She grew up in a city seven hundred years old, carillon bells in the basilica tower,
reliquary beneath the altar; but a school girl at the lyceum when the invading tanks
rolled into the centre of town, trailing daffodils. But she embroidered the signatures
of liberating soldiers on a green silk scarf one of the troops had given her. Became
a maternity ward nurse. Found my father, or he found her, and followed him overseas
to marry. For fifty years, her man beside her. And ten more alone.
Then we moved her into a residence, away from the family home.
Her thoughts stray across the ocean to that city in that time.
“Everyone knew my father.” The pharmacist.
“We were the kids from the pharmacy.”
During the war, she rode her bike through the fields, no light, under cover of darkness.
The local farmers paid her father in kind, milk for medicines.
The day of the armistice, he was in the street, pouring gin for his fellow citizens,
this man who read bible, daily, to his household.
“We drove by the other day.”
Drove by where? Not possibly her native town.
Did she mean the house, the hearth of marriage,
she has not seen since she moved into this tower?
And who’d have been driving? “Keep her away,” they said.
“Spare her the confusion of returning to empty rooms.”
But she was of sound mind, they’d said, when she signed her new lease.
The house, now another’s, she bathed from inside out,
cleaned every corner, filled every shelf, did what every parish mother did:
feed and clothe the kids, give them direction. My father poured concrete,
made a path to the street; he re-shingled the roof; he furnished the house
with his own hand-made furniture. For her.
She sits, among her heirlooms, on the couch she made with Dad—
he the frame, she the cushions. There, she used to knit;
too hard on her fingers now. And sew. FM classical
softly played while my father solved the daily crossword.
A jigsaw puzzle’s just begun on the dinner table at which I grew.
She takes her meals, and her society, in the spacious dining room below.
Her breakfast, she eats standing, in her narrow kitchen.
Occasionally, she makes tea.
She still reads books of popular fiction; picks them up, puts them down.
They were once like chocolates held long on the tongue,
read in hours found or afforded around those accorded to errands and chores,
to appointments and the managing of household accounts, to looking after
and doing for.
“The last of my line,” she says, for not the first time.
She looks into the flat-roofed distance.
She used to lay her hand upon the open page and look out over the yard—
boxwood, cedars, maple trees—her hand smoothening the page—
red-winged blackbirds, seasonal sundowns, sometimes: a crimson cardinal—
familiar folk returning home from work. Soon it’d be time to cook.
My father would, in due course, set down
newspaper and pen, and rise to set the table.
On her couch, each afternoon, she naps, FM classical, softly playing.
No longer bothers to remove her shoes, a throw-pillow beneath her head.
Eyes closed, eyes of blue.
The vital roar of her past crashes on her heels and back.
John Kerkhoven is a writer and musician living in Montreal. A new album with his duo BluesReel (folk, Celtic, blues) is soon to be released. This is his second poem to appear in Vallum.