My Mother's Daughter
It is five years before I was born,
before life ruined her.
She is already sixteen years old,
breasts rising like yeasted bread
which she tries to conceal on the streets
of her immigrant neighborhood,
but when she sings with Tommy Dorsey's Big Band,
she stuffs her dress with tissues,
paints her lips red,
and styles her hair like Judy Garland.
At Weequahic High School
she joins the hall patrol
to station herself outside the door
of my father's sixth period class.
She's smiling every afternoon
when he walks out of the door.
Later they escape to the West Village
in his red convertible
to the apartment he shares with his half brother
in a loft filled with etchings.
When he walks into the night club
where she pretends to be eighteen years old,
she sings to my father
directly with bedroom eyes,
How High the Moon
blasting out of Tommy's trombone
and then cascading from her mouth.
Who could resist such a song?
By the subway stop to Harlem
to see Billie Holiday,
he buys two gardenias for her hair.
A few months later,
they hitchhike to a cabin
by Caroga Lake in upstate New York,
share a bottle of wine,
throw the glasses into the fire
and create me.
Years later, my mother will tell me how
I ruined her career,
but she has a transparent face.
In the photograph
in the small apartment in Spanish Harlem
where they lived after I was born,
I see her completely happy.