Mary, Circa 1945
All she wanted was a cup of tea made
the way she liked it: neither weak,
nor steeped to bitter black on the cold stove…
She would have fixed it herself
if she were able,
like she had during the war,
when she huddled over a steaming cup,
and clipped bits from Life
or the Saturday Evening Post to paste
beside the photographs and exotic cards
her sons sent from the front.
If only she had known those hours
stolen from worry
were the sweetest that were left her—
sipping the perfect cup of tea,
as she kept watch for the postman
whose step crunched the walkway
at precisely three, the possibility
of a letter tucked inside his bag.
Folding and unfolding the wispy sheets,
she read them
until she felt the texture of the words,
like the boys’ skin pressing into hers
when they were small and needy.
But in the end, she was reduced to this—
stranded in a gray bed and crying
for a cup of tea
like the children once wailed for milk.
Her sons had come home strangers,
distracted by noise and drink,
and memories they could tell to no one.
They rushed in,
smelling of cold air, salt and young women
with flushed faces, cellophane bright mouths.
Always in a hurry,
they forgot to light the kettle
or left her tea cooling on the stove—
as a succession of doors
slammed behind them.
How could she have known that
throughout her long vigil,
she was the one in danger?
While she shaped the black pages
of her book
into a story that made sense,
she herself had been marked out,
betrayed, the cells of her body
embarking on their own high drama?
And now, so many decades late,
the grandchildren she never knew
come loping up the gravel walk.
We push past the heavy gate, the door
with its blistered paint.
Separated by nothing
but the perversity of time,
we climb the stairs to her room,
our mouths full of her name: Mary.
Retracing the arc of an ordinary life,
we stand at the foot of her bed,
as if we still expect her to appear
in a nightgown, startled
by the bright wind we’ve brought in,
but weeping at the familiar
contours of our faces.
Come to the kitchen, Mary, come!
Together we will sit at the table
and keep watch at the window.
You can show us your scrapbooks,
the letters folded in thin blue packets,
a war made tractable by your hand.
We’ve come to read the story
no one knew but you.
We’re here to fix the perfect cup of tea,
neither weak, nor steeped
to bitter black on the cold stove…