Published on November 14th, 2023 | by Rebecca Brenner2
My Mother’s Poetry
Nine of my mother’s poems lay spread across the kitchen table.
I know these poems now by heart.
Twenty years ago, when my mother died from substance abuse disorder at the beginning of the opioid crisis, I inherited a Washington Apples box full of her unpublished poetry, journals, and short stories. I couldn’t open it, even debated, for a few of those first years, throwing her writing away or setting it aflame in a makeshift ritual of release. I was too afraid of what I would find. Too afraid of my own anger. Too afraid of my grief.
I was only twenty-five when she died. Most of my young life, I watched her struggle with alcohol and drugs. Held her hair her when she was sick. Picked up prescriptions at the pharmacy. Cheered her on the few years she was able to stay sober. As a child, then young adult, all I could see was the addiction. How it stole her wit, her sense of humor, her light. I naively believed, then, that it was purely a struggle of will.
When I became a mom six years later, gripped by postpartum anxiety and desperate for guidance, I felt haunted by the Washington Apples box still in the back of my closet. Could feel it calling me late at night, pulsing my chest electric, like somehow it was proof that she was there with me. A persistent sense I had had since my daughter’s birth. But I ignored it, rationalized it away as simply longing.
Then, late one night as a new sleepless mom, I went for the box. On top of all of her journals was a small chapbook of her poems titled In Flight. With a long exhale, I tucked my legs under one another, smoothed my palm across the thin layer of dust on the top, and slowly started to read the first poem, Prefaces.
Sometimes instead of reaching
for what’s ahead, I’m pulled
back to wanting the best of
1944 My mother’s black and white wedding
picture. Her smile, so expressive, so familiar,
so like my own. She seemed to realize her dreams
in that moment. I would hope that your
chapters were as wonderful as your preface
seemed to be, mom, except I lived them
At first, it was simultaneously devastating and relieving to speak my mother’s poems. Reading them, I could catch the rhythm of how she spoke. How she would accentuate some words and swallow others. In the coming years, I would run my fingers over each word and read them several times over, trying to catch the tone and pitch of her voice. The more I read them, the more I could see the world from her perspective.
Poems have a way of doing this — they alter how we see someone or something. They call forward being and presence in the poet and the reader. And they have an immediacy and clearness that help us to see unflinchingly.
Since opening the box over a decade ago, I have been trying to find a way to tell her story, our story — a memoir in verse, a more traditional non-fiction book on addiction and legacy, my own poems in response to hers, now a novel. With each iteration, I see something more in her words, something I was unable or unwilling to see before. It was like this when she was alive, too — I so badly wanted her to be well that I had trouble seeing her clearly. Thought my desperation was love.
This morning, I pull forward her poem Two Little Girls and read slowly.
As I sit watching this child
I remember another eleven-year-old
Frightened and gangly
She hid. Trembling in closets among big shoes.
It’s early on a weekday morning, and I hear my two children, B, twelve, and E, ten, upstairs starting to stir. The rising sun spills a soft pink and purple across the kitchen.
Pushing away from the table, I put the kettle on, pull a mug down for my green tea and two smaller mugs for hot chocolate.
Back at the table, I lift my mother’s poem, Balph Park, closer to my face and pull my reading glasses down from my head.
At five years of age
she clutched Raggedy Ann books
under her skinny arm.
She climbed an old tree,
perched unnoticed on a garage roof
She was free and happy there.
No harsh voices.
No bound wrists.
No stinging belts.
Bound wrists. Stinging belts. Words that I have found repeatedly throughout her writing, slowly piecing together what happened to her. No matter how many times I read them, my heart aches. I can’t help but think of her not as my mother, but as a child like my own, by herself seeking moments of safety.
I place the poem back on the table when I hear B rush down the stairs, past the kitchen to the laundry room searching for her favorite sweatshirt. Pulling it over her wet hair, next to me now, I say, “Good morning, Sweat Pea,” and place a mug of hot chocolate in front of her. She grabs a few mini-marshmallows from the bag and sprinkles them into her mug, whispering a sleepy “Hi, Mom” as she picks up the poem The Doll Mother with her other hand.
The first few lines flash through my mind.
Their friendly eyes witnessed
Too painful for young dollies to see
She felt sorry for them
And comforted them
And loved them through it.
My first impulse is to tell her to put it down. My mother bared stories of her childhood and her own mother. And talking about my mom, her grandmother, means talking about addiction, abuse, and trauma. All things that seem too heavy to share with a child. All things that make my eyes well and my voice shaky.
But I hold back. Instead, I let her read the poem uninterrupted. I don’t jump in to interpret it for her or try to save her from the harsher images. Instead, I remind myself that my mother’s story is also hers. That it’s natural to want to restore the living connection with all of those that came before.
I felt this even when my mother was alive. I always wanted to know more. Why was she so sad? Why was her relationship with my grandmother so strained? And now B is starting to form similar questions about her grandmother. She has watched me sort through, organize, and write this project for most of her life. Being honest with her about her grandmother seems the only genuine way forward.
B puts the poem back on the table, sips her hot chocolate, and says, “She must have been a good mom.”
Surprised, I ask, “Why do you think that?”
“I can tell because of how well she loved her dolls.”
My eyes well, and I nod. “She was a good mom. She would have really loved you.”
I think of those first shaky months of being a new mom. How when I needed support and turned towards the box, what I found instead was how her addiction covered a history of abuse by a close family member at a time when there wasn’t much support for such things. And how she kept it to herself her entire life, only sharing glimpses of it in her poems. My mother wasn’t just an addict or someone who lost control. She was an abused child who was never given the resources or the opportunity to heal. With each poem read, each journal sorted, my anger slowly turned to a deep well of grief. Over many years, that feeling warmed into a dawning compassion, not only for her, but for everyone touched by addiction.
I don’t know how our story and poems will be received yet, or really, if they ever will. But, in most ways, it doesn’t even matter. As a new mom, my mother’s poems opened a wound I’d been avoiding since her death. Reading them and shaping them into a story over the past decade has helped me face our family’s history and reconstruct my life story to become a better mom.
And now my mother’s poems, and my own, are part of my children’s story, too. I have printed each iteration and placed them with my mother’s writing in the Washington Apples box. Maybe someday they will cut them up into their own poetry. Sing them over a melody. Dance them through their bones. Speak them to an audience. Or just tuck them safely onto a shelf in the back of a closet. What each of them does with the poems is up to them.
E is now down in the kitchen with us. His hair is a messy mop. I run my fingers through his thick curls as he leans into me. I have a flash of my mother there with us at the kitchen table, in her red and green flannel nightgown, dark brown bob framing her face, perfectly manicured nails with a Salem Light between her pointer and index finger. She smiles at me and instead of rationalizing her presence away, I smile back.
B says, “I like this one.”
I say, “Read me the last part.”
At the beginning: “Ah, what’s he know, he’s just a kid.”
At the end: “Pay no attention to Grandma. She’s a little senile.”
Some truth to this in many cases, no doubt.
But all damning brooms sweep away
much treasure too often.
Hearing my daughter speak my mother’s words, I remind myself that the foundation of talking is listening. I was the one who taught her to speak. And I, too, shaped my little tongue and lips and toothless gums to make the words my mother taught me. Her own conditioned perspectives — influenced by family, culture, and circumstance — were given to me through tone, inflection, and rhythm. I see now, this is how it works. We shape each other’s soft, fleshy bodies and minds with our words and thoughts and ideas. And these words can poison or nourish us.
E says, “I like the image of the broom.”
I say, “Me, too,” glad I didn’t throw away her poems.
I pull E in closer for a hug, full of gratitude that my mother is there with us around the messy kitchen table, but he wiggles away towards his hot chocolate and marshmallows. I sip my tea, and think of the last part of that poem.
A powerful combination:
the elderly and the young.
For those with the patience of gold rush miners
Sifting with their ears
Straining through confusion and inexperience
The sun is rising steady now and the morning light shifts from pink to gold across our faces. I turn back to smile again at my mother, but she is gone.