I wanted her old nightgown with the satin bow, her worn
cotton T-shirts still holding her smell: Dove soap

and L’air du Temps, the powder she’d dusted
under each pendulous breast, lifting one then the other. 
            I didn’t care

about the mahogany mirror or the gold-plated dishes
with men in white hose, long russet coats, ladies fainting 
             in bustled gowns.

We lived over the liquor store. I walked through the alley
passing the drunks hunched on empty whiskey crates,

sipping pints of Tiger Rose from brown paper bags —
the cocktail lounge, we called it — under Zopher’s 
            mulberry tree

that in summer dropped storms of berries
customers crushed under their soles, tracked onto the 

my father had to mop, sometimes twice a day.
Years of sticky black mash. He bought five-inch copper 

and in the dead of night crept out and drove them
into the helpless trunk. I wanted

the painting she fell in love with,
a mother and two children in a large dim cottage, a fire

in the cavernous hearth, strokes of vermilion and 
           cadmium yellow

and a big iron kettle with zinc white steam, a dab of pearl 
             for the shine.

They face the open doorway, their backs to us.
She’s seated at a table, the children in loose shirts, 

Are they eating? Shelling peas? Is she sewing?
Their heads crude circles. The children, one a greeny 
              brown, one ocher.

And outside an arched door, the cathedral of summer:
mint green blur of field, blue sky, white clouds.

The Alps? Or Pyrenees? We’re Jews. We live in cities.
My mother’d never seen a mountain —

or a prairie for that matter. Or a huge fireplace —
except for a great stone hearth we stared into

on our one trip to Williamsburg when we stayed in a hotel
and ate in restaurants. She said she loved that painting,

though I never saw her look at it, never caught her even 
standing before it or lingering as she walked through the 

Did she wait until we were all asleep? Slip in at dawn?
Or was a glance enough, a quick check

to see this mother and her children before that grand open 
looking out at the sun-drenched, alien world.

“My Mother’s Painting” is included in The Human Line. © 2007 by Ellen Bass. Reprinted with the permission of the author and Copper Canyon Press (www.coppercanyonpress.org).