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.