Thinking of My Mother Growing Old


It’s not enough that we lock the door,
but we must check that we did,
as mother modeled, pull and turn
then rattle the knob until convinced the
house is safe in our absence.
All must be checked: appliances
to stovetop burners, windows because
there is a chance of robbery or rain,
lamps and switches every room —
except one light, pivotal in this
ritual, left on to fool the neighbors.
Forgoing patience, she anticipates
the unexpected turns, two ready
hands to do her family’s will
and two sure feet to lead us
through life’s trying course.
There is no stopping her
insistence, a whistling kettle
that will roust regrets
before they settle in the heart.

Getting in Tune


At the back of the junkyard
Lies a neat double row of cars totaled in accidents
Towed in on flatbeds and winched down
With precision, nose to nose and three feet apart.

Each one, at its time, took a terrible hit
Each has its own story to tell:
A windshield starred by a forehead
A hood contorted to a cleft-palate grin
A Cadillac with a pristine grill, but
The rear bumper in the back seat.

I walk among these beautiful machines, artifacts
Of a hundred years’ automotive evolution
… Brought to such a pass

Tattered shards of metal
Rusting at the back of an old lot
Fronted by a converted school bus for an office
And a dismal row of colored plastic pennants.

They remind me of the places
My choral group sang at last Christmas:
The VA hospital, the nursing home,
The mental hospital, the penitentiary.

Tucked into forgettable corners of the city
The human junkyards, underfunded
Understaffed, short on everything
But drugs.These are our report card.

Our performances were sloppy,
They were our rehearsals
For the state competition in January.
The conductor said, “If you have to make mistakes
Make them where it doesn’t matter.”

Of course we didn’t let on
To the audience that they didn’t matter
But somehow I think they knew.

Observations on the Subway


In warm weather we sit stilted in
the small islands of our seats,
separated like gourmet chocolates
in compartmented trays.We cross
our legs, guard our space, and suffer
headaches from the dizzying blend
of deodorants and perfumes.
We avoid eye contact with faces
across the aisle the way rotting tulip
bulbs hide from the sun.
But in winter, padded coats
and thick clothes break down
the invisible barriers the way snow
melts on train tracks. Shoulders press
together.The mere turning
of a newspaper page causes
an elbow jab into a neighbor’s
quilted ribs — but it’s comforting —
this impromptu human contact.
The gates of our hearts unlatch.

Fitting Passage


What cargo awaits
  the train shunted
    into this kind of siding
      in the middle of the night?
A lone locomotive
  coupled with odd
    numbered cars
      chugs ahead.
Clear signals keep it on track,
  right from wrong
    seen as red or green.

The master in charge of the yard
  works long, late hours
    making haul choices.
Loading starts at whistle stop,
  ends in time
    for the likes of dawn.
On his darkest watch,
  no train can come
    and go, empty.

Made in Heaven


I’m riding the bus, listless, looking at
storefronts, cars, and people — my
eyes dull as a parrot that’s been
in a pet shop window for way too long.
Thoughts on what to do when I get home:
Online chess? Discovery Channel?
Bowl of chili? At a stop near the park
I see a homeless man — his face
tanned brown as a chestnut —
on a bench with pant legs rolled up
revealing dirt-crusted feet stuffed
in sandals. His cap has the phrase —
Made in Heaven. He raises his eyes
and looks at me. Pure light pours
from his eyes into mine, burning.
In my mind a campfire is lit. I sit
on a log sharing hard-crusted bread
and a bottle of wine with strangers.



Beautiful way to drop the tip of colors,
for the beginning of a written talk,
to convey emotions leaving an important element
… and see the evening twilight to become
(and, in our hearts,
good reasons to remember).
The ink.

Planting Cone-Flower Seeds


I hadn’t seen an earthworm in at least
ten years the way we, walking to
St. Benedict’s Elementary School
in Chicago, used to first smell iron
— rain or worms we never knew — then
look down to see worms wiggling on
the flat pavement in rainbow puddles
(I always thought they came up
through the cracks, maybe they did)
and later we dissected them in biology
class, the smell of formaldehyde as
unforgettable as pot roast simmering
for Sunday dinner as we studied our
phylum for earthworms: Annelida,
at the dining room table until Mother
called us to set it with the best cutlery.

Now, I kneel uncharacteristically to turn
the crumbly clay that worms have processed
through their digestive systems into sweet,
rich soil beside the farmhouse that we’re
renovating and plant the slivered seeds
that Kathy gave me. Again, I see the fat
earthworms wiggling as regularly as black
olives lay inert in a glass bowl at Thanksgiving.
I know that next summer the purple blossoms
will grow petaled in the afternoon shelter
of the red shingled house that radiates
the constant sun in the morning.