“Mama Meets Pavlov (And She Didn’t Even Know Who He Was)” by J. Alfred Phelps

J. Alfred Phelps


I had no idea that Mama
hobnobbed Ivan Petrovich Pavlov
in her mind. That had to be how they met—
how else could she adopt
theorems on physiological reactions
acquired habits; chains of things
dubbed conditioned reflexes?
How else? He, a physiologist—
born, bred in Ryazan deep in Russia
she alive in Mobile, Alabama, one generation
removed from slavery; wisped mulatto black girl
playing hide-’n-go seek close by a big iron kettle
seething homemade soap of lye and pork fat
through the boiling family wash
chasing away the dirt.
You’d think I’d have known—
riding the innards of her body
my body building deep inside amniotic fluid
residing joyfully near her soul. Only
after word came that Mama had gotten old—
Seen walking down the middle of streets
crossing corners against red lights
only when I came to take her home
did I discover that down the avenues of her life
she had become—a Pavlovian minion
a walking, talking case of conditioned reflex.
Never did I suspect or know the terror
felt deep inside her psyche; her very heart—
erupting when confronted by another
human created outside the auras of her kin
How sad to know that the whiteness of those faces
sent her into Pavlovian shock
presaging “Yes, suh! No, suh! Thanky, M’am!”
with the slightest practiced curtsy
to any person with a tinted face
from almost any place at all.
Alzheimer’s engulfed her
leaving only the recorded fright
of a thousand lynchings and worse.
Tears inundated watching my learned Mama
defer to people with unfamiliar faces
becoming another Pavlovian cipher; a theorem;
an acquired habit perhaps outlived as they
catheterized her—strapped her into bed
walked away and left her unattended—another experiment
gone haywire and blame it all on—
Alzheimer’s please.

from Rattle #23, Summer 2005

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