Grandfather is home from Seattle.
He smiles as we turn him and we smile back,
trying not to remember that his wasted arms
once tossed us high or tickled us to tears;
memories must be thrust from this room,
for even the light ones are melting and dark.
His last years, looking westward to the sea,
he learned the faces of sunset through his window;
now there is no glass holding him back,
only the weight of his own life
that drags him to his bed,
that holds him home.
He speaks to his children and loves them patiently;
with his help we conceal our gathering grief,
praying against hope that we can hold him,
even while his feeble legs long to take another step.
Old Mother stands at the window.
Old Mother bathes in blue light,
rests her hands in the white water
as the last dusk drifts in the kitchen window;
the dishes are done.
She smiles at the window sill,
and the sill reflects all the evening.
It shines from her shining it.
The window is clear because she cleaned it.
Her face is loving because she etched it
with tears, creased it with laughter,
furrowed it with worry, then let it rest.
Old Mother faces west
because the window faces west.
She smiles to remember
the stone at Father’s head.
On the right it tells Father’s name,
his date of birth, the day he died;
on the left old Mother’s name,
her date of birth, and a space.
Soon, she thinks. Not today,
because the petunias need thinning
and the carpet needs sweeping,
but it will be soon.
She takes the plug from the sink
and as the water drains
she dries her hands.
“And may our sleep be sweet this night.”
The ritual words, resonant, clear,
That ended every family
Came as relief to us whose plight
You never seemed to feel. Your long
And earnest prayer stretched forth
Embracing everything of worth
And everyone: His mighty throng,
His tender care, his love, his birth,
His bounteous blessings, all our health
And strength, our heritage, our length
Of space and time on blessed earth,
Our onion patch, the dryfarm wheat,
President Grant, our loved ones all,
Leaders of nations, any who call
On him in pain or sorrow, the feet
Of missionaries that they be led
To doors of honest in heart, the poor
The sick and afflicted, all those sore
In heart or mind, even our dead.
Thus you’d solicit blessings from
An unseen power you’d never think
To doubt: you knew how deep we drink
From wells we can’t begin to plumb.
To us who knelt on hardwood floors
And felt the creep of time across
The grain that marked our knees, the loss
Of play on summer nights outdoors
Kept all but echoes of your words
Along the surface of our minds.
We felt few doubts about the kinds
Of beings and powers up there where birds
Could soar and sing, beyond our reach,
Their bright evangels to our God;
You’d taught us much about the word,
His rod, to let us know he’d teach
Us more. Content with that we’d keep
A restless sense of all that flow
Of words we knew, like us, must go
At last and finally down to sleep.
And sleep we did. Our work and play
Would help your invocation hold
—But benediction too: You’d fold
Us in your love: How could we stray?
Yes, we squirmed enough and more.
But found your prayer fulfilled in us
As now we find your life is just
Fulfilled in death. And now the store
Of fruit you brought, as mellow too
As you’d become, will save us from
The grief we can’t but feel. You’ve come
To rest—the only kind you’d know.
As now you move through dark to light:
We softly sing you on your way—
You’d never stop, even with your day,
But may your sleep be sweet this night.
No profile graven by whim-spindling will
Am I, nor do I guide with measured gauge
The hand to gouge and tool conflicting planes
To round conformity; I can but flinch,
Splinter spewing, crack useless in the cinch
To lie unfinished, or endure the strain.
Vice-clenched into mortality, for assuage
I long to float free, softly spill
Through limitless sands. But driftwood so
Rough-smoothed against creation cannot see
The joy of tree God-crafted, nor know
That life is only pain-lathed into beauty.
Thy word determining
beyond our works and days,
what should we rather sing
than thee, Lord, and thy ways?
Softer the rose and gold
cloud at each close of day;
no fit place for an old
head that is white or gray.
Sharper each whiter hill
against each grayer dawn;
keener each morning chill
that prophesies the sun.
Meet death, not facing west,
but clear in orient light.
Look, not for dusk or rest,
but work in God’s own sight.
The end we must endure
begins; we sing thy praise:
thy word alone is sure
to crown our works and days.
Sticky sweet in the morning, waking up,
The leaves crisping,
The sun in my window and on my floor
The house today is doing peaches in saffron bottles.
I know because I heard my mama talking
About the peaches Uncle Clarence brought from Freedom.
I stay in the sunny smoke of my room as long as I can.
I don’t like to hold hot peaches,
Slip them naked with thumbs,
Snap out pits, wrinkle the skin beneath my nails,
Place the halves like the yellows of eggs in glass:
Too many rows of empty bottles to fill …
On peaches days I sometimes steal away.
My mama never says a word;
Except I know she needs my help.
Sometime … I will …
Today I yearned for sun. The crisp leaves buzzed
A singing melody across the trees.
Light sparkled on my hands and in the glass.
I pushed the window open, swallowed breeze.
I climbed the window sill, slid down the elm. Beyond the yard, the fence, the fields were full Of ripe flowers: paintbrush, lily, star, and butter bell. My mother loved them all. I took the tub we used to slop the pigs And found my brothers on the hills. We laughed, ran, rolled and filled The bucket with a hundred flowers. The sun climbed high and we harvested for hours.
“Where have you been?” my mama said,
When we came in for bread and cheese.
Across the table stood,
In rows, the bottles filled with food.
I didn’t say. I hugged her good and kissed her,
Gave her the flowers and laughed.
“I love you, Mama.”
She smiled, a glaze on her eye,
Took the flowers, and asked if I
Would help her some.
I said, “A little.”
So I made the sandwiches for the pails
And took the lunch out to the hills.
It was almost dark before my brothers and I
Came in from the field.
The kitchen was quiet, empty,
And still smelled sweet.
Mama had gone.
On the table she left a note
Propped on the lids
Of some glittering jars:
“We have gone to Grandma’s.
If you want to eat, these are yours.”
I lifted the note and looked at the bottles
Of tiny folded umbrellas
With golden heads sprung close
Against the saffron glass like scars …
Bottles of flowers.
“Yes,” she said, “this is my house.”
The mantle’s wood felt dusty
As she touched it cautiously.
“My dishes, yes,” still red with cherries
And green with leaves, as bright.
The table—oak, familiar scratches—
How long since she had sat there?
What months had stolen memories
From her store of eighty years?
Someone helped her down back porch stairs
Into a yard with strange, taller trees
And a weathered clothesline.
“Yes,” she said, pulling hard into her mind,
“This is my clothesline.”
And with those words came dresses,
Helen’s dresses, John’s patched shirts,
And Papa’s pants.
Ah yes, now where was Papa?
Armfuls of sun-warm clothes,
Basketfuls of damp rain-rescued clothes,
Winds full of white clothes
Came tumbling to her,
Those worn clothes
Washed clean again.