Barbara Grace Lake

Poetry & Other Crimes


© 1990 Barbara Grace Lake

 Years ago, in an almost storybook “once upon a time,” my father, mother brother and I lived in a tiny, Depression-era house in Los Angeles.

With the innocence of a 5-year-old, I didn’t know what my father did for a living, if he was good at what he did, what kind of struggles he had, or even if he was a good man.
I knew one very important thing:  My father loved me.

I remember Saturdays as special and wonderful.  For one thing, we had our “walking game.”  To play this game, we often set out for the park, with its swings and sandbox.  But sometimes, with no destination at all, we just started walking.

We began sedately at first — my tiny fist engulfed in his huge paw — until we were out of sight of the house.   Gradually we began to walk faster, faster and faster, until we were racing, trying to catch something — or keep from being caught.  We would end up running so fast I nearly pitched forward over my own feet.

Then my father would swoop me up in his arms, and we laughed till the tears came.  I never once fell.  Daddy was always there to catch me.

One day my father came home early.  He had lost his job.  He didn’t seem able to get another.  Always, since I could remember anything, there had been serious adult talk about “the Depression,” but the whispers about my father were that he was a dreamer.  He was shiftless and lazy.  He lacked moral character.

I wasn’t supposed to hear the gossip, but children of the ’30s sat quietly around adults, overhearing a lot never intended for them.

Suddenly, there were no more Saturday games with my father.  Then he wasn’t there at all.  He never came back.

Layton Abbott Pierce was big and gentle, but without the quiet strength one usually associates with such a man.  He skidded with the Depression, falling into every trap, drinking, gambling, always looking for an easy way out that never came.   He wished and dreamed while the harsh reality of the Depression pressed in around him.  In the end, he abandoned the crushing reality and all responsibility that went with it — including his family.

I was too young to now recall much about the next few years.  I remember a terrible bewilderment when told, “Daddy isn’t here anymore.”   My fervent “why?” went unanswered.

As the years passed, the whys became less urgent, then forgotten completely.  When I reached my teens I listed my father as “deceased” on required school forms.  It was much easier to believe he was dead than the other — that he left because he didn’t love me.

I grew up.  I graduated from high school, did a stint in the WACs, married and started raising a family.  From my teens on, I rarely thought about my father.

One morning, shortly after the birth of my second child, he called.  Through the years he had kept in touch with one of my aunts, and she gave him my number when his ship came into San Pedro Harbor.

My father said he wanted very much to see us.  I honestly didn’t know if I wanted to see him.  For 19 years I had believed him dead.  Could I accept him now as a living, breathing father — one who abandoned me?  My husband intervened, and Layton came to spend the weekend with us.  He stayed a month.

That month was hell.  Dad drank himself sloppy, until I hated the sight — or the smell — of him.  One day, he passed out on the kitchen table and our entire dinner crashed to the floor in a mixture of spaghetti sauce, broken glass and china.

I cried in the bedroom until I could barely see out of puffed and reddened eyes.  When I came out, I took some bills from the grocery money and paid dad’s cab fare back to his seaman’s hotel in San Pedro, 70-odd miles from our home in Chatsworth.

After that my father began phoning collect for money, and the calls kept coming until we had nothing left to give.  He finally shipped out without a word.

The bitterness was strangling.  This time, instead of asking a human being why things weren’t right, I cried out against God.   Why?  Why?  Hadn’t that man hurt me enough already?  How could a loving God let someone like that live if just to inflict more suffering?

My answer arrived in the mail a year later.  When I opened an envelope postmarked Seattle, a small white card fell out.  One side contained the “Serenity Prayer.”  On the other my father had written, “I’m helping others find their way back as I have.  Forgive me if you can and God bless you.”

In that instant a big fist reached back to a Saturday of long ago and tightly held the hand of a frightened little girl so she wouldn’t fall.

Layton Abbott Pierce died at the age of 85 in Seattle on September 29, 1988.  He left my house in Chatsworth in November of 1957.   But what of the years between?  Some still say Dad’s life was without value, that he was quintessentially “worthless” as a human being.  Yet in Seattle, he not only found his way to Alcoholics Anonymous and achieved sobriety himself, he helped dozens of fellow alcoholics on the road to recovery.  Only a higher power can judge the ultimate worth of those last 31 years of my father’s life.  I don’t have the measure.

I do know that I’ll never again doubt the wisdom and mercy of Almighty God, for my answer to that last wretched “why?” was that my father had been given a chance to redeem himself.


© 2019 Barbara Grace Lake

She was a lady, every inch
No, not the kind that puts on airs
A kind with gentle flowering
That only comes from deep inside
She cared for all, her family most
Twas almost physical that love
A caring felt, responded to
By every person touched by her.

Her early home rough pioneered
But as first trains were coming through
My Nana queried Harvey Girls
Her love innate, her taste self taught
They saw “a lady in the rough”
Then taught her how a table’s set
Included manners, courtesy
And very well she learned these skills

So all things lovely Harvey taught
Became ingrained into her being
Integral to this prairie girl
Who then morphed into womanhood
A woman all who met her said
“A lady truly raised refined
With beauty, rarity of grace “
A woman of the plains transformed

And rarer still, she’d not despise
Those rural farmholds whence she’d come
She loved her parents till the end
They taught her beauty’s found inside
A home kept well, if rich or poor,
Would never cause its owner shame
Life lessons that her daughters gained
And passed along to children theirs

Where seeds she planted gardens bloomed
For all she loved, loved in return
When Delbert died, My Uncle Ted,
A seaman rough, observed her heart
He chastely loved, oft visited
Milkshake in hand along with flowers
When talking later, Ted observed
Your Nana’s real, a lady real

So was she human, I’d say yes
For several years I lived with her
Her perfect world was never quite
Still woman spirited, for proof:
When spouse demanded meals be hot
My Nana served him from the pot
I never saw her laugh out loud
Sly smirk was all from his burnt tongue

Since women drivers then were rare
Males of the species felt the need
To put such women in their place
Along came one on our main drag
Who cut in front of Nana’s car
She waited for the signal’s turn
To cut in front and get the green
And thumbed her nose as he sat there.


© 2019 Barbara Grace Lake

So oft clichés imbue our lives
With senseless mimicry of life
Faux offerings of indolent minds
A world of “ifs” in lieu of strife

If my imperfect life could change
By going back to twenty three
Could I despite resistance shift
Or would, instead, yield passively

If features mine were flawless, fair
Would perfect eyes and shape bestow
Full happiness I did not have
Or fill dull emptiness I’ve known

If Einstein’s mind were mine to scan
The answers to each life’s request
Would I be satisfied the search
Cedes truth to every fervent quest

If I could wield a magic wand
Would I an evil status claim
Or seek a new beginning for
A suffering power-mad world in flames


© 2019 Barbara Grace Lake

Unassigned, my training done
Was acting cleric on T D
One other temp was newly come
From post assignment Germany

The dramatis personnae here
Were 10 employees, I alone
The only WAC attired in skirts
So jokes played oft in ribald zone

The last melee at closing time
I closeted to comb my hair
To find, when done, the doors were locked
I pounded screamed, no one was there

At last I heard a question asked
Responsive voice “Don’t worry bout
The pounding, we’ve a frau locked up”
The whole camp heard, “LET MY WIFE OUT!”

I’ve often wondered if my spouse
Had not arrived at just that time
Would clowns like this have left me there
Or see their prank as Army crime


© 2019 Barbara Grace Lake

When born you cried aloud
Not knowing life enchantment dawned
You could be mischievous or wise
Or both capriciously as one
The slate is blank, take up the pen
Compose the story of a life
Whatever follows it is yours

When 50, tears cascade
Unbroken flows from reddened eyes
For company dark sadness keep
Halfway through life you wonder how
Egregious barren youth was spent
T’would seem a time of trivia
But half the slate is still unwrit

Old woman dry your tears
Both long and full your days on earth
Mistakes were made along with gain
It was a life, you lived it well
You need not worry what you’ve lost
On balance life has given you
A slate replete with memories


© 2019 Barbara Grace Lake

Relentless, irrevocably
Death calls for one and then the next
In time it comes with hand stretched out
No bargaining, its summons law
Still often age will welcome it
I hope I can in my last hours
Ask death to sit and share with me
A final savored cup of tea

Relentless, irrevocably
Death ever comes when it is time
The poor, or rich, or elderly
An elder cousin called to go
In grief, the “eldest” left to me
And yet till death I’ll see her face
In endless, happy hours we shared
Those days when we were very young.

Relentless, irrevocably
As life is spent so death must come
This one you called was dear to us
And we will miss her dreadfully
Please God, as she was one of yours,
Make room for her among the stars
Her soul will brightly light the sky
Until we join eternally


© 2019 Barbara Grace Lake

A playful sun swings through dark clouds
To brighten first, mark shadow next
Exposing bare lit shafts of light
Of promised simmering summer heat
For now it pivots on its rim
A solar dance presaging spring

In scattered rain thrown skipping rocks
Cavort across green meadow pond
Where hungry fish break surface calm
Surprising careless insect meals
Their bubbles rippling ever on
As part of nature’s spring ballet

Strong breezes call shy blossoms out
To blend their color with the wind
A field of swaying golden crests
Combining radiant colored rays
That in a dance of whirling hues
Expresses joy in coming spring.


© 2019 Barbara Grace Lake

The tiller cuts into dark loam
Releasing pungent smells of earth
Creates an open breeding womb
For saplings, fertile seeds a bed

Inhaling all, I thrust my hands
Without regard to errant soil
Into wide furrows newly turned
Of robust dirt to blacken them

What will my grubby fingers grow
What crops can fields like this one fill
Will hatred thrive? I pray, no more.
Can kindness, love be nurtured still?

It all depends on what we plant
If we sow seeds of errancy
Our crops will shrivel die on vine
Our lives will shrivel die in sync

But can we find again the seeds
Of mercy, love and honesty
Our lives depend upon our will
To toss out evil, plant new hope.

What will we plant?


© 2018 Barbara Grace Lake

(Pure whimsy)


All winter long I lay unused
And hidden in the musty dark
That tiny shed out in the snow
I thought I’d die it was so cold

Big people wrapped me, stowed away
From happy, laughing little hands
They said “you won’t need this until
The sun comes out in warmth again.”

They never thought how I’d need them
A toy, a game if never played
Forgets how little folks have fun
But now it’s hot, we’ll learn anew

Big people take my wrapping off
And pull me out onto the lawn
The brilliant, yellow sun shines out
Against a cloudless azure sky

Then making sure no rocks lay hid
Beneath my tender slippery slide
And, yes, ensuring one small dent
Creates a puddle at the end.

They carefully attach the hose
For ample slide along my path
The little folks excitedly
Await the go-ahead to play

The smallest one, too young last year
Jumps up and down, “Me first!  Me first!”
And down she goes and hits the dent
Kersplash — she giggles, shrieks delight

No more than me when children star
Upon my sliding theater
What joy to have them out again
In sliding, splashing, squealing fun

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