for Bernice Eisenhardt Miller
A dismantled pier. Green pylons cut down
to the nub. The estuary that supports it
with boulders, rocks, and concrete slabs caked
with algae and encased
in barnacles, clams, and living
snails I try to unstick to see if they're alive.
The sound of viscous suction stops me,
suddenly afraid if I pull too hard I'll kill it.
Wedged between two rocks are brittle, gray
remnants of a large snail.
At low tide in the afternoon on the Sound,
rocks recently underwater jut from lapping waves.
On the more exposed perches gulls stand sentry.
Gulls and crows battle for crabs, dead stingrays,
and the clams that the gulls dig from between stones.
They fly above and drop them on the sand and pebbles below,
then circle back to pry open and jimmy meat from inside.
At times one of the birds opens its beak to the wind
I think about those cries
my grandmother whimpered washing dishes.
Plaintive, infinitely fragile, muffled,
years-long sobs for her dead granddaughter, my sister.
And I don't know what primeval humor the water emitted
to draw forth that agony when so much
other pain had left her stoic, inured
to the laceration and sting
of farm life, hard life, life. A cry
even having her femaleness
carved out to save her from cancer did not disclose.
Nor the dirt cold brutality of my grandfather.
Tears did not rain from the distress of my father's schizophrenia.
Only with hands in water, washing
the night's dishes, did grief wet her throat.
She lived like she believed; hard work and sweat made
a life somewhere else possible. She used a ringer
and washboard to do the clothes, even when there was money
to buy an automatic washer. Her wash hung
like lightning on the metal line strung
near the spring house, each piece softer
when she scrubbed it by hand.
In their marriage photograph she stands strong,
tough, hard, with little emotion showing.
This was nervousness before the camera. Dressed in
her mail order coat and hat, with pocketbook, she stands
next to him, maybe hours after the ceremony. It's winter.
Fur on her collar. There's
solemnity even there, a simple desire to do her duty, have children, work, and prove
her faith in the man beside her, after starting so late.
For she was not pretty and the man liked pretty women.
Determination, also, willful and brave, to touch
the world and make it grow, even out of
death, the way she did with plants and in her garden.
At the shore, a swan sails with a wing to the shoreline breeze
and I follow it eastward. There,
near the sunken meadow and marsh pond,
a bevy of swans float like saints,
elegant necks snaking into the water and snagging
bits of seaweed and kelp.
Ducks dive for fish.
Next to the stream,
someone has sculpted sea trash,
rusty wire coiling, plastic bottles, styrofoam
buoys, old pipes, dried stingray shells, crabs,
rocks, pebbles, and vegetation into a shrine.
The Hasidic masters picture God as a washer woman
with soapy hands and grainy washboard.
On the last day, she rubs stains from the cloth
the soul is. If there is heaven, it exists to reward
those like my grandmother. For those who never cry for themselves,
but for those innocents cut down early,
and without reason.
copyright 2011 Charles David Miller. All rights reserved.
Sunday, September 18, 2011
The Pain of Water
for Bernice Eisenhardt Miller