Leaving the Dining Room
Sometimes your constellation comes together just right.
You’ve been standing in the teachers’ dining room
far too long with your coat on so that the nape
of your neck is limned with sweat. Then you
walk out and the air is just chilly enough
to cool you off and snow is falling
in fat clumps and you breathe them in.
On the drive home, the radio announcer
says to look up at the brightest moon of the year–
if the sky where you live is clear enough.
The sky isn’t clear enough where you live;
it’s overcast and damp, just perfect,
and the heavens stream by
and none of the stars falls out of place
• • •
You led me past First Encounter beach,
our bike tires imprinting the sandy path,
to the sheltered inlet off to the side.
Children stepped up pail-cake production
in the few minutes left them as orange
rivulets like spilled juice seeped
across the sky. Enough light
at low tide to find seashells just
washed up. You watched gray
slide across orange, birthing
an unnamed color. I filled my fist
with jingle shells, soft-sheened and yellow
like dried crusts of cheese. Tiny domes
of reindeer moss held fast to the
shells, like villages built up the sides
of a hill. Wash the sand off
you said. Hadn’t planned on getting
wet but bent down at water’s
edge, dipping my cupped
hand. Neon green sea
lettuce ribboned my fingers; sand
crabs stared and marched away.
But it was the water nudging my fingers
like a great dog, licking off sand,
mouthing my hand stroking me,
its wildness left out at sea–
the water entered me,
smoothing out the crooked places,
moderating my temperature to its own,
stirring up no sediment. The water
reached for me, she is almost me,
I’m only a variant, a sea product,
kneeling at the low tide line.
• • •
My daughter makes her morning tea,
pinching dry bits into a battered mesh ball.
Save me the dregs, I say, and she dumps
them in my teapot. It’s a compost heap
in there she says. Three days’ worth,
oolong and assam and china green,
leaves glistening like the forest floor
after rain. Unfurled, quite beautiful.
Once again, I pour hot water
over leaf bodies and they stretch, drifting
up to the surface like last night’s dreams.
Tea’s weak this time around,
pale brown like the maple shoots out front.
You’re like a sweatshop owner,
my daughter says, dragging out their last bit
of strength. I thought it was thrift, I say,
connecting me to my past.
Your grandma gave away anything anyone admired,
she points out. Including cups and cups of strong tea.
Clothes. Money, especially. You told me.
Maybe I don’t take after my Bubbe.
Maybe I take after the stingy ones
who bought presents on Maxwell Street,
or, when the stalls closed down,
chose seconds, seams frayed, colors untrue.
Maybe—if only on days with silence and tea—I take after
the ones I never met, those
who didn’t survive: the tenderness of one,
the quick smile of another, the thoughtful glance of a third.
If I’m lucky, if I’m watchful I’ll catch
these graces swirling up from the depths
unfurled quite beautiful.
• • •
Although a Midwest (Chicago, Minneapolis) girl at heart, Karen Mandell has spent most of her adult life in Boston. She has taught literature and writing at the high school and college level, and most enjoys leading poetry workshops. Her poems have been published in various journals, and she has been first place winner in the Poetry Society of America/Oil of Oil contest, first place winner, Lilith Magazine poetry contest, second place winner, Cortland Review. She has also written Clicking, a novel in short stories available on Amazon