write poetry.
I had just finished that past spring at the University of Michigan with a degree in Literature and frankly didn't have a clue as to what I wanted to do outside of getting out of Michigan. I just wanted to write poems and forgot that it wasn't the 15th century anymore. Not a lot of patrons supporting poets. So I was doing odd jobs, living at home, and basically just saving and waiting to leave. It was my mom's idea to work with George that winter and I can still hear her tell me, "sometimes doing something for someone else helps us, helps us in ways we don't even know we need."

She was right. There I was in a small boarded up summer town reading the Wall Street Journal and learning to cook. I guess it was the ideal situation to practice simple dishes like poached whitefish and cream potatoes. George liked everything and anything with salt and was understanding of whatever mistake might have happened. But mostly, I cannot remember the specific meals as much as I remember our conversations.
I had moved us from eating in the linoleum kitchen back into the dining room and unearthed dishes his wife, Beulah, had coveted. I found eight-tracks of Beethoven to play while I was fixing dinner so George could have a gin and tonic with the sunset, with the music. He'd shout memories from the other room and I'd say, "tell me a story at dinner George, tell me the whole story."

And he would. He told me of traveling by the Queenie Two to Europe and how he went to see a grotto so blue it still glistened in his mind. He told me of Africa, traveling by boat along the Nile, a winter in Moscow under the curtain, and how he and Beulah traveled around the world and always they came back to Leland. Always Leland in the summer. 
George didn't grow up in Leland and he and Beulah had met in Chicago while he was selling, if you could imagine, Life Insurance during the depression. George would tell me stories from all parts of his life and some not as praised as his travels. One story he told me, while sipping on his ginned iced, was about a woman who came to the cafeteria where George would have his lunch. It was the winter and this woman wore just a calico dress and worn shoes, no socks. It was Chicago and it was cold. George said he watched her sit down, alone and penniless. He asked her if she needed money and bought her a bowl of soup. He said he will never forget how slowly and cautiously she took the spoon to her mouth. How she ate with her eyes closed as if to hold that flavor even farther in her stomach. George told this story as he would with most stories with vivid details down to the color of calico, her red chafed hands, but this time in the middle of describing her eat, George started to cry. No, not a subtle tear on the side of a cheek. The kind of cry that stops your own breath for a moment. For a moment, George sat with his large hands over his eyes, taking air in and continuing the story. As if he surprised himself, he said looking up, "she could have been my mother, Emily, she was just an old woman, old and alone."

And what does all of this have to do with poetry, food and this idea of middleWest? This week is Valentines, sure it might be a contrived holiday or one of strange origins, but it is also one to reflect on love. Someone once told me that you cannot really write a poem, even a poem about sharks, starvation, avalanches or even aging without loving it, loving it so you can hold it close enough to be able to write it, to write it well. I think it is true. This is the gift of George. For a mere few months, I got to study under someone who really loved this world and who could even in cataracts and isolation could see the good, want to find the good, remember it all as it was, even the ugliness. George would hold the ugliness, the parts of this world which we never take a photograph of and he taught me to hold these images even closer so we could believe it might be something worthy, something worth finding beauty in. 

Men in Parks

In Kielce, I was mugged
by a man who wore eyeliner.
With three teeth,
he told me I was beautiful.

Here, most men in parks smell
of foul meat, wash their faces 
in beer and piss 
standing up.

They curse Mary,
their mothers and call out
to Cyclops or buses
they never get on.

One night, I  passed a bus stop,
heard a man crying
Przeprazam, Przeprazam,
Polish for sorry.

I just sat with him in the snow
and never once tried to say
anything. I just nodded,
and mouthed the word with him.

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