Sunday, September 18, 2011

The Pain of Water

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
and screeches.

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.


  1. oh my charles..this brought tears to my paint such a vivid picture of her...Only with hands in water, washing
    the night's dishes, did grief wet her throat....and then those last stanza...for those that never cry for all the suffering and sadness, she must have been a remarkable woman...fine, fine write..

  2. a beautiful piece throughout, wonderful character sketch, strong last stanza

  3. There is something humbling about how grief etches itself upon the faces of those we love. You paint a beautifully vivid portrait of her--the hardness of her life, the vulnerability of her grief--wonderful piece of work!

  4. man you spun this so well...and took your time with the imagery in the opening as i was there and then the emotive...i hope to one day capture something as beautiful to give to my mom...she is am sure would be proud...smiles...

  5. She was a strong woman Charles. To be able to withstand the life she had with her husband and to remain strong and unbroken by it all. She was quite a woman. You painted her so well, I could almost see her at the sink, stifling her tears.
    The imagery all through this is amazing. I'm sure she sees it and, she smiles.

  6. An epic piece which speaks of a generation made of strong stoic stuff. A generation which forms the foundation for the rest of us and so much to learn from women like your grandmother. Nicely done.

  7. Charles--so, so beautiful. A wonderful portrait--I think it was the times; it could have been a picture of my grandmother as well.

    and the washing and the soap.....I've been think of fuller's soap, that mentioned in Scripture, how our sins are wiped out by the love of God and his Son's obedience on the cross...

  8. Wow. Amazing imagery, emotional words, and a capture of that sense, of when things are dragged from subconscious depths, without warning.

    Great, great work.

  9. This is so tender. I could see her, feel her grief and admire her strength. You depict her beautifully. She deserves it.

  10. A truly wonderful poem, Charles. So sad, vivid. You manage the mix of present, past, the different waters and washings, the different waves and submergences so incredibly well here. A beautiful portrait, poem, content and presentation each supreme. k.

  11. Beautiful portraiture intermingled with your randomized life and death seascape tableau--the comparison is helpful in seeing how multitudinous are our lives, how blended our sorrows, and the mindless tasks, the tasks that exist merely to create order enough to power yet more tasks, are the deepest sort of meditation sometimes, when the mind is freest to think and feel what it hides from itself. Your final stanza has the metaphysics and hope I've come to expect from your writing. I feel part of the flotsam shrine, even if I'm only a rusty piece of wire.

  12. I'll long remember this one, Chaz...cuz I'm still crying very touching this is. Your grandmother represents so many women of her era, and even now...who allow themselves tears only in private moments with the simple soothing and healing of little tasks..water, scrubbing, cleaning. The quiet, humble strength, integrity of handling her tasks, most touching. The poem beautifully crafted and visual. Thank you for sharing this most touching and memorable piece!

  13. Yes, surely there is a place for such a wonderful, and empathetic person as a Grandmother

  14. For those who never cry for themselves...Charles, I think your grandma and my grandma have probably connected in the ether...I feel they would be kindred spirits...mind you, I've yet to find the strength to write of mine...that will be a hard one when it comes. To you I bow...and request a tissue

  15. Your grandmother was centred by that water. Those dishes were her anchor,a constant,a predictable, a safe place to release her tears and grief. I understand that.

  16. Chaz, this was one of the most touching poems I've read in awhile. The cries of the birds, the whimper of your grandma... As Cressida said, it was her safe place, and sometimes the routine tasks allow us to dwell on other things, be they happy or sorrowful. I really feel for her, and I hope she is happily attached to Heaven. Your memories of her jumped off the page, and I had no idea that was where you were going with this... beautiful. Peace, Amy

  17. I can see your grandmother so vividly....a woman.

  18. A loving tribute no doubt to your grandmother. You capture the moments. I see them clearly. Particularly liked beginning paragraph. Enjoy your work. :-)

  19. Beautiful. I was thinking on my grandmother a moment ago! Thank you! :))))))))