Saturday, February 12, 2011

Ruby by Rebecca Frederickson

by Rebecca Frederickson

Three years dead, and already I can't remember you.
I won't go back to your last years in institutions,
where you slugged a nurse and refused to eat
anything but chicken in a mug and soda crackers.
Before death, we can boil down to what has been
the worst in us and then our grandchildren
must be trusted to forget.

Ruby, I'll go way back to the raspberries,
colour of your name, colour of your nose,
and your bad thumb, thumb your ruined with a thorn
while picking the ripe, red ones.
You fed us bowls filled with fruit
and crawling with short white worms.
Afraid to make a fuss in front of you,
I piled on white sugar and the canned milk
you kept out all day on your slick Formica table

Ruby, your beautiful name, a jewel
birthstone for July, a hard hard rock
like the one that grew in your heart.
Eleven children and not one of them
named something gorgeous.
Eddie, Sam, Irene, and my father, Billy.
As if you knew better than to give
names that could refract light,
roll pleasure and possibility off the tongue.
Charlie, Bobby, Raymond, and Grace,
humble enough to forgive their father
for the sting of the willow switch.

You married a barrel-chested butcher, settled
in Valhalla, Alberta, to make leftsa and rosettas,
lutefisk for Easter and Christmas.
You'd whisper bible stories in Norwegian,
till he'd fall asleep, then lie awake,
thinking what paradise might really be like:
not gold and the thick white wings of angels,
but Boise, Idaho, and the Irishman who kissed you there,
whose hair smelled of pipe smoke.
He was studying to be a doctor
and you have had him just like that,
you told me—your hip broken
the time I went to see you in the hospital.

Ruby, I never did figure out what happened to your leg,
why it was stiff at the knee, straight as a cane.
Something to do with the raspberry thorn
in your thumb, the infection that went through you.
I mean to look up at the name in a doctor's book
but you're buried now, just outside of La Glace,
in your brown stockings and flowered house-dress.
Most days I don't remember to think of you.
I have on portrait, looking down;
it shows off your eyelids and lashes.
I used to get angry when they said we looked alike,
but it's our eyes, and the wideness of our faces.

Born again in your twenties,
you built your life around the prophecy
that all your children would be saved.
You were visited once by an angel
who accepted fresh-baked buns and jam
and spoke with you in the Norwegian
you hadn't heard for years—
your husband, Valhalla, gone.
You asked neighbours about this
great, tall man who had come on foot,
but they shook their heads. Only you had seen him.

Ruby, I'd like to ask you more about the angel.
When he looked into your eyes, did he mention
how they could bend light in ripples around the room?
Were his hands rough from the field, or soft, like a child's?

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