Female Ancestor

For Irene, whom I never met

A farm woman opens
the oven door of the coal stove
to stir the embers, re-latches
the door with a cast iron tool, sets
it down, wipes her hands, moves
to the sink where she bends
to peel and soak potatoes. She turns
to wipe down the oil cloth,
unbottle pickled beets
into the blue glass dish passed down
from her grandmother.
After the meal she bends over
the sink, scrapes and washes
crusted pots, feeds scraps
to the dog. Her daughter dries and puts
the dishes away.

For decades the woman bends
over washing, over mending.
She hangs out the heavy sheets,
bends over ironing, over tubs
of water drawn from the cistern
and heated for baths.
She bends with sleepy children
over their school books,
bends over their fever-flushed
faces. Twice she bends over
a tiny coffin. She bends
over her husband’s back,
her veined, callused hands
kneading his work-hardened
muscles. Before she dies
she cuts down one of his suits,
hums as she bends over to sew a traveling
outfit for her daughter’s trip to college,
the long train ride that will
separate them forever.

:: Ann Hostetler, Empty Room with Light (2002)

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