Peggy Gillespie is Co-Founder/Director/Editor-in-Chief of Family Diversity Projects, a non-profit organization that creates and distributes traveling photo-text exhibits on diversity themes. Three of the projects have been published as books: Of Many Colors: Portraits of Multiracial Families, Love Makes a Family: Portraits of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender People and their Families (UMass Press) and Nothing to Hide: Mental Illness in the Family (New Press). She is a certified social worker and co-founder with Jon Kabat-Zinn and former Assistant Director of the University of Massachusetts Medical Center’s Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction Program. Gillespie has worked as a freelance journalist for the past fifteen years. She has written major feature articles for the Boston Globe Sunday Magazine, Redbook, Yoga Journal, and New Woman. She is the co-author of Less Stress (Signet) and the autobiography of choreographer/dancer Bill T. Jones entitled Last Night on Earth (Pantheon). She led creative writing workshops for many years with Amherst Writers and Artists and continues to lead workshops for teens and college-age students, most recently at Smith College (March 08).
The Surprise Party
The women speak of henna turning
gray hairs to the red of their flaming youth
though none had ever been redheads,
even in their heydays.
They speak of loosening skin,
of how it can be stretched tight, the scars
hidden, barely seen. They speak the number,
a mantra, a tribal buzz,
a whisper of a new decade.
The two slightly younger ones say
Numbers mean nothing.
It's how you feel inside
that counts. But the birthday girl
and the two others already her new age
agree that this just isn't so.
They say that they know
the cells are dying, that they already feel
the shrinking and the drying. They are warned
even on TV about their bones,
how they may splinter and crack
like kindling seasoned for too many seasons,
when touched by flame, they will burn without mercy.
The women say they are joining
their grandmothers and mothers who kept
cherrywood boxes filled with buttons. Red ones,
polished wood ones, shiny black ones,
plain white ones, and the glass ones
they promised were diamonds.
Here let me sew this on your coat
and you will look just like Princess Anne.
And if these girls were very good,
they were allowed to touch
the buttons made from mother-of-pearl
turning them into mermaids
frisky with the possibility of breathing
air and water at the same time. Such promises.
They all tell dangerous stories from their pasts,
of travels with strange bearded men, of hitchhiking
into Mexico high on marijuana,
of snowstorms on Oklahoma highways, of tidal waves
higher than houses in places without oceans.
But it is the surprise of survival
that they all remember most
and what they all wish for
when the birthday candles blow black.