Lamentations at the Tomb

The smell for one thing.
Open the door and the odor
of mold hits you square
in the face. Say you
forgot something. Find sanctuary
in your car, your oh-so-clean
car, even the lingering smell
of McDonald’s lunch a relief.
(It was a long drive
to Dad’s. Only one reason
you rarely made it, traveling along
I-90 through LaCrosse, a glimpse
of the Mississippi and glacial-less
bluffs beautiful, too brief.)

The smell is the basement’s
annual spring flooding,
destroyed drywall downstairs. Descend
the wooden stairway
of the rectangle ranch
you grew up in. The extent! Weird
enough what he had saved. A baby
carriage, Lite Brite,
one of a pair of Rock ‘em Sock ‘em Robots,
school papers and child art, wilted with wet,
stacks of books, pages dried together
like shipwreck survivors
clinging to one another,
a Mexican tooled-leather purse, an old one-eyed bear, your hope
chest. All eroded
by the creeped-in water, not just
this year, but years. Saved
yet not salvaged.

Bugs, but you see those. Sills pilled
with Japanese beetles that look
like harmless ladybugs, but have their own
particular stench if you touch. Daddy
longlegs weaved homes into corners,
fly corpses suspended. The black
and red armor of boxelder bugs
in every corner.
Rodents too. Holes chewed
into walls. Insulation seeps out
like dirty cotton candy. If you are brave
enough to look for a water glass, you will see evidence.
Of mice creeping in and out of cupboards,
over mismatched dishes, Tupperware,
weaving amid yellowing boxes of
Morton’s salt, Hamburger Helper,
and amber bottles of pills
long since emptied.

Also you see your vain
efforts to help. Not enough
in the end, or maybe since
the beginning. You hand-wrote recipes
and taped them to those cabinet doors,
yellow now with age.
A soft blanket
you gifted at Christmas, crusted
with spilled food and obscured by 
shed dog hair, spread
over a sofa. The nice television is still nice, but
the pale blue recliner you bought with your brother
has gone limp with overuse. Strangely
you are reassured
that the casket you both chose
is quite lovely, pale blue satin to match
his eyes, though his eyes,
you both agreed,
were donated fast.

(There was nothing
you could do. There was everything
you could have done. But anger, well,
its seeps and rots too.)

Here there is no resurrection
long in coming. Roll the stone
away, and there is only a failed shrine
to keep your mother’s memory alive, what she left
she died. He shut his eyes
to decay in favor of dreams of days
when her collection
of tea cups, washed to gleaming,
posed on the polished table, debutantes awaiting
the Ladies’ Aid. Maybe he remembers
how he would cross the kitchen
in farm boots of hard leather, and steal
one more cookie, maybe the same kind
his mother had made
him when he was a young boy
coming in
from the fields.

(You will never know.
You will never stop knowing.)

the summer i turned eighteen

They Broke my legs
both femur Bones
Broken in half.

They removed one
and a half inches of Bone
from my strong right leg
inserted that Bone
(imagine: what could look
like sawed Bone? imagine:
sawing bone.)
between the Break
in her weaker left sister.

They used my Bones
as counting beads
as building blocks
to grapple
with impotent equations
(1.5 + -1.5 = 0)
to prove science
dominates nature.

They evened me out
3 inches.

They slidshoved (imagine!) metal
rods like skewers
into the spongy marrow
of my Bones.

They screwed metal
plates nestled next to Bone
and i remember
i woke screaming
They drew my Broken legs
bent at the waist
up over my head
(Perhaps I imagined)
a better angle for x-rays.

They said walk
and i did 2 days later
i imagined i would die
They would die
imagined she
the athletic blond therapist coaxing
me onto two Broken legs
with platitudinous encouragement!
to walk
on two Broken legs
would die.

For eighteen years
They described my leg as discrepant
and i believed
that discrepancy
was me.

i watched a movie called
and she broke his legs
with a sledgehammer!
to keep him still, to keep him
home. It whispered
into my ear
this (imagined?) horror.

how did They
Break the legs
begin the punishment
of the criminals
who hung
on crosses
next to jesus?

They were god.
father, son, holy ghost
my mother
bless her believing heart
turned me over to Them.
They were healers, mayo clinic, blue masks, sweet
air like candied fruits lining my mouth, like sweet
cellophane, a Disneyland sleep, reach sweet sleep
count 100 backwards, imagine peace.
They were teachers and coaches
who said no,
who refused to Break
the world open
for a little girl
for whom no
would always be the answer.

They said i couldn’t
play on the swings
skate like dorothy
tumble like nadia
It was no use to imagine.
They said i couldn’t run
on the bases. Took me off 1st when i earned
my place and replaced me
with someone who could.

i wonder who
They imagined I would become
(who I could have imagined being)
They Broke my Bones
the summer I turned eighteen
and I felt my spirit
slip away.

The First and Only

(This essay appeared in the Death Blues Ensemble album here.)

The first and only poetry prize I ever won was for a love poem. Written to my older cousin, Kevin, the youngest of four siblings on my mother’s side. It was a radio contest and the winners were announced one morning on the local AM station. I can’t remember if my poem was read over the air. Regardless, I had won my age group, and my mother was over the moon. 

In our home, the radio was a constant, especially in the mornings. Amid the local news and weather, we occasionally heard songs such as Dancing Queen, or something by Gordon Lightfoot. We always listened to Paul Harvey later in the day. After my father left for work at Mower County Soil & Water Conservation, having heard the day’s grain prices, my mother settled down with a second pot of coffee and listened to “Party Line,” a call-in show that was not only emblematic of the social fabric of our community, but helped my mother feel connected because we lived so far from town. She had lived her whole life in small cities, in churches, in schools, and being alone with herself seemed to drain her dry. My poem put me in esteemed company, if only for a very few minutes. 

I don’t remember what my poem said or why I said it. In my mind now, I see it written in crayon on otherwise blank notepaper, hearts drawn near the top of the page, but I doubt I was that young, and I doubt my mother would have allowed me to submit it as such. Perhaps she even rewrote it on lined paper with her precise schoolteacher handwriting before we walked the envelope down our long driveway and tucked it into the mailbox, misshapen from too many scrapes with the road grader, for pickup. 

Because she died when I was twelve, I cannot ask her about these things, things that I suspect are fiction, but for which I have no more reasonable memory. No doubt I extolled my cousin’s virtues in the poem, in schoolgirl terms, though I actually knew him very little since he was at least 10 years older than me and living in Minneapolis, a veritable Oz two hours north of our farm, which instantly escalated him to star status. 

Kevin had a job, and money, or he must have, because he would show up late for Christmas gatherings every year with some expensive and hastily-bought gift that, instead of offending us with its obvious lack of planning, thrilled us because we rarely had a lot of money spent on our presents. (My favorite was the Simon electronic memory game, even if I did have to share it with my brother.) We came to expect those gifts, so when he stopped attending the annual Christmas get-togethers because he was spending time with his girlfriend, our Christmases lost the sense of surprise and indulgence, even romance, he brought with him.

It could be that the poetry contest was the first time I believed I could be a writer, or maybe I never thought I couldn’t be one. My mother had been a 1st grade teacher before moving to the country to marry my father, so reading and language and storytelling was something I’d taken to early, not because it was genetic (we were adopted), but because the house was filled with books for young children, and, also, her expectations. 

Most of her old school books were lined up on built-in shelves in the unfinished basement, but she had a small set of bookends on her dresser in my parent’s room that held just a few treasured volumes. Most were religious, and I particularly remember something by Anne Morrow Lindbergh, but tucked between two hardcovers was a hand-bound book of poetry, with very few pages, handwritten, and illustrated in pencil. Even now, I can nearly feel the silky twist of rope that threaded through the pages because I stroked it with my thumb whenever she would let me investigate her things, usually on rainy days. 

I can’t remember what her poems were like, or whether they were any good, or if the book was anything more than the result of a school project she’d had to complete many years before, but what I did know is that they were written by my mother. My mother had a book of poetry. A whole book! And it was evident to me then that if something was in a book, no matter the size, it was valuable. And it was precious, not just because she kept it in a place of some honor, but also because it was tidy, and deliberate, and somehow alive with a person’s history. 

Years after my mother died, my father got remarried and anything that my mother had owned of value, antiques collected by a family of collectors, was sold. The profit was used by my new stepmother redecorate the house, erase the lingering presence of my mother, reverse the decay that had started to eat at its edges. Anything that wouldn’t bring in money, like that handwritten book of poetry, was moved down to that partially renovated, but still prone-to-flooding basement. Not carefully placed on shelves, but piled in boxes, one on top of the other like a small city of remembrances. I had no interest in rescuing the objects of my childhood because I was about to leave for college. Well practiced at packing my own memories into boxes labeled simply “Better Times” and storing them in some dark corner of my mind, I had little affection for what I would leave behind. 

Their marriage lasted less than a year; the renovations had not been enough to make two people unfit for each other stay together. My mother’s things remained in the basement as water seeped in each spring and mold grew up the new drywall, my father living alone upstairs, maybe believing the memories stored in the basement would be enough to hold the house, and himself, up.

Our basement had always frightened me as a child, its many rooms hiding spots for spiders and mice, and any other kinds of menace I could imagine. When I was very young, the basement had been used to clean, weigh, and carton the eggs our chickens produced, and the process left behind bits of feather and residue from cracked and leaking eggs long after the chickens were gone.  

When our washing machine broke down and we couldn’t afford to replace it, my mother rolled out a decades-old monster of a machine that had lurked unused under the stairs for years. It washed our clothes in its round gut, but didn’t remove the water that a spin cycle would. She had to wring each piece dry through a press that resembled a large pasta maker. It was hard work, and we didn’t yet know about my mother’s glitchy heart. Later, even after a new automatic washer made the laundry easier, she never descended the stairs to the basement without a small brown bottle of nitroglycerin pills tucked into a pocket.

After she died and the laundry became my responsibility, I’d go into the basement as infrequently and as briefly as possible, dash up the stairs when I was done, especially after seeing my first horror movie, “The Evil Dead.” The basement stairs were free-standing and the large space underneath, with built-in shelves and cupboards, had served as a pantry. There were still jars of my mother’s canned goods—peeled peaches and bulbous tomatoes, yellowed cucumber pickles in pale green brine growing a grotesque virus of garlic and dill—stored amid opened paint cans and retired pots and pans, like bloated body parts in jars in a mad scientist’s lab. 

When my father died five years ago, having spent the majority of 22 years alone in the home he and my mother had had built during the first year of their marriage, my husband and I were tasked with emptying out the house for sale, and we confronted what turned out to be the actual horrors of the basement. After years of flooding, the resulting mold, and my father’s growing poverty and passivity, most everything abandoned in the back rooms of the basement had disintegrated, forming a two-foot undulate layer of debris that had to be shoveled and scraped off the floor. 

We picked through the mess, searching for survivors. An old stuffed bear looked to be in good shape, but, unearthed, it was missing half its face, like some storybook phantom, eaten away by mice looking for nesting material. Even the shelved books were ruined, musty, their pages reduced to dust at the corners or stuck together with damp. I now have four plastic tubs stacked in my own basement that hold a spare number of rescued items moved from that house to mine.

I don’t know what happened to my mother’s poetry book, the one I imagine she had kept on her dresser to remind herself of who she had once been. I’d like to have it now, so I too could have a tangible representation of the faded but inextinguishable passion for words that seemed always to burn within her. Perhaps that’s why she was so thrilled by my poem, that winning poem, despite the obviously questionable object of my affection. Maybe in that poem, she could see herself in me. And she was relieved to know that despite my adoption, I was her daughter, that she had successfully lit a flame in me to write something just as tidy, deliberate, and alive. I wish now that I had written that love poem for her, but then, maybe, it was.