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I Carry My Mother, I Wish My Father

April 2, 2021

Because I’ve been through the death of both my parents, as many people have in the last few years, I was interested in reading a recently published memoir-in-verse entitled I Wish My Father and the companion volume, published in 2015, I Carry My Mother. The poet, Leslea Newman, sent them to me, and I found them to be true to the experience of losing parents to the ravages of old age, as an adult.

The poems about her father’s last years are written in tercets and give us glimpses of what it was like to watch him going from husband to widower, attorney to retiree, driver to passenger, and homeowner to retirement home resident. The poems about her mother use different forms (such as ghazal, sestina, a series of haiku) to give us images of her mother’s last eighteen months, often using language and form to evoke memories of early childhood.

One such memory, for me, is the picture book Are You My Mother? with the image of a little yellow-beaked bird, evoked by one of the “Hospice Haiku”:
“Face mottled and gray
Hands and feet blue and bloated
Are you my mother?”

Another uses the familiar form of Rossetti’s “Who Has Seen the Wind” to ask “Who has seen my mom/neither you nor I:/But when my eyes well up with tears,/My mom is passing by. I like the way the line breaks emphasize the random feeling of grief welling up at moments you don’t always expect it to.

There’s a “This is Just to Say” imitation with an interesting turn in the second stanza:
“Forgive me
for being a daughter
like you
I always rush off
when my mother calls
come home

My favorite of the imitations in this volume is of course the Wallace Stevens one, “Thirteen Ways of Looking at My Mother.” It gets the tone of some of the turns of thought just right. My favorite is this one:
“At the sight of my mother
staring back at me
at three in the morning
from the unforgiving bathroom mirror
I cry out sharply”

The tercets in the volume about her father keep the thoughts moving along too fast for much sentimentality and allow readers to imagine things like how lonely it is to be the one who is the last to know anything about the people in his own wedding photos: “’Who is that?’ he asks….Who indeed? God only knows/but God isn’t saying.”

The image of the poet’s father, broken up every three lines in “My father has his day,” might make readers think of ungainly old men they’ve seen in public:

“bumbling/
from borough to borough

in his wrongly buttoned London Fog
trench coat, the unbuckled belt
dangling to the ground, his hat

askew, his glasses spotted with rain,
grasping his briefcase with one hand
and hanging from the subway strap

with the other as he sways
around the curves of the crowded
train”

It’s an imagined look at a father as if he were any man, in those moments when the daughter can’t be there to help. Similarly, in another poem the father’s daily routine is described; he “thought this routine would last/forever—why wouldn’t it?”

At the end of a poem about finally getting her father to admit he shouldn’t be driving anymore, there’s a feeling of taking over as the adult when the poet gets behind the wheel to drive him home:

“Now my father stares straight

ahead without speaking, and
as I pull into traffic, I remember
a time I really wanted something—

a new toy, a new dress, a new puppy—
something my parents wouldn’t
allow, and my mother saying

the second saddest thing
in the world is not getting
what you want
. I thought

about that and asked her
what’s the first saddest thing?
She looked at me with pity.

Getting what you want, she replied.
I never knew what she meant
By that, but now at last I do.”

Irony and humor soften the inevitable towards the end of the volume. When he’s told that he must move to a retirement home, the father says “I’ll give it a year,” and then the poet reveals that:
“He lasted exactly 11 months
and 27 days.
Always a man of his word.”

In one of the last poems, after telling stories about how he was always early, the poet wonders
“how on earth he would feel
to learn that from this day forth

for all time he will always
and forever be known
as the late Mr. Newman.”

If you’ve lost a parent as an adult, you’ll recognize the feelings evoked by these two volumes, not in their particulars, perhaps (Newman’s mother died first, while my mother went last; her mother had cancer while it was my father) but in the moments. We all have those moments–they make me think about when I see the shape of my father’s concentrating lips as I glance in the rearview mirror while driving or when I spot my mother’s handwriting on a gift tag stuck onto a shoebox in my closet.

Reading these poems gives us the perspective of an adult, something we never become until there are no more parents standing between us and death.

7 Comments leave one →
  1. April 2, 2021 5:22 pm

    I felt these excerpts in my tummy as I read them, that feeling of dread knowing that this is to come for me, one day dealing with my parents dying, sooner rather than later now that I’m almost 44. The poet captures these experiences perfectly, at least in my anxious imagination.

    • April 5, 2021 4:28 pm

      Sorry they gave you visceral dread, but glad you think the bits I quote capture the experience. Just as it’s different for everyone, some parts are the same for many, like the part where you miss a person who is gone at a moment you wouldn’t have expected to miss them.

  2. Rohan Maitzen permalink
    April 2, 2021 6:09 pm

    These seem like they would be quite difficult to bear when you’ve lost your own parents. Mine are still with me (well, unfortunately they are 3000 miles away, literally!) and the poems still felt almost too hard to read.

    • April 5, 2021 4:30 pm

      I have some years and distance now, but you’re right; these are powerful; not a volume you’d want to give anyone in the first year of grieving.

  3. April 5, 2021 9:09 am

    These excerpts are definitely jarring. I have both my parents still, but I can tell you that they are aging faster than I’d like. It’s true that we don’t see our parents in ourselves until they are gone. I hear my parents say that more now than ever before. “My mom would say that or my dad would do that.”

    • April 5, 2021 4:32 pm

      Maybe when a person is gone it’s easier to identify the mannerisms when you recognize them in yourself. And then occasionally you’re perversely fond of something that used to irritate you (or as a parent you see that you’re doing to your kids what you were irritated by when your parents did it to you but now it seems inevitable).

      • April 7, 2021 6:46 am

        I think that is part of it for sure. It’s interesting to see which patterns repeat.

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