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Good Letters

“So who mothers the mothers
who tend the hallways of mothers,
the spill of mothers, the smell of mothers,
who mend the eyes of mothers”
–Catherine Barnett, “Chorus”

On Easter, I go to my son’s father’s house—Sundays are one of his days—and watch my son enjoy his basket, which I spun from thin air the night before after realizing his father hadn’t bought anything to contribute, despite my reminder. (He is a good father in many ways, but I have been doing the administrative labor of our child’s life for the past six years, and…) As I drove back to my house after dropping off the basket Saturday night, I texted a friend.

“Well, I pulled that together somehow. Good thing I’m magic.” 

“All mothers are magic,” she replied. 

Before I leave them, after pancakes and mimosas and a board game, my son leaps into my arms saying, “pretend I’m scared,” clinging to me like a baby koala. I don’t have to pretend, because I know his anxiety in these moments of transition. I squeeze him, holding tight while I can. I think of immigrant children clinging scared to parents who don’t have a structure in which to provide their magic of care during the everyday transitions of childhood. Every day I flash on this thought at one point or another.


At home, I spend the rest of Sunday regrouping. I send up my own sort of prayers about my private griefs and our shared human griefs. I read a news story about religious extremists creating rivers of blood in Sri Lanka. I watch an engrossing show on PBS, in which Rick Steves narrates some of the ancient springtime rituals of Europe, pagan and Christian. Hooded Italian children march through the streets giving candy to other, smaller children, who look startled. The Virgin Mary, known as Estrella, is paraded through the streets. Greek children dye eggs red—always red, for the blood—with their godparents. I change the channel when a passion play starts, a man depicting Christ is streaked in red.

I turn back to my tarot cards, which I find calming. All the predictions lately show pentacles, coins, gold pieces raining down, wands of action, and unexpected windfalls. I have been writing a poem a day for poetry month, and one of the early prompts asked, “What do you deserve?” I found myself unable to write easily on the subject of this prompt, what I deserve. It confused me. 


On a recent trip to a writing conference, I watched at the airport as two women helped a third manage her infant as she went through security, the older woman holding the tiny human easily, facedown and along her forearm. She smiled at the mother as if to say, “I am holding a tiny baby again.” The tiny human studied the carpet as a middle-aged woman helped hook the baby carrier back around the mother’s body. None of these women knew each other, but the mother had entered into the community of other women noticing and ready, which is what any of us deserve. The baby looked wise and inquisitive, and this she was allowed by the care that she received. 


Another night I dreamed I steered my car away from a tornado shot through with a rainbow—how glorious and terrible it was. I stopped at a cramped restaurant, where immigrant women were being held and forced to do the hard work of carrying heavy trays of food to those with plenty. 

This then, I thought, is their America. 

Later in the dream, a different woman in an office tried to teach me self-care, but I worried about the decadence of what she was telling me to do. It involved eating more tiramisu. I knew she meant well, but I don’t even like tiramisu. I woke up not knowing how any of us would care for anyone else.


When my grandmother broke her hip a year before she died, a nurse in her hospital room momentarily went cold when my grandmother mentioned the culture of cruelty we had turned toward. “It’s plain meanness,” my gran said, pronouncing the word as if it only had one “n,” which I admired. Half of what she said sounded like a Shakespeare character, partly due to the stray Elizabethan retention in North Carolina speech and partly the originality of her mind. “Wise as serpents, harmless as doves,” she would say. But then that is just the Bible. 

I suppose the nurse felt that she could not respond warmly to language that communicated a subtle criticism of her president—that is what I intuited— and I wondered at how a call to back away from meanness had become a divisive thing. “Separating little children from their mothers. It isn’t right. Plain meanness,” my grandmother said to me another time. 

I send you out as sheep among wolves. 

Later at the hospital, she became determined to clean herself, and directed me to hand her the disposable cloths that had been left by the bed. We took down her gown, and I held it up in front of her and held up a plastic bag and assisted her as she cleaned herself thoroughly, holding out the bag for the soiled cloths, marveling at the familiarity of her body, still the beautiful one I remember from watching her dress when I was small, though lined and bruised now. I felt prepared for this intimacy by a lifetime of watching my grandmother’s insistence on cleanliness, by a memory of her wiping me down with a wet washcloth in a dim room when I was worn out from playing outside all day in the summer and too tired to get in the bath.  Remembering the comfort of being clean and cared for. Mostly it was having my own small child that made me feel prepared. We do what we have to do to help each other along.  


Despite not personally identifying strictly as Christian, I have a group of women friends on Facebook who are Christian and feminist and wise and seeking, and one of them decided this past Holy Week to lead an online retreat around the idea of the women at the crucifixion and the tomb. I remain on the outside of this conversation, but I feel interested to see them thinking through the questions of women’s service and women’s griefs in this way. My friend Kristen writes: “It’s a wonder that the men who wrote the Bible mentioned the women at all, given that almost all of them had fled.  They had no idea what happened in those hours.  They are retelling stories someone else told them.” 

I think about the private nature of women’s stories of their own suffering, how they are shared at kitchen tables and in late-night phone calls, and these days in online messages, how when I visited her as an adult, my grandmother told me stories of how she cared for her mother-in-law after her stroke, removing her from the nursing home when she saw that she wasn’t getting the right attention. My grandmother helped my great-grandmother for the rest of her life, making sure she was groomed and stylish, as she preferred to be, chauffeuring her around, helping her learn to speak again, as well as she could. This is the women at the tomb, showing up to anoint the body because that’s just what you do. Show up to care and witness. This is how women mother each other. This unseen work is also how women suffer and stumble and fall down near unto death and get back up again. This is why it pays to have a group who can watch out for you, watch with you.


The world will break you down, a friend said, especially if you become a mother. The world will break you down, and that is when things become interesting. 


This, then, is what I deserve, what all of us deserve. Unquestioning care.  Attention and consideration. Mothering from a world in which I would mother. 

image: Mary Magdalene and the Holy Women at the Tomb (Madeleine et les saintes femmes au tombeau) – James Tissot From Wikimedia Commons 

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Written by: Joanna Penn Cooper

Poet and essayist Joanna Penn Cooper is the author of The Itinerant Girl's Guide to Self-Hypnosis (Brooklyn Arts Press) and What Is a Domicile (Noctuary Press). She holds a PhD in English from Temple University and has taught at Marquette and Fordham. Her work has appeared in The Academy of American Poets Poem-a-Day feature, as well as South Dakota Review, Zócalo Public Square, Open Letters Monthly, Poetry International, and other journals. Cooper teaches online workshops in flash memoir and lyric essay for Creative Nonfiction and the Muse Writers Collective. She lives in Durham, North Carolina.

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