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Janet Ruth Heller

Nature Walk at Shenandoah National Park, August 2010

                 (For Patricia Clark and Miriam Pederson)



Alert for wildlife,

we emerge from our cabin,

take paths across forests and meadows.


We find a doe and her fawn

under a tall tree,

nibbling green Milam apples.


A crowd gathers.

We see movement among the leaves,

look for squirrels.  No—


A black bear sits on a branch,

yanking and gobbling fruit,

dropping some for the deer.

At Miller's Pub


Nestled in the heart

of the Chicago Loop,

Miller’s Pub has served meals

and beer since 1935.

Visitors leave autographed pictures

above the tables full of beef, salads,

seafood, pies, and sausage.


Patti Page gazes wistfully at diners

from a gilt-edged frame

while Fred Waring smiles benignly nearby.

But most of the photos capture

little-known actors or singers,

brave local legends

who lost the high-stakes game

in New York or Hollywood.


As they strut in spangled costumes,

the starlets appeal

to hungry business groups,

tourists, and shoppers

for a moment of homage.

Elegy for Dad


 My heart is in the east,

But I’m in the uttermost west.

--Judah Ha-Levi


 It’s a sunny August day in Michigan,

but my heart’s in Arizona

where my father lies dying.

This old World War II soldier

has fought four battles with cancer.

The score was three to zero

until a tumor invaded his stomach.

He’s too frail now for surgery or radiation,

and no one can always defeat

the Angel of Death.


I visited a week ago.

We played cards and talked for hours.

He told me about the fraternity

that lost interest because he was Jewish

and the sly college roommate

who set Dad’s alarm for 3 a.m.

Surprised to find no one in the library,

my father realized the prank.

He loved working with his father at Milprint

and later piloting the family firm

with my brother Will.


Dad explained how he made maps

for General Patton and checked for mistakes.

Laughing, Dad recalled that he knew

which men had been drinking

or gallivanting after curfew,

so he proofread their work

and found many errors.


I had never felt closer to Dad.


My last night in Phoenix,

Dad was too tired to play bridge,

his favorite game.


I phone Will to get an update.

My brother weeps,

powerless to stop Dad’s slide

toward endless sleep.

In the Nursing Home


 We moved my mother-in-law into a nursing home

after she turned ninety.

Rheumatoid arthritis and Parkinson’s Disease

make it impossible for her to dress herself

or tie her shoes.

Glaucoma transforms every room

into a dark cavern,

and deafness prevents her from hearing

most conversations, much less a burglar.

At her home, she fell often

and could not get up.


The nursing home is clean and new,

staff members kind.

Aides lead exercises designed

to boost memory.

Local children visit,

and buses take residents

to concerts and plays.


But old age is cruel.

Mom asks us twice

which day of the week it is

and forgets to insert her hearing aids.

Other residents wander

in the halls until a staff member

guides them to the lounge

or back to their rooms.

Those who can think clearly

can barely move,

and those who can walk

have disjointed thoughts.


We bring dinner and a cake

to the nursing home

for her ninety-first birthday.

But she can’t blow out the candles

and can’t decipher

most of our words.

Surrounded by people,

she feels more and more alone.

Music Lessons


When I was six,

Oma taught me to perform

songs like “Georgie Porgie”

on her grand piano.

I loved to hear Oma play

grown-up pieces

by Mozart and Schumann,

to watch her long fingers scurry

over the black and white keys.


Three years later,

Mom found balding Mr. Sears

to give me piano lessons.

I walked to his dark home

on Thursdays after school.

Though I practiced constantly,

Mr. Sears scowled like an ogre.

Every time I hit a wrong note,

he growled, “Another mistake!

Repeat that piece until you get it right.”

When I entered his brick house

with thick curtains,

my chest tightened.

My frightened fingers shook

and struck false chords.


After six months,

Mom realized that Mr. Sears

terrified me.

She found Mrs. Thompson,

who smiled, spoke gently,

and did not lose her temper

when my fumbling fingers

landed on the wrong keys.

Mrs. Thompson made piano exciting again.

I flourished in her sunny studio

at the Wisconsin Conservatory

with a grand piano and a picture window.


Mrs. Cohn was the music teacher

at Cumberland School.

Young and beautiful, she taught us

a good morning song,

a song about pigeons walking in the rain,

a song about Christopher Columbus,

songs from Norway and Taiwan.

Always smiling, she made the classroom glow.


I also sang in the choir

at Congregation Sinai.

We practiced early on Sundays

before religious school.

We learned songs for Shabbat,

Chanukah, Purim, and Shavuot.

My favorite director, Mrs. Forman,

chose music with complicated harmonies

and led us with vigor.

She liked my soprano voice and said,

“Next year, I want you to do a solo.”

But the older students hated

her strict rules.

Mrs. Forman told us, “Focus on me,

even if the president comes to our practice room.”

Marcy shot back rudely, “If President Eisenhower came,

I would go and ask for his autograph.”

The next year, Mrs. Forman disappeared.

Did she quit in frustration,

or did Marcy and the other big kids

complain and get her fired?

I missed my wise mentor.


I no longer run my fingers

over piano keys every afternoon.

But I still sing with friends and family.

In my alto voice, I chant Torah and lead prayers

at the synagogue, fulfilling

Mrs. Forman’s promise

five decades ago.

Many years of music lessons

taught me to love the patterns

of sound and rhythm,

the syncopation and arpeggios

that now resonate in my poems.

Elegy for a ’Possum


For weeks, we had found

tiny paw prints

coming up our snow-covered sidewalk,

climbing the porch step,

proceeding west

around our house,

and crossing the back yard.

We thought the paws

belonged to a kitten.

But the kind people on our block

would never abandon

such a young pet.


One February night

at ten o'clock, we met

the creature: a small ’possum

slowly walking toward us.

His eyes drooped

as if he were sad,

and his white face

glowed starkly in the porch light.


He slowly grew

to adult size and strength.

We heard his grunts

like barks of a dog with a cold.

Sometimes we encountered him

when carrying our scraps

to the compost bin

or when we returned

from a late walk

to find the ’possum

in our garden.


Every summer, the creature

took a shortcut

across our front lawn,

wearing a diagonal path

from the driveway to the porch.

Every winter, we traced

his tracks in the snowfall,

noting his short legs

and his dragging tail.


This spring, we think he fell ill

or fought with a cat

or got hit by a car.

Our neighbors found his body

wedged under their ramp.

We buried him in our woods

with full honors.

Janet b & w.jpg

Janet Ruth Heller is the president of the Michigan College English Association.  She has a Ph.D. in English Language and Literature from the University of Chicago.  She is a past president of the Society for the Study of Midwestern Literature.  She has published three poetry books:  Exodus (WordTech Editions, 2014), Folk Concert: Changing Times (Anaphora Literary Press, 2012), and Traffic Stop (Finishing Line Press, 2011); a scholarly book, Coleridge, Lamb, Hazlitt, and the Reader of Drama (University of Missouri Press, 1990); a middle-grade fiction chapter book for children, The Passover Surprise (Fictive Press, 2015, 2016); and a fiction picture book for children about bullying, How the Moon Regained Her Shape (Arbordale, 2006; 6th edition 2018), that has won four national awards, including a Children’s Choices award.  Her website is 

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