Eve got off the bus in tears the day her third grade teacher scolded her for using a hankie. “It’s not sanitary,” she said. Miss Pauley had no notion of what a handkerchief means to us: reusable tissue, wash cloth, gripper of lids, wiper of smudgy glasses, emergency bandage, keepsake we carry to the grave. Peekaboo with a hankie triggered Eve’s first laugh, and later she sat through sermons watching Grandma Yoder fold a flat square into a butterfly or mouse. Now Eve does that for her sister and knots Ruth’s Sunday pennies in a corner like a hobo’s sack. She irons and stacks all the hankies in our drawers and brings a bandanna drenched with cold water to her dad who ties it round his neck. Last Christmas she gave me a set of four lacy kerchiefs embroidered by her own hand, each with my initials and a leaf or flower to signify the season. Straight from a city college, Miss Pauley could only count the virtues of a Kleenex. “Like a lot of things, hankies grow softer as they age,” I said, using one to wipe Eve’s tears.
I board the airplane to see my parents. They live far away and long ago And some years into the future; you never met such wry time machines In your life. Sometimes they will be about to pass the marmalade when Suddenly it is late 1941 and they are in college and kissing on the train; But then as you slather your toast it is 1967 and a war wants to eat their Son or 2012 and they are at that son’s wake or 1929 and a father comes Home without his job, or it is a week ago, and do you think that Federer Is the finest tennis player ever, or Laver, or Don Budge? It happens that Fast. It’s unnerving and glorious and confusing and perfect and I would Sit with them every afternoon, if I could, and say tell me tell me tell me, Tell me every moment of your whole lives, don’t leave me here without Your grace and humor and the extraordinary gleaming jar of marmalade From which come all your stories. Next year in Ireland . . . says my mother, And my dad grins, and I want to kneel and beg the Lord for this moment Again and again always, the inarguable yes of their bodies, the resonance Of their endurance, the hunch and hollow of their shoulders, the reverent Geography of their faces, the lean song of my father’s hands on the table.
First portions to my husband, then the boys. I eat what’s left behind, grow willowy, more like a girl than I ever was.
My clothes curtain, I think of cutting the excess to sell, for what? There’s nothing left in this town, we are the only harvest to ripen white in the wind.
My husband says sometimes God allows pain to cause us to move. I pack our things.
The last cow to calf was three springs past, and now I boil its bones to make broth.
Naomi’s sojourn Ruth 1:1
The grain fled from our hands. Harvest brought no yield. Each day turned to us—empty faces, empty faces, and our sons’ mouths gaped wider. My fat of childbirth negotiated to rib, our children’s bellies bloat. I cut the oil by half and by half til we are eating water, some dirt. Hunger becomes the greater God; it gnaws us like a bone. We leave our home.
What they say of you, they say of me, the girls you were a girl with, the men you did not choose, I will not choose. I will carry what you carry, like a child, on my hip that has never born a child, heavy as a child who will not follow your voice. Your home built of sorrow will be my sorrow, the wasp pressed against the inside of the pane, my pane, the slackening of your skin, loosened skin around the eyes, will be my loosening, your hair gone colorless will be my own lack of color. Your cup of bitter waters is my cup of bitter waters and together we will drink it, until the bowl has gone dry as a skull.
Sap Moon, Crust Moon, Crow Moon— by any of its names, this moon announces, in all its fullness, worms stirring in earth’s softening center; sap thawing in the maples; snow dissolving by day, crisping by night; & calls of crows converting from haunting ballads to heralding hymns. A robin reappears, throwing off the pine cloak it hid behind all winter like a god hard to find, hard to hear, maybe hard of hearing in the ruckus wind made as it bayed across the plains & yowled in the valleys, hard to see in ice suffocating once-tasseled fields, pinecone & bayberry, numbing perhaps even wings, rendering the soft touch this moon offers almost senseless. Welcome, worms, twisting & teeming with prophecy, welcome, crows & robins, plucking these crawlers from grass now breathing green, welcome, syrup, born again, pushing through the spout, welcome, waxing light & waning dark, welcome one, welcome all, no matter your longing for answered prayer, come, sun yourself beneath the low Lenten Moon.
Meg went to the Tower, somehow passed the halberds of the Yeomen of the Guard to embrace once more the father whose hair shirt she washed, whose “wholesome counsel and virtuous example” she received, whose mind and person she loved.
Not Holbein’s Chancellor but an El Greco saint, he was led out carrying his red cross, emaciated and ready. He reminded the axe man his neck was short, asked him not to miss. Then put that noble neck in the arc of the block, and the great, wedge axe lopped off his blessed head. Faithless Henry had it put on a pike on London Bridge, a horrible deterrent to heroic silence.
At what cost and courage Margaret rescued it, carried it home to Canterbury, buried it by St. Dunstan’s Church. How often did she gaze from home across to the church yard, longing for the King whose name is love, Whom she, and we, still await?