Poem and Essay: Corsages in a Book / The History We Will Never Know

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I have a book that remained in my mother’s house
after I moved her to the personal care home,
The Pennsylvania Almanac 1945,
in which were nestled
three corsages pressed flat,
spaced among the thousand pages
of information about the administration of Pennsylvania,
maps and lists and departments,
information anyone would need to know
to get things done in Pennsylvania.
But there was no information about the corsages,
the small wrist corsage with the shell-pink ribbon and small pink roses,
or the white rose with blue ribbons to be pinned on a dress,
or the creamy white bridal bouquet, two roses, ivory satin ribbon
chenille holder and ivory lace.

When were the dances, the night out, the wedding?
Do I see these in the dim black and white images
of my mother with her first husband,
right after the war,
before they married?
Is this the small bouquet she holds in one of her wedding photos,
to match perfectly the ivory wedding suit she wears?

Or are they from an even earlier time,
the love all through high school
who came back from the war and loved and left her.
You preserve a corsage because
you want to preserve the memory;
you carefully arrange the materials so they preserve the original
and the book pages pull the moisture from the flowers,
but these were dropped in a book that would never be opened again,
and the pages slapped shut,
no arranging of ribbons and lace, the flowers pressed into each other,
the whole thing nearly unrecognizable,
I know about pressing corsages;
these were left behind, ignored, but I know they were not forgotten.
Somewhere in all the stories
I will find the stories of the corsages.

poem copyright 2009 © Bernadette E. Kazmarski

The History We Will Never Know

A wide, heavy volume always occupied a space in the bookshelf near where my mother sat in the living room, along with her crossword puzzle reference books and world almanacs, dictionary and thesaurus and other reference books, near the book club novels that were still her favorites. But she regularly used those reference books and we read the novels. The big volume never seemed to move, just sat heavily and dull green, its title, The Pennsylvania Almanac 1945, embossed in increasingly faded gold on its wide spine.

I never questioned the presence of this book, never wondered why someone would want an almanac of the state’s political system and elected officials from 1945 when it was 1975, for instance, or why there was no almanac for other years. As a young reader and into my teens, looking for something to read when I’d run out of things, I’d opened the book more than once and tried make it interesting enough to follow along. Each time I carefully flipped past the corsages because the book’s pages opened to them, and even looking at the edges of the book it was clear something fairly thick was stuffed in there, a bit of ribbon seeping out.

I didn’t question the corsages then, either. Finding corsages pressed into a large book, which would flatten it and pull the moisture out of the flowers and greenery fast enough to keep it from turning brown and crumbling and thereby preserve it, was still in common practice then and dictionaries and encyclopedias were often pressed into service for this.

But when I cleared out my mother’s house as I prepared it for sale, alone there in the quiet little ranch I’d grown up in while she was in personal care, clearing off shelves, packing papers from the desk in boxes, I paid closer attention to things than before, even in the recent years she’d lived there, and found questions, but few answers.

I opened that big, ugly volume once again, carefully looked at each of the corsages, looked at where they were placed to see if the pages were a clue. The book had not been hers originally, had someone else’s name penciled onto the flyleaf so it may have been used, or it may have  been given to her, or possibly that person himself was the reason it was kept; an affair she never mentioned? Why 1945? Were the corsages from 1945? Had there been other volumes but only this one kept because it contained the corsages, and perhaps a volume of memories as well?

1945 was also the year her high school sweetheart had come home from the war but told her he could not stay with her because of his experience overseas. Had she worn one to welcome him home? Had they gone out to a dance or event? Would that have made her unceremoniously toss the corsages into this big ugly book, but carry the book around for the rest of her life, through two marriages? She certainly carried his memory actively through that time.

That was before her 1946 wedding to her first husband, my sister’s father, who they’d lost in a car accident in 1952, though they may have been dating that year. He ultimately worked for the state and possibly that had come up in conversation. Had she found this book as a reference for working with the state, and then forever associated it with him?

I also noticed the faded embossed gold, the broken binding, torn at the edges of the spine, top and sides. Any book that had sat on a shelf, rarely moved, for 60 years, would not have tattered covers. Someone besides me had opened that book frequently enough. My mother stayed up late every night of my childhood, often until dawn, after my baker father had gone to work in the day’s early hours. Had she pulled this book from the shelf then, opened the pages, touched the corsages, held those memories?

I don’t think I will ever know where they were from. But I realized on that day in 2003 when I took a good look at the book and the state of the corsages that they represented one more hurt in her long and rather sad life, one more hurt she could not let go of.

I carefully placed the book into a bag to take home, its pages literally and metaphorically carrying information I would carefully keep to discern. I asked my mother about the volume and the corsages later, but never truly received an answer. Sometimes deflection was her subterfuge for things she didn’t want to discuss, sometimes she was experiencing mild dementia. I did not press her at that time, and the work of selling the house and bringing much of what I wanted to either sell or keep came to my house so that the book was placed on one of my own shelves, then lost behind boxes of things as paperwork mounted.

The time of running my business, managing her care and my brother’s care were top of mind but in rearranging things in 2009 I found the book again, but by that time my mother was so deep into dementia she might as well accuse me of letting the turkey burn in the over as tell me once again she wasn’t sure what book I meant and change the subject. I tried, and failed, wrote a poem to hold my thoughts and let it go until later, when I had more time to consider.

The high school sweetheart left her at the end of 1945, as near as I can tell. My mother and her first husband were married in December 1946. The car accident that took his life, and nearly hers too, was at the end of November 1952. My parents married at the end of October 1955. I think of her in relation to those marriages and losses at this time of the year, especially in the dark and cold of November, when suddenly the days are short and spirits seem to moan in the first cold howling winter winds.


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My Own Labor History

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First published in 2013

When I was a senior in high school I began my first full-time job as a cook at a local deli, Isaly’s in Pittsburgh. Working part-time nights and weekends until graduation I trained in the day cook’s position of opening the kitchen at 6:00 am to cook the lunch entrée and heat up the soups, open the doors of the shop at 7:00 am for the first customers wanting coffee and a pastry or a brown bag lunch to go, serve meals and beverages and offer counter help at all the stations as needed, plan the weekly lunch specials and soups and order accordingly, also using leftovers, with as little waste as possible, keeping the kitchen and walk-in freezer clean, and deep frying 50 pounds of fish every Friday for a community that still observed this particular weekly fasting menu. Whew!

For this I was paid my full-time wage of $3.50 per hour for all the hours I worked and was an apprentice member of the Hotel, Motel, Bar and Club Workers’ Union, a subsidiary of the United Food and Commercial Workers’ Union, which ensured that my employer gave me what he’d promised—a reasonable schedule for a high school student, maintaining the hours and wages agreed upon, full training for the job I would undertake, and the ability to question or file complaint if anything didn’t meet the standards we’d discussed when I was hired. In addition, the union as well as the shop oversaw my performance, that I learned what I needed to and worked as expected. I guess I did because when I graduated in June the day cook could finally retire as I undertook her 40 hours of weekly duties and also became a full union member, and received full health and life insurance benefits, guaranteed raises and vacation, pension, plus all other union benefits of assistance with further training in my field and the ability to file grievance if I felt one was necessary, and my employer could also appeal to the union if they felt my performance wasn’t adequate.

Now that’s job security.

It was 1979, minimum wage in Pennsylvania was $2.90 per hour. Using the US government’s Bureau of Labor Statistics calculator for wages and inflation, my full-time wages of $3.50 per hour today translate to $11.26 per hour. My 1979 annual salary of $7,280.00 translates today to $23,423.95. Out of my wages I paid $20.00 monthly union dues, but all the rest after taxes was mine, and with that amount of income I could have moved out of my parents’ house into my own place and started my life as an adult, purchased my own clothes, food and necessities, bought a car and other commodities, and even managed to save a portion of it for retirement, a house, vacation, or even investment. In other words, I could live independently on the salary from a fairly unskilled job with training right out of high school. There were other, better jobs as well that required more effort and paid better, I had my choice. In my little spot in the world, nearly everyone was a union member, and a choice such as this had begun many a life-long career that raised many families, bought many houses, paid for millions of college educations and built the strongest economy in the world.

My choice

What I decided to do with that money was invest in my college education. At the same time that I’d applied for the job at Isaly’s I’d also applied, very late, to a state college, urged on by my high school guidance counselor, and been accepted; I’m not sure, but I think I took my SATs when I applied and got my results just in time. While there were, and still are, a dozen viable colleges and universities in Pittsburgh as well as dozens more trade schools and even other union apprenticeships where I could have attended while living at home, my guidance counselor gently pointed me to Edinboro State College, close enough to be easy to get to and full of students from Pittsburgh but far enough that I would have to live there, because they had a good art program and I could also have the option of a teaching degree with their long history as one of the state’s oldest teachers’ colleges. I didn’t have terribly good grades or SAT scores and no distinguishing activities at all aside from the fact I’d always been praised by teachers for my art and writing, but the school wanted students, and also had the lowest tuition of all the colleges in the Pennsylvania state college system at the time. It was perfect for me, beginner that I was.

My parents wavered between ignoring the idea and disdain at the idea I wanted to go to college. My father, we learned a few years later, had Parkinson’s disease, never said much and reactions were barely detectable, but my mother laughed and said I could try this but I’d probably come right back home; I was a minor so they signed my application at least. I don’t remember the reaction when I received my acceptance letter, probably because I’d rather not remember, but my mother was further angered when, while I’d dutifully signed over all other income from part-time jobs and even grass-cutting from the age of 14, I went to one of the banks on Main Street in Carnegie and opened a bank account, depositing my paychecks and learning from the teller how to manage the register and write checks. I actually didn’t think about the impact on my mother, it just made sense.

I paid my fees to the college, bought myself a set of luggage, some clothes, a winter coat and boots for life in what I heard was the “snow belt”, and a backpack, which seemed to be de rigueur for all college students and kept all the rest of the money in the bank. My parents filled out my financial aid forms, though after my first semester I declared myself independent of them and completed them myself. My boyfriend drove me up for Initiation Day just before he left for Air Force boot camp, and I told my employer about my change of plans.

Through the rest of the summer I worked and trained my replacement. On the day I left for college my mother stayed in bed while I piled all my stuff into the back seat of my father’s olive-green Impala and he drove me up, dropped me off, gave me the only hug I remember in all my life, and went back home. After attending four years, including summers, working five or six part-time jobs on and off campus the entire time, taking the bus home only for occasional holidays, making a fair number of misguided mistakes as well as good decisions, I graduated with 178 credits out of a necessary 120 to graduate, only $700 in student loan debt and a BA in English, but I learned much more than grammar and a love of Shakespeare.

Coming back

The world had changed dramatically during those four years as the steel industry and most of the economy in Pittsburgh had totally collapsed. Within years jobs like the one I’d had at Isaly’s no longer existed, and unskilled beginning jobs were non-union, often taken up by unemployed adults, and wages stagnated. For nearly a decade all jobs were uncertain, layoffs were common—I was laid off four times in my first three years out of college—and population dropped as people left for jobs elsewhere until Pittsburgh found its feet again, in education, health care, and hi-tech development and manufacturing.

I didn’t have the chance to go on with the education I’d planned, to teach English and comparative arts at the college level and become an artist and writer in my own right; soon after I’d graduated my father injured himself at his lifetime occupation as a baker in small family bakeries, was diagnosed with lung cancer and Parkinson’s disease and both parents needed assistance of all sorts. I worked any job I could find and began freelancing even then, and by the time my parents’ situation had stabilized with my father in a nursing home and my mother settled in the house but with a car and a drivers’ license, I had some debt to remove and, after a lot of deliberation, decided not to return to school but to try to make a career out of what I could do already. After many twists and turns both in and out of my field, I ended up being a typesetter for nearly 20 years as well as installing ceiling fans for cash and decorating malls and painting signs and all else I could make out of what I’d learned in college and afterward, here I am, self-employed as an artist and writer, and now and then I get to teach something.

My personal labor history

As a young person I was able to begin the course of my adult life by choosing between a skilled job at a living wage or a college education and what that could bring me later. The minimum wage (or even the 1979 server wage of $1.81 per hour plus tips) and slightly higher wage for skilled labor were each living wages and I could either start my career right then or work my way through college because my wages could sustain those choices.

I won’t bemoan the opportunities that are no longer available. The world changes as time passes, and hopefully the changes bring not only different but better opportunities, the things to which we are accustomed are replaced with things that make our lives better and easier, education matches the needs of society and its work force. But the days of working your way through college with a bunch of part-time jobs, or being able to live independently right out of high school, are so far out of reach it must seem to most people that there really are no choices, and no place to go. I was glad for the choice of an unskilled career job that enabled me to learn true independence, save money, and help me set sail, and I’m also glad for the college degree I could afford and without which I would have ended up living in my parents’ basement for the following decades. Today, I would not have the choices I had 34 years ago, and would certainly not have had the courage to make the decision I did to go to a four-year college and see what happened. How can you look forward to your life when your future seems out of reach and unaffordable? What do determined dreamers like me do? I’m not sure, but we need to find a place in the labors of our society for everyone.


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A Conversation with My Father

My father and me, spring 1964.
My father and me, spring 1964.
My father and me, spring 1964.

My father and I were in the kitchen of the house where I grew up one morning in 1987, having a nice conversation. This was not a typical event because I’d never had a substantial conversation with my father before that, nothing more than one-word answers or brief sentences.

I don’t remember exactly what we talked about, but I think it was just chit chat, something about the weather, maybe a news story or something. Winter morning sun streamed through the windows over the table and in the back door and diffused through the white sheers on the dining room window in the tiny ranch house as we stood there exchanging words. He spoke with some animation, responding to what I’d said, asking questions of what I thought about something.

I was 25 and don’t remember ever hearing his natural conversational voice aside from the subdued, minimal answers he gave to questions and occasional brief comments. Just a year before he had injured himself in the small bakery where he worked, a very unusual circumstance for all the years since his childhood working in the family bakery, through service in WWII and then in other family and otherwise small bakeries after the war to that point. He was treated for the injury to his hand but the wise emergency room doctors and nurses had noticed some respiratory and cognitive issues. He was diagnosed with lung cancer just the day before the Challenger shuttle broke up over the watching nation of students and teachers and citizens, and I think I cried hard for that tragedy in large part because the shock of the diagnosis had just begun to wear off. The mass was right at the point where his lungs separated from his trachea and impacted both lungs. The surgery was long and difficult, but when he was healing well physically and was not returning to a full mental state they realized his cognitive issues may not have been entirely due to the cancer.

After tests and trials of a few medications doctors determined he had parkinsonism or Parkinson Syndrome, evidencing the symptoms of Parkinson’s disease like the fixed, unblinking gaze, shuffling gait, rigidity and slow movements. The cause is usually unknown but can be induced by certain drugs or environmental toxins, and sometimes from head trauma or brain damage. The doctors traced it back to a nearly fatal malarial fever my father had had while serving in India in the Asian-Pacific theater of WWII that likely caused mild brain damage at the time, but may have unknowingly caused enough damage in the right areas that he slowly produced progressively less dopamine and more symptoms over a period of decades. This concurred with what others had seen. By the time I remember him he was the silent, stone-faced person at the dinner table, or driving the car, or sleeping on the couch before he went to work in the bakery in the middle of the night, the person holding me in the photo.

Apparently the current medications and treatments were somewhat effective considering his comparative ease of movement and his conversational ability. The conversation continued for a while and then he left the kitchen to talk to my mother who was in my old bedroom at her vanity getting ready to leave the house.

“She’s a really nice girl,” I heard him say. “Who is she?”

I didn’t hear my mother’s response.

My mother was getting ready to leave the house because this was the day my father was going to the hospital for probably the last time before he entered a nursing home, and I was there to drive them and help them through admissions. The medications and treatments had indeed loosened up his body enabling him to move and speak as he hadn’t in years, but it wasn’t consistent. His mind was quickly becoming fragmented and he was developing frequent pneumonia and had also had prostate surgery. Because he hadn’t driven since his surgery I had arrived at the house in the morning ready to take them to many appointments during the previous year. My father would not return from this one. After an extended hospital stay it was determined that skilled nursing care was necessary to manage all his conditions.

I was the youngest. I was the first family member my father “forgot” as his mind marched backward in time through the next four years and he seemed to relive his life in reverse, slipped deeper into dementia, and lost speech entirely along with any control over his body.

Even though my father had no idea who I was, the person he was in that moment found that I was a nice person. I’ll take that. I’d discovered with my mother under medical circumstances that the person underneath the mask of lifelong undiagnosed issues sometimes surfaces with great clarity at odd moments. I got to see for just a moment who that relaxed, broadly smiling person was in a photo I found in my brother’s baby book taken just four years earlier than the still-faced photo of him holding me. Happy Father’s Day, dad, either way.

~~~

Read an essay about the photo of that smiling man, Father’s Day.


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Memorial Day

Memorial Day
Memorial Day
Memorial Day

Even though Memorial Day was founded to memorialize the losses of the Civil War, it came to be an important day of remembrance for our losses in successive wars as conflicts came nearly every other decade in the century following. My parents’ generation called Memorial Day “Decoration Day”. It was the weekend to clear away the weeds, trim the grass, and spend time in the cemetery, and the graves of family members were decorated with wreaths and flags and freshly planted flowers, veterans or not. I’m not sure how it had lost the origin for them of remembering those who had died in service to their country but perhaps it had been the European tradition carried on in this country. Nearly everyone in my parents’ generation was touched by WWII, either in service or the hardships of living through the war years and the friends who had not come home.

I always focus on WWII, since that was my parents’ experience, all the male relatives in my parents’ generation served in that conflict, and the experience marked my own life as the generation following. My father suffered no emotional trauma in combat or in service, but another trauma to his body that we didn’t learn about until near his death that marked his life after service as well as that of my immediate family.

The collage above includes a photo of the veteran’s flag from my father’s funeral, a treasured artifact of mine, as well as the WWII section of the military wall in the Historical Society of Carnegie which bears hundreds of familiar names—names of businesses and owners of businesses, the fathers and uncles of kids I grew up with, and even husbands and brothers of others I’ve come to know as an adult. My father’s name, Alfons, and his brother’s names, Richard and Henry (his parents dispensed with the European names after the first three children), his cousin’s names, and the names of those who would intermarry with sisters and cousins are there as well.

The other image is a rare and interesting artifact from my godparents’ house, which had been the house where my father grew up, a hand-tinted photo of my father in uniform, and it’s so fragile I didn’t want to take it apart to scan it. His younger brother, who signed up at the same time, is to the right, but they weren’t photographed together and aren’t in proportion to each other. Their images were combined and hand-tinted like an early Photoshop collage, probably done quickly and by an amateur by the looks of it, and unfortunately my uncle Richard’s image was damaged by water and some odd abrasion. The frame is a wonderful round-cornered wood frame with a piece of convex glass obviously custom made for it. At some point I want to work on a little restoration for this, but for now I want to leave it as is since it’s pretty stable, and I’ve just included my father in this photo.

My father was an Army cook and baker, stationed in India during WWII. I have no stories of valiant combat service, but the troops needed to eat, and nothing was a more comforting reminder of home than familiar food in unfamiliar places. Bakers also made specialty items for officers and for troops, and as a baker, my father baked and decorated plenty of birthday cakes for the troops in his area. He’d been working in his parents’ bakery since his pre-teen years, and he was a little older than some other troops, entering service at age 23 and had plenty of baking experience for special projects.

All who serve bring back with them the traumas of their service, whether it’s their own experience or the injury or loss of a friend. My father, as an Army cook, wasn’t on the front lines risking his life but he had his share of losses of friends, and a loss of his own that we didn’t realize until later. My father had Parkinson Syndrome or Parkinsonism, and though it wasn’t diagnosed until 1984, once we learned the symptoms we realized he’d had the disease for years, likely from the time of his service in WWII. By the time I have any memory of him in the early 1960s he already had the characteristic shuffling step and stone face, silent except for one-word answers, but he never had a tremor and everyone thought he was “just like that”. He worked at night as a baker, often seven days a week, he was in his 40s, and he was always tired. That was understandable, but it wasn’t accurate.

Parkinson’s Disease was first identified in 1817 by Dr. James Parkinson, studied in the 1870s by Dr. Jean Martin Charcot and by this century the developing tremors were easily identified in many older people as a “palsy”. But because my father never had those tremors no one ever identified the other symptoms in him. It wasn’t until the 1960s that the chemical basis for Parkinson’s Disease was found, measuring the levels of dopamine in the brain which, as it decreased, caused degeneration of specific brain cells leading to the classic symptoms. Further studies in succeeding decades led to ever more information on other forms of Parkinsonism that did not evidence all the symptoms and could be caused by physical trauma or other damages to the brain, including viral illnesses and high fevers, and these were classed as Parkinson Syndrome conditions.

During my father’s service in India he was recorded to have had some type of malarial fever—not malaria itself, but there were many other tropical and sub-tropical illnesses that caused extended fevers and even death for troops who’d never encountered them, and in the days before vaccines were common. One of my father’s friends who came to visit now and then told my mother after my father recovered that he remembered the change after the fever, no more jokes or pranks, my father was just very quiet and very tired. That apparently continued all the rest of his life and as he aged and suffered other injuries and surgeries and the stress of working all night all the time, the decrease of dopamine killed off more brain cells.

What? Jokes and pranks? My father? No way! In hindsight it’s good to know what was the reason for the silence and lack of emotion, which in turn infuriated my mother and confused us kids. It would have been nice to grow up with that person who married my mother, and who created me. It is at least good to know the answer to something I’d always wondered, and on Memorial Day know that I am not alone in what we remember of those we loved, or tried to love.

~~~

You can also find this essay under Essays on this site.

I’ve written a few other things about my family’s experience of WWII and my father’s service in “The Thanks of a Grateful Nation”, and also others about Memorial Day, “Soldier” and “Memorial Day Parade”


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Mother’s Day

Petunias
Petunias
Petunias

I always had a difficult time finding an adequate Mother’s Day Gift for my mother, but at one point settled on purchasing a couple flats of flowers and planting them in her yard. I did this for nearly 20 years, also starting seeds for flowers she liked that I couldn’t find, like hollyhocks. Though my style goes for the wildlife habitat and naturally shaped areas of wildflowers and trees, my mother’s yard was carefully sculpted with edged flower beds and shaped shrubs—I know because I was the one who did all the trimming—and she never failed to sneer and ask if I wasn’t going to clean up around here when she visited, we could agree on the riot of color of impatiens, petunias, geraniums and marigolds along with the occasional verbena, alyssum and other annual bedding plants.

The flower solution was more than an answer to a predicament; it reached much deeper than that. To say my mother and I didn’t get along well is a simplification, in fact an affront, to a much deeper issue. My mother lived behind a wall of serious clinical depression, and when I was born she developed most likely a deep post-natal depression that went on for more than a year and had a negative physical effect on her too, changing her body as well as her mind for that period of time. Though she recovered from this, lost the weight and regained her self esteem she had lasting medical and physical issues for the rest of her life. A part of her always seemed to hold me to blame for that awful time in her life and the changes in her body, I could see it in her eyes every time she looked at me. She kept her distance from me, treated me differently, denied things to me and even into her days of dementia she still berated me for imagined things I’d done, never thanking me for the things I actually had done, except for one brief time in all her illnesses she really was weak enough to let the wall down.

I learned some of the explanations for this through paperwork I’d found in her house when I sold it and which I still have, finding at least partial answers to many questions regarding both my mother and my father and their actions. At some point years ago I realized depression was the issue and instead of arguing and rebelling I just decided I’d get the heck out of there when I could. I sent myself to college, and it was the break I needed.

As the youngest I was always on hand until college, and in feeling I was responsible for my mother’s happiness I became her caretaker and in one capacity or another I maintained that role for all the rest of my mother’s life, through my father’s lung cancer and Parkinson’s disease, her many surgeries and medical treatments and nursing her to health afterward, actually teaching her to drive and buying her a car when I was totally unwilling to be a taxi service, pursuing the diagnosis of her lung cancer, and shepherding her through surgery, near death, recovery, home care, personal care and skilled nursing.

But I always knew, trapped behind that wall, was a person just like me. Years ago I had begun slipping behind that wall myself and understood the perspective from that place, but I was lucky to have escaped and managed it through my adult life. Though patience and understanding wore thin and there were times I avoided my mother altogether, I would do anything to see she had what she needed.

And she needed flowers. I could do that.

~~~

The night she died I wrote a poem about her. Read, About My Mother.

I’ve written other essays about my mother, read them here.


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