Skip to content →


“You always think the worst

is going to happen,” Janet says

as we walk with our son along the Amsterdam canals.

“What do you think—he’s going to fall in and drown?”

I have worried

all over the world. It comes to me easily.

Formed slowly through childhood

like stalactites in a cave.

My mother worried to keep going—

a sick husband, the store, children

she wanted everything for. I call her

distraught. Janet’s been dizzy for days.

In the E.R. they inked small x’s

on the parchment map of her skin.

Her doctor’s at a conference in Paris,

and I’m afraid there’s a blood clot near her brain.

“Go buy a plant,” she says. “I’m not going to die.”

My mother tells me I learned it from her—

how to panic. She was thirteen,

oldest of five, when her father left.

My grandmother worried to keep food

on the table. Every week

she’d board the bus to buy

dry goods, children’s clothes, socks

to sell in her corner store.

When she didn’t climb down

from the six o’clock—winter,

it was already dark—my mother sat

in the window, tears rumpling her face,

praying, Let her come home.

And in Russia—my father was a baby

when his mother carried him and two brothers

to the border. Hiding

in the forest undergrowth, my father

crying, she heard boots

bite through the crusted snow. Some women

smothered infants. What must have gone

through her mind when the steps hesitated,

before turning away?

Janet doesn’t think about what

might happen. She thinks about what is.

But I carry dread on my shoulders

like a knapsack, like the extra pounds

my grandmother wanted me to gain.

She’d read about a girl in a plane crash.

All she had to eat was snow.

from Mules of LoveFind it in the library

Copyright © BOA Editions, Ltd 2002
Used with the permission of The Permissions Company, Inc.
on behalf of BOA Editions LTD.

Published in Ellen Bass Poems

This program is supported in part by a grant from the Idaho Humanities Council, a State-based program of the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Any views, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this (publication, website, exhibit, etc.) do not necessarily represent those of the Idaho Humanities Council or the National Endowment for the Humanities.