Literary Mama writing about the many faces of motherhood
Reader Response to What We Carry From Our Mothers

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Last month's writing prompt was to write a poem that weaves together memories of your mother during your own childhood with scenes from your daily mothering now.

1 Corinthians 13: The Mother Daughter Verses

by Ellen Kline McLeod

My blood began at a party I never wanted to attend.
I should have known -- cramps, moodiness, aching back.
Tears trickled down cheeks horrified hiding crimson panty stain.
Mom led to the bathroom armed with supplies, then my room.
From her bed gathered down cover, wrapping fat blue-grey paisley around my body.
                 Sometimes keeping extra warm helps ease the cramps, she said.
She did not lie and tell me everything would be easy
only pain does ease.
She did not make me talk
but lay me to rest in small corner room with great-grandmother's blue-light lamp.
                 My daughter flicks the blue lamp's switch now by her bed where we read.
                 I remember puffy quilt eaten by time's teeth and imagine future first day of her
                 period can be beautiful, too.
Mothers believe all things.

My first crush was so deep I assumed I would never love again.
I should have known -- not calling, avoiding, turned back.
Blue mascara smeared face watched their pretty prom blond kiss.
Mother prayed I would not choose him young listened unnoticed as I told a friend.
                  You are too young to commit yourself -- just have a good time, she said.
She did not lie and tell me everything would be easy
only pain does ease.
She did not tell me to try again
but avoid boys get out of town find my own apartment with my own room just for me.
                 My daughter cries because she has a boy project partner and classmates tease her.
                 I wonder why kids are so mean. She says she does not want a boyfriend for a long time
                 and I am glad.
Mothers hope all things.

My voice declared the dove descended at my confirmation.
I should have known -- Word, work, prostrate back.
Mom perched in the pew perhaps pride perhaps fury remembering choices.
                 Pray for guidance but remember to think for yourself, too, she said.
She did not lie and tell me everything would be easy
only that pain does ease.
She did not tell me she lost her voice reading scripture
years after sitting in a closet brown confessional telling youthful sins sharing his room.
                 My daughter looks to me at a wedding to see if I sign myself with the cross kneel stand.
                 I long to languish in this ritual imbued into the fabric of my soul
                 but I cannot ingest all they preach.
Mothers endure all things.

My baby was born in dark dawn after twelve hours waiting.
I should have known -- bulbous belly, pushing, arching back.
My mother home perhaps remembering birth waiting for my call.
                 Having your mother at the birth is not necessarily a good thing, she said.
She did not lie and tell me everything would be easy
only pain does ease.
She did not say aloud that baby me unplanned and fast
laid out a layette of unopened dreams from a room shared with sisters.
                 My daughter announces she does not want to have a baby.
                 I realize repulsion to brown-lined basketball body vagina exit
                 but secretly hope she will change her mind.
Mothers bear all things.

Love never failed faltered perhaps guessed wrong but when I was a child I never doubted.
Mother mirror flesh heart skin bone I cannot know fully as I am fully unknown.
Words spoken and unsaid gave me a map pray like she to be the greatest of these.

Ellen Kline McLeod has worked at various ad agencies and taught middle school, but has now settled into the work of marriage and motherhood. A mother of three living in the southeast, she is discovering a deep passion for writing poetry and short stories and is looking forward to continuing her own birth as a mother writer.


A Note from Cassie Premo Steele:

I fell in love with this poem as soon as I saw it.

So the lesson of this month's "Birthing the Mother Writer" Reader Response was going to be: sometimes it just happens like that. You write something. You send it out. The editor loves it. It gets published.

But in talking with Ellen about the process of writing the poem, I realized that it doesn't really happen like that. And I thought it would be helpful to readers to hear a little bit about what went into the writing.

First, Ellen wrote about several topics generated by last month's prompt: pregnant body images, images from her own daughter's life, and scenes describing her own mothering. At this point, she told me, the piece was still largely prose.

Then Ellen decided to use the themes from Chapter 13 of 1 Corinthians as a skeleton for her poem and replace "love" with "mother." As she says, "One thing I try to carry from my mother is the great sense of love she generated." So using this well-known Bible passage as a model for her own poem, she discovered inspiration for the ending lines of each stanza and the mirror concept for her ending.

Here is the lesson for this month: at the point where many writers would start thinking of the piece as on its way to completion (with the material, inspiration, basic structure in place), Ellen kept going. Her next step, she told me, was "brainstorming moments where my mother's loving advice impacted me deeply."

And only at this point did she work on the formal elements: "I felt that the basic line divisions were in place so I next created visual elements of the poem, indenting, italics, and other formal elements."
(For those of you who have lost count, this means that this poem has gone through four stages of revision at this point, and Ellen is still not finished.) She describes the final stage like this: "Once form and story were in place, I removed words that were not needed or replaced them with stronger vocabulary, transforming the prose structure into a more fluid form."

She then submitted the poem to me. I fell in love with it, yes, but I also suggested some changes: "At the onset," she writes, "I had titled the poem "First Corinthians" but after Cassie's comments I chose a more specific title, as well as moving the first stanza to the end to create a correct flow of the chronology of the events from my life."

Once again, mothering gives us lessons we can use in our own writing. Just as you are not "done" as a mother once you give birth, or once your child walks, or once she starts school, or even when he moves out, writing asks us to dig deeply, be open to revision, take suggestions, and find the strength within us to keep going.

Cassie Premo Steele, Ph.D. is the author of 13 books, most recently Earth Joy Writing. The book includes writing prompts for every month of the year, plus audio meditations and video workshops. She teaches an innovative online course combining mindfulness and feminist theory for women academics called The Feminar. Cassie is currently working on a memoir about how coming out returned her to her mother and her faith.

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I enjoy this column in a place in my heart I can't quite name. What a lovely entry this month. I enjoyed every line, every word. Thank you. --Christina
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