friday feast: “your grandmother’s whisk” by penny harter

(click for recipe)

Some of you may remember when I featured Penny Harter’s beautifully crafted haibun, “Moon-Seeking Soup,” last October. It was written in response to her husband William J. Higginson’s passing in 2008, and included in her chapbook, Recycling Starlight (Mountains and Rivers Press, 2010).

She and Bill liked to make a special root vegetable soup together. In the poem, she’s making the soup alone, needing the light of the moon but getting the earth, as she sees her sole reflection in the ladle. This healing soup of love and memory marked a step toward accepting her loss.

In today’s poem, Penny captures another poignant moment — she thinks again of Bill as she prepares breakfast with his grandmother’s whisk. Hold memory in your hand, whip new beginnings as grace transforms sorrow.

YOUR GRANDMOTHER’S WHISK

is not round but curves in a half-circle,
its wire hand flashing silver as I whip
my breakfast eggs into foam.

I curl my palm around the worn
wooden handle, smoothed to a soft
patina by her grip and yours, wondering

what ghosts linger even now in her
lost kitchen, waiting to be fed.
She had chickens, gathered fresh eggs

to break on the lip of some pottery bowl,
whisked them into buttermilk, flour, and
baking powder, maybe making a batter

for those blueberry pancakes you loved.
Perhaps she baked a cake to honor your birth,
my love, now more than seventy years ago.

Would I could whisk you both back into
my kitchen, offer you some still warm
scrambled eggs this winter dawn.

Copyright © 2012 Penny Harter. All rights reserved.

* * * * *

Penny: Bill treasured the few kitchen tools he took from [his grandmother’s] place after she died — he was her only heir, his parents having predeceased her — and those implements followed him, and then us, during various moves. After he died, of course I brought it with me to my new home. And I prefer it to the shiny and more flimsy newer whisks. I love the wooden handle smoothed by her and our use over the years, and the sturdy steel hoops of it.

Blueberry pancakes was one of Bill’s favorite breakfast treats, and he reminisced about how she made them. I haven’t made them in a while, but writing about and remembering them has made me want to make them again. He said she used buttermilk.

Speaking of buttermilk, in Bill’s chapbook, Death Is & Approaches to the Edge (From Here Press, 1981), he wrote the following poem in the voice of his grandmother, quoting her since he kept a journal while with her:

A GOOD MANY GALLONS

“Mrs. Kaufman
cured her arthritis
with buttermilk —
real buttermilk,
straight from the churn
when you’d be making butter,
not that thick stuff
from the store —
cured it all.
I guess it’d take
a good many gallons
of buttermilk to cure
my arthritis.”

Copyright © 1981 William J. Higginson. All rights reserved.

 

(click for recipe)

He also adored her molasses cookies, and used to make a version of them himself. I never saw a recipe, and in his opinion the ones he made came close but never were as good as his memory of hers.

Since Bill was born (in 1938), she’d lived alone in a small cabin in the Connecticut woods, though she did move into a senior apartment in her last years. I had the privilege of meeting her a few times in the late seventies. Now and then Bill would come up from New Jersey to the cabin to help her out, but he said she often protested his coming, doubting that he would want to “put up with a week or two of cutting wood, drawing water from a shallow spring, cooking on a wood stove . . . “, let alone live with her. He wrote, “She would live alone, you could be sure of that.” She died in a good nursing home in January of 1980 at the age of 92, and Bill, his daughter Elizabeth (Beth) Higginson, and I were with her. We sang “Amazing Grace” to her as she passed over.

* * * * *

Thank you so much, Penny! It was good to remember Bill again this October. Your poem and personal notes are wonderful sustenance for those of us who’ve long admired and revered Bill’s work as a poet, translator, author, editor, and premier haiku scholar.

Friends, do you have a favorite kitchen tool that calls up special memories?

♥ Visit Penny Harter’s Official Website and blog, Tide Lines, to learn more about her incredible body of work.

* * * * *

Lovely Linda Baie is hosting this week’s Poetry Friday Roundup at TeacherDance. Take her some blueberry pancakes and molasses cookies and enjoy all the poetic goodness being served up in the blogosphere today!

————————————–

* Blueberry Pancakes via American Health Journal

** Molasses Cookies via Framed Cooks

Copyright © 2012 Jama Rattigan of Jama’s Alphabet Soup. All rights reserved.

60 thoughts on “friday feast: “your grandmother’s whisk” by penny harter

  1. Blueberry pancakes, buttermilk, molasses cookies – whisked with loss and grief and love – such a heartwarming post, Jama. I am not familiar with William Higginson’s work – will now look for it, alongside Penny’s poetry.🙂

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    1. Bill was one of the charter members of the Haiku Society of North America. The Haiku Handbook (co-authored with Penny) is the classic, go-to work for anyone interested in writing and/or teaching haiku.

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    1. Ms. Harter’s poems chronicle her journey of grief, loss and acceptance. Poetry is a great and powerful healer. For those of us who only “knew” Bill from his professional work, reading about these small personal moments via Penny’s poetry gives us more insight into his personality, makes him more human. While we’re sad for Penny’s loss, we see how focusing on good memories has helped her move forward with her life.

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  2. Thanks for the caring reader comments. And Jama, what you say above is so true. Writing my way through the grief journey has really helped me heal. It’s been four years since Bill died, and although I will always love and miss him, I am moving forward in my life, celebrating each day as he would want me to do.

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    1. Through your healing journey, you’ve helped so many others acknowledge and perhaps articulate their own experiences. Ripples widen . . .

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  3. What a lovely post and poem. Many thanks to Jama and Penny for these life-affirming reflections. Even as I write this I am looking around at my cluttered home office and am reminded of the beautiful thingy-ness of well-used and homemade objects: a fish carved by my brother, the first origami crane made by my daughter, and green, soft-edged sea glass picked up on a beach with my husband.

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  4. And Jama, I want to add that it was a poetry prompt by Diane Lockward, a fine poet you know and a friend of mine, that contributed to my deciding to write about that whisk. She had asked us to think about a tool we use, and I really had no idea what to choose
    in response. Then, a couple of days later when I was standing at the kitchen counter, the whisk in my hand as I whipped the eggs, I suddenly knew which tool I needed to write about. Thanks, Diane!

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    1. Thanks for sharing that, Penny! Like you, Diane is a wonderful teacher and tireless supporter of her fellow poets. I still say there is something magical in New Jersey water🙂.

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      1. Yes, I should have remembered to share about Diane’s prompt in my original comments, but was swept up in the memories, instead. Diane is all those things you say, and a wonderful poet, as well. . . . Maybe there is something magical in NJ water – – – just hope we don’t get too much more water in the upcoming storm🙂.

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  5. Thanks, Mary. I hope others out there will choose one of those “well-used and homemade objects” to write about, too. I love the list of objects you give us. We could probably write a whole series of poems about the beloved objects in our lives.

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  6. I came to haiku, and to Bill and Penny’s work, shortly after his death. What incredible gifts, immeasurable, to so many. Thank you Jama, and Penny, for another wonderful post. This poem is so very moving, and these lines:

    I curl my palm around the worn
    wooden handle, smoothed to a soft
    patina by her grip and yours, wondering

    are exquisite. Penny, I hope to meet in person one day!

    Jama, I keep tea bags in a vintage glass container (the kind you’d see on the counter of a general store) that was my grandmother’s. Lovely to remember her each time I make tea!

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  7. Dear Robyn, I’m honored by your kind words about Bill’s and my work. Bless you! I hope to meet you in person some day, too. I will probably go to Haiku North America in CA next year. Will you be going?

    You should write about that container and your thoughts while making tea. And thanks to your post, I’m just reminded that I have my great-great-grandmother’s hand crank egg-beater, which sits in a glass container not unlike today’s blender containers. I feel another poem coming on🙂. ..

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    1. Thank you, Penny. One of these years, I will make it to that conference!

      I should write about that canister, you’re right. And I love the thought of your having a hand crank egg-beater that goes back four generations! You’ll blend magical words out of that, too, no doubt. :0)

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  8. “We sang “Amazing Grace” to her as she passed over” brought a tear to my eye. Thanks for making Bill and his grandmother so vivid to us. Lovely poem.

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  9. Oh, my goodness. You had me with the whisk, but it all just got more poignant. This mixture of love and cookery is why I love visiting here, Jama. Penny, thank you for sharing this beautiful way of working through grief. I

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    1. Hi Jeannine. Thanks so much! Were you going to say more? I see that “I” at the end of your post. . .

      Writing the poems in my chapbook *Recycling Starlight* during the first 18 months of grieving really helped me heal. And the ones in my new e-book “One Bowl” (linked from my blog) reflect both continued healing and my continuing to honor Bill’s memory.

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  10. Penny,

    I think it’s wonderful that you are able to use your God-given talent to compose such beautiful poems especially those about your memories of Bill. I too have my memories of Eileen throughout my home. They’re bittersweet, yet you folks tell me the pain will ease with time. It’s a comfort to know that you understand and that you care.

    Robert

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    1. Hi Robert, thanks for taking the time to read the background info and my poem. And thanks for your kind words about my work. I promise you the pain will ease in time. For me, writing the poems was and is a healing path.

      You might consider jotting some thoughts down in a journal. It could help you release some of those bittersweet feelings. And of course we in the support group H.O.P.E do understand and care.

      Good luck during the coming storm. I just saw that evacuation orders (voluntary Friday and Saturday; mandatory Sunday) are now in place for barrier islands in Cape May County. May all who might be affected by Sandy stay safe!

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  11. I’m at a bit of a loss for words at the profound beauty of this poem and of the entire post. I am truly touched and saddened and I don’t know what. Thinking now of my father’s beret worn in a photo of him as a young soldier in Pisa, and now in my possession, and of the chalk drawing he made and signed on a piece of slate when he was ten years old that somehow, miraculously, still survives.

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    1. Dear Renee, I’m honored by your depth of feeling around the post and my poem. You might write about your father’s beret, or the chalk drawing. Your remembering your father’s beret reminds me that I wrote a haiku about the black beret Bill wore during chemo:

      finally brushing
      the hair he lost in chemo
      from my black beret

      And life goes on . . .

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  12. Read Myra’s comments first, and I’m not sure I can add to what she said! I especially like the ending stanza, where the seems to be a bit of acceptance. I love to cook, so there are two things of my mother’s I hope to have passed on to me, when that time comes: her red + white-handled hand mixer (with the interlocking cog wheels!) and her scallopped-edged, stainless steel cookie cutters from the ’50’s!

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    1. Matt, I’m loving hearing about everyone’s favorite objects—especially kitchen utensils, but really all of them readers have mentioned. I remember a hand-mixer like that—and yes, those interlocking cog wheels were fascinating to me as a child. And the stainless steel cookie cutters—ah, memories. I’m glad you like the poem and especially the ending. Thanks!

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  13. What can I say, but thank you Jama & Penny for the thoughtful way you shared your memories, and the poem is so touching. I have more than one object to share, have written about some, and will continue to, in a way of sharing some family history along with passing on some of the objects. My husband is ill at this time so objects of his are harder to consider; they will need to wait. But for now, for example I have an old salt crock that has been passed on from Virginia to Missouri & now to Colorado, sits on a shelf, knowing what it’s for, wondering where else it’s been. I suspect it really could tell us so much. Thanks for all-loved it.

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    1. The salt crock sounds wonderful — and yes so many stories to tell us! Didn’t you write about your vintage cookie cutters? I seem to remember you posted some photos too.

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    2. Thank you so much, Linda. I hope you continue to write about your objects. So many of our keepsakes carry family history. I am sorry to hear that your husband is ill, and I hope his health improves. I don’t think I’ve seen a salt crock, so when you write about it maybe you can include a photo. I love how you’ve personified it in your comment: “wondering where else it’s been.”

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  14. The day has passed and darkness has descended as I read this post, these poems and reflections. I am deeply touched; speechless. Coming to Jama’s is always the high point of my day. My heartfelt thanks to you both.

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  15. So poignant and beautiful. Thank you for sharing, Jama.

    I wish I had an answer to your question. My parents didn’t teach me to cook, so I have this distance from kitchen tools, but I’m going to be damn sure we teach our girls.

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  16. Well this was just so lovely and then all the comments… wow! I am reminded of all the old utensils and dishes I have of my mom’s, her slack scissors, her silver cake lifter (tarnished now, I’m afraid), her jam collander and all the cookie cutters I claimed when I cleaned up her things. There is something wonderful about how those objects take us back to the people who used them. Thank You Jama and Penny for a thought-provoking, heart-tugging post.

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  17. Beautiful, Jama. Beautiful, Penny. We word collectors may also be thing collectors, infusing them with meaning…

    Or perhaps we have special abilities to smell and see the meanings infused in them through time that others do not sense?

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    1. I collect words as I do things, and these things definitely are infused with all kinds of meaning that transcend time and space. Poets like you do teach us ordinary folk to look more closely at what is often overlooked. I think that’s the larger role of any creative artist actually.

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    2. Hi, April. Yes, we are collectors of words. I’ve even written several poems riffing off of dictionary definitions of words that fascinate me. And maybe we do have extra senses🙂. Thanks for your kind words about my poem, and thanks to Jama for posting it.

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    1. Thank you, John, for your kind comment. I’m glad you enjoyed it. I would have responded to these more recent posts sooner, but just got through “Sandy” here in NJ. Fortunately, I have power and sustained no damage. My heart goes out to those who were hard hit!

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