From Dirt Songs: A Plains Duet. Backwaters Press, 2011.
In a small town, in a dark-paneled café called Harold’s
at a plastic-topped table, I sit with my mother and her sisters.
They debate roast beef or chicken, sandwich or dinner special,
coffee or just water. I scan the menu for anything of redemption,
keep my expectations low. They’re getting up there in years.
I study lined faces, veined hands, clean-your-plate waistlines.
It’s noon, and the place overflows—feed salesmen, bankers,
retirees—folks who, my aunt says, like to eat what others cook.
I think of these sisters, their grins in sepia portrait—bobbed hair,
best Sunday dresses—the handsome family gazing out at a world
before the Great Depression, before they lived an uncertain future,
no guarantee for that next meal. We would have starved to death
if not for our grandparents, my aunt says. Mother adds, They
gave us a chicken for the eggs, but we had to eat the chicken, too.
Now, you might not guess: my mother’s bent shoulders, one aunt’s
unsteady hand, the other with excess pounds to lug around.
Their dinners arrive on oval platters: meat, potatoes, a layer of gravy,
rolls and over-cooked vegetables. This is plenty, I insist, pointing
to my wedge of lettuce and watery soup. When they were young,
their options were limited; they kept their expectations low. Now
they relish each pleasant surprise fate happens to dish out.
We’re all from a long line of the common, the ordinary, the land;
some lessons you never outgrow. On mother’s recent ocean cruise
what she enjoyed most was the food: four complete dining rooms!
Woman who has lugged around her first electric range, since 1952,
from farm to city; it now resides in her basement. Never know
when you might need an extra oven. These sisters don’t dwell
on the past. Our waitress stops by, my aunt winks. Pie, anyone?