American Life in Poetry: Column 60
by Ted Kooser, Former U.S. Poet Laureate
Most of us have taken at least a moment or two to reflect upon what we have
learned from our mothers. Through a catalog of meaningful actions that range
from spiritual to domestic, Pennsylvanian Julia Kasdorf evokes the imprint of
her mother's life on her own. As the poem closes, the speaker invites us to
learn these actions of compassion.
What I Learned From My Mother
I learned from my mother how to love
the living, to have plenty of vases on hand
in case you have to rush to the hospital
with peonies cut from the lawn, black ants
still stuck to the buds. I learned to save jars
large enough to hold fruit salad for a whole
grieving household, to cube home-canned pears
and peaches, to slice through maroon grape skins
and flick out the sexual seeds with a knife point.
I learned to attend viewing even if I didn't know
the deceased, to press the moist hands
of the living, to look in their eyes and offer
sympathy, as though I understood loss even then.
I learned that whatever we say means nothing,
what anyone will remember is that we came.
I learned to believe I had the power to ease
awful pains materially like an angel.
Like a doctor, I learned to create
from another's suffering my own usefulness, and once
you know how to do this, you can never refuse.
To every house you enter, you must offer
healing: a chocolate cake you baked yourself,
the blessing of your voice, your chaste touch.
Reprinted from "Sleeping Preacher," University of Pittsburgh
Press, 1992, by permission of the publisher. First printed in "West Branch,"
Vol. 30, 1992. Copyright 1992 by Julia Kasdorf. This weekly column is supported
by The Poetry Foundation, The Library of Congress, and the Department of English
at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. This column does not accept unsolicited