Claire Keyes

My Mother Enters the Work Force
                      after Rita Dove

Her path to rooting herself in America
began at a small grocery store in Boston
where the Irish boss welcomed the colleen
just off the boat. And so she found herself
helping customers purchase their tea and biscuits
and fending off two male co-workers
in white shirts, white jackets, her white apron wrapped
around her body. Cheeky, she called them.

Those were her days. Late afternoons
meant a trolley ride to her sister’s house, fending off
the hands and audacious shoulders of workers heading home
and all this in the middle of a flu epidemic
she never mentioned.

And then it was day again, her uniform washed and pressed,
if a little heavy on the starch, ready and yet not-ready
for what we now call sexual harassment.
Wasn’t she a woman? Wasn’t the friendliness of men
to be expected? She didn’t like it, plotted her escape
and found that next job where she made sure
she had her own desk and the right, if nothing else,
to dock their hours on the schedule.  My mother,
the time-keeper. But she left all that behind,|
and I knew her only as mother, her role
prescribed and embraced, or so it seemed.


First Job/Sixteen

Why did the owners of the dress shop ever hire me?
I hardly knew how to dress myself

never mind the ladies who came into the shop
in Roslindale Square.

I was cheap. A dollar an hour?
I don’t remember.

And I could relieve them of constant duty at the counter.
Miss Smith worried her watch when I was two minutes late.

Miss Jones cautioned me about entering the dressing rooms.
Some women wear nothing under their blouses,

their skirts. Call me, she continued,
if I was at all unsure.

So I folded silk scarves and tidied the racks
where the dresses hung like so many maidens

waiting for their escorts to twirl them on the dance floor.
Was I bored? I don’t remember.

All that registers on the wrinkles in my brain
is the ignominy of being let go after a week on the job.

Fired. Was I too parochial school in my blue serge uniform,
starched white blouse and red tie? Too gauche for dress shop chic?  

Just as well. I set off for downtown where other girls went
for their part-time jobs and left the Square behind.

Thank you so much for firing me, I want to say
to those two women, owners of their own business,

more sophisticated and free than any other women
I’d ever known. 


Hair Being Silver
           after Marvin Bell

The sheen of our best knives and forks at Sunday dinner.
Of the last spill of fireworks on the Fourth,
of the coins in your pocket.
The gleam of antique dollars, hard and playable.
Of mother’s favorite necklace
and the smooth rounds encircling her wrist.
That fox traipsing through the woods,
the moon when we sing to it: Shine On!
What you hate to polish, why you’ve switched
to stainless steel—and hate it.
When you spot the first one on your head,
you pluck it out. But there will be more.
I promise. More than simply more,
your hair becoming silver.

© Claire Keyes

Claire Keyes is the author of two collections of poetry: The Question of Rapture (Mayapple Press) and What Diamonds Can Do (WordTech). Her chapbook, Rising and Falling, won the Foothills Poetry Competition. A second chapbook, One Port, was recently published by Derby Wharf Books. She is Professor emerita at Salem State University and her poems and reviews have been published recently in Valparaiso Poetry Review, Turtle Island, Gyroscope Review, and Tipton Poetry Journal. She lives in Marblehead, Massachusetts where she conducts a monthly poetry salon. 

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