A Small Story
When Mrs. McCausland comes to mind
she slips through a small gap in oblivion
and walks down her front steps, in her hand
a small red velvet pillow she tucks
under the head of Old Jim Schreiber,
who is lying dead-drunk against the curb
of busy Market Street. Then she turns,
labors up the steps and is gone . . .
A small story. Or rather, the memory
of a story I heard as a boy. The witnesses
are not to be found, the steps lead nowhere,
the pillow has collapsed into a thread of dust . .
Do the dead come back only to remind us
they, too, were once among the living,
and that the story we make of our lives
is a mystery of luminous, but uncertain moments,
a shuffle of images we carry toward sleep—
Mrs. McCausland with her velvet pillow,
Old Jim at peace—a story, like a small
clearing in the woods at night, seen
from the windows of a passing train.
This is a poem all to do with memory and age. Reflecting on an incident when a child and perhaps reflecting on something that has been recalled many times throughout a lifetime. The two characters that stand out are Mrs McCausland and Jim Schrieber. And the interaction of the red velvet pillow which makes the first stanza standout. Who would put a red velvet pillow under the head of a drunk in a busy street? What does it symbolise and what does it say about Mrs McClausland?
We do not know Mrs McClausland’s first name perhaps indicating she is a person of note. But I should imagine everybody knows Old Jim Schreiber especially if he goes around in a drunken stupor sleeping in the town gutter. Apart from being an expensive pillow it is red. I would like to think that Mrs McClausland is giving attention to the town-folk about Jim, giving value to his life and at the same time perhaps suggesting that something should be done to help him.
But getting back to memory, the child is not a witness to the event. He only remembers it from a story told by others probably family. The fact that it has been talked about to make a story indicates that it is a somewhat unusual event. The child is probably well aware of the two characters. No other characters come to mind ‘the witnesses are not to be found’ and the ‘steps lead nowhere’ for it is only a small insignificant story and gone to dust. But the memory is still there. Perhaps written from the perspective of an aged person turning to dust himself in the near future?
The first stanza is an event, the second a contemplation from that event to promote the reader to thought. Well of course the dead do come back to life when they live in the mind of the living. The living re-image the dead in their own unique personal way. And such memories do have on-going influence on the living. In my recent Post we see exactly that in the repeat of the father’s words ‘good fences make good neighbours’ in the Robert Frost poem ‘Mending Wall’. And family words of those we’ve known are apt to walk the mind quite frequently. My mother always used to end our conversations with two words and when I hear these two words in whatever context my mother is there too.
The story we make of our lives is a small story and no more than a collection of fleeting images from ‘the windows of a passing train’. ‘A shuffle of images we carry toward sleep’.But perhaps our lives will seed some memory in those that have known us and hopefully in a positive bright light when seen from that train window!