When the bombs were dropped on Pearl Harbor in December 1941, my mom was pregnant with her first child—the first of eleven. For the next 65 years, she would never shirk from her arduous duties as a wife and mother, no matter how dangerous the world was or how precarious life in a smoky steel town became.
I don’t know if they were “the good old days,” but the 25 years I lived in my mother’s house made me what I am today—good or bad—and I’m grateful to her for everything she gave me and, conversely, for everything she did not give me. Had I been a spoiled little rich kid who got everything he wanted, I never would have appreciated what I attained later in life—a college degree, a happy marriage, a house in the suburbs, opportunities to travel, and most importantly, a son.
But I grew up in a working-class household in Clairton along with 10 brothers and sisters. My dad toiled in the steel mill and we lived on a survival level. There were no frills, no luxuries, no extravagances.
We packed thirteen people into a three-bedroom house—one bedroom for mom and dad, one for the boys, and one for the girls. Soda pop was a special treat. We only drank it on certain occasions, like birthdays and holidays. My mother sewed her own dresses, made her own curtains, and cooked hearty stews which could be stretched out over a few days.
I deeply admired my mother for enduring all her work and worry, for raising her kids through wars and recessions, through social and political turmoil, through financial hardship and sacrifice. I also appreciated her maternal wisdom and her acerbic wit.
We’d be rummaging around the kitchen in search of snacks, whining about being hungry, and she would give us a sharp rebuke. “Hungry?” she would snarl incredulously. “You just ate yesterday!”
We’d be moping around complaining we were bored, and she would retort, “If you want something to do, I’ll give you something to do. Go clean the attic!”
We’d be moaning about not having any money, and she would proudly declare, “We have something money can’t buy. Poverty!”
In dismay, while poring over the skimpy household budget, she once solemnly announced, “We’re going on an austerity program.” We stared at each other in disbelief, wondering what “frivolous” expenses we could possibly cut? Food? Mortgage? Doctor bills?
Since my mother died 15 years ago, I have often thought about her and reflected upon the impact she had on my life. I’m glad I wrote these poems to express my love and devotion to her before she died, so she would know.
My Mother Calling Me
When I was a boy, I stood high on a windy hill
And looked down at the river and the smoky steel mill.
I dreamed about places far, far away
And of how I’d become a man and move away someday.
Then I heard my mother call
And I ran down the hill to her open arms.
Now my dad is gone and my mother is trying to carry on.
And my brothers and sisters are scattered up and down the river.
And the mill has shut down and turned my hometown into a ghost town.
But I still have dreamy memories of running down the hill
And my mother calling me.
While Still Within My Reach
The grey willow buds on the tree
In the yard have grown out of my reach.
I would cut them for my mother each spring.
She kept them in a vase on the piano.
They stayed fresh and furry for a year until the next spring’s bunch.
My father died at the end of winter,
And he, too, has passed out of my reach.
Though in a way he’s still there,
I just can’t touch him anymore.
I thought of him when I reached expectantly for the branches
And marveled at how the grey buds would turn to green leaves
That would decay and return to the ground,
To feed the tree for the next year’s buds.
My mother didn’t seem to mind
When I told her I couldn’t get the branches for the vase.
Nothing seems to disappoint her anymore.
My father is lying on top of a windy hill
Just below my reach.
I hug my mother while I can
While she is still within my reach.
I don’t pretend to grasp
The meaning of life or death,
Even of a leaf on a tree.
Yet my fingers yearn for the buds of expectation,
Yearn for the hope of spring,
Yearn for all within my reach.
I was afraid to touch my father
As he gasped for his last breath,
But held him like I never did before the moment he died.
And that made me see.
Now I long for another spring,
To stand on a hill, to look at a tree—
To smile at my loved ones,
To learn and to seek.
But most of all,
To touch all within my reach.