“For My Mother” | a sestina poem

“For My Mother”

When I was a child, my mother
took out a gray pan every morning.
With a knife, she cut thin slits along a tilapia.
I asked her what she was doing, opening my hands
in front of me, my palms upward, empty.
“I’m making you breakfast,” she said, and smiled.

That was my last memory of her, when she smiled.
I see her again six years later, hoping my mother
would remember how she left, how the empty
house with my ate gone, my father at work every morning,
was her fault. We meet at a diner in Burbank, shaking hands
only. I sit still in our booth. I order coffee, she orders fried tilapia.

Her fork and spoon evenly slice the tilapia
and it lies flat on its side; its open mouth smiles.
She says, “So, how’ve you been girlfriend?” Her hands
look blurred in the air. I stare at her, eying my mother,
reaching for my spoon. I stir my coffee, saying it’s morning,
“You should know how I hate mornings.” My voice is empty.

She looks at the window. The sun envelops her face. Her empty
plate is left with the skeleton and eyes of the fried tilapia.
Her hair looks dyed, a deep blonde, in the light of morning.
I tell her my father works a lot, ate is married. She smiles.
“We missed you at the wedding,” I say to my mother.
“Oh, anak, I tried to come, honest.” She waves her hands.

My mother reaches across the table and I slap her hands
away from my face. She tries again but only touches empty
air. Her fingers finally brush my chin and I feel my mother’s
touch again. It’s cold and slippery. I look down at the tilapia
bones, away from her glance. When she lifts my face, a smile
forms on my lips. “Come on, anak,” she says, “It’s morning.”

I try to keep my mouth still, asking the waitress for morning
coffee. My mother tries to keep it light, keeping her hands
on her lap, telling me about her fifth husband. The waitress smiles
at us, says, “Y’all look so alike.” Brushing her apron, she takes the empty
plate away. My mother rubs her belly. I tell her, “You always loved tilapia.
That’s the one thing I know about you, mother.”

Since that day, every morning, I walk into my empty
room with closed hands. I imagine I smell tilapia
and remember her smile; my only memory of my mother.

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