When you’re young
it’s your mother’s arms,
that solace of fleshy comfort;
your security blanket, your rock nestled
in the middle of the sea.
It’s her perfume,
the soft powdery feel of her skin.
It’s her hair, not yet cut
out of frustration in the typical “mom” haircut;
still long with love, still swinging
between your grabbing hands.
It’s her fingers setting sail on your shoulders
when you’re first learning how to walk,
her loving mouth kissing each scrape,
each cut, each black and blue bruise
from the kids on the playground
whose mothers didn’t teach them
the meaning of the word “No.”
It’s the way she checks under your bed
for things that crawl or go bump in the night,
her hero’s grace, her refusal to see
you off to the land of dreams without
a kiss on the forehead and maybe,
on those special nights, a glass of warm milk.
You’re four, maybe five,
and all you know is your mother’s love.
You were weened on it.
How, you wonder, can it get any better?
You’re twelve, thirteen.
You no longer understand your mother.
But she understands you,
and you hate it.
She still packs your lunch,
still slips a little note inside your lunch bag
for you to read at the table with your friends,
still knows the importance of a balanced
meal, the grains and the dairy.
You throw your lunch away without reading the note,
your mother’s words ringing in your head about
all the starving children in the world who will go hungry that day.
You reason with yourself as you hear the heaviness
of food hit the plastic garbage bin:
You never knew these children. They certainly don’t know you.
And, anyway, this is America. People don’t go hungry.
But mothers do. Mothers go hungry for
the love of their twelve year-old children.
Mothers starve to death every year.
You’re sixteen. Almost seventeen.
You’re in love.
It’s in full swing, this dizzy love affair
with the boy who lives across the street,
the boy whose face haunts you
every time you go to sleep.
Your mother still waits for you to get
home from school,
eager to hear about your day, about him,
about all the secret notes passed between classes,
the secret kisses in the lunch line and
how you showed him a breast
beneath a tree in the park on the way home once.
You want to tell your mother
how he says your name like it’s a benediction,
and that he knows where to fit his hands
so that they curve around you exactly,
that he plays the cello and he knows
how to make your strings ache.
You’re in love,
but you want to keep it secret.
No juicy details for the mother
The day you move out.
There is crying, some arguing:
your mother wants you to take the
goddamn sweater your aunt
knitted for you. She wants you to take
the pictures of six year-old you,
another book, some more socks.
The sweater is hideous,
you were too chubby at six, chocolate
dribbled all over your mouth and chin;
you haven’t read that book in years,
and you could swim in the amount of socks
you’re already carrying.
But this is how she loves you, your mother—
in old, folded up pictures and the amount of socks you have,
in dogeared books that smell faintly of vanilla and open windows.
This is all she has.
When you realize that you need your mother for the first time,
you’re twenty-three years old and you’ve just gotten
your heart broken by a boy who promised you forever.
You’re crying on the phone and
as your mother’s voice crackles to life on the line,
you find yourself wishing that you could be five again,
that you could crawl into her lap and demand
that she kiss every fracture in your heart
before sending you to bed.
Your mother is patient,
kind, understanding. She knows this kind of pain.
She wants to know if you’ll come home,
for a little while. Just a few days, take a long weekend.
You feel the bars rattle and then come down,
locking her out again. You wipe your face
and tell her that you’re fine and you hang up.
But you sleep with your thumb
in your mouth that night,
wishing for warm milk.
But you do, eventually, find a boy who
says forever and means it.
There’s a wedding you can’t really remember
and your mother, of course, she’s there,
adjusting your dress, smoothing a lock of hair into place.
You look at her, really look at her,
and you’re surprised to see the lines near her eyes,
the gray hairs that she refuses to dye coming up
from her scalp.
She sees you looking, smiles, and kisses your cheek.
“All in good time.”
And your throat closes up at that word, time,
because it’s happening all around us, not stopping for anyone,
not even for your mother.
She’s getting older, and you hadn’t even noticed it.
When you find out that you’re pregnant,
she’s the first one you call.
At first there is silence, and then a scream,
and then laughter, gloriously loud and bright:
you forgot that the sun lives in your mother’s laugh.
The conversation is a blur of baby name suggestions,
color palettes for the nursery, plans for a shower,
how you’re hoping for a girl
and your mother’s brief silence that you ignore,
the silence that says,
“Be careful what you wish for.”
Eight months and two weeks later,
her silence comes back to you
as your husband hands you a beautiful
baby girl, bloodied and slightly purple.
She is the Earth, this baby girl,
and you orbit her without really knowing how or why,
But you know that it will always be this way.
She is seven, your baby girl.
You still call her that. Your heart squeezes
every time she calls for you, for “Mama”,
each time she laughs
and reaches for your hand to show you the
butterfly she’s trapped in a jar.
But it’s the first time you go to smooth
down her hair that she flinches and runs away
to hide behind your mother.
“No. No, no, no!”
You are a mother who taught her child
the meaning of the word, and
it’s the first time she’s ever said it to you.
The blow of it knocks the air out of your lungs.
But you run after her anyway because
this, too, is love.
And there’s still a handful of nights
left for warm milk, still all those monsters under her bed
that you have yet to send away.
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