“My Mother Told Us Not to Have Children” by Rebecca Gayle Howell

Rebecca Gayle Howell


She’d say, Never have a child you don’t want.
Then she’d say, Of course, I wanted you

once you were here. She’s not cruel. Just practical.
Like a kitchen knife. Still, the blade. And care.

When she washed my hair, it hurt; her nails
rooting my thick curls, the water rushing hard.

It felt like drowning, her tenderness.
As a girl, she’d been the last

of ten to take a bath, which meant she sat
in dirty water alone; her mother in the yard

bloodletting a chicken; her brothers and sisters
crickets eating the back forty, gone.

Is gentleness a resource of the privileged?

In this respect, my people were poor.
We fought to eat and fought each other because

we were tired from fighting. We had no time
to share. Instead our estate was honesty,

which is not tenderness. In that it is
a kind of drowning. But also a kind of air.

from Rattle #42, Winter 2013
2013 Readers’ Choice Award Winner
2014 Pushcart Prize Winner

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Rebecca Gayle Howell: “My mother was the daughter of subsistence farmers in Eastern Kentucky. My grandfather chose to raise his family by the old ways because he’d watched the damage done to his brothers when they went to work for industry, for the money economy. Thinking about my grandparents has me wondering about the different kinds of work and the different kinds of wealth. ‘Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.’ These days I’m asking myself—what is my heaven? Is it Target? Is it a tenure track job? What is it that I pursue with my thoughts and actions, with every muscle of my life? And, my god, is that really it? These days I’m thinking it’s never too late to choose the economy of better sense.” (web)

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