Learning to ride, falling down, getting back on
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“You always think the worst
is going to happen,” Janet says.
But no. I don’t think it will.
I think it might.
“What?” Janet scoffs
as we walk with our son along the canals in Amsterdam.
“What do you think — he’s going to fall in and drown?”
Yes, I admit it. That’s just what I picture.
And in Gubbio, the cars careening
down those narrow stone streets,
and I’m telling him,
“You have to walk on the side, you have to
hold hands,” and she’s saying, “Oh, Elsie,
he’s OK. Let him be,” until I think I’ll kill her —
him repeating, “Oh, Elsie.”
I have worried
all over the world. It comes to me
easily, like perfect pitch
to a virtuoso. Formed slowly
through the years of childhood
like stalactites in dank caves.
We don’t just let go and hope
for the best in my family.
My mother worried how to keep going —
a sick husband, the store, children
she wanted everything for. I call her,
distraught. Janet’s been dizzy for three days.
In the ER they inked small xs
on the parchment map of her skin.
Her doctor’s at a conference in Paris,
and I’m afraid there’s a blood clot to her brain.
“Go buy a plant,” Janet says. “I’m not going to die.”
My mother tells me I learned it from her —
how to panic. She was thirteen,
oldest of five, when her father left.
My grandmother worried how to keep food
on the table. Every week
she’d board the bus to buy
dry goods, children’s clothes, socks
to sell in her corner store.
When she wasn’t on the six o’clock — winter,
it was already dark — my mother sat
in the window, tears rumpling her face,
praying, Let her come home.
And in Russia — my father was a baby
when his mother carried him and two older children
to the border. Hiding
in the forest undergrowth, my father
crying, she heard boots
bite through the crusted snow. Some women
smothered their infants. What
went through her mind when the steps
hesitated, before turning away?
Janet doesn’t think about
what might be. She thinks about what is.
But I, I carry dread on my shoulders
like a knapsack, like the extra pounds
my grandmother wanted me to gain.
She’d read about a girl in a plane crash.
All she had to eat was snow.