My dear friend, poet Levi Romero, turned the poem, "Where I'm From" by George Ella Lyon, into a writing exercise that I, along with many others, have used in writing workshops, especially with young people. One day, while teaching, I wrote my own poem based on this writing exercise.
WHERE I COME FROM
I come from crocheted dishrags
and hand-me-down clothes from cousins
on the “good” side of the family.
I come from canvas cotton sacks (200 pounds for an adult
“but you’re a big girl now, eleven,
you can pull enough cotton to fill that ol’ sack”),
from Lifesavers and Nehi Orange
and salty peanuts dropped into sweating-cold bottles of RC Cola
and traded among us kids for back rubs
when we couldn’t quite stand up straight after a day in the cotton rows.
I come from the heady, dangerous ozone smell
of summer thunderstorm nights
when I walked alone across town
to buy my mother’s cigarettes.
I come from rain-soaked redbuds and lilacs and irises,
from mesquite and cottonwoods,
from beachfront bougainvillea and date palms.
I come from drive-in movies and drunk fathers and mothers
and singing in the church choir
and stone-headed stubbornness.
I come from Sequoiah and John Ross,
from “Cielito Lindo” sung everywhere
(I thought to me since it had my name in it),
from driving out in the dark to see the desert bloom after a rain,
from altruism and diabetes.
I come from “get your nose out of that book”
and “if it’d been a snake, it’d bit me”
and Grandpa’s sermons in the pulpit on summer Sunday visits.
I’m from the Great Smokies and Tahlequah and Broken Arrow,
from Highland crofts and Dublin slums and England’s younger sons
from San Diego and Coronado and El Cajon,
I come from snobdodgers and frybread for breakfast
and from fried chicken I helped kill and clean for Sunday dinner.
I come from the month the money ran out,
even my illegal paycheck from the drugstore after school,
and the grocer wouldn’t give more credit,
when some angel left a bushel basket of turnips on our kitchen doorstep.
I come from Aunt Joan and Uncle Glyn on their dirt-poor farm
who took us in on a moment’s notice, six kids deserted by both parents,
and raised us with our four cousins
in that house the size of my living room with never a cent or a thank-you.
I come from those nights on the mattress on that kitchen floor,
waking to take little ones to the outhouse in the dark,
from cooking for harvest hands and combine crews
while Aunt spent the day on the tractor with the men,
from her dark Indian spitfire and his tall, Indian peace.
I come from all the photos of us kids in places all over the country
where Dad dragged us around like a tail behind him,
from all the photos of the five babies after me
and the photos of all of us with grandparents and cousins
and my school photos from San Diego, Kenosha, Arlington,
and so many others I don’t even remember,
stored only in my brain, except for the handful
Aunt Joan saved for me all those years until we found each other again
when Uncle Glyn was dying in his quiet way
and cousin Dickie’s abused son, raised by his grandparents,
bussed and hitchhiked back from the Navy to sleep
on the floor at the foot of Uncle’s bed, faithful hound.
I come from my grandmother’s Cherokee teaching stories and stubborn strength,
from that grandfather’s wild goose chases and big dreams and fine talk,
from my other grandmother’s domestic fussing and ambitious nurturing,
from that grandfather’s preaching and Bible values,
from my father’s hatred of his Indian half and tolerance toward everyone else,
from his bright, inquiring mind, his hope for humanity, and his drunken violence,
from my mother’s cold beauty and rewriting of the past,
from the short tragedy of her life, and the strength with which she bore it.
I come from a long line of male preachers and teachers, drinkers and dreamers,
from conjure women, curanderas, women with the Sight,
and women who survive and make do.
I come from fallen gentry and half-breed hill trash, from parsonages and trailer courts.
I contain all of these,
and I choose,
who I will be.
(published in Imagination and Place: An Anthology, 2009)