By Amy Pickworth
Featured Art: Chrysanthemums by Pierre-Auguste Renoir
1880: John Stine proposes to his dead wife’s sister, Eliza. He is a farmer, about forty, she is a spinster midwife. She accepts, telling him, “I will marry you for the sake of the children, but I will never sleep with you.”
This sounds strange—would she have said sleep with in the nineteenth century?—but these are my grandmother’s words. It is 1993 and we are sitting in her house, which smells like cigarettes and meat. The curtains are drawn. Her second husband has been dead for fifteen years. She hasn’t gone blind yet.
1962: The Orlons sing Baby baby when you do the Twist, never never do you get yourself kissed.
Teenagers everywhere Watusi in response.
1970: Larry Larson proposes to my mother again. They had married in 1955 as teenagers and divorced soon after. She turns him down.
I remember Larry Larson. He was a nice guy. I think he worked on cars.
1917: Anthony Healey, son of Irish immigrants and a cigar maker by trade, dies in California. He had traveled there by train from Michigan, hoping to be cured of his advanced case of tuberculosis. He is survived by a wife and four children, one of whom will be my father’s mother.
1945: One of my mother’s uncles returns home from the war to discover that his wife has contracted the clap. She insists that she got it from a toilet seat. Their marriage survives another forty years.
My grandfather makes it home too, but he and my grandmother divorce soon after.
1965: John Sebastian writes a song that will go on to be covered by many different singers. The listener is asked, Do you believe in magic in a young girl’s heart? How the music can free her whenever it starts?
1879: Singer Lillian Russell’s infant son dies after his nanny accidentally sticks him with a diaper pin, penetrating his stomach. A successful career and several marriages follow, but Russell doesn’t bear another child.
1925: My mother’s mother often visits her grandparents’ farm, but she dreads sleeping there because she finds the sound of whippoorwills unbearably sad. She will mention this—and imitate a whippoorwill—whenever she talks about her childhood.
1887–91: Jojo the Dog-Faced Boy longs for a girl. He longs for a girl with such intensity that many days he can barely look out at his audience, which is enthusiastic and includes a number of women, probably some of whom are kind.
Sometimes he weeps, sometimes he dreams he is reclining on a bed with Lillian Russell. She’s wearing a picture hat, a diamond-studded corset, and nothing else. She gently grooms his face with an ivory hairbrush while she hums “Come Down My Evening Star.” Her hands are bare, white, small.
Several years later, after the dreams stop, Jojo takes up smoking. He always buys the cigars with Lillian Russell’s face on the box.
1977: Larry Larson sometimes comes over and has a beer with my mother. I am upstairs in my room with my 45s and posters of Shaun Cassidy. I don’t know where my brother is, but while he is gone I secretly study his copies of Playboy.
So much of life is mysterious.
1949: Hank Williams divorces Audrey Sheppard and writes “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry.” It opens with Hear that lonesome whippoorwill. He sounds too blue to fly.
My mother sits alone every afternoon at the kitchen table in the trailer, listening to a country-music radio show. My grandmother is at the factory. My grandfather is with his new family. I don’t know where my mother’s brother is. The show always ends with the Sons of the Pioneers crooning “Tumbling Tumbleweeds.” Years later, this song still makes my mother cry.
Amy Pickworth’s poems have appeared in Dusie; Forklift, Ohio; Ink Node; The Journal; Love’s Executive Order; New Ohio Review; Smartish Pace; Two Serious Ladies; and other publications. “Timeline” appears in her book Bigfoot for Women (2014, Orange Monkey Publishing). In 2018, she was awarded the Rhode Island State Council on the Arts poetry fellowship. Originally from Ohio, she lives in Providence, Rhode Island, with her husband and two children.