My mother told us stories of cars
crushed by toppling train cars
arm stretched out to hold us back
as we sat
seatbelt-less across the wide front-seat,
an extra distance from the wigwag
She told us about children who climbed
tin granary sheds, gray witches’ huts on the horizon,
only to slip
and drown in musty, mousy corn. I
then the mechanics of breath so pictured
hard kernels of orangy-yellow corn filling the boy’s
mouth nose ears eyes.
She told us horror stories
from her years teaching, the child
who had a tapeworm,
the child whose hand
on the hot coil of an electric stove
until he was sorry.
She told us about a missionary
friend who traveled
to Africa and was presented
with a rat, the fanciest meal the tribe could offer
a representative from the Church,
and she told us about her friend’s obligation
to eat it with grace.
She told us about her old dog
who refused to eat peas no matter how carefully
she hid them in his food. She told us about the neighbors
next door when she was growing up: they didn’t brush
their teeth but had no cavities, while she and her brothers had
excellent hygiene but bad teeth.
She told us
about living in Mankato, MN, Elgin, IL, and Ironwood, MI, and
her honeymoon with our father in Portland, OR.
I wanted to hear over and over
about her trips to England, and Denmark, and Amsterdam.
But the planned vacation to Hong Kong was cancelled
because she met our father.
She told us about the day
she learned they would adopt my brother.
How she surprised our father with a sign
on the silo, but I don’t see how
it’s possible she did that so I must be remembering wrong.
She told us about the family who had almost adopted me
before, how my name had been Stephanie,
and I had two large trash bags full of toys. I think she meant
for me to understand that I’d been loved.
She told us about Beryl who served me coffee at my belated baptism.
She told us about heaven and hell, and we prayed each night
before bed that if we died
the Lord would receive our souls
just by asking him to. But she never told us
she was sick.
Not like those mothers who had to break the bad news
to their children about cancer and chemo.
No, she never had to. She’d just always been sick, and every day
she bared her belly and shot insulin with tiny needles and small glass vials
I thought were nearly beautiful.
She told us how to treat her
episodes with a glass of orange juice, but sometimes it was hard
to make her sip when she was
on the wooden bedpost.
If I told you that happened, that she lost
her mind sometimes, would you believe me? If I told you
she slapped us across the face if we used a swear word
or anything like one,
or if we were ungrateful,
would you forgive her?
If I told you that her doctors believed she was imagining
some of her symptoms, her eye pain, her paranoia, would you understand
why she sometimes hid pieces of the television,
or threw birthday gifts in the trash in front of our friends,
or removed objects from our rooms she believed were of the devil?
If I told you all that,
would you wonder if we were loved at all?
I could tell you she served us
Cream of Wheat and cold cubed meats on toothpicks when we were sick.
I could tell you she handmade ornaments– crocheted stars, tin foil wreaths–
for Christmas, and one Easter dipped the cat’s paws in flour
to lay bunny tracks, evidence of the imaginary. I could tell you
about the day we were told she had died,
the black and white polka-dotted dress
and Payless shoes I wore to the funeral,
the pink carnation that fell from her casket. I told myself
that she dropped the flower
as a sign for me and I pressed it
in a book until it was gray.
I still have that flower
30-years later. I might then tell you about those nights
I slept in my father’s bed because I couldn’t bear
to hear him crying from my room across the hall. I might tell you
about the love letter I wrote to my mother, waiting
for a windy day to toss it into the wind, believing
that the letter would lift
into the sky
and vanish over the trees,
a dot and then nothing,
like a lost balloon. But then I would also have to tell you
that the letter fell to the ground
every time I threw it,
until I just ripped it to pieces, hoping the fragments
might flutter away like a coded SOS from those of us