My mother always says yes
Gives her house keys away for the weekend,
makes up the bed for anyone in town,
rolls out trays of cheese and crackers,
gives pizza to the piano students before the lesson.
For years, the driveway was darkened by other people's cars,
the television by small, unwelcome heads.
We parked in the street and fumed up the stairs.
So at 35 I practice saying No when my sister asks me to trek
across the country with two giant Halloween spiders.
My mother lends me a suitcase, the spiders already inside.
Laid flat they take up no room, she says.
I wonder if I could take up less room.
At my sister's house, the spiders creep up
the still-warm bricks. At my sister's house,
all my Nos eye me in the dark.
I never saw my mother on a hike
My father dreams about the coast,
dreams about the shoreline
with its crisp, dry air. Takes photos
of lakes and ocean. Never river or stream.
He never liked to hike or camp,
so I never saw my mother
in a shower of golden leaves,
my mother shaking down a stick
or walking by a stream until now.
My mother manages the trees,
the jagged, unruly branches.
Tries to quicken a mucky flow with her foot.
When a tree branch falls into
the muddy trail she tries to lift it.
She always loved a clear path,
a straight way forward.
My mother tells me to enjoy
On Fridays, she and my father go out to eat.
She orders one of everything for half-price.
It’s time to try bowls of mussels
cracked open mid-sigh, snaked ridges of sushi,
crusted rings and squiggles of calamari.
She watches me as I take a bite,
tells me Things can still be good
though I notice only the edges of things,
the saltiness, the sweetness,
never the substance. I gaze at
the blankness of the open balcony,
I wonder how to enjoy with such gusto,
how to find anything succulent.
I eat smile nod. I try to cheer up.
She makes me show up show up show up.
My mother doesn't understand tears
I've never seen her cry or be sick,
just once her face gone gray behind the door.
My mother doesn't know weakness.
At the end of a piano recital,
she slaps each child on the back
declares We've got work to do.
Now when she slaps me on the back
I think I need to toughen up.
Maybe all those times I said No
with the fierce blankness of tears,
she never saw me cry, saw only
the work, the open sheets of music.
Each time I think I've made my last
refusal, I sit on the bench and play.
My mother scolds me for what?
When she gets a mischievous gleam in her eye
and looks like she's about to tell me a secret,
I know what she's about to say.
My sigh is hers. My laugh is hers.
The way I swear under my breath is hers.
I speak with my grandmother's voice,
a speech I know I must have forgotten,
and yet in the imprint of my brain
is my grandmother muttering Goodnight
as a curse plus a hail of unchoice words.
Even the way I hunch with worry,
shake my head in grief, or clench the steering,
chest pressed practically to the wheel
is hers hers hers. My mother's just here to say it.
Esther Sadoff is a teacher and writer from Columbus, Ohio. Her poems have been featured or are forthcoming in Pidgeonholes, Red Ogre Review, Santa Clara Review, Wild Roof Journal, Drunk Monkeys, Roanoke Review, South Florida Poetry Journal, among others. She is also a poetry reader for Passengers Journal.