The still pilgrim makes dinner

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.


Were you a man and single, the Jesuits
would have you in a trice.
But you are some man’s wife, lovely,
hair coarse and wild as a Morgan’s tail,
on each hip a fine son and one on your shoulders.

Your bent for theology is more startling
than your renegade humor, your ease
on a good horse, fast and wild
as he can be. You are no cut-out saint.

Bus-stop apologist, training your eye
for truth at your kitchen table,
turning worn pages in the weary night
as your tea grows cold,

The day has come for your kind.
Venerable Jenn,
you are better than you know,
stirring the oatmeal, reading Aquinas,
shoveling the snow.

The farm wife hoists the family flag

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.

Tell me tell me tell me

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.