A POEM ABOUT MY MOTHER:
This recent poem, a knock-off of a sonnet by John Milton (#23, "Me thought I saw my late espoused Saint"), encapsulates my relationship with my mother, both before and after my sister's death.
I Thought I Saw My Mother, Long Deceased
I thought I saw my mother, long deceased,
standing before the garage door of our home.
While I kicked the ball at her crazily,
careless as to whether I bruised her bones,
face set, arms akimbo, a goalkeeper,
she tried to maintain a stern demeanor.
Later, we became a broken family,
lives shattered when my sister took her own,
by throwing herself in front of a train.
My aunt had to go and claim the remains,
for my mother was paralyzed, a wreck.
After that, no more fun: no jokes, no games.
My sad mother never got back on track.
When I'd ask her how she was, "... oh, about the same."
What I Took
by Zoe Singer (December 22, 2013)
Grandma Betty was no one else's grandmother. I knew and didn't know about her the things one does and does not know about one's grandmother. And I knew through knowing her, as grandchildren often must, that my parents were partial people. My relationship with Grandma Betty was separate from theirs, and I observed them, in their dealings with her, as separate from myself.
The Aunt I never met was everywhere in this: Ann, who lived with mental illness and committed suicide in her 20s. Though Ann was never the topic, she was often the reason: why Grandma Betty was no one else's grandmother; why my Dad held an adolescent remove from his mother; surely one of the reasons why Grandma Betty was so entirely ... soft. Grandma Betty's ring-indented hands fingering an afghan that she and Ann had made, the very stone of her Florida condominium, across which darted curve-tailed little lizards, the air rolled into her short curly permanent -- a child was strong enough to make a mark in these things.
Betty Singer did not have a soft life, and she could not have been soft all her life. She and her sister, like blades of a scissor, made a crossed life of hairdressing, marital submission, and motherhood. Except Betty failed to bring her two children into adulthood. My Great Aunt Estelle was much more definite. Her cooking tasted better and was healthier. She had opinions, and the confidence of having them. There was a subtle step down to her sunken living room that would trip you up and throw you on the floor if you didn't toe the line around her. I loved her, but Estelle was sharper, more like all the other people in my life. Grandma Betty was unlike any other person in my childhood experience.
Grandma Betty adored and repulsed me, as a flabby and wrinkled old woman with perfumes on a tray outside her bathroom and a love of sweet overcooked food will when you are 7, 8, or 9, visiting over winter break with your parents who are desperately trying to escape, and sometimes sharing a bedroom with her. In a poem I wrote in college, I likened Grandma Betty's skin to the feel of a banana peel.
I was famous in Grandma Betty's condominium, for no virtues of my own. I was petted somewhat like a poodle. I once floated about in the warm, shallow pool, while the ladies crouched weightless in the water in swim-skirt ensembles, keeping their hair dry, and admired my eyebrows to the point of superlative. Grandma Betty gave me a gold horse necklace. She would have done me up if she could, make-up, curlers, and bling. Her walk-in closet was full of pastel culottes and white cotton sweaters with loose open knits. Her underwear drawer housed mother's day cards from Ann.
My father took me fishing in the canals near the condominium once, and I caught a turtle, reeling in the ambient guilt that surrounded those trips for him. On the way home, I walked through a red anthill. I was swarmed and tormented, and we ran back to the condo, where my grandmother stripped me and put me in the shower. She was his mother, and he had run to her with me for help. She raised her children with fierce care, nursed my Grandpa Harry through decades of anger, high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes, then cancer.
The condo was low lit. A parakeet lived in the cow-themed kitchen for a while. I marveled that my grandmother's oven was full of cereal boxes. And prunes. She tried to interest me in kefir, which I've recently begun stocking and pushing on my family. The living room was decorated with her paintings, all framed, all copies of the masters, all somewhat mustard in hue. My mother is an abstract artist. Grandma Betty kept a candy dish, naturally, and porcelain figurines on a glass shelf, though these with affection rather than the conviction of a collector. Her palm-sheltered patio was wonderful, white furniture upholstered in just the yellow and green vinyl print you imagine. Looking down you could watch the occasional adult child jog by, chasing their autonomy while visiting aging parents. And of course the elderly walkers and bikers. Grandma Betty's bike, a green Raleigh Cruiser, is one of my proudest, and heaviest, possessions.
After she died of lung cancer, perhaps decades after, I first remembered waking up from her living room couch to a horrific sound. I prowled the dark apartment, winding up with my ear to Grandma Betty's bedroom door. She was snoring and gasping. She must have already had cancer. By the time she was diagnosed, she had a couple months at most. Great Aunt Estelle died in the same way. My parents were befuddled about what to take from Grandma Betty's condo. I requested an afghan she'd made. We still use it. I can see it on the couch from where I write. Someone must have napped under it recently.
The Miltonic knock-off poem is one of a set of four published in Ascent Aspirations, November 2015. These poems, including this one, about my mother, were written after my daughter wrote the Epilogue.
-- Ron Singer