a morning poppy, in memory of my mother

morning poppy

So now I have tokens, left in the event she should return to claim me, in all my imperfections—a child who burned recipes, who resisted sitting on her bed to share details of her life, a life I thought she’d disapprove of, but maybe I would have been surprised.Was I the fairest object of her love all those years when I felt myself homely, lonely, my face too dark, my legs too thick? Did her longing eyes seek me? Was my own birth wondrous to her. I doubt it. She was alone with two young sons, my father at sea, as he would be for so much of my childhood. I’ve searched for her mother, who never returned, who never claimed her in word or deed, but maybe I should have concentrated more on her. Her true heart, her own plain virtue.

At the Foundling Museum, a spyglass, a hairpin, the handle of a penknife. Padlocks, a tiny black hand pierced with a hole for a ribbon, a handful of coins, pierced, notched, worn thin by thumbs stroking, stroking, stored in the archives. I have My Sin, a tweed coat,a memory of Mrs. Nobody on her chair in the kitchen. I have a hole on my sleeve the shape of a heart but no scrap to match it with and the sound of a creek running underground on its way to the sea, with everything of my mother in it, and nothing. I have every regret for the way her life began, and ended, a motherless child, so far, so far from her home, no one looking for her in the listservs, among the dry records of Vital Statistics, no one, no one but me, my face against the glass case of all those unclaimed tokens, those stories begun perhaps in love and ending in sorrow.

–from “Tokens”, published in Euclid’s Orchard, Mother Tongue Publishing, 2017.

“calls back…”


My mother has been dead for nearly five years. I’ve been working on a book about family history — hers, in part; but mostly my father’s mother’s history in Horni Lomna, in what’s now the Czech Republic. Most days I find myself thinking about the strange and wonderful cartography of motherhood. How a small wooden house in a tiny village in the Beskydy Mountains held the girlhood of my father’s mother, spruce trees along the road in front and the slope of the mountains behind. Fruit trees in snow. The sound of churchbells. And how my mother’s mother was unknown to her — my mum was given up at birth to a foster home and raised to think of herself as motherless — and how that first terrible loss shaped her. She told a granddaughter once that she’d only ever wanted to be a mother, as though she needed to fill the emptiness of herself with that function. When I was young, it never seemed enough to me. I wanted more of her, from her. But now I realize — too late — what she gave me and my brothers.

Thou art thy mother’s glass, and she in thee
Calls back the lovely April of her prime:
So thou through windows of thine age shall see
Despite of wrinkles this thy golden time.
But if thou live, remember’d not to be,
Die single, and thine image dies with thee. (Sonnet 3, Shakespeare)

In Toulouse, in March, I dreamed of my mother. I’d been thinking a great deal about geographical loneliness. Not only for a place one has left, often forever (my grandmother never returned to Europe and as far as I know, she had only very sporadic contact with her family there), but also the loneliness we feel when we try to follow the traces our ancestors made across a landscape. A field loved by a child for its birdsong, the scent of plum blossom after a long winter, a tree planted to celebrate a wedding, a birth, an occasion long-forgotten. So the dream of my mother surprised me. She was on a tour, just before heart surgery. I always wanted to travel to France, she said, her eyes glowing as she jostled and joked with her new friends, but no one would ever go with me. She had photographs – a long road leading down to the sea, a restaurant filled with sunlight, a plate of sausage. I held her hand and thought, I have another chance. We went to the restroom together and she was running. Please, Mum, don’t run, I pleaded with her, only half in fun. Please. I don’t want you to die on me!

I wish I’d taken her to France, though I wonder if she truly wanted to go or if the dream came from my own pleasure in the sight of umbrella pines, orange trees, the silvery leaves of olives.  She confessed once, after my father died, that she’d always hoped to go to Greece. I looked at her with such surprise, I remember, because the trips she took were to Reno or Disneyland and once, to Hawaii. Packaged tours, on buses or charter flights. Later she and my father travelled to places he’d been to in the Navy and insisted she’d love: Singapore, Hong Kong, Thailand. I don’t think she did love those trips but my father was persuasive.

I have an album sent to her after her foster sister died. Mostly it’s a record of her foster sister’s life but there are a few early photographs of my mum, aged three, in a garden, or standing by some stairs. She is chubby and dark-haired. So far away in time, in geography — she grew up in Halifax. But somehow curiously present (“Thou art thy mother’s glass, and she in thee…”).