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Kirsten Casey: Ode to Donation Day

Kirsten Casey | Other Voices

Members of Grass Valley Ladies Relief Society shared the gift of a poem written by Kirsten Casey, poet laureate of Nevada County for 2021.

What We Carry, An Ode to the Donation Day Parade

More than a century ago, the first pair

of hands in the parade have 10

small fingertips, red from the winter cold.

Each little fingernail displays

a miniature waning moon, the lunula. And

every luminous possibility seems

within her grasp. It is hard for her to hold

the potato close enough, wrapped in thin paper,

protected like a baby. Knowing

its preciousness, that when combined

with what other marchers hold, somehow

this simple potato is a sign of relief.

There are so many bare hands

on this December morning. The teacher

holds both of hers out. There is ink

under her nails, she has forgotten her gloves.

She clutches the hand of a small boy wielding a stick

of wood, while her other hand reaches down

to pull a child’s shoe from the mud, as it wedges

in the wagon rut puddles. The children laugh

at this, and their warm breath in the frigid air

is better than smoke from the wood burning stove,

tangible and fleeting, their short bursts of warmth

sustain this procession, fuel it. The trumpeter

pushes down on his instrument’s valves

with light precision, and his exhaled air transforms

into metallic, bright melodies. Loud, golden

sounds escape from the horn’s brass bell; his song

carries along crowded Mill Street and rises,

threading itself through the morning clouds. This song echoes

in the hearts of the marchers, who hum along.

Then the merchants pour out from under their shop awnings,

waving hardworking hands, revealing their own palms,

the topographical maps of callouses and slivers,

undeterred and sturdy, bearing fifty and hundred pound

sack cloth bags of sugar and flour, piles

of wool blankets, loaves of bread, apples, coffee,

soap, salt, rice, molasses, and cord wood to share.

Every item is accounted for later, in a classroom

at the Lincoln School, sorted by many pairs of

industrious hands, belonging to a committee of women,

who push up their sleeves, passing donations into boxes,

ensuring no one is forgotten. These hands

are not afraid of dirt, they have gardened

and sewn, have written letters of gratitude,

have taken minutes at meetings; steady hands that hold

their neighbors’ when the mines fail,

during the Great Depression’s devastation, and the losses

of the World Wars. Discreetly, these hands pay the bills

for nurses and funerals, fabric

and false teeth, hospital patient

birthday celebrations, dental clinics

and prosthetic limbs. The parade continues

beyond the street, even after the marching ends.

With these many sets of hands, whatever is needed

will be delivered. Whatever is too heavy

to be carried by one, can be lifted

by many. And in the end, if we need to,

we will carry each other.

Kirsten Casey is the current Nevada County poet laureate. She is an active member of California Poets in the Schools, and her collection of poetry, “Ex Vivo: Out of the Living Body,” was publishing by Hip Pocket Press in 2012. If you are interested in her work and upcoming community events, visit kirstencasey.com.

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