by Ira Sadoff
The rabbi doesn’t say she was sly and peevish,
fragile and voracious, disheveled, voiceless and useless,
at the end of her very long rope. He never sat beside her
like a statue while radio voices called to her from God.
He doesn’t say how she mamboed with her broom,
staggered, swayed, and sighed afternoons,
till we came from school to feed her. She never frightened him,
or bent to kiss him, sponged him with a fever, never held his hand,
bone-white, bolted doors, and shut the blinds. She never sent
roaches in a letter, he never saw her fall down stairs, dead sober.
He never saw her sweep and murmur, he never saw
spiderwebs she read as signs her life was over, long before
her frightened husband left, long before
they dropped her in a box, before her children turned
shyly from each other, since they never learned to pray.
If I must think of her, if I can spare her moment on the earth,
I’ll say she was one of God’s small sculptures,
polished to a glaze, one the wind blew off a shelf.
From Grazing, University of Illinois Press, 1998
What the writer says about the poem: “My Mother’s Funeral” was, in part, an act of imagination: when I wrote the poem my mother was still alive. I had a difficult (and difficult to decipher) relationship with my mother, exacerbated by my father’s abandoning our family when I was thirteen and my sister was six. My mother had always been phobic – the world was a dangerous place; we moved every couple of years, sometimes because she saw silverfish in the bathtub of our suburban house. I understood, only retrospectively, that my mother had become paralyzingly depressed from at least the time my father left and probably before (since she’d put on quite a bit of weight and was awake late at night). She became agoraphobic, virtually never leaving the house (though she held secretarial jobs for six months at a time after I left for college). She was so hurt, angry, and insecure that she needed to triangulate me into her ally. I was in my forties and she’d still ask me on the phone what did I think of a man who left his wife and children like that? I had to share her rage so I didn’t let myself feel the hurt that would trigger some of that rage. She didn’t have the resources to find out what it might have felt like for me: indeed I came to understand that whatever feelings I had mattered less than my being there for her. In part working 30 hours a week at a supermarket while in high school, in part being a good boy, a “child genius” (as she called me). No doubt this helped me become self-reliant, a good caretaker, but no doubt the experience damaged my sense of self-worth, and it took me a long time to believe my feelings might matter to anyone else. Or to feel anger.
That’s a long way of saying that I wrote the poem in the late 1990s when my mother disowned me (sending back my degrees) because I had pressured her to come visit me. Whenever I asked, there never was a good time. She hadn’t met my wife, my step-children (after things healed, several years later, we met once in a waffle house near her apartment, which was attached to my sister’s house).She never did let me into her house and I saw her twice in the forty years I lived in Maine. So I was wrestling at the time with how to live with the possibility that she’d be dead to me. In the poem, my work was to portray her as honestly and compassionately as I could without burying the darkness that surrounded our life together and apart. When I read “My Mother’s Funeral” at readings and a number of people expressed gratitude in helping them with their grief, I didn’t have the heart to tell them she was still alive. Later, I razored the poem out of a collection so when she saw the book she wouldn’t be subjected to the poem.
Did the poem help me heal? Perhaps mostly in the way that when I’m writing authentically, not by fact but by feel and a respect for the musical voice in a poem, when I keep some sense of scale about my own pleasure and pain, some sense of relation, I have the satisfaction poetry has always given me, which is a more open heart and a commitment to digging deep. In “My Mother’s Funeral,” one question led to another, another qualification, intensification, or change of mind. My aspiration for a poem where the stakes are high. And I found after that much less of an urge to process my childhood in poems or in life. More about Ira Sadoff.