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What I Learned From My Mother

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I learned from my mother how to love
the living, to have plenty of vases on hand
in case you have to rush to the hospital
with peonies cut from the lawn, black ants
still stuck to the buds. I learned to save jars
large enough to hold fruit salad for a whole
grieving household, to cube home-canned pears
and peaches, to slice through maroon grape skins
and flick out the sexual seeds with a knife point.
I learned to attend viewings even if I didn’t know
the deceased, to press the moist hands
of the living, to look in their eyes and offer
sympathy, as though I understood loss even then.
I learned that whatever we say means nothing,
what anyone will remember is that we came.
I learned to believe I had the power to ease
awful pains materially like an angel.
Like a doctor, I learned to create
from another’s suffering my own usefulness, and once
you know how to do this, you can never refuse.
To every house you enter, you must offer
healing: a chocolate cake you baked yourself,
the blessing of your voice, your chaste touch.

Reprinted from Sleeping Preacher, University of Pittsburgh Press, 1992, by permission of the publisher. First printed in West Branch, Vol. 30, 1992. Copyright © 1992 by Julia Kasdorf.
Source: Sleeping Preacher (University of Pittsburgh Press, 1992)
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What I Learned From My Mother

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  • Poet, essayist, and editor Julia Spicher Kasdorf was born in Lewistown, Pennsylvania. Educated at Goshen College, she earned a BA, an MA in creative writing, and a PhD from New York University.

    Kasdorf’s lyrical poems, steeped in her family’s Mennonite background, explore faith, social justice, and cultural inheritance. In an interview with Melissa Beattie-Moss, Kasdorf described how motherhood has affected the concerns of her poetry, noting, “You’re both incredibly drawn to the small and the domestic, and you’re also suddenly very sensitive to matters of the world. Your attention is pulled urgently in two directions.”

    Kasdorf’s poetry collections include Eve’s Striptease (1998); Sleeping Preacher (1992), which won the Agnes Lynch Starrett Poetry Prize and the Great Lakes Colleges Association Award for New Writing; and Poetry in America (2011). She is also the author of the essay collection The Body and the Book: Writing from a Mennonite Life (2001) and the biography Fixing...

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