“Inheritance”

My mother had a mantra

that connected dots through every year,

every difficult event:

Life is hard.

It was always said gently and meant tenderly, often preceded by Uff-da

or whispered as a quiet descant

with the bruised and urgent love of a mother

as she held me:

Oh, honey. Life is hard. Oh, honey.

For 37 years, it was the sympathetic balm applied

to scraped knees and mean words

failed attempts and broken hearts

bad colds and depressive breakdowns.

Any pain was wrapped up in her arms

and the immutable fact

of the enduring un-easy-ness

of our days.

And she knew something of how hard it could be,

my Midwestern mother, born on a prairie farm,

broken by polio at eight,

paralyzed for a year, taught herself to walk again

by holding on to the bed mattress or her mother’s coaxing hands.

But her body was never whole again,

always faltering and bent, always tired, always aflame

with relentless twisting pain.

The winter before polio visited,

she had just learned how to skate a figure-8

on the frozen pond by the house,

and she spent hours and hours and hours

circling, spinning, heart-pounding joy in that open icy wind.

She wrote later:

Could I have been good? Or strong? Or athletic?

Though eventually well enough to return to farm work,

she never skated again.

That is its own unique kind of cruel grief, I think:

to be just old enough to remember what you might have been

what it felt like to occupy something unbroken.

Yes, she knew it: Life is hard.

hard like a kick from a milking cow,

hard like hauled wood and cast iron stoves

and cold pine floors and stillborn baby siblings you never knew,

hard like the unwanted hands of your oldest brother on you,

hard like January ground that the dark wind pounds down.

Life is hard.

I felt the inheritance of that fierce story

passed down to me like a burning coal —

the kind that can soothe the ache of winter nights

if placed in the right container

but that will take the flesh right off you if you hold it.

Sometimes I leaned in too close to it

because the empathetic warmth could be comforting,

could dull the steely edge of grief or despair for a while —

but I recognized its scar and weight, too,

how it asked me to take on

something that branded

and marked me for a kind of weary defeat.

It wasn’t the incantation

I wanted my spirit reciting

if I was seeking something whole from my days.

So I resisted, tried to get her to change her story,

for her sake I told myself, but really for mine.

Hurtful to her, I know now,

in the way that willful unhearing is to someone

who longs to be believed, like we all do —

it took me years to realize

that what belonged to her was not mine to rewrite.

I saw this:

that while we cannot rip away the verses

that burn in the palms of others,

once they are handed to us and become our inheritance,

we are given some holy choices:

embrace and recite

revise and restore

toss into the flame

take up a blank page and create new.

When I hold my daughters and sing this new song,

Does life feel hard right now? Sweet girl,

I’m so sorry it feels hard right now —

and we talk later of what beauty can rise

from that rough and nourished ground —

I sense a harmony with my mother’s refrain that hangs

like sweet strung music in the background:

the hard places make a good foundation

for rest

for rebuilding

for steadying yourself again,

for dancing

for practicing over and over

the patient strides and daring loops of staying upright

while in uncertain motion.

All winter long, no matter how ferocious the cold,

the roots are cradled: frozen darkness, too,

can be a still, quiet kind of love.

And I know this intensely —

when I hold my girls and the moment of their earnest pain,

their small hot hands clinging to me,

remembering and blessing my mother,

I can do what she did so well:

I can make myself a soft place for them

in this hard, beautiful world.

This poem is printed here with permission.

Reflections