5 Poems by Julia Wendell
was her signature musk-mint
I hid behind, counting mallards: 35, 36, 37—
my mother calling to me across Applebrook’s pond,
counting her ducklings—three of us,
bustled into the station wagon,
bound for our northern home
where the green, waxy bush couldn't grow.
I spy something with my own little eye—
my father leaned into my small shoulder—
something that begins with B—
and I believed him.
Who planted it at grandmother’s graveside,
as if she could be reduced to a single something—
photograph, recipe, poem—or a bush
to signify and flourish
just above the surface of memory.
I am always sitting at my mother’s
when I think of him,
the iris or Arthurian or calla bouquet
poised voluminously on its
center of the table throne,
obscuring the face
on the other side.
Growing up, I could feel
my older, silent brother there,
still such a long way down,
where darkness begins.
Tonight, Jack sits bearded and flip-flopped,
with an English driving cap covering
his greasy, shoulder-length black hair.
We have just driven
from Iowa to western Pennsylvania
in my MG Midget—top down and singing along
to the Talking Heads for a thousand miles,
which did nothing for our do’s—
I’ve pulled mine back, he wears his hat.
I can’t discern his furrowed brow
through the crowd
of chrysanthemums and candelabras
the size of small pillars,
as my father--too soon after
the Russian River toast--warns him
to register for the draft,
his duty as a citizen.
I hear the ensuing argument,
the thump and slide
of chairs pulled back,
as my father and lover retreat
from our holiday table.
I think Viet Nam
provoked their angers,
which flare and then subside
when my mother calls them back
from their scuffle in the hallway
for Kahlua mousse.
Now the bouquet of memory
has thinned, silver polished
and put away for good,
I see it was the stupid hat.
How could anyone—
particularly the one who’d won
the attentions of his only daughter—
wear his hat to dinner?
What kind of background must he have?—
I hear my mother ask,
a word she often used,
as if we were gelatin defined
by the mold we were poured into.
It never mattered
if we couldn’t see each other,
but we had to come from class.
We began every meal
at Mother’s bidding:
bowing our heads
to recite the Lord’s Prayer,
though it had little to do
with who we were
or where we wanted to trespass--
a formula for good behavior
we abided by
at Mother’s imperious supper.
If she dies on Monday,
we’ll bury her on Friday, my father predicted,
a different day each day she didn’t go.
The choir of nurses increased the morphine.
But if she dies on Wednesday, the 4th
will get in our way, my father corrected,
as if distressed by the hypothetical postponement.
That year, the town planned to blow up
one of its obsolete bridges
as part of the fireworks display.
She had been dying for so long,
we almost wanted
to get it over with.
Plus, I have to get back to the farm,
I whispered in my mother’s blind ear.
Surely, she would last another week.
She’s taken a turn for the worse,
my father advised, as I pulled into a gas station
in Shrewsbury, thirty miles from my life,
as if there could be any worse turn
than what she had already navigated.
I ran through my doorway to grab the ringing
phone, my father’s hoarse voice cracking,
Your mother died just a minute ago.
Just a minute ago.
Sit still, she’d admonish me
in church, as I fidgeted
in bobby socks and cotton pinafore,
on the red velvet cushion,
my knobby knees tucked up
under my skirt,
as I fiddled away the excruciating hour
of droning hymns and hope.
You’ll regret it some day,
her pointer to lips would say.
Until We Meet Again
My job each Christmas Eve:
placing fifty crooked candles on their stems,
dripping thimblefuls of wax, then holding
each in place, until it sticks,
standing straight on its own.
If I begin mid-afternoon,
as flakes start to sprinkle
from their shaker of Pennsylvania sky,
I’ll be ready for the ghosts’ arrival:
The women wearing Christmas red,
the men in tuxes with crimson
bow tie exclamations,
all at least a decade dead,
and excited for another
of Marian’s parties to begin.
Uncle Bud places the diamond stylus
on the opening bars of La Traviata.
He sings along,
but will soon succumb to heart failure,
warbling long-distance to his British mistress.
Nanny holds court on the settee,
the key to the liquor closet
tucked safely in her velvet pocket.
She never learned to trust us.
Gammy’s knitting by the fire. She boasts
the world’s most delicious water—
the gurgling cooler in her basement farm kitchen.
The tiny, triangular paper cups
never held enough.
Father Baker swirling cognac by the fire.
I remember him routinely
miscalculating the amount of sacramental wine,
so he’d have to tip his head back
and drain the holy chalice.
His hands shook as he placed the wafer
on my tongue.
I use foot-long fireplace matches,
pressured to complete the lighting
in time for everyone to be seated,
ceiling lights snuffed,
Mother at table’s head,
feeling more beautiful in vaguer light,
as Clarence serves Clams Casino
on pewter plates the span of bushel baskets.
Marian in her last year,
slumped in a Bishop’s chair,
advising me not to bother with the candles—
they could not be lit in time.
How could it matter what she looks like now?
She grimaces at the camera,
posing one last time for future guests—
smiling now too much for her,
and her love of flickering
extinguished—but not mine.
I climb my farmhouse steps,
so many Christmases after my mother’s,
met by the only lights
blooming through dark windows,
the telltale candelabra.
Walking the Dogs
When I could no longer see
out of my right eye,
I kept it closed, resigned
to the vision I had left.
The circumference of my world
was cut in half
and I had to turn my head
90 degrees, to see Hawaii and Japan
or the verso of any page.
The specialist reassured me
that the bloody Rorschach stain
would resolve over time.
But I knew better.
I struggled with stronger glasses,
an eye patch, a focused reading lamp,
all in an effort
to see the way I used to
before succumbing to the good enough.
Catching the last hour
of sunlight with the dogs, who cares
if it gets too dark to see
as we Braille our way
past the property line
to the Halle’s beckoning pond.
Even ancient Daisy Crossy-Paws
whose hocks barely bend
through the vagaries of dusk.
A crimson strip of sky
guides our way
to the chatter of corn stalks
on one side and the hush
of pond water on the other.
The dogs pad out
onto the broken dock
and through the sentries of willow reeds.
I hear them easing in,
hear their accumulative stroking,
patches of inky pond scum parting,
and the last smidge of light clicking off
as they disappear through the lens of water
and head for Micronesia.
Julia Wendell’s most recent book of poems is The Sorry Flowers (Word Tech Press, 2009), plus a memoir that same year from galileo press--Finding My Distance: A Year in the Life of a Three-day Event Rider. She is currently looking for a publisher for her new food-poem manuscript, Take This Spoon, which addresses all kinds of addictions, particularly to food and cooking and family. She still rides and competes her horses when she’s not writing poems. She lives with the incomparable poet, Barrett Warner, on 83 acres in northern B-More County.