'You Didn't Leave Much Out, Didja?'

An ode to mom, including the time she tossed the TV

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In 1992, I wrote a poem for my mother, Kathleen Lewis and read it to her on Mother's Day. My wife Jeanne and I had driven to her apartment in Orlando, and were taking her out to dinner. My parents got divorced in the 1950s, and her second husband, Harold Lewis, a pianist, had died a year earlier, so she lived alone. This is the poem I read to her, with Mother sitting on the couch, and I standing in front of her and Jeanne:

Artist of the Heart

When we were young we couldn't imagine living to be over thirty

nor did we deserve to: everyone chain-smoked drank till we dropped

and drove like suicidal maniacs Yet here I am at sixty in perfect health

except for fainting once in a while

And you Mother who always lied about your age: confess!

You're eighty-six! You sit with your cronies playing bridge in permed

respectability still wishing there were men to flirt with

But you've outlived them all sailing your old Buick

across the desert of Orlando like the Queen of Arabia

at twenty miles per hour ignoring all traffic lights

And didn't Harold run over you twice with that same Buick

without breaking a single bone your legs ballooning

like a purple elephant's? And didn't you throw a TV set

half as large as yourself at our father? I have often tried to misbehave

as much as you but it's difficult difficult . . .

Did any of this really happen? We can hardly remember

what we did last Tuesday Once at a party you drank four martinis

and played Chopin's Polonaise with a toothpick in your mouth

not missing a note Now you get wobbly as a baby on a sliver

of Sacher torte You can't hold your chocolate anymore

When you had your old face sand-papered it was painful

but you didn't care Above your cheeks as smooth as Barbie's

your fierce bruised eyes glinted like the Witch of Endor's Take that

Father Time they said you male pig We were terrified That's Grandma

we told the kids She's made some sort of pact

Still you are the perfect mother you remember everything I tell you

Even things I make up are as clear to you as the day they never happened

Each of us is convinced you love us the most how do you do it?

I think you are an artist of the heart When you enter a room

a secret ray shazams from your withered breast to atomize my knees

On shaky feet I approach you the world slides away

an insubstantial shadow I am six years old forever

holding out my sticklike arms to you Mother dearest Mother

When I read this to her, she gave me a hug (after all, the ending's sweet), and we headed out to her favorite restaurant, Le Cordon Bleu, now, like her, long gone. The tables were all set for Mother's Day, with flowers and candles. We sat there in silence for a while, and we could see that Mother was thinking about the poem. Finally, she leaned forward, toward the candles. We did too, terrified that her wispy bluish-gray hair might go up in flames. My mother, who had perfect pitch and a Brooklyn accent, looked me in the eye and said, "You didn't leave out much, didja?"

She lived to see the new millennium, dying at 93 on April 12, 2000. Although she became alarmingly forgetful, her fingers retained both their dexterity and memory (she complained it took her three minutes to play Chopin's Minute Waltz).

But some time before Mother died, we learned that she had made peace with her poem. One night she telephoned when we weren't home. Confused, as always, by the answering machine, she called for us a little while, then concluded in a small, hesitant voice, "Peter?... Jeanne?... Hello?... This is... 'artist of the heart'... Good-bye."

Peter Meinke's poem, "Artist of the Heart," is in his book, Scars. His latest collection is The Contracted World: New & More Selected Poems.

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