“What did I know, what did I know
of love’s austere and lonely offices?” — Robert Hayden
None of us could sleep those coal-black nights.
The furnace coughed deep in the cellar
until our father rose in the iron cold
his footsteps sounding loud through the quiet
house, five of us huddled tight in two beds.
We’d hear the turn of the handle, the chunk
and swing of the metal door unhinged,
the steady thrust of the rusty shovel
graveling against the binful of coal.
We’d hear him hoping in the dark for fire.
Then the sluff of slippers across the kitchen,
the oven door opening and the match,
and soon my mother’s voice echoing
up the steep stairs to our attic room
calling us to hot milk at midnight,
to slip on coats and scarves and hats and gloves,
to sit in the circle around the stove
bound together in blankets, two by three,
to watch each other’s heavy heads drowse
in the orange glow of that blue flame.
While our father cursed the furnace man below,
the smell of sulfur rising through the house,
as our mother worried wordless on the stairs,
we moved closer, wove our circle tight
against the cold that claimed them in the dark.
Angela Alaimo O’Donnell
from Waking My Mother
Word Press 2013