Bit by bit, Mom taught me to be polite

Say please and thank you

excuse me   I’m sorry   pardon me

ma’am   sir   miss

Take off your hat, feet off chairs

elbows off tables

Wipe your shoes

She trained me

with all the trappings of a time when

these habits meant status,

elevated birth

Today this polite trellis

she wound my wild briar will around

comes in handy still: each

excuse me

could you please

yields a golden ticket to high society, social mobility

(allows me to walk neighborhoods full

of boutiques and organic raw restaurants while

wearing Target boots and secondhand clothes)

Mom gave me the magic words

pardon me  open sesame

could I please speak with you for a moment

quietly, enunciating as carefully

as I shape each hand-written thank you note

I send



I work for a living

following in the family’s footsteps

eight hours inside and yearn for

an hour-long lunch outdoors

in the watery spring sun

I come from


white bread

white middle class

and you’d think we would

have adapted to it by now, like blind

cave fish or albino moths turning soot-colored


i can’t promise you, mom

that i won’t

spill the beans

or is it black-eyed peas–they’re supposed

to be lucky anyways, foreseeing

a fortunate year–i can’t predict

whether my tongue will loosen on watery beers

roiling a stomach stuffed

with peanuts

and let slip something you’d prefer to keep


i won’t tell them

what they don’t already suspect, twenty

odd years with no boyfriend

in sight on this flat horizon

they’ve seen the oak trees, how they grow

crooked without another

trunk to lean on–this was seen

in the flutter of birds wings, cards or whatever

you say you believe in now

they don’t say

what they believe

grace at dinner is half-forgotten and

truce a word for Scrabble boards

i can’t read the future, mom, though you taught me well

what the words on the next page tell

i will try not to tell them


you taught me not to tell lies, but how

can i face them now

words caught in my teeth like the shells

from peanuts and i want

them to be better, i want them to deserve you

your love

because you are better, stronger than

they have ever appreciated

your own blood

and mine

i can’t promise you that i won’t speak

you taught me that too

my voice deserves its place in the wind and i’m

sorry for interrupting you

but there are some things I won’t say

and others i won’t hold back

when provoked, stomach tumbling

to my bare toes

i promise you

mom, I will respect you

as long as you return the favor

instead of cutting my breath

This is meant to be performed as a spoken word piece.  It’s based on true conversations with my dad’s mother, known as Mamus in our family.


My grandmother thinks I hate America.

She cried at the dinner table last Thanksgiving because

I believe in a woman’s right to choose,

and because I chose to eat tofu

instead of turkey.  Mamus doesn’t really “get” me:


let go

I promise I won’t drown

I learned how to kick my feet a long time ago and I can keep my own head

above the surface

loosen your grip

it has always been strong and comforting but in these shadow days

I need to grasp tomorrow’s sun even if

it singes my fingers

hush, you don’t need to speak

I still hold the wisdom you wrapped around me like a warm towel

straight from the dryer

but now I take it with a little more care,

feeling the holes worn into it

knowing you are human

let go, please

this isn’t goodbye forever and home is never

so far away that I can’t


you did your best teaching me, father

now it’s my time to learn

the new path that lies

before me