The Little Mommy Sonnets
“I will put Chaos into fourteen lines and keep him there…” —Edna St. Vincent Millay
Your voice, always in my head until the shrinking,
until I could call you Little Mommy. When you lost
the family names, we watched them march out
the door holding hands with the hurts that kept us
licking our wounds. Now this mess of plaques
and tangles, a nest of lesser evils: to forget
the word for daughter or lose decades of strife.
Some people study for years at the feet of a master
to learn how to live in the moment. Your sharp
tongue dissolves to a soft fog, my armor melts,
the clear moment before us like a plowed field.
You fall asleep to the sound of my voice
humming something that makes you smile
before this long goodbye.
Before this long goodbye I move you closer,
winnow eighty years of living to two rooms.
Reduce the shirts, scarves and shoes you bought
again and again, the familiar color or cut, a balm.
Passenger now, you are awed by giant trees
that hover over the road. You ask why
are there so many and where do they come from?
Like Vincent's pulsing cedars and lowering clouds,
these hills bear down. Stranger in a stranger land.
He, too, the lone reaper just beyond hospital
walls who wrote nature overpowers me. You stare
out at the garden, fret about the mess
of feathers and shit that might keep wrens
from claiming their house in spring.
Each spring wrens claim their tiny house
on a pole next to the wood chopper whirligig
left behind by the old Russian who sold this plot.
Dirt is good, he said, and the roses go for broke.
The flannel shirted hewer hurls his axe and spins
in a furious show. I sip a margarita, watch a bird
swoop in and out with twiggy mouthfuls, chiding
and full of industry like you once were. Early
on Saturdays wielding broom and bucket you
bullied me out of bed. Dust was the enemy hiding
on sills and baseboards, ceiling and walls, waiting
for the swipe of your rag-wrapped mop. Beaten
carpets, polished floors, scrubbed porcelain—all
praised your worth, as I never did.
I never praised what you counted as worth,
the spotless rooms, well dressed children.
Armed with a toothbrush you visited me,
young mother fled to another state, husband
and house left behind. I bristled under
your attack on tub and toilet. If you had asked
what I needed, I couldn't have answered.
So like a heat-seeking missile you homed in:
divorce, second-floor apartment, mannish hair.
Your mother used to be so beautiful, you told
my daughters. How your own cheeks burned
imagining what your friends would say if they
knew about your good girl gone bad,
all that polish and shine wasted.
All that polish and shine wasted and daily pleas
to St. Jude, patron of lost causes, did not save
your girl. Three women in this apartment kitchen:
my lover and I stand hip to hip chopping onions
while you fume, Whose kitchen is this?
You've lost your place again. Like the time
your brothers went to school on the GI Bill
instead of you who won all A's. And your husband
with his university degree and pipe, dubbed
The Professor by your family, so well-spoken.
You sewed and cooked and cleaned till no one
could deny your gifts until this daughter who threw
it all away for this other one, stirring the pot.
You sit with empty hands and nothing smart to say.
With nothing smart to say, you always changed
the conversation from politics to a recipe.
Dad and I talked, you tuned out. Wars started
and ended, people marched in the streets, the word gay
was spoken on television, but you stayed out of it.
You went to Confession and Mass, counted
the collection basket for Father John, braided
a rug from old coats, sunbathed in the back yard.
I prodded. Now's your chance to take classes.
You refused, It's too late. Maybe the fog was
beginning its erasure and afraid of deep water,
you held fast to dry land. What did you see
in my eyes, this college smarty pants who
didn't like to shop like other daughters.
I did not want to shop like other daughters
or pray to plaster statues in the church that
shunned my father. He signed us over
when you married, sat alone at his church
every Sunday and holiday. Forbidden to go,
I imagined a brighter place where he would
sing in the choir, deliver meals to shut-ins,
a friendly minister would ask about us.
My brother and I fasted for the paper wafer,
mouthed empty words, watched a distant
priest flash the silver chalice, blood to wine.
You recited rote prayers, clicked a wooden
rosary to lessen your sentence in Purgatory,
lit a red votive for your own mother.
For remembrance, a red votive flickers but
you do not know who I am or that your good
man, my father, has died. It seemed kinder
not to shock you with the news once and then
again in an endless loop of sorrow. You don't
even ask where he is, so I don't explain how
I've been holding on to his absence for weeks.
Grieving him and grieving you not grieving him.
Where in your tangles is the letter you sent,
the greatest sadness of my life is that you did
not baptize your girls. I click on Ella, hold
your hand, imagine sixty years of marriage,
singing in the kitchen, Come to mama,
come to mama do, my sweet embraceable you.
A sweet embrace, mommy, is what we longed for
but never could manage until this forgetting.
I remember your pinches, swats called love slaps,
a warped tenderness. I pulled away from stiff
hugs, your cold child, hurt disguised as anger.
I vowed to hold my daughters as long
as they'd allow. And this is what we do now.
Who hurt you, I wonder, and why was touch
denied as if its tidal power would undo you?
Years of sharing a bed with our father,
yet no kissing in the kitchen, no cuddling
on the couch. We watched for signs of more
than habit, but the bedroom door stayed open
every night even after his poetry and flowers.
His flowers, perennial, his poetry old fashioned,
he would say corny and nostalgic like the songs
in barbershop on a stage or in the car harmonizing
with you while we rolled our eyes and learned
the metaphors of another generation:
Over There, Blue Skies, The Old Rugged Cross.
On your birthdays he splurged with roses
and romantic cards, but it was after his own heart
wound down, after the close calls and bedside
visits, that he spoke love words out loud, even
wept and held tighter at hellos and goodbyes.
Like the beds of daisies and forget-me-nots
he came back each year to find
you'd grown further away.
You'd grown further away from the man
who vowed in his wedding poem to remain content
beside the deathless springs of your love, to weather
storms sure to sweep our quiet valley. We watched
him struggle to steer the ship, to remain calm
before the sure loss of his beloved. When he was taken
first, you didn't notice that he'd gone. In the hospital
he couldn't speak but wrote notes asking for you.
We drove you to his room, you touched his face,
said everything would be fine, as if he'd never left.
Eyes knew this would be the last time, stricken
by love and cruel circumstance, you left behind.
How to reconcile sixty years after his words,
yesterday is a faded blur, tomorrow a happy haze.
Yesterday a faded blur, tomorrow a happy haze
leaves us with today, which is where you live now
in micro moments of peace or confusion, the Zen
master's lesson upended. I am trying, mother,
to live in this world, and it is bittersweet.
Did we find each other too late or just in time?
We have laid down our disappointments, disarmed
as two women who only need simple touch.
I can't remember, but there must have been a time
when you held me, when I gazed into your face
and felt an ease, an opening like grace. A time
before you became so large that I needed to push
away, prove that I was worthy. Your words
now gibberish, your voice always in my head.
[Originally published in Odd Mercy (Headmistress Press, 2016), winner of the Charlotte Mew Prize]