There was a time when the two older children
had two-wheelers, and she had a tricycle.
She remembers riding that red tricycle with the other two—
but how did they learn to balance themselves and she did not?
When she took driver’s ed the teacher said it’s like riding a bike—
she kept her secret, but had difficulty with the most
basic thing—you turn the steering wheel to the right
and the car turns to the right.
When she was thirty, she asked her brother for help.
She was going on a trip with her boyfriend and he
was expecting them to ride bikes on a trail—
at least 10 miles long on a pine tree island.
Right away, her sister-in-law said it’s not possible, you’re too old.
True, her brother couldn’t guide her like a small child,
hold her steady, or even run a bit of the way with her.
She rode the same piece of his street, parked cars on either side.
Every time she thought she might fall she squeezed the breaks hard
and jumped from the seat. It gave her terrible black and blue marks
on her thighs, she could barely make it home standing on the train.
She had to not bend her legs but attempt to flop into bed.
The pillow such a welcome relief. She slept a solid sleep,
dreamed her dream of making love in satin sheets.
That day, the blue skies praised her efforts.
The man she loved captured her riding through
a stone tunnel smiling towards him.
He never knew what she accomplished.
One picnic of raspberries and biscuits,
and she fell in love with herself.
No One Ever Called Her Elizabeth
Here, Mother, let me give you another life.
For starters, you don’t have children.
You were too damaged by your own father—
a drunk you couldn’t please, no matter
how many A’s you got, or medals you won
for academic excellence. He made you ashamed,
carried home as he was
from the football game,
drunk on his knees.
And then he left you and your mother
and you slept on different pull out couches.
Now, you live alone in a New York apartment
with a pretty skyline view. You watch
the news in peace, in silence. You drink
tea in the morning and read the paper
cover to cover while you finish your half grapefruit.
You go the American Ballet,
attend a lecture about Thomas Jefferson.
You finish the NYT crossword
every day in ballpoint pen.
You spend your paychecks on rent
and take-out food and high-heeled shoes.
There’s no one to tell you “no.”
You don’t have to cook.
You keep your hour-glass figure.
You wear feathery hats from Bonwit Teller.
You go out with your friends from college
and talk about books by Anthony Trollope.
Maybe you date a professor from Columbia
who wears a blazer with suede patches.
He loves you, but he doesn’t want to marry.
You decorate a Christmas tree every year,
and put the ornaments exactly where you want them.
You send cards and notes you write
with your beautiful penmanship.
When your father is dying in the hospital,
suffering delirium tremens, you say goodbye,
but at least you’re not pregnant.
At least there’s no child you don’t
know how to mother.
Take all the time you need, Elizabeth
to heal and be well,
to smile the smile
I know must be in there.
My father dug it up for us from his mother’s garden.
He was still healthy enough to go out there
wearing an undershirt, wielding a shovel.
It was his house now that she was gone.
We put the plant in our front yard in Baltimore.
Just inside the white picket fence.
I now had a white picket fence, a child
in plaid skirt and saddle shoes,
a black Labrador with red leash and collar.
I would sit on my front porch glider
and I’d think: You have arrived.
I never dared to dream this stuff.
When I was in grad school, I went to see a therapist
who said, if you don’t resolve issues with your mother
you will never be able to fully love someone.
Afterwards I would go home to my apartment
and like fulfilling a homework assignment,
I would get in bed and cry. Just cry.
No phone calls, no arguments, no restitution.
When I told my sister about the therapist, she said,
That’s the most ridiculous thing I ever heard.
She just wants your money.
Of course, she was on her second divorce by then.
Always blue blossoms, never pink.
If I remember to prune it back
in spring, it’s filled with blossoms,
right on time, after the forsythia and lilacs.
I grew up in public housing,
with hemmed in grass.
What did I know of flowering plants
and when to prune them?
Having a child was my husband’s idea—
the most natural thing in the world.
I thought for sure I’d screw it up.
When she died at seventeen, I asked myself:
Does it always have to be the mother’s fault?
The hydrangeas have a blue that resists fading.
Sometimes I see the heads like so many
fluttering moth attached to one stem, holding on
to show you lasting beauty. Then, they fade.
I hang them upside down to preserve
their papery petals turned sepia brown.
You were a good son. You did everything Father asked. Mother—that’s a different story.
She was impossible to please. You didn’t believe she wanted to be free of us. I saw her
frustration, her annoyance at my inability to do the simplest chore to her satisfaction. You
thought she took us into the woods because there wasn’t enough food. It was more than that.
I remember after the whole affair was said and done, you told me you were always hungry.
Of course, you were! You spent all day chopping and hauling wood and all we had was boiled
cabbage for dinner. I didn’t think about your hunger, I was jealous that you could be of such use to Father. Keeping us warm at least with a nightly fire. I spent most of my childhood dreaming of a better life, reading fairy tales. That made me clever—and suspicious.
I knew Mother was leaving us there. I knew she wasn’t coming back—all bundled up in her
shearling coat, mohair scarf and mittens. The two of us with threadbare outfits. I heard what she said to Father—two less mouths to feed—it’s the only way to survive this.
When we came upon the witch’s house, you couldn’t see past the lure of those peppermint
pinwheels. I was thinking, who has a door made of gingerbread? Truth is, we were both starved
for love and affection. I can see that now. Breadcrumbs.
Once we got the gold and were safe again, we drifted apart. Lately I’ve been thinking when we
were poor, and had nothing, you skipped stones with me. I always thought we’d live together, be there for each other—but that doesn’t happen really, does it? You found a wife. You invested
I squandered mine—new hemp curtains, crewel embroidery on the walls, fabulous things to
eat—salmon, roast beef, camembert cheese—no more porridge! Typical of me.
Did we survive life’s cruelty? I suppose so. I wish you would come visit. I miss you something
© Christine Higgins
Christine Higgins is the author of Hallow, a full-length collection of poetry published in Spring, 2020 (Cherry Grove). She was the 2nd place winner in the Poetry Box competition for her chapbook, Hello, Darling in 2019. She is the co-author of In the Margins, A Conversation in Poetry (Cherry Grove, 2017). She has been the recipient of a Maryland State Arts Council Award for both poetry and non-fiction. Her work has appeared in America, Poetry East, Nagautuck River Review and Windhover. You can read more about her on her website: www.christinehigginswriter.com.