It’s Mother’s Day and I have no mother. She left and took my daughterhood. It’s hard to lose us both, recover. A double grief. A day to brood.
I dredge the chops. Fry them in oil. I slice the onion, wet as tears. I wear my sackcloth apron, soiled by meals I’ve made for thirty years.
For ashes, flour upon my head. For prayers, the rise of scented smoke. My mother, who is five years dead, lives in this meat, these eggs I broke, this dish she taught me how to make, this wine I drink, this bread I break.
I never learned to tell one from another— swamp, field, song, vesper—they’re all scraps of drab: rust, dun, buff, tan. Some streaky-breasted, some not. We hear the flutter of their wings, look up, then yawn, ho hum, a sparrow. No rush for the binoculars. Like the poor, they are always with us. Look at them flick and flit in this dry meadow of foxtail, switchgrass, goldenrod; every leaf, stem, and seed head burnished in the dying light. Maybe they are the only angels we get in this life. But the very hairs on our head are numbered, and the father knows them all by name. Each sparrow, too, has a song—no flashy cardinal selling cheer, no sky-blue jay’s ironic squawk, no eponymous chicka-dee-dee-dee. Just us, the unnoticed, gleaning what others have left behind, and singing for all we’re worth, teetering on a bit of bracken at the edge of a wild field.
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.