After reading Anne-Marie Slaughter's article Why Women Still Can't Have It All, I visited my husband's grandmother, Joan Peronto, in the Berkshires of Massachusetts, a woman I consider who "has it all" and inspiring wisdom and story to share.  She's an award winning poet who's work continues to get published and set to music.  She raised seven children and had a 56 year marriage worthy of being envied.  She's also one of the funniest women I've ever met - probably the main source of my admiration.  And even though I'm 31, she still has Easter baskets and egg dyeing waiting for my husband and me when we visit every Easter.  

In my attempt to have it all, I feel like I have nothing.  I have no time for creative dates and homemaking with work so demanding, let alone trying to start a family.  I have many career ambitions, but just getting the laundry done would be considered a successful weekend.  So, I had to know her secret for how to have it all.

Joan Peronto is an emerging poet.  Her poems thus far have appeared only in a number of small publications and in Crossing Paths, an anthology of Western New England poets, but we will be hearing more of her.  After raising seven children who are now, as she tells us, educated and thrust upon the world, and  after working for thirty-four years as a reference librarian, she has retired to devote herself to poetry.  Her new and soon-to-be-realized project is a collection of poems about a small Midwestern town, similar to the one in which she grew up. 

Joan.Slide

Joan in third grade in 1936 in her hometown of Atlanta, Illinois (last girl on the right).
 
 

Marriage & Family

MH: What advice can you give me and members of bSmart that might make the next 40 years a little smoother in our attempt to have it all?
 
JP: Well, the advice I would give them and you too is to take time every morning to really meditate and be quiet and think about the important things in your life and calm down before you face the day.
 
MH: The challenge I face is that my role as a woman is a little less defined than it used to be in previous generations.
 
JP: I think there was a time when Women's Lib started that many women decided they were going to have good marriages, they were going to have careers, they were going to raise children and do the whole thing well.  I think a lot of them found out, you can have it all, but not all at the same time.  It has to be in pieces.  Maybe you do your career and then you take time out, rather than try to do everything at once.
 
MH: I feel like if I were to leave my career then I’m a failure at my career.  And if I stay working as a mom, then I’m a failure as a mom.
 
JP: I can understand that but also there are just so many hours in the day.  You're talking about the best of all worlds where your husband can handle things while you're a full-time mom and it doesn't always work out that his job is that great or you're going to be safe from divorce and other problems that come up.  If you have children, it is important to give them quality time and let them experience a mother and father they can have fun with.
 
There's a Hole in the Bucket, Dear Henry
A Poem by Joan Peronto

 

does anyone
remember
slow
dinners
music
talk
love?

does anyone
remember
when we had
time
in buckets?

time
to sit
on porches
watch
a moonrise
wish
on stars? 

 
MH: All of this seems a little challenging to pull off.
 
JP: It's very challenging.  Men don't have it all either.  They are usually on a career path too and when they come home they would like a happy family to be there. Children can get cranky around supper time, life is not like a Hershey  commercial. 
 
MH: I feel the pressure to create a nice home, delicious meals, and romantic dates with my husband and also to have a career and apply my education and intellect.
 
JP: If you have children you're going to use your mind (or lose it).  Every child is so different, and so special.  Believe me, you will use your education bringing up a family.  The particular question  I found most challenging most challenging began "Why does God......?"
 
MH: There are a lot of people who put their career first for awhile (like me) and are now looking to get married or start a family but I'm worried about the timing and shortchanging my career or family.
 
JP: Something has to give one way or another.  You come home at night and even if you have a decent nanny you want to give part of yourself to your child and you're tired.  It almost has to go in stages,  shifting gears from careers to child care.
 
MH: Of course I want to balance my career with spending time with my husband.  I’ve been getting home later than my husband for a long time.
 
JP: I think that’s one reason so many marriages are in trouble.  Everyone’s working so hard.  
 
Afternoon Walk
A Poem by Joan Peronto
 

There’s the yard we talked about
a lighthouse, a canon, a rusty pump,
a burro, a Mexican asleep beneath his hat.
Dutch children holding tulips,
a wheelbarrow of sweetpeas,
two garden gnomes with crinkled hats,
three geese dressed for Halloween,
a wooden lady with red bloomers,
six pink flamingos by the door,
a giant butterfly stuck on the shed.

Joe and Ida in 1961,
decided children weren’t for them.
Too much time and trouble,
we want to see the world, be creative,
 run our lives without the diapers,
ballgames, PTA.
Afternoons and Saturdays  
Ida weeds the peonies and pansies,
touches up the paint on the Dutch children,
Joe trims with care the grass around the gnomes.

 
MH: One reason I’ve pushed myself and been motivated professionally is that if someone told me with their words or actions “you can’t do this” my response was always “oh yes I can.”  So I’ve been trying to prove myself for a while and then I start to think who really cares any way if I prove myself?
 
JP: I remember one time I was in the obstetrician's office with a bunch of women waiting to go in and it must have been the early 1970s.  It had just been decided that women could work on the floor of the factory at General Electric.  We were all sitting around talking and this one woman said, "I am the first woman to work on the transformer floor at GE."  Here I was seven months pregnant and I said, "Do you find working there has damaged your femininity?"  She said, "OH HELL NO!"  And I loved that.  She said, "I give it to them as good as they give it to me."  And I'm sure she did.  That was the very beginning of women on the transformer floor.
 
MH: The economics we’re experiencing are by no means as challenging as the Great Depression, but it is influencing life decisions for my generation – the Millennial generation.  So many students graduate with degrees in engineering or international politics and they can't find work and many of us have student loans.  It’s really a pressed situation.
 
JP: I think it's a shame that so many corporations are moving jobs overseas until we have very few factories making any products and we are mainly a country of services.  We're graduating thousands and thousands of kids every spring and they are all looking for jobs. 
 
MH: My generation was told that we could do anything.  A lot of baby boomer parents gave us everything we wanted, new toys, new shoes, lessons, and we never wanted for anything.  We love our parents, but the real world is really different from our childhoods.
 
JP: Growing up in the depression you just didn't get what you wanted most of the time.  If you wanted a new bike, you probably waited a long time to get it.  Remembering back, I was far more privileged than a lot of kids in my class because at least my father had a job.  Some of them had nobody working in their families and to this day I can't figure out how they got through.
 
Class of 47 3
My 65th High School Reunion
A Poem by Joan Peronto
When I was a senior in high school, (1947)
full of energy and wisecracks and thoughts about a
long lazy summer with college at the end of it
I never in my wildest,  thought I would see
2012 , let alone a remnant of my class of 23
buddies, with whom I had spent 12 years,
in the same two story red brick schoolhouse.
After 12 years spent together we knew each other well,
To this day when I meet any classmate there is a bond,
forged through  years of sandbox, algebra, and playground
rather like an old married couple who can finish each other’s sentences
and read each other’s minds. (It’s a blessing and a curse.)
One only has to say “Remember the routine we went through in Third Grade?”
and the co-sufferer replies, “Miss Carlock would say, ‘ Attention Class!
Position!  Turn!  Stand!  Pass!’ “ and we marched to recess or music or
to the gym to get vaccinations.
Or “how about Miss Knowles trying to teach us to sing ?”
Poor Miss Knowles who once said to us, “You’ll sing ‘Go Down Moses’
until you get it right!” I don’t know that we ever did.
We started on the first floor and gradually
in seventh grade, made our way to the second floor.
In our town, high school  was high. For a long time
I thought that was how it got its name.
Oh, and how about the Senior Prom ? They sold $1.00 tickets to townspeople
who sat on the bleachers and watched us dance! You have to remember
there was no TV then, so we were it. 1947’s version of Dancing With The Stars.
The reunion was great. The stories get better with the years
and as the size of the class diminishes, the love grows stronger.
I live in the Berkshires now, and love the rolling hills, old mountains,
rivers and fields, but the landscape of the Midwest, as flat as the palm of God’s hand,
is the landscape of my heart.
 
 
MH: So many people live wounded about something that happened in the past - death or divorce.  Your father passed away when you were in college and you never seem wounded from that.
 
JP: Well, these are the really difficult times.  The first time you deal with the death of someone you love dearly is the hardest.  I have found my religion a great comfort and of course good friends and family help you.  It's a matter of getting back into life again after the loss, and realizing that you're not alone.  Everyone has "Good Fridays" in their lives, and as Garrison Keilor says, "The reason we are here is to grease the wheels for others."
 
MH: My hsuband and I really admire the marriage you had with your husband.  
 
JP: We did have a great marriage.  We had a lot of fun together.  We both had crazy senses of humor.  I think that even when things were tough we were able to laugh about it and see our way through it.  Floyd was always so caring.  I could hand him the phone at 3:30 in the morning and he would take over and solve the problem.  We really just laughed and had a good time.  I've read  about how you have to work to have a good marriage and I just couldn't understand that because I just woke up in the morning and it was fun. 
 
Widow's Walk
A Poem by Joan Peronto
 

This street is oddly calm,
every other house
a woman’s house.
Belle’s forsythia is rampant.
Anna, in the dormered Cape
left her plastic Santa out.
It’s April. He’s fallen on his face,
beside the sleigh.

Daisies and ferns
thrive in the driveways,
sheds need paint.
chimneys list and crumble,
swimming pools,
dirt filled,
are flower gardens.

In the 50’s this street
could fill a school bus.
Children poured up the hill
in rivers, dropped their books
to climb the willows,
roam the forests, until
they filled their backpacks,
vanished into cities.

Meanwhile the women learn
the soft language of Mah-Jongg,
south wind, green dragon,
visit Vegas, walk for cancer.
Docents in the family museums,
they dust the artifacts, feed the tourists,
wait for the closing bell in square rooms,
square pictures on the walls.

 

Career

MH: How did you decide to become a poet?

JP: The first poem I ever wrote, and when I decided to be a poet, was in 3rd grade.  The assignment was to write a poem about a donkey.  I would love to remember that poem, but I can't.  But I do remember standing in front of the class and reading that poem and everybody laughed and I thought this is great, I'm going to be POET!  I wish I could remember it.
 
MH: What does it mean to be a poet and write poetry?  In what ways is this different from being an actor, artist, painter, or musician?
 
JP: I don't think there is any difference in being a poet than any other artist, although your materials are a lot cheaper.  You have a pencil and a paper and that's it.  I went to Carl Sanburg's home in North Carolina and it was so interesting because when we walked in there were entire rooms with floor to ceiling books that he had referred to in his poems.  He also gave over 21,000 books to one of the universities in North Carolina.  I thought, "Oh, that's the trick.  Read more than you write."  One of the suggestions for poets is to read four hours for every one hour you write poetry.
 
MH: How many poems have you written?
 
JP: If you count all of the haikus, then well over 600.  I had a friend the other day who was giving a program about her mother on Mother's Day and she said, "Oh the most wonderful thing happened to me, I found four poems my mother had written."  And I said to myself, "How about 600 and something?"  I've been published in journals and in an anthology, and in children's magazines, and it's nice to see yourself in print, but mostly I write because I get such pleasure out of creation and just writing them.  If I put the things I'm worried about on paper they can sort of disappear.
 
Somersaults and Cartwheels
A Poem by Joan Peronto

cider, crafts and cameras gone,
fall festival is over.
a cold wind charged with mist
has moved through town,
set the empty park swings swaying,
curved around high stacks of firewood
whistled through the empty bandstand.

bright scarlet and fine gold,
leaves somersault and cartwheel
on dry grass, wanderers at last.
A company of geese
drawn to southern marshes,
looks down and honks,
like summer visitors departing.

Ready
set
winter.

 
MH: Are your poems happy or sad or both?
 
JP: Both.  And sometimes I don't even feel sad but a sad ending comes to a poem and I can't understand that, but it just does.  Sometimes they just write themselves.  
 
MH: When did you start writing professionally?
 
JP: Well, when did I start sending poems out is probably the more accurate question, because if I was writing poetry professionally I would have starved over the last 20 years.  But, I started sending them out after I had a workshop here at the library in Pittsfield, Massachusetts.  The poet that led the workshop liked some of my poems and I started to get a little more confidence in it, so I sent some out.  That was in the 1960s.
 
MH: Did you have little children at the time?

JP: I had little and big children at the time, but it was always such a release to sit down and write a poem.  For a long time I wrote light verse and didn't have an idea about real poetry.  But the light verse was published in the local paper and a lot of people commented on it.  After the workshop I started to write more serious poetry. 
 
MH: Do you attribute your perspective to how much you’ve read?

JP: Yes, I do.  I grew up in a small town and they had a very nice library and I read every book in the children's room and then I started to move into the other rooms.  There was a librarian there who watched over the adult literature pretty closely, so I didn't get into the other rooms until I was 15.
 
MH: If someone tells you they don’t like to read, what book would you give them to help them like reading?
 
JP: It depends on how old they are, but I think the funniest book written is A Confederacy of Dunces by O'Toole.  I'd give them something like that.   If I were talking to a child, I would probably say now Harry Potter, but back when I was growing up it was The Wizard of Oz series.
 
MH: Why do you love living in The Berkshires?
 
JP: I love the Berkshires because there are so many creative people here in every area of the arts and many many opportunities to perfect your skills among friendly people.  Also, it is a beautiful place to live.  The hills, especially in spring and autumn are spectacular, the lakes are lovely.

MH: What is your favorite poem?
 
JP: Oh that's like asking, "Who is your favorite child?"  I guess my favorite is the one I wrote called Grasshopper Summer.  It won a prize and it just kind of told how it was when I was growing up with my best friend. 
 
Grasshopper Summer
A Poem by Joan Peronto
 

The summer we were thirteen,
brown and mosquito-scarred,
we biked down gravel roads
through green corn tunnels,
put on dusty theater in the haymow
to assemblies of barn cats
and raftered pigeons,
and learned to sew sundresses
on the Singer treadle,
your mother sighing at
the puckers and thread-messes.

In the old farm kitchen
we set the trestle table for the men,
hungry from the haying,
Blue Willow on white oilcloth,
platters of fried chicken,
buttered corn,
red wheels of sliced tomatoes.

We talked for hours
under river willows,
heard in the hot afternoons
grasshopper whispers in the fields,
and watched the long white veins
of summer lightning,
feeling in ourselves the rising
sugar maples feel in early spring.