Poetry Supplement Summer 1999, Volume 17.0
Susan E. Gunter is Professor of English at Westminster College of Salt Lake City. She has published numerous poems and articles, as well as a collection of letters, Dear Munificent Friends: Henry James's Letters to Four Women (University of Michigan Press, 1999).
A Handmaiden of the Lord
When she returned at last
from the sanitorium,
she made the girls wash
their hands again and again
with the strong brown soap stored
beneath the kitchen sink.
Hers was a secret fear
I scarcely understood—
I was just glad my mother
lacked such scruples.
After Doctor Hazen x-rayed
her lungs and told her
she could no longer live
at home, she vanished
from our sight like a fish
sinking into cold water,
leaving rings on the surface,
at first small and then wider
and wider, until they finally
disappear from sight.
Her younger sister came
to take her girls (curly hair,
dolls and all)—her husband
couldn't keep them and the jail, too.
He was our chief of police.
Once, when I was twelve,
the Girl Scouts visited that jail.
I could hear the heavy metal door
swing shut in my dreams for months after.
Ralph mailed her pictures,
as no one could visit her:
Anna at her third birthday party,
blowing out three candles,
pink frosting on her lower lip;
Carlene at her first recital,
nervously thumbing the sheets
of "Swans on the Lake"
while she awaited her turn
to march across the stage
of the women's club auditorium,
where their mother and mine once belonged;
both girls swimming at the pond,
their faces marked with mosquito bites
and their round eyes tightly closed
as they jumped from the sagging dock
into the dark stagnant water.
She looked and looked at the photographs
in the silence of her room, then gazed
out the window at the shedding trees.
When she finally came home
the girls didn't know her.
They moved to a house on Oak Street.
Anna was just my age. She took me
to Daily Vacation Bible School
at the First Baptist Church,
where we colored and cut
Old Testament figures and pasted
them on wooden popsicle sticks.
We heard stories of Queen Vashti,
who refused her husband and was sent away;
of Rizpah spreading sackcloth
over the bodies of her dead children;
of Naomi, bereft of her family,
who called herself Mara—
"God hath dealt bitterly with me."
Anna once took me up the steps
just behind the church altar
to see the baptismal room. She said
Baptists baptized by immersion.
What was that? I asked.
The Methodists only sprinkled.
I was glad no one could push me
under the water in that windowless room,
murmuring chants to wash me clean of sin.
What sin had Anna's mother committed,
I wondered, to be shut away so long?
I found her picture last week
in my mother's yearbook:
she had been so beautiful,
her skin clear and eyes glowing,
a pearl necklace around her neck
like an amulet to ward off evil spirits.
"Precious little one," said
the inscription beneath the photo,
yet she had had precious little of life
before its taste turned to wormwood and to gall.
My lover says that if you're looking for something,
you have to look in a lot of different places
at once, because if one place doesn't have it,
another might. So I will have to look everywhere,
I guess, to find what I lost. Maybe it's behind
the striated red sandstone on my left. Or maybe
it's hidden in the dry aspen leaves whispering
just beyond the wall. Whatever it is, it's
a piece of myself I lost a long time ago,
lost behind other vacant walls and locked doors.