Nearly every weekday evening after dinner, my brother, Jimmy, and I would do dishes and homework with the help of our maternal grandmother. She was the one who quizzed us on spelling, arithmetic, and things like state capitols. Having gone to school when memorization was key to learning, she was the rote memory queen. She would have liked to have become a teacher, but she said she switched to a commercial course after she was caught with a Latin pony, a word-for-word translation of a text that was considered cheating. The detour to stenography and typing didn't dampen her love of learning and she shared her enthusiasm as we cleaned and recited whatever lessons we were supposed to know for the next day. Words, times tables, poems.
She not only coached us, but with a little encouragement she would recite her favorite poems for us. Unlike my father, who could also recite, but favored grander poets like Tennyson, Grandma loved good bad poets like Robert Service and Edgar Allen Poe. She would clear her throat, put down the dish towel and begin one of the long ballads from Service's The Spell of Yukon as we urged her on.
Melodramatic understates the sentiment of these poems filled with "the men that don't fit in "who risked everything searching for gold in the frozen north. I still love the sad improbable tales of "The Cremation of Sam McGee" and "The Shooting of Dan McGrew." Storytelling like that can't be rendered on blank verse. No doubt those long recitations set me up to be a fan of the melancholy country western songs of Merle Haggard, Johnny Cash and their brethren.
A perennial favorite around the kitchen sink was the heartbreaker ballad of a lost daughter, "Little Moccasins"
Come out, O Little Moccasins, and frolic on the snow!
Come out, O tiny beaded feet, and twinkle in the light!
I'll play the old Red River reel, you used to love it so:
Awake, O Little Moccasins, and dance for me to-night!
Seeing the little moccasins in the glass case at Richardson's Trading Post in Gallup, brought the poem and a vivid memory of my grandmother rushing back to me.