Literary Mama writing about the many faces of motherhood

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So badly had I wanted a child, nine years of green men
in masks, sticking probes, needles, fingers in me, finally yielding
my son’s rage. At three, he wiped my kisses off his face, hurled
his shoes out the car windows. At five, he stomped
the stairs and kicked a spindle out from under
the banister. My son’s rage fired the wood in our house
to ash.
          My grandfather used to drive south every year,
kick my sister and me out of our bedroom, and let us back in
in the morning to watch him pull out a worn, velvet bag,
wrap leather straps around his head and arms, mutter mumbo-jumbo,
stuff it all back in again, and take us to the races.
          My young son watched TV on the couch standing on his head;
he sat on the toilet backwards; he climbed bookcases, shedding Whitman, Lowell, Donne
down on me.  Miniature lawyer, he negotiated time--he’d do it later,
soon, in a minute--and space--on walks around our block, he found foreign coins, broken
pens, half-eaten candy bars, gum wrappers, discarded lottery tickets, board game
pieces and smuggled them home to fill up his room.
          My grandfather knew a guy, and we could stretch
our arms up, scared, to rub the noses of huge reds blowing steam
into the hazy Florida sun.  Hey brother, can you lend me a…
men in backward caps and clothes worn gray, dribbling
tobacco juice into red dirt, not even looking up as my grandfather stopped
to fill their outstretched palms with coins.
          His hand curled around my thumb exactly as it ought,
his mouth worked furious at my breast, he would not sleep
more than an hour at a time.  I fought against the labels
doctors, my husband, friends offered as a place to rest.
          My grandfather paced the grandstands,
bought us sodas, the first candy bars and M&M packets
we didn’t have to share, we were the Three Musketeers,
not telling my mother.
          They didn’t tell me what was happening
when his face went pasty white and Mama, Mama,  Mama,  Mama, Mama,
until even I got the irony of wishes granted. I had to ride him
head bowed, into the bowels of a CAT Scan, so he would stay still
so we could find out what was wrong.
          “Where did you take those children?”
my mother accosted us at the door, “they’re covered in chocolate
and hay!” My grandfather, his mouth twitching, simply shouldered
past her. My mother let it go. When he lost, torn tickets showered us
like confetti.
          I can’t let it go. I, I, I, I, and it’s not about me.
Every day, he rides through a gauntlet of expectations
he cannot fulfill, and yet I keep falling into the hole
that gapes between what I want and what is
          My grandfather usually lost, but he never gave up. Each year,
each morning, he approached Hialeah with more faith
than he bestowed on his phylacteries.
          We stumble at milestones,
each one brings us up short: he can add, but not subtract,
he cannot drive, he can dance, but there is no one to dance with
except me.
          The sun was too hot for his bald head, so he covered it
with an old blue fishing hat of my dad’s, like an upside-down bucket,
and he bounced from the car to the window where he
traded money for hope.
          We raced through experts,
parsed articles, books, programs, for answers,
instituted systems of rewards--stars, toys, M&M’s--
until we outrode optimism.
          My grandfather tried
to explain it to me: some horses were just better than others
and so they had to carry more weight and paid less. I never
understood, wasn’t “better” the whole point? I guess not,
I’m not sure what the point is. Now I have a 17 year old
greasy head in my lap, straining for reentry. My mother
judged her father for all of it--the races, the candy,
the easy yoking of prayer and gambling. People judged my son
for running spirals round the room, for braying like a donkey, “Can’t you
control that kid?” And even when they said nothing,
their looking away was clear enough. I could not, cannot
control that kid. My grandfather, with his systems and his hope,
could not win races. I try to remember how much fun we all had

Joan Manheimer is a poet and psychologist working in Denver, Colorado. She has had work published in Calyx, Adanna, and Palimpsest, among others.

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Thank you for this beautiful, honest poem.
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