Wilma’s Life

(Photo by Trudy Wischemann)
Local writer of the column 'Notes From Home'

There’s a brand-new book I must tell you about, “Pick Up Your Name and Write,” a biography of the Tulare Okie poet laureate, Wilma Elizabeth McDaniel.  

The author is my friend Betty Blanks, an emeritus lawyer in Visalia who shared the final years of stewarding Wilma’s spinster life with me and two other magical spirits, Lillian Vallee of Modesto and Jim Chlebda of Springville. The book is a labor of love, for sure, as well as pure Okie working class persistence.  

Wilma was a private person, shy beyond words, yet also relentless in getting her words about life down on paper, then out into the world. Reading the book, I’ve been astounded by how much I thought I knew about this woman were just dots, tiny intersections between her life and mine. Betty, true to her name, has spent years running down the facts to connect the dots, filling in the blanks that Wilma mostly kept to herself. 

One result of this labor is that I can now identify the source of contradiction I felt (but could not pinpoint) between the woman and her work. In her poems and stories I found women who were caring, resourceful and resilient, queens at mending and making do. So I was shocked, as I got to know her, when Wilma could barely operate a safety pin, much less hem a pair of pants decently.  

What Wilma did, however, is take her gift seriously and write almost every day. As she aged and her responsibilities to the world narrowed, it might have become easier. From the stories about Wilma’s life before we knew her, it appears that she wrote then in the cracks between caring for her mother and church charities. Paid employment mostly escaped her, or she it. Seeing the environment of her earlier work, it’s clear that the cracks are just as important as freer time, sometimes producing the most powerful insights in the fewest words.

Between the chapters of Wilma’s life, Betty has inserted many of Wilma’s poems, products of her complex days. “Vito and Zona” is in there, one of the most succinct assessments I’ve ever read of what brings a man and a woman together. Another poem has floated to the surface of my mind to share, however, after writing “River Songs” last week:

A Pair of Rivers

Everyone should have a lover
and I had two of them, now
locked in memory.

At nine, it was the lazy Cimmaron
with orange water
and huge catfish
the color of mud

At seventeen I found another
in far-off California,
a tumbling crystal river
with the holy name
Merced.

I’ve typed that from memory, having learned it by ear from a tape Wilma recorded for another magical spirit, Andrea Morris (Metz) who was the director of the Merced County Courthouse Museum. Andrea and I served as voluntary typists for Wilma’s outpouring work in the 1990s, both of us happily conscripted by the positive force of her personality and poems.  

The book is full of many others who served this solitary woman in multiple capacities. But what it really tells us is what it takes to be a writer in this world, a poet of ordinary people, a chronicler of culture being dissipated by consumerism. The book’s title is about the instigation of such a career from one of Wilma’s early poems published in “Sister Vayda’s Song” (1982):

Naming a Poet

Some relatives
not close enough by love
to really matter

would command
the awkward girl with eyes
that didn’t match

pick up your bare feet
don’t drag them across the
splintered floor

pick up your floursack dress
and hang it on a rusty nail
until a woman called from

outside the broken window
pick up your name
and write

For me, Wilma was that woman calling from outside the broken window of my mind. It actually didn’t matter that it seemed she was calling for help, because in learning her work I became more myself. Wilma’s work was her way of broadcasting seed, the seeds of life, claiming what it takes to make life worthwhile. This book is a faithful rendering of what it took Wilma.

If you’ve ever heard such a call, pick up the book at www.wilmaelizabethmcdaniel.com. It could help you pick up your name.

Trudy Wischemann is a remedial poet who is damned lucky to get to write. Send her your comments c/o P.O. Box 1374, Lindsay CA 93247

This column is not a news article but the opinion of the writer and does not reflect the views of The Sun-Gazette newspaper.

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