LETTER TO MY MOTHER ON HER SAINT'S DAY, DURING A PANDEMIC, THE THIRD YEAR AFTER HER DEATH
I should be getting ready to make our dish
of pasta con sarde: fat strands of bucatini
tossed with wisps of fennel, currants and pine nuts, olive oil, sardines.
Your children and grandchildren had all planned
to share this meal and toast you and your saint.
But fear is boiling over and to shop
for those few things seems risky as crossing the sea
in the cramped hold of a ship as your parents did
a century ago. So I only have the breadcrumbs
ready to toast and sprinkle on the dish
to conjure sawdust and the carpenter, St. Joseph.
None of us were devout in the usual sense.
But we practiced this strange sacrament
of eating every year. Food shared like that
must have been our true religion. I don’t know
how to tell you just how strange
the world is now. Alzheimer’s fogs
turned you into a foreigner years before you died.
Your forgetting began in the kitchen. Little things,
no salt in the pasta water, or too much.
It’s been so long since we were able to talk.
Words slip like spaghetti that keeps sliding
off my fork. Words can’t feed us but are all
we are allowed, now touch is quarantined.
Do you remember
how you helped me learn by heart some lines
from Leaves of Grass? I recited them for the class
in third grade: Every atom belonging to me
as good belongs to you …
I want to recover
some of your atoms now, invisible and indivisible
breadcrumbs to top off this astral feast
of St. Joseph. As a child I loved
to knead and knead the slack skin of your hands
at the table, dunking biscuits in coffee and milk,
communion for two lapsed Catholics. Whitman again:
Here are biscuits to eat and here is milk to drink
But as soon as you sleep and renew yourself in sweet
clothes I will certainly kiss you with my goodbye kiss
and open the gate for your egress hence.
I don’t know how to stamp or address this letter,
mother. Or even how to end it. St. Joseph’s Day
this year is also the first day of spring as the whistle
of a gray bird on this drab day tells me
tell me to believe.