In your obituary I concluded, “Muriel lives on in…”
and went on to name myself, my two brothers,
and your eleven grandchildren. I may have been thinking
of Pasternak who said something like our life
in others is our immortality, or I may have just been
looking for a way to make your life continue
even as I announced that it was already finished.
Well, mother, I confess, if your life continued
in mine, I have been wasting it. I’ve forgotten
what you taught me: how, despite whatever may be
happening, one gets up and gets going.
Cook something. Do the dishes. Take a walk
to the pond. Clean your closet. Fix the faucet.
You never suggested or asked. You ordered.
Once, on a late Sunday afternoon, the dread
of school overtaking my childhood self, I was
lying around on the living room rug, like the sullen
lodged in the mud of Dante’s Inferno, complaining
about how I was bored, bored, bored,
when you slapped me, and told me to get my coat
and go outside. Late autumn, the trees empty
of leaves, everything brown and gray, I gathered
a pail full of fallen crabapples—the task you’d given
me to complete—then began to throw them hard
at the trunks of trees in the adjacent empty lot,
loving the pulpy thwack and the way those apples
that struck home left a dripping mark. I didn’t want
to stop. I was punishing those trees the way you had
punished me, but soon I wasn’t thinking anything
at all. I was breathing fast, and I was sitting
on the cold ground, and the pail was empty,
and I was hearing the silence that comes after,
and I swear, I could feel the pinks and grays
of the sky inside my body, the sunset turning
the day holy, but that must have had more
to do with what I’d done, which was hardly anything
more than complete a simple task, like this poem,
mother, which I’ve ordered myself to write
because I didn’t know what else to do.
Robert Cording is the winner of two NEA Fellowships, and Professor Emeritus at College of the Holy Cross. He has published eight collections of poems, including Walking with Ruskin, runner-up for the Poets’ Prize, and and his latest, Only So Far (2015).