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My mother sold plumbing and heating for a living, bolstering her home building business — odd for a woman in the ’50s — so she could buy wholesale. Up front she staged aqua tubs and toilets, vanities in rainbow colors along with Johnny-rings, plungers, black-and-white boxes (like TVs those days) bearing products with names I couldn’t pronounce. She did the books but loved the “merch,” though my dad sold too and costed plans for the baggy plumbers who slouched in at seven a.m. opening. One employee, my alcoholic uncle, arrived by motor scooter, sun or snow. Mother (never Mom) let him put an old clawfoot tub in the plate-glass showroom window and fill it with soil. He planted tomatoes, sweet during the winter doldrums, and a Sensitive Plant that drew kids whose parents came for repair advice and discount parts. The kids would crow when touching the plant’s leaves made them slowly close. If they behaved, she might give them (or even me) a Squamscot Beverage lemon-lime soda from the warehouse cooler beside the crappy bathroom (Employees Only) with its orange-stained toilet bowl. Relishing contests, she fought IRS audits and the town fathers who demanded she take the rusting surplus tub and pink toilet seat off the street sign. She asked if there was anything on the sign they didn’t have in their own homes, and won. In those days, business was good.
Then my dad got Parkinson’s. And my uncle and his wife left for Florida. She sold the shop to a family hardware chain that folded when Home Depot opened up the street, and retired to tend her blind horse and the last cats born on the family farm. She loved sleeping in but missed the talk and the “sell-sell-sell.” She’d laugh and laugh about the little boys who’d sometimes secretly pee in a display. On her last day she waved to the lone town cop as she planted mums before she went inside to make chowder and drop dead, as she’d long planned. When I sold the farm, the septic system failed inspection, and I had to install a new one. The night before they closed the gash in the ground, I sprinkled her ashes liberally, keeping some for another place, a later date.
I’ve been teaching for over forty years, writing poetry for more than thirty. Earning a living has had to come before publishing creative work, which I’ve recently started submitting. I'm the Elizabeth Rosenthal Professor of American Literature, Environmental & Sustainability Studies, and Women's, Gender, & Sexuality Studies at UNC Greensboro. Recent publications include Who Killed American Poetry?: From National Obsession to Elite Possession (a deliberately provocative title). Many more books and other publications, including some poems. I grew up on a farm, and that history animates nearly everything I write.