The Photo Album

Adolescence doesn’t wear a smile
in our old photo album –
stares fixated on unseen lint –
distracted, we three sisters,
all reeling from the cold,
unwell, immobilized…

What is absent is the photographer
whose pointed directions critique
each decision – a derisive repetition
that eats at our souls, each girl
wrestling with self-nurture vs
self-annihilation, landing somewhere
in between – mannequin targets
for male abuse…

Oh, I tried to take up arms, rail against
the dominance, the oppression, but
only succeeded in settling for disconnection,
while one sister turned tricks for attention,
the other retreated into full dependency,
her madness, out of date, nevertheless
relevant – despite our tormenter’s death,
the images are permanently recorded
in that old photo album.

The Pact

“What happens after death?”
she asked one Sunday,
her long, thin body stretched
weakly across the settee,
her cousin balancing
his dinner plate at her feet.

Sundays they came together,
all the family, for Grandmother’s
dinners; the warm waft of fresh-
baked pies, the clank of dishes,
voices raised over old farm table.

He shrugged; it was always a concern –
she’d been frail from birth, this girl
he loved, two years younger, but
in every way his peer – said nothing.

“Let’s make a pact!” she blurted
“The first to die will leave a sign.”
“Grandpa’s bells!” They shook on it
and then, with a satisfied grin
she succumbed to sleep.

A more sombre clan gathered mid-week
eyes red and faces pale with the shock of loss –
no smells of warmth to greet them,
just cold platters prepared by church ladies

Slumped bodies, heads leaning close,
sipped tea on the place where she’d lain
that last gathering – no sound of children’s
laughter, the hole too hard to bear.

And when the sound came: metal
clanging on metal, ringing a joyous
clamour, she was the first to see –
Grandpa’s bells stirring – her sign!

She knew then he’d be waiting,
told me so before that last breath
and as I watched her go, I swear
I could hear the far off ringing of bells.

(The Pact was originally published September, 2018. Edited here. Image my own)

Distorted Lenses

My memory of you –
distorted by childish exuberance-
distant and disinterested

Translated vacant eyes
through the lens of my needs
child that I was.

Failed to notice
the aura of defeat,
the battered heart

the robotic responses
masking unbelievable sorrow
missed it all

Till death knocked
and I saw you anew –
adult lenses now fully secured.

Wonder at the fortitude
that kept you upright
the love that served us both.

No fault here –
on either side –
just a bittersweet understanding.

(Distorted Lenses first appeared here August, 2019. Image my own)

Still Travelling

Travelled East
in search of self

Half-family extended
unexpected warmth

Was my identity here
with stranger-brothers?

I contemplated pausing
surrendering to other

But that was sleep-walking

The distance still remains

Journey has no end
till soul has purpose

and wisdom relieves
the wounded child.

(Still Travelling first appeared here July 2020. Edited for this version. Image my own)

Martyr’s Lament 2

I’ve decided, he said, to spend
more time doing what I want to do

I feel the load close in around me,
already burdened by his “me” time.

I’ve learned, she said, to look out
for number one; will not be available

Nice, I think, that you have such luxury
while I tend to the children, chase after
my mother’s needs, hold down the fort.

Take time for yourself – interesting counsel
when responsibility is so ingrained, and
self-care comes across as selfish.

Have so long ago erased personal interests,
will have to shop around to find what it is
that would allow me to abandon obligations.

Childhood Home

The place remains in my dreams
like a movie set preserved…

Have assigned each room
a critique – disclosed the crimes

Yet, it remains, like a beacon
draws me to it, begs reflection

What if I could go back
now that I can breathe

Now that I’ve laid claim to maturity;
would I discover a sudden windfall?

Makeover conditioned motifs;
reevaluate ceiling heights?

With resources to remodel
heart open, connected

might I uncover abundance
like a personal embrace.

(Childhood Home first appeared May, 2020. Image my own)

They’re Just Family, After All

In anticipation of guests,
the hostess – always bent
on pleasing – carefully selects
the script, ascribes roles,
envisions an afternoon
of light repartee, peppered
with philosophical pondering –
satisfactory entertainment.

They’re just family, after all,
she tells herself, confident
in the outcome, fatally smug.

Crowd arriving, she fails
to read disinterest in eyes,
politely attempts to orchestrate
interactions, while they cast about,
calculating, shunning protocols
of etiquette, dispersing in
an unsettling way, then returning,
savagely encircling their prey.

They’re just family, after all,
she tells herself, panic rising,
confusion overriding confidence.

Unprepared to defend herself –
bears no arms but the giving type –
she ducks, grasps, attempts
retreat from the onslaught
of vindictive agendas, but the wall
of stored grievances, spotlighting
a history of injustices, corners
her, hopelessness in its wake.

They’re just family, after all,
she tells herself, knowing
full well the legacy of pain.

It’s friends, in the end,
who save her – a surefooted
cavalry, bearing the swords of
understanding, compassion
their war cry – reigning in the
once-invited, now betraying
guests – objective hearts
demanding an end to the fray.

They’re just family, after all,
she tells them, tells herself,
composure a mere thread.

Tables turned, the offenders
now plead for forgiveness,
beg for help, pretend the slights
were unintentional, harmless,
expect their hostess to step
over the bloodied and slain bits
of herself, and with benevolence,
restore her love for them again.

They’re just family, after all,
she says weakly, the torn script
of her expectations scattered.

(My art, entitled She Stands In the Middle of It All. This poem first appeared May, 2016)

Perfect

I’m being a good girl, Dad
Staying out of sight
Keeping my needs to a minimum
Promise I don’t cry, Dad.

I’m being a good wife, Dad
Cooking all his favourites
Letting him walk ahead
Never uttering a peep, Dad

I’m a perfect background wife, Dad
Just like you taught me; just like Mom
Only no one has to hit me to make me
behave, Dad; I learned it good from you.

(Image my own)

If I Were a Kitchen

If I were a kitchen,
I’d want an old-fashioned woman
at my counters – rolling dough
canning pickles, chutney, jam,
homemade pasta sauce,
and every Sunday, a roast.
She’d wear her sweat like a saint,
ignore her aching back –
one practiced hand feeding
her Carnation baby, while
other children flocked to Formica,
hot flesh sticking to vinyl
as they picked at fresh made
sweet buns, the pot on the stove
perpetually simmering.

Or give me modern efficiency –
ninjas and presses, air fryers
and induction cookers –
let the children belly up
to the breakfast bar, chomp
on veggies and humus, while
cook totes baby in a sling,
and preps bone broth,
strains of Baby Einstein
emitting from a propped up iPad,
while a cellphone vibrates
on granite, and the Keurig
spits out Starbucks Pike.

Just don’t abandon me,
piles of unopened mail,
or tossed aside receipts
company for coffee rings
on my counters.
Please don’t litter my surfaces
with rotting takeout containers, or
dishes caked with processed cheese –
don’t leave my stainless steel sinks
stained, spoiled food reeking
in the refrigerator, traces
of late night mishaps curdling
on the floor; absence of familiar
sounds declaring my presence invalid.

(Rewrite of a rewrite. Image my own)