The example set for me by my mother was to be patient and forgiving with others no matter what.

She expected of herself quiet acceptance on the one hand, yet her Calvinist upbringing left little room for tolerance.

“She dealt her pretty words like Blades —” is said to have been prompted by Emily Dickinson’s response to a visitor’s mean-spirited sarcasm. The kind that could subdue my mother, impaling her on self-made horns of dilemma constructed in her personality long before she produced me, but coloring our relationship.

She dealt her pretty words like Blades –
How glittering they shone –
And every One unbared a Nerve
Or wantoned with a Bone –

She never deemed  – she hurt –
That – is not Steel’s Affair –
A vulgar grimace in the Flesh –
How ill the Creatures bear –

To Ache is human – not polite –
The Film opon the eye
Mortality’s old Custom –
Just locking up – to Die –

These are not the words of a permeable child, but a carefully wrought analysis, a cunning indictment of cruel intent.

I don’t think my pretty, emotional, dramatic mother ever understood such clear distinction between intentional and unintentional harm.

I often felt helpless when she took to her bed with anguish over an offhand remark: “And every One unbared a Nerve”, detected when I saw “A vulgar grimace in the Flesh —”. By contrast, she would smile and serve coffee to the untrustworthy.

I can just hear the voice of authoritarian restraint working on the heart of my mother, and by extension, myself: “To Ache is human — not polite —”, with emphasis on not polite. We both developed “The Film opon the eye”, clouding our relationship.

It seems to me that “Mortality’s old Custom — /” of politeness despite hurt and confusion drove a wedge between her desire to accept and her need for fairness.

Eventually, it seemed, she oversimplified her existence: “Just locking up — to Die — ”.

Digest A Poem A Day — Accept What Comes Your Way

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