For my mother, who taught me everything I know about making something from nothing
My mama’s mama was crazy as a betsy bug,
throwing herself down the farmhouse stairs (I tripped),
stabbing her forearm with a fork (I stumbled),
screaming, Look at me, God damn it!--all eyes
(husband, son, five daughters) on her,
waiting for the nerves to settle.
Middle sisters, just as crazy with the nerves,
touting lies about the others, seeing what would stick, anticipating
how much detritus they could leave hanging in the air
like one more August central-Illinois stagnant afternoon,
mama’s mama sitting back, cackling, enjoying the show.
Baby sister the dangerous one,
town tramp in kitten heels and cigarette pants; this baby sister
who took after my mama’s mama in the worse way
would one day point a six shooter in my mama’s face,
for you don’t take another woman’s man, even if that taking is all in your crazy head.
Mama, a Christmas baby, never a birthday gift
or cake while in her crazy mama’s house—
You think you’re special? You’re not special.
All she dreamed of was a strawberry cake,
her favorite, because it meant someone loved her enough
to search out the best strawberries for a cake to call her own.
A son, the oldest, steadfast, serious,
lying that he was sixteen when
he asked the boss at Caterpillar for a job— he’d already had his fill
of a crazy mother and a confounded father.
Mama missed her big brother, dreamed of slipping
out the back door, smashing through the tiger lilies and
into the woods--gone, poof,
build a new life from the dirt up.
Mama turned fifteen and out that door she went,
took to waitressing in the next town over,
scrubbing and polishing her brother’s house,
a clean neither of them had ever seen before. They were happy
in this quiet little house away from all the crazy,
where mama’s mama and sisters weren’t allowed, save
big brother meeting them with a shotgun at the end of the drive.
Then one fall night my daddy came up to her at a VFW dance.
Seven years of one false start after another,
until I was the one to finally hold on tight,
hollering my way into the world.
Daddy farmed, mama at a hot factory where she became
union president and got a gold pen when she retired 43 years later. . .
—and quicksand memories of
growing up among the bean fields, shrinking from
the shouting and finger-pointing over ghost injustices and outright lies--
these memories slowly returned to the black earth
as mama’s mama and one sister after another died.
Decades later, mama told me how she’d pray
over my sleeping baby body every night-- that I’d be tough like her,
no brittle dangerousness just under my skin.
L Mari Harris lives in Nebraska, where cattle outnumber people 4 to 1. She’s ok with that. Follow her @LMariHarris.