Bird Grandma

by Terri Ford

If a bird sang itself full of rainwater and tried to breathe through
that lake:  that’s how she sounds.  And the night in her mouth raspy
and open, discontinuous.    One blue eye
opens too much when you touch her arm and speak or lightly stroke
her forehead. She used to lie on the beach
in her tropical skirted two-piece swimsuit
with plastic DQ spoons on her eyelids.
She doesn’t eat  or talk or know
it’s spring          the way a deaf woman doesn’t know that birds
make sound. There’s a lake inside her rising up her ragged lungs;
its dark will drown her inch by inch.

From Hams Beneath the Firmament, Four Way Books

What the writer says about the poem: I spent the last few days of my grandma’s life with her, the first time I had been so near to someone dying, especially someone I loved and someone I resemble. When someone described congestive heart failure to me, that’s the image that came to me, how I understood it: a gradual drowning from inside. Birds are vital to me and are often in my poems. To me they’re spirit and freedom; I would love to have the superhero quality of flight.

Since I am far from a nature poet – more of an indoors poet – perhaps it’s strange, but it’s what birds mean to me, that ability to soar and transcend. Bird is the word. I am not sure this is in the poem, but being so near my grandmother in this intimate time, I was struck by how clear it was, after she became non-verbal, that there was someone at home in there. It was the blue eye opening.

I also went down the elevator with her when they picked up her body; I just wasn’t quite ready to leave her and it somehow seemed a way of honoring her body even though she didn’t live there anymore. I also wanted to nod to the person she’d been. Her name was Florence; we called her Flo when we thought we were funny. Flo was a gas, though often not intentionally – the woman did not have an ironic bone in her body. I asked her once, as a young teenager, why she worked for so many years, thinking, now I’ll get some insight into the womenfolk who raised me, now I’m going to learn about independence and productivity and feminism. She shrugged and said, “Oh, I thought if I stayed around the house I’d just sit around and eat.”

She believed all these crazy little things, like broken sugar cookies have less calories, only white cotton socks will prevent foot sweat, you should wash bananas. And she really did lie in the sun in her tropical two-piece (who wears a two-piece swimsuit over, say, age 45?) with Dairy Queen spoons on her eyes, which she called “taking sun,” a phrase I was and still am charmed by.  

Writing a poem from the gut changes the material into something … else. I mean, first it was a loss, and then writing it somehow takes me somewhere else. Am I speaking bird metaphor again? Poetry always takes me somewhere I never expected to go. For that, I’m grateful, and more than a little mystified. More about Terri Ford.


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