— from Before and After Letting Go, A Poememoir
I listened to my mother sing.
We didn’t sing together.
She heard me singing but I never felt
that she was listening.
Patsy Cline, Theresa Brewer, Connie
Stevens, Gwen Verdon, sometimes Lena Horn.
Never Mary Martin. Though we listened,
the songs sounded wrong for Mary Francis—
not enough sultry longing, too much pep.
I think the singers Mom aspired to
all smoked and drank before they sang,
but if they’d had a drink they sounded best.
She sang in the corner of the kitchen.
Washing dishes or not, this was her place.
Her hips leaned in to the countertop
vibrato vibrated cupboard cups.
She sang there for reflection and acoustics;
a pane on either side, wide corner sill
two frames, a double arch, one faced the porch
the other open driveway and the street—
her stage looked out upon the neighborhood.
She’d hum and sing softly many places
around the house, the patio, the yard—
but only at that corner kitchen sink
would she let go and sing with all her voice.
No one ever said a word about it,
though we heard her up and down the block.
I still recall Sweet Dreams (of You).
But I remember Judy Garland first
because of Somewhere Over
the Rooney moony
Clang, Clang, Clang
of the Have Yourself
a Merry Little Easter Parade.
watching Judy, with my mom, in movies
where her characters would smoke and fret
and try to strut in sequined dresses, hips,
legs, and breasts in tight constraint, I saw
sad lines on her face and the way her eyes
did not match her mouth when she smiled
and came to know
that she was like my mom in more than voice.
Marilyn Monroe’s voice was nothing like
my mom’s contralto,
but there was Mom in her as well—red pout
of mouth, the need to please, yet so embarrassed
when she pleased herself—
It’s nothing! Something silly that I like!
Only later did I see when it was
shown to me by women in my life that
those black-n-white TV mother/women
only lived in their relationship to men.
I saw my mother try to be herself—
she read, she listened to music and danced
but only when she thought she was alone.
I didn’t know what she was doing.
As a child, then a man (never that far
from one another) I could see things
only in relationship to my needs
she was not meeting.
When she didn’t show an interest in her
two grandchildren, I took offense. I mean,
these are your son’s children! Pay attention
to them! Adore them. Put away that book!
Give your time and thought to them alone!
Defer to me, your son, by making them
the center of this ending to your life.
Sing for them! How rude to do otherwise!
What life have you
that supersedes this obligation?
I’m sorry, Mom, I ever had these thoughts
but glad I never spoke of them to you.
in assisted living she lived only
still scheming toward the few men left alive,
but it was fun, just for her amusement,
echoes of what had once consumed her life.
The happiness I felt for her was healing
to us both, I hope, before the end.
Like other male toxins exiting
my body ’til I die, these oppressions
made me sick inside
but at the time the infection was still
the symptoms—swollen hubris, bloated pride—
I celebrated in male rituals
of casual violence and humor.
I feel now the symptoms of shame—more like
ulcerative colitis, low-grade fever—
that rise when memories strike of being
part of this disease.
I take the purgatives of listening
and quiet reassessment of the heart.
Now I sing as if my mother hears me,
and hear her in my daughter’s lovely voice,
in records of the singers she admired,
in women who are not as silent now
as their mothers were, and in all of us
who sing in the kitchens, yards, and bedrooms
and in the streets of this American
sweet blue dream.