“Sestina, is that a family name?” people ask about my youngest daughter’s middle name.
Usually, I plunge into the literal definition of the word; it’s a poetic form—six stanzas, each with six lines, the end words fixed and rotating. Or, I summarize Elizabeth Bishop’s 1965 poem: a grandchild sits with her grandmother in the kitchen, the grandma cutting bread. The child drawing. Outside, it’s raining. The kitchen is warm and safe. But already the tears have been planted. Grief will soon bloom. In the meantime, the grandma sings; the grandchild draws another “inscrutable” house, one difficult to understand or interpret.
This then leads me to tell my story: I was an English major and am now an English teacher. A homesick, insecure undergraduate, I read for connection and comfort, even in my analytical literature seminars. Luckily, I had a professor who championed the reader’s response, who told us stories of his life to help us process and connect to modern writers. His continual refrain: “seek the disinterested pursuit of the good, the true, and the beautiful.” All these years later, I can’t remember if he was talking about the characters, the writers, or us—the young student readers. It was in his class—the one that ultimately saved me from dropping out of college and returning home, the one that turned me from a disengaged business major to a hopeless literature romantic—that I encountered Elizabeth Bishop’s “Sestina.” George and Barbara Perkins’ Contemporary American Literature anthology provided no context for the poem. As a novice reader, I did not know—or even think—to look for a pattern in the poem; therefore, I merely assumed Sestina was the name of the young granddaughter in the poem. As I look at my battered anthology now, I see my class notes. That a sestina is a poem with repeating words.
While I didn’t pick up on the pattern, I felt so connected to “Sestina.” It named the unnamable: the heavy air that hung throughout my childhood. As I reread this poem now, I see my “Sestina” is just a “child.” As one who grew up living with my grandparents, I was struck by the relationship between the grandmother and what I assumed was the granddaughter, Sestina. At eighteen, I could not put into words what struck me. I just knew that the poem felt like home.
My house with my grandmother did not look like this one; my grandma did not drink tea, although the Mr. Coffeemaker pot seemed always half-full full, tepid black coffee drained from it all day. She did not consult an almanac or even a cookbook for all the family sweets she would bake in our burnt-orange stove. Yet, it’s the mood of the poem, the sense that life is passing by, that we just have this moment, this idea that this little granddaughter felt something unnamable in the air–something with the smell of metallic tears— that I could connect with. My grandmother’s mother died when my grandma was just thirteen, her mother, my great grandmother, just thirty-two. As my sister and I lived with my mother and grandparents, these ages loomed above us: would we lose our mother when she was 32? If only we had an almanac to consult.
When my mom turned 33, I think my sister and I, ages six and four, likely heaved a sigh; the air felt lighter. Still, though, I had to get to thirteen: would my mother die before then? Thankfully, she didn’t. But my neighbor Lindsay’s mom did. Todd’s dad, too. Would this looming fate strike me? Even though we were the only ones on the block with divorced parents and live-in grandparents, my grandma continually told us that we were so lucky to have our mother. And me, so scared that she would be whisked away from me, just as hers was.
Perhaps its Sestina’s poise and calm as she sits drawing that inscrutable house that captured me when I first read the poem; she does not seem scared as she plants the tears in the garden of her Crayola house. She seems resigned to the fate before her; perhaps the almanac helps—giving insight to the sadnesses ahead.
What if my grandma had an almanac when she was not my grandma, but a thirteen-year-old girl who had just lost her mother in the early 1940s when things were not explained, especially in first-generation, working class Italian families? What if she knew that she would marry the love of her life and be married for fifty-one years? Have four kids and live to see her great-grandchildren? Would that have helped her cope with her mother’s death, that grief? Perhaps it is this question that has pursued me all these years: if this fate ever struck me or my girls, could we ever recover from such grief?
When I was pregnant, I read a lot of Anna Quindlen, who, at 19, also lost her mother. Her mother’s loss hangs, bird-like, over each piece of her writing. The fear does not seem to draw Quindlen away from the present moment, but sink her into it: in moments of despair, she finds goodness and hope and humanity. And in some ways, that is how I read Sestina; she’s aware that the tears and sadness will come, but in the present moment there is tea. There is rain. There is the grandma. There is the marvel stove. There is love and safety in the small, warm kitchen.
All these years I’ve read “Sestina” as me. I was the granddaughter in the kitchen. What, though, if Sestina was really my grandmother? Perhaps I imagine my grandmother and her mother in a warm kitchen in the September rain in a crumbling Chicago apartment, tear-shaped onions dance on the stove, jazz hovers in the air. In this ordinary moment, they are transcendent. They are safe, and so am I. My Sestina, my grandmother as a child, knew her fate and she faced it with dignity and grace and resilience.
Now, when people ask, about my daughter’s middle name, I tell them: it’s a family name.