Literary Mama writing about the many faces of motherhood
Proper Pairs

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I sent him off to school
each day with everything
in proper pairs,
but he came back
home with naught
but one. How does a fellow
lose a stocking, son? I’d ask.
How does he fail to see
he’s short a shoe? Then the smell
of smoke upon his homespun
pants, the staying out all night.

And now the boy won’t wash,
won’t sweep the hay that scatters
from his bed. Like hogs
he’ll never look me in the eye
despite my making him a pile
of sausages and cakes each morn.
Forgets to feed the horse, forgets
to milk the cow, disdains to go
to school and lies about it
to my face but always has a smart
excuse. If he would study,
what a barrister he’d make.

My John, he’s still asleep
at nine. I tiptoe to his corner
of the room and watch him dream,
for dream he does. He twitches, groans
and even whistles in his sleep,
more active than he is awake
by far. Awake he’s got the sleepy
eye, but slumbering I see he’s wise
and full of plans. Perhaps right now
he’s digging flawless wells. Perhaps
he’s dreaming schemes to get us
out of debt. But now I see he’s got
his good shirt on, the fool –
he’s wrinkled it and made it smell
of boy. He knows it took me weeks
to sew, he knows my thumb joints
cause me pain, he knows my eyesight’s
not so strong past dusk, the only time I have
to stitch. I want to slap him silly and
I almost do. I have to cross my arms
behind my back to stop myself.

It’s only later that I feel
the pain and see I’ve used
such force to keep myself
in check I’ve bruised my arms,
I’ve purple marks on both of them.
Not that I think he’d notice
but I wear my sweater all day long
despite the heat.

You see, I looked and looked and tried
to find my silly chubby lad,
but all I saw was a hardened jaw
that’s stubble-strewn, and packs
of muscle everywhere.

I finally lay a hand quite gently
on his arm the way I used to do.
He blinked until my face
came into view. Call me
by that baby name, he said,
I swear I’ll…

I bit my tongue until it bled,
but still the ancient words
escaped all slicked with red:
you’ll always be my babe,
my precious one,
my deedle dumpling son.


Michele Herman is a New York City-based writer, editor, teacher, and performer of her own work. She’s been published in The New York Times, The Sun, Diagram, Lilith and dozens of other magazines and journals. She writes for The Villager, does developmental editing, and teaches at The Writers Studio. She is recipient of the Willis Barnstone Translation Prize, an annual award from the New York City Municipal Art Society, and was a semifinalist for the 2016 Raymond Carver Prize for short fiction.


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