The Belgian Housekeeper
Afternoon was an old-house-smell of polished wood,
distinct as the scent of rained-on roses,
or the just damp sidewalk that drove us indoors.
Karen would say
If you heat your house you must oil it,
else the wooden things and the ivory things
dry and crack and lose their value.
Karen was the nanny:
who was there to greet us when we came home from school,
who brought us closer to god by scrubbing;
Karen was the housekeeper:
tall, with heavy breasts and dark heavy combs that fell from her hair,
a whistler of hymns—lips puckered like the butt of a fig,
fastidious in her manner of swinging dust wands moist with lemon water.
Soft Oregon light followed her movements in slanted shafts,
as if house were cathedral;
and she—burnishing tabernacle,
efficient as the flow of the Willamette River,
baptized us each day in cool latitude.
Karen worked her alchemy on what needed rubbing:
vinegar and newspaper to make the mullioned windows disappear,
bee's wax dissolved in gum spirits to nourish the woodwork,
silver paste buffed with undershirt rags for the sugar shaker,
Mentholatum for the chest of the freshly bathed child.
Furniture gleamed with excoriation—Flemish oath,
and despite our parents' neglect,
Karen kept us clean and anointed.