Sample Poems by Cathy Hale
Photo of My Mother at 17
She is sitting on the lawn, squinting
into the late afternoon sun, and even though
the photo is black and white, I can see
the roses in her cheeks, sense her languor
like gauzy yellow curtains hanging
before an open window. She poses
between coy and innocent, leaning back
on long arms in a sleeveless cotton blouse,
ankles crossed below the hem of her capris.
It is 1957, before me, my sister, even
my father. Her childhood is already a series
of compressed memories: the gritty rhythm
of her roller skates striking the sidewalk
all the way to the corner market, her terror
of Heidi's grandfather and his bushy eyebrows
looming on the movie screen, yank of the brush
that couldn't subdue hair far too wiry
for a good girl. The shutter opens
too quickly to capture any of this, just
grayscale points of light coalescing
within a wavy decorative border,
and the smile on my mother's lips.
She stands at the sink washing the popcorn popper,
while he creeps up behind her, licking the butter and salt
from his fingers, his pinkie tickling the soft shell of her ear
surrounded by plastic curlers and bobby pins. She lobs
suds at his pink cheeks, darts across the kitchen linoleum.
In their overheated attic apartment, his laugh is gusty
and cool like the January night drifting through
the open window. His ears poke out from his crew cut
and his eyes twinkle as he crosses the room
in three steps. She sprints toward the bedroom,
hand over her mouth to hold back a squeal, worried
she'll wake Granny Hale downstairs. When her nightgown
tangles around her ankles, he grabs for her
with his strong paperboy arms.
No one really remembers the noise of the bed breaking-
the metal frame shifting, wooden slats clattering
to the floor-only the red-faced moments after.
Startled from her bed without glasses or teeth,
Granny Hale calls up from the bottom of the stairs,
her quavering voice surprisingly loud in the sudden quiet.
My father, in underwear and sock feet, reassures
her through the cracked door, ears bright red, while
my mother sprawls on the collapsed mattress, curlers akimbo,
and laughs the hardest she ever will.
The role of corpse fell
to me. I was smallest
and my body still
could fit the length
of Grandma's cedar chest,
hands folded across
my heart, rising
with my shallow dead
person breaths. Being dead
wasn't easy. My eyelids
fluttered with pleasure
when my cousins cried
into their flowered hankies,
Grandma's beads clacking
mournfully. The pious cousin
donned a tie, ponytail stuffed
under a moth-eaten black hat,
uttered words about time, seasons,
dust while I stifled a giggle.
If death meant being still,
I couldn't imagine it.
Beneath the house he loved, the tidy six-room
bungalow on a triple-deep lot in the city,
the stairway to my grandpa's cellar
was in the center of the house, its closed
and latched doorway off the kitchen.
Every day Grandma would ask Grandpa
to bring something up from the cellar, a quart
of green beans, a butternut squash,
a pint of applesauce. He would descend
into the musty dark, illuminated only
by two cobwebbed, dusty slits of windows.
The day I was big enough to follow Grandpa
down the wooden steps, my fingers lightly
trailing the rickety stair rail, it was like entering
the tomb of an Egyptian king. A mosaic
of Ball jars holding peaches and chow-chow,
tomatoes and corn, emerged under the caress
of Grandpa's flashlight as it glided through
dust motes. Bushel baskets of onions, winter
squash and apples leaned against dirt-packed walls,
a play table waited with two small chairs pulled out;
overhead, metal runners of a child's wooden sled
still had their shine. Around us, the perfume
of earth and apples.
Holiday Congealed Salad
It drops to the plate with a sharp
sucking, pineapple-flecked green ribs
shivering. At its peak, a single
maraschino cherry pools red dye.
The younger family members politely
pass it by, while my diabetic grandfather plunges
the server into the slumped
mass. My grandmother pronounces,
in stroke-slowed words, "Tastes like
it's supposed to," the highest compliment
I can hope to receive. There was a run
on lime Jell-O at the grocery store, canned
pineapple tidbits too. I imagine tables
across our town teetering under
the empty weight of green gelatin,
sparkling as winter's early darkness
solidifies around us. My grandmother
asks for more. I made it just for her.