Of Peace, I Think in Poems and Stories

Of peace, I think in poems and stories,
the images framed in words to color in the spaces.
Hot Oklahoma days, I sat outside drawing peace signs
with thick rainbows of chalk on the concrete driveway
outside what my parents called Our First New House,
an echoing brick with a courtyard and bare plaster
because my father didn’t want holes in the walls.

At three o’clock, my mother would come outside
and make me wash off the peace signs
so my father wouldn’t yell when he got home from work,
his regulation-blue Air Force shirt unwrinkled,
like my mother had just ironed it in her Sunday routine,
his shiny black shoes unsmudged, midnight mirrors,
the bars and stars and leaves and pins on his shirt aligned.

I never asked if my father would be mad about the peace signs
or about the chalk that might mar the new concrete.
I just got the hose and washed away the circles and lines,
watching the colors of my peace swirl and meld,
and flow down the driveway, into the storm drains, far away from me.

When my father’s station wagon pulled up at night,
I tried to guess if he was in a good mood or bad
by the way he parked the car.

After supper, my mother and father watched the news,
drinking the last of their iced tea, the ice cubes melting,
their paper napkins clinging to the condensation on the glasses.
In that uneasy hour in the family room, I held my breath for peace.
If some other country were at war or threatening it,
my father, a man who had seen it at a distance,
would throw down his napkin and say,
“They just can’t stand to get along; they just like to fight.”

In those days of banana-seat bikes, I wandered and wondered
why battles came so easily in a new house and an old world.
To keep the peace, I quit drawing peace signs on the driveway,
brokering harmony with fresh ice and light words in dark pauses.
I learned to change the channel when the news came on.

When my mother left my father twenty years later,
taking the cat and the baby pictures
and leaving the Halloween decorations behind,
she sent me a framed watercolor,
Blessed are the Peacemakers.

My father keeps the Halloween decorations up still,
not, he says, because he wants my mother to come back
after all these years of their separate peace but because,
he says, this way, he doesn’t have to decorate in October.
“Dad,” I say, “you and Mom both deserve to be happy.”
My father looks at me, shakes his head, and says,
“You never could stand for people to fight.”

In the quiet of my father’s kitchen,
high above the pool he won’t use
below the third-story gables he shouldn’t climb,
I think of peace and war:
my father, who doesn’t park his car
that angry way anymore;
my mother, who loves big houses
but found her dream home in two bedrooms;
my sister, who designs bombers and believes
conflict is peace;
my brother, who negotiates globally at warp intensity
but won’t let anyone in his house argue.
I think of a woman who wants peace in her house and heart
but who swears in made-up languages
when there’s no hot water again
and who hears the echoes of those long-ago afternoons
washing away a rainbow canvas of chalk peace signs.

I see it now if not as clearly before:
The fear of war and the truth of war itself
are not just of bullets and fire and hurt
but of what we, participants and witnesses, become.
Of peace, I think in poems and stories,
the images framed in words that color in the spaces.
As my friend notes on her Facebook page
to summarize her life’s mix of husband-boyfriend-lover-friend,
it’s complicated.

Michelle Whitley Turner


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