New York, 1927
This time it’s true, as much as I remember
from what she told me. How she gave birth
in their tenement and it took nearly two days.
In America she was Mary, always Mary,
all those hours begging her namesake
for help, the midwife muttering about
going home, thinking this one’s dead, with
the baby wedged between her narrow hips,
a cross on the wall, her fingers gripping
the sheets. Years later I understood
what she means. How she drifted
in and out, like being on a boat in fog,
rowing, drifting, but called away from
everyone she knew toward a wilderness.
As if she had to go out alone to meet
the child and bring him through not just
with her body, but some other part of her
searching at the same time. Of course
she prayed, she knew what it smelled like
to be that close to death and she wanted to live,
to get the baby out alive, her first-born
who unlocked her for the others.
In the next room her husband and his father
heard the child cry and could finally feel
their own sickness and fear overtaking them.
Maybe they’d been drinking, or maybe it was
her father-in-law’s red hair startling her
as he came into the bedroom just when
a familiar darkness began refilling her belly.
His eyes looked wild with confusion for
his first grandson and though she knew
she was alive, he looked strange
to her as a being from the other world
and put his hands into his pockets and pulled
the cloth out so all his money fell—no
she said he threw it—onto her bed,
silver coins landing around her legs,
the white insides of his pockets flapping
out like tiny wings as his hips. He called in
all his sons—my stunned grandfather
and his unmarried brothers—and pointed
to my father sleeping on the bed all
washed and wrapped in white by
the midwife. Now, he told the men,
you work only for him.
From GLORYLAND (Alice James Books, 2005)