March 20, 2017

Ellen Bass

POEM WRITTEN IN THE SIXTH MONTH OF MY WIFE’S ILLNESS

I didn’t know that when my mother died, her grave
would be dug in my body. And when I weaken, 
she is here, dressing behind the closet door,
hooking up her long-line cotton bra,
then sliding the cups around to the front,
leaning over and harnessing each heavy breast,
setting the straps in the grooves on her shoulders,
reins for the journey. She’s slicking her lips with
Fire and Ice. She’s shoveling the car out of the snow.
How many pints of Four Roses did she slide
into exactly-sized brown bags? How many cases
of Pabst Blue Ribbon did she sling onto the counter?
All the crumpled bills, steeped in the smells
of the lives who’d handled them—their sweat,
their body heat, cheap cologne, onions and
grease, lumber and bleach—she opened
her palm and smoothed each one. Then
stacked them up precisely, restoring order.
And at ten, after the change fund was counted,
the doors locked, she uncinched the girth, unbuckled
the bridle. Cooked Cream of Wheat for my father,
mixed a milkshake with Hershey’s syrup for me,
and poured herself a single highball,
placed on a pink or yellow paper napkin.
But this morning I think of a scene I never
witnessed, though she told me the story years later.
She’d left my father in the hospital—this time
they didn’t know if he’d pull through—
and driving the hour back to the store, stopped
in a diner and ordered coffee.
She sat in the booth, silently crying
and sipping the hot black coffee,
and the waitress, she told me, never said a word,
just kept refilling her cup.

from Rattle #54, Winter 2016
2016 Readers’ Choice Award Co-Winner

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Ellen Bass: “Poetry gives me a way to see and accept my experience as part of the human experience. It allows me to be curious instead of judgmental. To lean into my life instead of resisting it. In a poem, one event or emotion isn’t superior to another. Each has its own individual interest and each is rich with reality.” (website)