Glenna Cook: Gentle Voice Telling Her Truth

“Finding beauty in a broken world may be creating beauty in the world we find.”

Terry Tempest Williams


Poet, Glenna Cook, visiting us in Portland

Almost twenty years ago, I met Glenna Cook in a poetry workshop. Six of us gathered round a dining room  table in Tacoma, Washington. We talked and wrote, wrote and shared. Glenna was twice my age–literally–and back then it seemed a lot of years–a huge gap.

To my younger self, our life-experiences and concerns seemed unalike. Nonetheless, outside of our poetry workshop, we met up at the local Borders Bookstore, swapped a poem or two and traded stories. We witnessed each other’s writing struggles and stubbornness, and once went to the Skagit Poetry Festival together and shared a room at a motel in Mt. Vernon. When I moved two hours south for a full-time teaching gig, we stayed in touch.

Those thirty years between us don’t seem to matter much anymore: The truth is, I appreciate Glenna now more than ever. A lot’s happened since I was 30, in that poetry workshop writing some of my first poems: Loss and gain, birth and death, anniversaries and marriages–sharing stanzas by email most of the time.

Our friendship is a gift which gives me a glimpse into life from a woman who’s lived a few decades longer than me–with different life-experiences. Now I know, people matter more than anything else, and it’s a privilege to know someone’s story and feel safe revealing your own.

Glenna and her husband, Ken, recently celebrated their 60th anniversary. In honor of this milestone, they took a trip down the Oregon Coast–stopping to visit us en route. They stayed the night, and we enjoyed white wine, seared tilapia, and potatoes dug fresh from our garden that morning.

Their Beginnings

Ken met Glenna during her senior year of high school. He was an enlisted man from Illinois, stationed at Fort Lewis, and she hoped to high-tail it out of Olympia and go to college. Her plan curved when he convinced her to marry, move to Tacoma, and raised three kids.

Finally, when she was in her early 50s and still working for the phone company, U.S. West offered a buy-out plan which invited her to retired early. At age 54 she went home after a long workday and announced her plan.

“I’m retiring,” she told her husband. “I’m leaving my job and going back to college.”

Glenna Cook graduated from The University of Puget Sound Magna Cum Laude–top of the class–only a couple years before we met. She studied English, won first place in a Humanities essay contest, and that’s when she began to attend the Shakespeare Festival in Ashland, Oregon every July with a group of people from the university. It’s also when she began to write poetry in a more serious way.

After graduation she decided it was time to relearn the violin. She found a teacher and surprised herself: It didn’t take long before she could play old songs again.

glenna-lotSt. Regis, Montana: Another Twist

After thirty-some years of living in their house in south Tacoma, Ken was bored. He’d done all he could to this piece of land and the buildings that stood on it. There was no more room to expand and nothing more to renovate, so they decided to move to Montana. It was Ken’s dream to build a house.

They bought property in a little town called St. Regis, about an hour from Missoula. Glenna went along with Ken’s dream–though kicking and screaming from time-to-time.

“I glenna-house-garageknow how to make the best of things,” she says. “I knew I could create a life for myself and find people.”

They first lived in an RV, moved the rig into the garage once that was possible, and built the house. Glenna found some women to walk with around the neighborhood, found musicians with whom she could play her violin, a church where she and Ken fit (and he sang in the choir!) and she tutored at a local elementary school. She also bulked-up, pounding nails and working as Ken’s assistant.

glenna-house-snowWonderfully for the two, when it was time to leave Montana, they were able to sell the house in St. Regis and buy a 1905-home in Tacoma. Though we never visited them in their seven years away, following the progress of these 70-somethings gone a-wandering into the American Wilds was lots of fun–and inspiring.

Why not just do it? seems the motto of that venture.

Focus Back to Poetry

This September Glenna will spend two weeks at Hedgebrook, a global community of women writers located on Whidbey Island in the Puget Sound. Hedgebrook is a literary nonprofit with the mission “to support visionary women writers whose stories and ideas shape our culture now and for generations to come.”

During Glenna’s weeks at Hedgebrook, she will work on a collection of poems she is writing about her younger sister, Phyllis–who was born with Down Syndrome. These poems tell a powerful story of Glenna’s life as the middle-kid who often felt almost invisible between her hotshot brother–good at everything he wanted to do–and her always happy and always supported-to-be-her-best-self little sister.

“I have only one month to go before Hedgebrook,” Glenna writes in a recent email.” Wednesday, I went to Olympia to interview two men who attended the handicap Sunday school class that my mother taught for 30 years. They each gave me some insights. . . [and] What I’m learning is that there is not a whole lot of difference between disabled and able, abnormal and normal.

“It’s just how you look at it. Paul, who is 64, has cerebral palsy, and now is completely paralyzed from the neck down. He uses a device with his tongue to type e-mails. He has written a book, The Long Road to Advocacy, about his life and his role as advocate for the disabled. He has been to Washington D. C. as an advocate. Donny is 84, is autistic, and makes exquisite toys out of Lego blocks. I, who stayed far away from the disabled after I left home, until I became Phyllis’s guardian, found myself really enjoying my visits with these remarkable men. Writing this book is having a profound effect on me.”

Glenna is a soft but strong voice in this world. She isn’t flashy. She’s not the sort of women who tries to impress anyone with her wit or grandeur or fancy car and clothes (though she is rather giddy driving her Prius these days!). She walks lightly, grows roses, and sings her songs in a key of her own–often while no one is nearby.

Thank you, Glenna. Our friendship has grown into one I cherish, and I appreciate your sharing of stories and your listening to mine.

Here are several of Glenna’s poems in progress–toward her collection of poetry related to her sister, Phyllis:


Fierce Love

Most people perceived you as flawed, God’s error.
Mother saw you as blessing.

Her fierce love, in your first months,
brought you past pneumonia’s peril.
She fed you goat milk and natural vitamins.
Mrs. Mann massaged you with her miracle hands.
You thrived.

Rather than hide you in the shadows,
she placed you at the heart of things—center stage.
At church gatherings, school carnivals,
there you’d be, perched on her lap,
or atop father’s shoulders,
curious gaze taking in a world
difficult to comprehend,
yet, one where she’d always
make a place for you.
–Glenna Cook


Separate Courses
For Phyllis

I see now I had to go my own way.
Wife, mother, career woman–each a turbulent sea,
plowed without compass or sextant.
How could I have cared, also, for you?

And you had your own course to sail,
easier than mine, it seemed.
Though you could barely read and write,
or comprehend two times three,
you had someone always at your side,
helping you reach your highest potential.
And if you didn’t, no one blamed you.

A carefree teen, you breezed,
on your bike, through the neighborhood,
rode your slow horse, Lucky, around the yard,
and danced in your room to Elvis.

Nineteen years, you archived documents
onto microfiche. Trained by Zerox, in a special
program, first Down syndrome person
hired by the State of Washington.

We continued on our separate courses,
little in common to draw us together.
Then Father’s death made me your legal guardian,
and Mother’s stroke left you solely in my care.
I was the star that kept you on course,
the anchor that held you, your safe harbor.

I showed you how to do your laundry;
took you shopping, to the doctor, dentist, beauty salon;
changed your clocks to Daylight Savings Time,
made sure you had money, a bus pass,
sox without holes, a new jacket when the zipper broke.

You knew a phone call would bring me.

Glenna, I’m sorry,
I made a mess.

Three a.m., thirty miles on the freeway,
to clean you up and take your temperature. I didn’t mind.
You were not the burden I expected.
Your trusting need called forth the best in me.
For those nine years, until your death,
I wanted only to protect you.
–Glenna Cook


Links You Might Like:

St. Regis, Montana travel information


14 Replies to “Glenna Cook: Gentle Voice Telling Her Truth”

  1. Deborah thank you for your catch up in Glenna – I had no idea she lived in St Regis those years I was caring for Mom. So gratifying to hear of her resilience through so many changes. She is an inspiration. Instead I’d fighting massive change she leans into it with so much compassion it seems. Please send her my wishes for making Hedgbrook be all that she desires!

  2. what a lovely story of a remarkable woman. It causes me to ponder how many more remarkable people might be nearby if I could just get to know them.

  3. Being Glenna’s daughter, I really enjoyed reading this article. Her poetry does touch a lot of people and she has such an amazing talent for writing poetry and short stories. There has even been some written just for me when I was going through some rough seas that really blessed and helped me through. I’m so proud of my mother!

  4. Glenna, how pleased you must be! This is such a lovely tribute — may I send it to friends who also deal with disabilities? One is Stephen Kuuisisto, who taught in the Rainier Writing Workshop (he’s blind) and is now a major disabilitiy advocate. Another is my cousin Jeanne, who has a Down syndrome grandson, much loved and doing well. We all need as much support and encouragement as we can find, regardless of our abilities.


    1. Thank you each for your comment: Poetry can have power & can change lives with the point of view portrayed and the telling of story that helps us to feel less alone. Thanks, Marjorie, for passing these along. Thanks all of you for being part of the circle!

  5. What a lovely tribute to a kind and supportive friend. Thanks Debra for letting others in the poetry world learn of this smart, giving, and loving woman.

  6. Thank you for Glenna’s story.—–i am a walking buddy of Glenna’s and our friendship developed when we were enrolled at Tacome Community College literature clss. Lucky me, right? She has the vim and vigor and ability to make decisions that are appropriate at the time. We are all blessed to have known this truly remarkable women.

  7. I am fortunate and proud to be Glenna’s older brother. Besides being an accomplished poet,loyal wife, loving mother and faithful friend to many she’s my little sister.She has a zest for life demonstrated by her college accomplishment after retirement and her tenacity to relearn the violin in her later years. I well remember that as children, when we were both taking violin lessons that she hated to practice as much as I did.,
    When she was recently diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease she quickly decided and declared that she had PD, it did not have her. She changed her diet and exercise regimen and boldly met this new challenge head-on.
    In the last few years of our mother’s life she would write a chapter of her memoirs and give them to her kids and grandkids as a Christmas present. Glenna and I both inherited a love for composition and I also do a little writing. (not poetry) I am not as good as Glenna so I use her as my critic. She is very kind and helpful with her criticism and generous with her praise. Come to think of it, she is that way about everything.

    1. Thank you, Clair, for your words here. You are the longest-running witness, and I appreciate your added details to Glenna’s–and your own–story! Wonderful you both find words a way of moving through life.

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