A Time for Reflection
Anchorage Daily News
"People would talk about (my mother), and sometimes they would cry. I
always had a longing to know her -- just a terrible longing." Martin
Palmer sits in the living room of his Wasilla duplex, his black poodle,
Martine, curled cozily on his lap. The chair is covered with '70s-style
upholstery, orange and yellow flowers swirling in faded glory. The arms
are worn, their off-white stuffing drifting to the floor.
"Bowser," Palmer says somewhat sheepishly, referring to his hefty cat. "Can't get him to leave the furniture alone."
Palmer, 79, won this year's University of Alaska/Anchorage Daily
News Creative Writing Contest grand prize for his story "The Rose
Arbor." While categorized as fiction, the piece closely mirrors true
life. Palmer's mother died shortly after his birth in Tallahassee,
Fla., in 1927. He grew up with his father, brothers and sisters in a
large house with a "wonderfully large" porch and lots of books.
"I was a lively child," he says, throwing a small stuffed toy for
Martine to chase. "Our old house was filled with books. I was a
bookworm but also mischievous."
Palmer's house of today is filled with memories. Paintings and
photographs line the walls: his great-grandfather; his father as an
earnest young man; his brothers and sisters, looking chubby and happy;
a great-uncle who worked as a Civil War surgeon.
And the rose arbor photograph, dated 1913, the black and white faded
to a dusty rose. The bushes rise in graceful arches, sweeping over the
land, while Palmer's mother stands beside her sister wearing a white
dress. She looks very young and small.
The photograph, he says, has haunted him for years.
"Growing up, I fantasized a lot about her, and these fantasies just kept with me. They just hung in there with me."
Last winter, as he was musing about the photograph, he suddenly decided to write about it.
"I thought, 'Who writes from the standpoint of old people these days?' And I realized, not many."
It was the fantasy that captured him, the idea of writing about his
own life within the context of fiction. He could change what he wanted,
take liberties, dive down inside the past.
Which he does. Toward the end of the story, in one of the most
powerful scenes, he walks inside the rose arbor photograph and meets
his mother. Since he hasn't been born yet, she doesn't know who he is.
He stands in the background listening as his mother and sister talk.
The dialogue is commonplace and ordinary, the kind of things we say to
each other every day.
This scene, which Palmer anticipated might give him trouble, flowed
out of him "like it had been there all of my life." The story, in fact,
turned out to be one of the easiest things he has ever written, he
says. It took him less than 10 days.
"I've imagined time and time again talking to and seeing my mother,"
he says. "People would talk about her, and sometimes they would cry. I
always had a longing to know her -- just a terrible longing."
Palmer isn't new to writing. He has had essays published in the
anthologies "A Member of the Family," "Men on Men" and "Hometowns" and
poetry in The New York Quarterly, Alaska Quarterly Review and Gay
For most of his life he worked as a doctor, until he surrendered his
license in 2005. He set up practice in New Orleans in the late '50s and
early '60s, which he describes as a wild and reckless time filled with
parties and goings-on and watermelon ice cream, which "tastes like old
ladies' face powder." He has a hundred stories to tell about servants
dragging drunken mistresses back to the Garden District to his friend
Clay Shaw, accused by district attorney Jim Garrison of plotting to
kill John F. Kennedy.
"Oh, those were the days," Palmer says. "It was wild. Everyone was corrupt."
Palmer drove to Alaska in 1968 with his two dogs. In the Yukon, he
hit a patch of winter road and flipped his car. Locals duct-taped heavy
plastic over the window and sent him on his way.
"That's how I drove the last 700 miles," Palmer says, chuckling and
scratching Martine's ears. "I glimpsed Anchorage through old, muddy
Once settled, he practiced internal medicine and took classes at the
University of Alaska Anchorage. Poet Tom Sexton urged him to get a
master's degree in creative writing, which Palmer did. He stuck around
as an adjunct professor, teaching everything from English composition
to British literature.
Palmer writes autobiographical slices of his life, stories about
family and racial prejudice, about being gay and the '80s experience
that he refers to as the "AIDS holocaust." And about his partner, Bobby
Smith. When they met, Smith was singing gospel on New Orleans street
corners and was "very Baptist." That quickly changed, and the couple
was together 21 years. After Smith's death, Palmer wrote a series of
poems in his honor, but he has never tried to get them published.
"I released his ashes in a salmon stream, and I hope mine go there
too," he says. "Salmon come up, they spawn and they die. Then the cycle
begins again. To me, that's very beautiful."
Palmer remembers meeting T.S. Elliot at the Edinburgh Festival, an
international celebration of classical music, opera, theater and dance
held every August in Scotland's capital city.
In one notable performance, he remembers, "Elizabeth Schwarzkopf
sang the lead, and it was so elegant and crisp. And oh, those rich
ladies in their narrow skirts, remember those? One was so tight she had
to be carried to her box."
Palmer has written bookends to "The Rose Arbor." One of these
describes a childhood memory of a relative laid out in her casket in
the family's living room.
"It was a still, hot morning," he says. "And her mouth had fallen
open. When I got closer, I saw that there was cotton inside and a
little line of red ants crawling up her ear. I reached up and picked
them off -- I still remember this. I was 6 at the time."
Last February, Palmer had open-heart surgery. He took two books to
the hospital with him: Constantine P. Cavafy's "Collected Poems" and
the new translation of "Empire of Marcus Aurelius."
"I wasn't sure if I would survive," he says, lifting Martine back up
on his lap, "and I thought, 'Please don't let anything happen to my
intellect.' Then I woke up in the ER, and the first thing I saw were
those ugly curtains. And I was so happy."
Getting old, Palmer says, is a strange and interesting experience.
You learn new things, but you also have to give up old ones. Much of
what you've known and loved is behind you, and it's impossible to know
"I'm working on a new story, and I call it the 'old geezer story,' "
he says with a laugh. "See my hands, how they tremble? I'm
deteriorating. Sometimes it bothers me. Other times I think, 'F it!' "
The quote he lives by comes from Edith Wharton, an American novelist who died in 1937:
"In spite of illness, in spite even of the archenemy sorrow, one can
remain alive long past the usual date of disintegration if one is
unafraid of change, insatiable in intellectual curiosity, interested in
big things and happy in small ways."
Old age may have slowed Palmer, but the pace has granted him time to reflect on his life -- and mingle with ghosts.
"The other day I remembered the exact moment I learned to read," he
says. "I was at my aunt's house in the Gulf of Mexico -- I was maybe 6
-- and I looked down at the page and said, 'I can read.'
"That's the marvelous thing about my old age. Things come to me
unexpectedly. An obscure incident comes out of nowhere, and suddenly it
fills my mind. And I think, oh gosh, remember those days?"