Shelly Blankman lives in Columbia, Maryland, where she and her husband have filled their empty nest with three rescue cats and a foster dog. Their sons, Richard and Joshua, live in New York and Texas respectively. Following careers in journalism, public relations, and copy editing, Shelly now spends time writing poetry, scrapbooking and making cards. Her poetry has appeared in the Ekphrastic Review, Poetry Super Highway, and Halfway Down the Stairs, among other publications. Richard and Joshua surprised her by publishing her first book of poetry, Pumpkinhead.
Just didn’t seem fair as a kid.
An adult head on a small body.
I was teased in the classroom,
pushed in the halls, jeers of
Pumpkinhead echoed against
the chambers of locker-lined
hallways. I’d sob in the bathroom
stall, wishing my life away, wondering
why my head couldn’t be smaller, why
I couldn’t be paper-doll pretty. The sun
never eclipsed the shadows of memory.
Not through college or graduate school,
not through marriage or kids. Not until
that day at the fair. Mermaids and
magicians, fairies and witches, a
fantasy world in the woods, children
with painted faces and fists stained with
rainbowed popcorn and cotton candy
frolicking among bubbles and butterflies
with glittery wings and a 7-foot man
on stilts, weaving his way through the crowds.
And on a bench, a child, her eyes
downcast, shoulders stooped. Honey-
blonde hair, paper-doll pretty. What tears
could she be swallowing? I held back
my own as I walked past her. I love
your hair! She looked at me, smiled.
I offered her popcorn, bunched in
a wrapper in my hand. No thank you,
she said meekly. I wished her a good
day and walked away. A few moments
later, I saw her whisper to her mom and
dash over to a vendor to buy some popcorn.
After all those years, all those tears, I’d
found a purpose to being a Pumpkinhead.
I swaddled you in dreams from birth,
of health and happiness, of
honeysuckle days and lightning bug nights,
maybe someday a student at Duke or Yale.
For now, your frame too tiny for
the massive canvas of colors
that would paint your life.
Cruising and crawling melted
into days of dangling from
paper-thin twigs on wintering trees.
But by the first snowflake, your boots
lay clean at your bedroom door
while you lay in bed for weeks with fever.
An illness we did not understand robbed you
of playground days of t-ball and baseball,
biking and tennis.
Your sweet childhood was now your Everest,
with every crag and crevice a boulder,
every step like quicksand,
the peak poking through greying clouds
like a beckoning finger, your damaged
spirit, a relentless ocean storm.
You didn’t know the hardest part of climbing
was never reaching the top. Not really.
It was the sides.
It was always the sides.
MY CAT AND I
I remember the times
I’d settle in bed, a book
in my hands, blanketed
by the sweet silence of
night that would whisk
me away from the
stresses of day and my
eyelids would droop like
drapes as I gently slipped
into sleep, but that was before
our plush lump of a beast, our
cat, white as an unblemished field
of snow, with the low steady rumble
of distant thunder, the om of a
muddied day... my book, his pillow,
each new page, his dominion marked
with the whoosh of his full furry tail.
His nightly soundtrack of purrs drowning
my own efforts to read, my fingers
pushing his paws gently to reveal
words, his paws dancing with my fingers
in this shadowed tango of wills.
Two missions at bay, mine to read, his
to rest or play, that merged over time, but
only because I grew weary of trying to win.
Our cat’s gone now.
No flying fur, no purring
to distract me, no paws
to cause me to lose my place.
Just my book and I.
Just my book and I.
Through the lens of a child, I can still see my aunt’s
ruby lips pursed to plant a wet kiss on my cheek, her
long, shiny red nails pinching my chin to keep me from
flinching. I hear the sizzling roast, my rumbling tummy,
young cousins whining for food, offered water until
dinner was ready. And the children’s table, wobbly
chairs too big for the toddlers, too small for the teens,
our cross-table talk drowned by adult chatter rattling
like a dentist’s drill. Assault on the senses paired with
every holiday. How I tried to stay awake through those
post-dinner tired tales of Dad trudging two miles to school
through five feet of of snow, or the time he almost choked
on paper. Now, through an adult’s lens, those times are
nothing more than the soundtrack of youth. Dad’s gone,
my aunt, too. Cousins live coast to coast, while at home,
our forks clink against dishes in the silence of empty chairs.