Mama scrubs the dirty sheets
Mama scrubs the toilet seats
Mama scrubs the dirty floors
Mama scrubs the dresser drawers
And when you told, almost seventy years after,
about your mother dragging you by the hair to the kitchen sink
and her fist shoving the bar of soap into your four-year-old mouth,
all because you’d licked a sick girl’s lollipop,
your friend looked up from her latte and leaning in said,
I believe she was trying to purify you.
And when you considered, for some hours later,
the baby bibs your mother bleached day after day, and the bed
linens whipping and snapping like flags on the clothesline,
and the little girls’ underpants, the ladies’ bra, and Papa’s boxer
shorts wrung hard with her bare hands, how she curved her back
and shoulders over the tub (or hunched her hip against the kitchen sink)
and twisted the cotton bath towels and flannel pajamas like screws,
then pinned them to the rope that sagged in the January wind—
remembering, too, your First Communion day (as if you could ever forget)
and the spring cloudburst and gusts of wind, your tulle veil in the plastic
bag flying out the window of the blue Ford into the rushing river of mud,
and your mother jumping from the passenger seat to pluck it from the flood—
how she dirtied her own hands to save it from the storm sewer,
then held before the O’s of your wide eyes and open mouth,
the dripping bag with the spotless veil, saying This veil is YOU (you’re hearing
her words as though she were just now speaking them), and this filth is the world
from which she was hell-bent on preserving you,
you can see as clear as a cloudless day
the sign of your unsullied self she offered
from her soap-cracked hands with dried blood in the knuckle folds.
Like the body of Christ you received on your tongue that morning
from the hands of the priest.
And though it has taken so long, you know at last
that this was the way she loved you, the way she wanted you to stay.
Just like Jesus. How else can you explain it?
Maria Rouphail is the author of two poetry collections, Apertures and Second Skin. She is completing her third book of poems, All the Way to China. Rouphail lives in Raleigh, North Carolina.