Cleanliness Is Next to Godliness

Four children, one tub
no running hot water––
How did she manage to keep us clean?

With pots and kettles on the stove
heating after supper on Saturday night
in preparation for church on Sunday

morning. The heated water half-filled
the claw-footed tub, and whoever was
first in the week’s rotation stepped

gingerly into the steamy bath.
My favorite slot was number three.
Like Goldilocks tasting the bears’

porridge and finding the bowl of Baby
Bear not too hot and not too cold
but just right, so it was with the third

slot. Granted I sat in a growing scum
but I didn’t mind, what with the rinse
the warm rinse a comforting caress

after it all. Like animals nuzzling
their fresh hay on a cold winter night
and settling into their clean bedding

with quiet nickers and oinks, we
settled onto clean sheets, murmuring
to each other as we fell asleep.

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In memoriam

After all these years her reduction to ashes
sits unmolested on the fireplace mantle,
her mother afraid to let her go underground.

Her father had found her frozen in death
his and her mother’s love not enough
to save her from the cold and loneliness

of depression, that folded her in on herself.
If only she’d called, they’d have heard and come
running with hope for a new beginning.

Tightrope Walking

In Pearl Buck’s The Good Earth,
the protagonist and his wife have had a child,
a much desired son. They walk along
talking excitedly about their beautiful boy.

Suddenly, fearfully they realize what
they are doing. The mother tucks
the baby out of sight, and together
she and her husband lament

the misshapen, unfortunate child,
hoping to deflect the gods’
vengeance and not to tempt foul fate.

A partridge setting on a nest
with chicks warm beneath her wing.
would understand. With danger near
she would cry out and feign wounded

wing, ‘round and around she’d run
to distract a predator from discovering
and destroying her chicks.

My mother too a fatalist, a strategist
and dealmaker with the gods, when
approaching a stop light that shone green
would begin her litany of denial: It’ll never last.

It’ll be red by the time we get there.
You’ll see. Eureka. The light still green
on our arrival, she’d drive on through
the intersection shaking her head

with a small victory chuckle. Either way
she won. She’d be right or she’d be happy
to take what the gods had offered that day,
more than enough for her.

Who Will Rescue the Baby?

My grandson’s mantra
after seeing the wave-tossed cradle
of a baby lost in a storm in the movie
The Secret of Roan Inish,
was, Who will rescue the baby?

We cued up the end of the film
to try to ameliorate his real concern
by explaining the boy on screen,
just a bit bigger than he himself
was the baby grown, rescued
by his mother, a selkie,* who led him
back to his human family that nestled
him in a blanket and fed him soup.

Shortly thereafter my grandson’s father
overheard him whispering into a box
that housed his plastic tiger,
I’ll take care of you. And so he does
with blanket and thimble of soup.

*selkie = a Celtic mythological creature
that is both human and seal

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A Legacy of Sisu* on Mummo’s Birthday

The first pounding rumble of thunder
announces the beginning of spring today––
April 4, the 130th birthday of my grandmother
Hannah Maki. Wherever her sauna is now
may she know her life celebrated, who in 1908
braved the cold swells of the North Atlantic
to reach America through the seaport of Quincy,
Mass., where Finnish laborers worked the quarries;
where Finnish girls and Finnish women, known
for their strong character, worked in the houses
of Quincy families, cleaning, cooking, sewing,
singing songs of a homeland they would never
see again. My mummo among these valiant
Finns gets my attention with this April storm;
she who embodied sisu, and implanted it
in my own mother, who passed it on to us her
children in the genes of our hidden souls.

*sisu: Perseverance in the face of great odds,
associated with Finns and Finland.

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“She continued writing all her life …

persevering through war, exile, imprisonment
and the loss of her fortune.” So writes
the translator Wendy Chen of Li Qingzhao
known for her ci––her poems set to music.

The gauntlet thrown down, I pick it up,
not having had to persevere through war,
exile, imprisonment or loss of fortune,
my cup of history and responsibilities

shouldered over many years is what
I have to offer, not that of the Chinese poet,
her life complicated by much beyond her control

but kids, they are what fills the cup
with laundry, cooking, transportation
doctoring, comforting, encouraging
daily emergence into their lives.

Notwithstanding differences––a woman’s
life is a woman’s life––I accept the challenge
of her life, and continue writing mine.

In Adam’s Fall We Sinned All

Mommy, come and look at this,
my son called from the back door stoop.

I can’t. I’m busy. What have you got?
His answer lost in the distance between us

I called out louder, What have you got?
A bee. He’s walking on my cheek. See?

Blinded by dishes piled up to the brink
of my mind mired down in mashed potato

I called from the sink, Probably a fly,
and chose not to walk to the stoop

where he sat waiting. In that moment
of meanness, the bee stung; starving

children bit the dust, the nails in our house
began to rust, and Jack Benny died.

And my son cried out, pouring tears,
healing rain, onto the infinite desert of sin.