Friday, May 31, 2019

Lessons by Robert Demaree

1. Swimming Lessons

Summer 1945.
Parades. Burning ration books.
How would we eat?
It was our first summer in New England,
In a shoe town, not a resort,
But they did have a lake
And on it a tutoring camp
Where my father taught boys
Who would now not have to go to war.
We’ve driven by that spot a few times since,
Returning from Canada,
Abandoned, posted, boarded up,
Locals not sure what went on there.
After sixty years, instinct takes me
To the place where I learned to swim.
I am envious today of those
Patient long-distance swimmers
Passing slowly, rhythmically by our dock
On a different lake, and I remember
Running, screaming from the Red Cross
Class in Dexter, Maine.
Later that summer I was taught the rudiments of
Paddling by my father’s friend,
And with it a respect and residual fear.
Kayaking around our pond,
I stay close to the shore, life vest taut.
These days people sell ration books on eBay.

2. French Lessons

1957: I was a day student
At the boarding school

In Pennsylvania
Where my father taught.
I studied French
(That may not be the word)
With the man I’d grown up
Knowing as Uncle Hal,
My father’s friend, his department head.
No one much cared back then
That Uncle Hal was not a native speaker, or
That his pedagogy did not match
An avuncular kindness to children.

We sat around a large conference table,
Polished cherry in which
You could see your reflection,
Arranged by rank in class,
With Benjie always next to Uncle Hal.
Exasperated at the rest of us,
He would place his knuckles
Against a balding brow
And moan: People,
Stupid, feeble-minded people.

Then he would turn to the
Chubby boy on his right:
Tell ’em, Benjie.

The table would not hold everyone—
The four of us at the bottom of the class
Sat against the back wall,
Including Neil Brooke, the playwright.
Uncle Hal once told my mother,
I bring in all these nice things to show them
But then I see Neil Brooke’s face.

Benjie died quite young, I think.
For his own reasons Uncle Hal kept company
With a widow on the office staff,
Aunt Peggy to me, of course.
I found out much later
About the Four Roses bottles
Left in his flat.

I took two courses in college,
Rather liked Racine,
But my spoken French was always
Wooden, unconvincing,
The only use I ever made of it
To order at a restaurant
In Qu├ębec:
Deux Big Mac’s, s’il vous plait.

3. Piano Lessons

My lesson was before school.
My father waited in the car,
Smoke from his Lucky Strike
Clouding the windshield of our ’48 Plymouth,
Against a gray January sky
In Pennsylvania—
We did not know to call it the Rust Belt then.
My spinster teacher walked about
Her Victorian row house,

Checking on an invalid mother
And calling out to me,
“I hear wrong notes.”

The house smelled of cooked vegetables,
Even at 7:30
When Teddi Kalakos came for her lesson.
She and I played a duet once,
Carl Philipp Emmanuel
Bach, it may have been.
Her family ran a restaurant;
She may have inherited it—I don’t know,
One of many threads of the plot
Lost over time.

Once a year Miss Edna would take us
Into Philadelphia, the Reading Railroad
More than a Monopoly card,
Elegant iron horse, cold coal-smoke dawn,
Dutch trainmen in shiny blue suits
Calling out the station stops:
Royersford, Conshohocken.
She let us shop at Gimbel’s,
Have lunch at Bookbinder’s,
Wasted on 12-year-olds,
And took us to the Academy of Music,
The children’s concert,
Peter and the Wolf, no doubt.
Years, years later
My mother asked if I remembered
Seeing Ormandy conduct.


Robert Demaree is the author of four book-length collections of poems, including Other Ladders, published in June 2017 by Beech River Books. His poems received first place in competitions sponsored by the Poetry Society of New Hampshire and the Burlington Writers Club, and have appeared in over 150 periodicals. A retired educator, he resides in Wolfeboro, N.H. and Burlington, N.C.

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