What I Learned From My Mother
I learned from my mother how to love
the living, to have plenty of vases on hand
in case you have to rush to the hospital
with peonies cut from the lawn, black ants
still stuck to the buds. I learned to save jars
large enough to hold fruit salad for a whole
grieving household, to cube home-canned pears
and peaches, to slice through maroon grape skins
and flick out the sexual seeds with a knife point.
I learned to attend viewing even if I didn’t know
the deceased, to press the moist hands
of the living, to look in their eyes and offer
sympathy, as though I understood loss even then.
I learned that whatever we say means nothing,
what anyone will remember is that we came.
I learned to believe I had the power to ease
awful pains materially like an angel.
Like a doctor, I learned to create
from another’s suffering my own usefulness, and once
you know how to do this, you can never refuse.
To every house you enter, you must offer
healing: a chocolate cake you baked yourself,
the blessing of your voice, your chaste touch.
by Julia Kasdorf
(from her book Sleeping Preacher, 1992)
Julia Kasdorf grew up Mennonite and told stories about her people in Sleeping Preacher (1992). “It’s not a culture of individual reflection or individual identity. It’s not useful to sit around and think about yourself in that world. It’s a world of collective identity, and storytelling is a form of collective writing.” (bio taken from Good Poems, Viking, 2002, ed. Garrison Keillor)