Whole Life Honey 
poetry by Jessica Willingham

They came over on ships, worked steelyards, smeared in
grime and times too tough for us to imagine. We’re Irish, so we love to fight. Later, we became
Irish Cherokee, Texas Comanche, Oklahoma Apache, our name means anyone who wants to
fight me all the time.
We are the pride of the plains.
We play fiddle, drink whiskey, and eat oysters
on Christmas Eve. We fry chicken, we box, psychiatry doesn’t work
on me. I’m proud. First, we fought
for wages, fought for tenements, fought for a Union,
a ticket west, a dry flake of land. We washed ashore, too,
and a white trash wave carried us from city slums to blue Kentucky,
almost heaven, West Virginia feels like utter hell.
Tiger Aaron Hall fought for the Union, felled the forests of Appalachia,
great-great-auntie Mayme married a Hatfield. We all drank moonshine
and sand plum wine, been cookin’ hominy
and pickled pigs’ feet up until last year. Let’s go be poor,
somewhere else! Always somewhere else. We ran toward red Oklahoma, and it cracked
open, swallowed us whole, down the hatch and into its heart we went,
braves in a soldier’s pit, battling for blood-red dirt and dry land. Oh, how we finally felt
dry. Chalked like a fiddly string, migrants across open prairie
sea, stowaways in the hatch. All my Irish ancestors. And one faraway mother star, black as soil
in the nighttime, Nigeria. All our boats became buffalo. What a place
to dry out, tune-up, sing a little. Oklahoma! 
Sod, soil, pasture, acreage, 40 and a mule. You ain’t no kinda man if you ain’t got land.
And my family put on their Sunday best and stood out in the sun
in front of their sod house, proud as hogs in slop. My grandfather,
in a lace dress, dribbling on great-great granddaddy's knee while smoke
came out the stack. Home was always warm.
We gave up our fighting for dancing, trick riding, calf roping. We two stepped into time
immemorial, fringe on our jackets to dust away the bad. Catfish yellow belly skin
tanned by a July sun, brass darkened to bronze. Like that statue of Will Rogers, in reverse.
If you rub his shoe, you’ll get good luck. If you kiss his cheek, he’ll tell you a joke.
Starched white shirts and summer denim and sunsets steaming, melting, rolling.
cowboy hats into iconic shape. A man never looked so good. 
I go through mother’s photos. Buckets of black and whites
like dominoes, it’s your turn to shuffle. I mix them with my palms,
hear clinking martinis in deep green grass, horseshoes ringing
in the backyard, a little country music, fearsome lady laughter.
The boneyard overturned, delivered from the grave. I hear my ancestors
waking up to the clink of ice in the glass, the sound of a delicious split, the crackling of the dead,
cold and gone, meeting the warmth of memory. Daddy and Mother kissing in the yard
under a cottonwood tree. Mayme on the hood of an old Model T. 
Mom, why is our livestock in all these pictures? Aunt Sue petting a heifer,
Rose rode a bull, Katie on a chestnut gelding with a mounted American flag
in her hand, beaming down a small-town parade route. 
That was our whole life, honey. 

Jessica Willingham is a Lighthouse Writers Book Project graduate and editor at Five South. Her poetry is Best of the Net nominated and focuses on rural places. She lives and writes in Oklahoma.

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