Mother (or, A Midwestern Motif)

Katie Bullock Gawf


--- F1 --- 

I am driving down I-35 North towards Iowa 
when She appears. From the southbound side, 
her doe's eyes meet mine against the dark glare 
of headlights and I startle to see Her 
watching, without blinking, staring. 

Here, the night highway is supposed to be a space 
Where souls are secrets kept from the soybeans. 
I wonder – tense - what terrors a fellow intruder like Her 
Could be capable of. 

But the steam of her breath is catching, swirling 
fog tendrils out into the barely illuminated mist, and I find 
I am waiting for some kind of gift. As if Missouri deer aren't more common
than holy water, and our pastime isn't watching them 
in hope they'll let us on to some omen of knobby 
knees and bone-shaped skulls. 
I stare, and 

In the split-second before the bloodshed, she seems to smirk. Then, 
She throws herself in front of an eighteen-wheeler. 
I see red and tawny 
A tumbling body lost to the undercarriage 

The night resumes. 
Swallowed by the stillness of 
Stars glowing softly over the soybeans. 
Nothing to mark the violence of the interstate plains. 


--- F2 --- 

I find myself of the belief 
That the Midwest was imposed at gunpoint - 
A vanilla flavored violence. 
Everyone who accepted the sentence began to believe in 
bone china, and tarnished hand-me-down wedding silver
that they'd hide in attics between stacks of dried corn husks and extra sugar,
and also under the meat, 
left hung to dry after opening day of the hunt 
when the 6 pm jerky parties left a singed tension to stalk you 
like woodsmoke watching, 
clinging to clothes that'd be fall forever now 
with their acrid scents and venison stew stains 

My mother grew up here 
That much was clear. You could tell her Nebraska by the way 
she cooked cornbread in the kitchen just to suffocate it 
with a spoon of nutmeg butter and baked apples placed 
on a plate painted like a cardinal and passed down 
from a grandmother who also knew 
what it meant to pattern something 
with color as beautiful as the spilled brains of a bird. 

In my house, it was a sin to rip the family quilts 
so they stayed in the cedar chest, as heavy as a memory. 
Along with our collection of seed pearls 
and rusted bits of queen anne's lace 
and black and blue eyed susans, which were my mother's favorite. 

I remember my mother 
Standing with the other mothers, 
Laughing against the backdrop of my first field trip 
When we visited the Chateau dairy 
And they filed us five-year olds into a giant revolving circle 
that moved in rounds always in rounds 
As we grabbed cups of fresh squeezed milk flavored 
like cotton-candy, cookies and cream, root beer 
And spit it 
into the grass, as part of our new pastime. 
I looked out at the farm - 
Where later we'd ride tractors and touch our first udders 
Learning the motions of milking something 
not all too willing - and I found a land 
Exhausted of color 
Except for the bright billboards smiling at us

All along the highway, on the drive home 


--- F3 --- 

My mother, 
She always made us take our shoes with us 
When the Fujita scale was mentioned. 
It is what we use to categorize our calamity. 

On the scale, F1 denotes a wind speed of 74 to 112 mph 
Which is considered Moderate here 
F2 climbs to 157 mph and this we call Considerable 
F3, 206, Severe 
F4 will swirl you up to 260. The damage of this, they say, is Devastating. 
And then there is F5, the peak of the scale, the number 318 
Beyond which there is not any difference, between 
it and The Thunder of God. 
It is enough to lift up a house and put it back down 
Or to tear it apart with its 
china and silver and sugar and corn and jerky and plates and memories and
Funnily enough, we say that this damage is Incredible. 

When I was young, 
We would seek shelter at the slightest mention of the storm 
All of us shaken and awoken from our beds 
To my mother screaming when the sirens sounded 
To her ripping my sister and I from our quilts 
And tearing our shoes from the floor in a frenzied flight 
to the basement - she reasoned those rubber soles 
would protect us, if the glass broke. 
These were true treats for our dramatic toddler hearts: 
The whole family, gathering in the power-outage dark 
In a room filled with the modpodge scent of every candle in the house 
To listen to a weather radio and to feed off the fear 
That my mother secreted. I would smile and say I was scared 
And listen to the rain beat like a drum against the heart 
And the thunder that I suddenly took such pride in reminding my mom 
She said was just angel's bowling balls hitting the floor 
And the lightning she called their pins striking. 
And my father would shake his head, and wonder

Why all this for an F1 

When I was older, my mother would stay inside 
But my father and sister and I would play baseball in the backyard while 
we watched the sky go green 


--- F4 --- 

My mother tried to kill herself in the wake of me. 
I did not know this until I was 18, 
When my father told me the story of how he had found Her 
crying in a locked car in a closed garage steaming with exhaustion. 
Postpartum depression, he called it. 
Apparent cause: me. 

Here, being born is nearly enough 
to take life and, like a gooseberry in wanting 
hands, crush it 

In retrospect, there were signs I should have noticed 
warnings of my mother's silent past that would have subdued its surprise 
Like: she wore an Eeyore sweatshirt when baking cookies 
Like: she was religiously adamant that her favorite color was yellow. 
Like: she had her tubes tied when I was 5 
     the fear another baby would mean another bleak midwinter, 
     another helpless May, another melancholic misery bred in Missouri 

So she had her tubes tied, and decided instead to lose her mind 
Frequently, with relative predictability; 
such as anytime there was the slightest risk 
To my sister or me. Like: 
a nail on the ground, 
a stray dog, 
a siren's song. 
Any of which would send her into a state 
of veritable madness marked by salt-tears and 
listless floorboard-squaking rocking and 
scream cries that preceded her grasping onto our upper arms, 
hard, as she pulled us away from supposed danger. She would hold us close to her chest, squeeze us there into a purple safety, until

my father rescued us from suffocation. 

Anyways, I have come to the belief that my mother's love 
is a casual violence. 

It is how she loves the snow 
so much that she will stand in it with us 
until our toes blister and our lips can't touch 
the palms of our hands without burning 
on the lukewarm fire 
reminiscent of the baths she used to run 
which she - with her callous covered hands 
ripe from carrying the casseroles she made every time 
the moon turned blue – would turn up so hot we'd come out 
red as razorbacks 

Sometimes I wonder how my mother doesn't burn off 
all the snow in the atmosphere of her. 
Once my sister talked back, 
and my mother grew so angry she screamed 
and pushed over the 70-pound la-z-boy 
holding my 110-pound sister, 
who spilled out on the floor, slender as one of those 
fire-bellied salamanders who seem to – 
if you've ever seen them – 
take the shape of their containers 
like water soaking into the carpet. 

I know that, in this state 
Desolation has always been a destination 
but I would prefer not to see it 

Once, when I was a toddler, 
we went to the lake to feed the geese. 
It was spring, and there were tiny ducklings 
paddling in the shallows and 
clumsily tottering about the beach. I threw bread at them, 
and gleefully ran to scoop up the fluffs of yellow that reminded me 
of my mother's favorite color. 
This is when their mothers descended upon me,

With beating wings and needle-teeth hisses they began 
to push me back, further and further up the beach, until I was 
hands-and-knees crawling underneath a picnic table. 
Where they surrounded me, closing in, 
encircling my naivety as they sunk beaks into the fat of my stubby legs and arms.
I cried, desperate and sad and confused and alone. And my mother came, 
And scooped me up so hard it scraped the back of my calf to bloody, and 
With me in her arms, she stepped oh so delicately 
on the goose's foot, and in one deft motion pressed its body to the ground
with her other foot, and slid that foot from its body to its flailing neck 
until its head was pinned gasping against the ground, 
and I watched with wide eyes and that vague sense you get when 
watching something terrible take place, 
as she stared at the mother goose, 
with some kind of metal in her eyes, 
and kissed my head without breaking the gaze, 
and then carefully stepped away and led me to the car, to go get ice cream
from the lakeside gas station. 

Yes, my mother was devastating. 


--- F5 --- 

And here is the calamity, the final story 
Picture me: stomping around my room, throwing scarves 
above my head, and scream-laughing, but 
all you hear is silence - fresh snowfall - 0 degrees - with 
a stray cat's fresh pawprints stalking all the way up to the streetlight 
where it disappeared. Winter here 
is the sky telling you you'll never be young again, so 

I find myself, when I am cleaning the carpet with my hands, 
so as to keep quiet, 
Wondering what a woman is, and thinking of Her. 

Sometimes, now, I imagine walking alone into 
a triangle of four cornfields, a dream unsure 
if I'll walk back out. Come breathlessly 
into a stubbly soybean field
raptured by lost seagulls 
littered with the broken pieces of live oaks 
thrown from the deadwoods tornado swirling storm. 
And I think about one time, 
when my mother and I were speaking to each other as we do, 
mostly in moon and sinew, 
and I asked her why she loved it here, 
and She looked at me, watching, without blinking, staring


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