Dearest Papa: A Memoir in Poems
by Thelma T. Reyna
65 poems ~ 116 pages ~ 12 photographs
Price: $15.00
Publisher: Golden Foothills Press
ISBN: 978-0-578-64373-1
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Reviewed by Michael Escoubas

In the foreword to Dearest Papa, her memoir honoring her late husband, Thelma
T. Reyna avers, “Our lives, all lives unspool with time, unexpected paths take
unexpected turns and the unexpected awaits at each curve in our journeys.” No
one, least of all Thelma and Victor, expected anything other than a successful
minor surgery that day; followed by dinner already planned at their favorite
restaurant. Something unexpected raised its ugly head. The arts, and poetry, lends
itself to the unexpected, to those things that give a “gut-punch” to the lives of
regular people, changing them forever, often growing them to new heights not
imagined before.

Thelma’s compelling memoir is arranged in five parts: I. Beginnings, II. Endings,
III. Mournings, IV. Balms, and V. Resolutions. Some 12 pages of photographs are
salt and peppered throughout the book. These judiciously placed photos depict a
smiling, confident Victor, a wedding picture, family members, sports trophies and
other treasures that lend a special poignancy to Reyna’s superb poetry. Her poems
arise from a sharing of life between two people whose love remained undeterred
even by the unspooling of life due to something totally unexpected that changed
the trajectory of their lives forever.

From “Beginnings” I was struck by the poet’s openness about shared love. This is
evident in an excerpt from “Pete and Tillie”:

       When my breasts were young and round, my husband named them
       one night as we lay in afterward euphoria.


       He tapped each one with a fingertip light as a feather’s tip. Monarch
       knighting heroes with the delicate touch of a sword. Pete and Tillie.

What comfort, what ease, resides in Thelma’s heart as she lifts the veil on intima-
cies shared. Caresses not of lust but of deeper love reaching beyond physical bor-

Poems throughout “Beginnings” paint a portrait of Victor’s dedication to his
students as an educator, his love of sports, his impressive physical appearance,
and stamina.

“Timeless Teaching” bears witness to Vic’s advocacy for a troubled student
from a broken home. Because of his testimony the student was allowed to stay
in school under Vic’s mentorship and tutelage. This was teaching that paved
the way for a kid to have a better life.

I was surprised that poems about “Endings” were placed early in the memoir.
As I worked my way through the collection I easily understood why. Endings, I
reasoned, naturally belong at the end. Not so here. As Victor walked barefoot
through his house one day, he was bitten by the family cat. Victor thought
nothing of it, said nothing. I would have done the exact same thing. The event
was like a comma in a sentence, something one barely notices. However, this
triviality led ultimately to infection, infection to gangrene, gangrene to ampu-
tation of Vic’s right foot. The poem, “Cat Bite” is a must read to understand the
full picture.

“Papa,” as Victor was affectionally known, tolerated the amputation procedure
well, even against menacing odds. It was a different procedure, minor by com-
parison, that resulted in Papa’s death. The prose poem “Moment” is one of the best
descriptions I’ve read about what a patient knows or understands at the end of life.

Within the context of endings,” I proudly reprint in full Thelma’s heart presented
in “How Poems are Born”:

       While walking room to room, to tuck
       bedsheets in around the edge, to
       wash my cup in morning light of

       drop soiled laundry in the tub, wipe coffee
       stains from tile, sweep lint from sofa cushions
       crumpled flat, fill cubbies with his

       fingers, hands, legs move like ‘motons
       clearing dust, while poems rush in like
       fools, disembodied, spinning reels of

       stringing phrases, weaving words he spoke,
       parsing empty spaces of the life lived here, making
       sense of him and me and death, the poems are

Moving ever-so-gently into “Mournings,” Thelma recalls small things, things just
between “Papa” and herself. His favorite cologne, the fragrance of the man, so
much more that the liquid he splashed on. The “Potty Cat” that greets her every
morning, with those mesmerizing green eyes. And the house itself that “will never
be / the same again.” She wonders if there is really such a thing as “Broken Heart
Syndrome,” where “Disasters shred our fibers like thieves picking / pockets in
broad day.”

“Ordinary Things: Tanka Sequence,” echoes Mother Teresa’s timeless saying: Do
small things with great love.
The poem is divided in to 3 divisions of four tanka
sequences each: 1. Work; 2. Self; 3. Family. Each paints a subtle picture of the
man, his doings, his leavings, his loves. Don’t skip this one.

What shall we do about life when the best part of life is gone? I find so much
value in section IV, “Balms.” I can’t help thinking, that without poetry, Thelma’s
loss would have been unbearable. I felt her leaning into poetry, reaching deeply
into poetry for what she needed, for ways to both understand what happened,
(even as if looking into a steamy mirror), and beyond mere understanding, rising
toward redemption, toward hope, toward peace.

“So Much Goodness in This World” is a prime example. Four sestets highlight the
goodness she finds; here is the opening sestet:

       I marvel at unconditioned love,
       The givers giving when cameras are off,
       Microphones still or gone,
       Without name tags, the press,
       Tax breaks or trophies,

After “Balms” Thelma is far from finished. Section V. Resolutions, suggests con-
crete actions about how to live and what to do to sustain the life and values of her
dear Papa. I was struck by “Candle,” a simple, yet profound resolution that lights
Thelma’s path … let it also light everyone’s path:

       Death is not the end of the light;
       it is putting out the candle
      because the dawn has come.




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