Upon These Boughs Which Shake Against the Cold

Her script was always lovely and unique,
And still unique when it began to wobble,
Along with spoken words. Increasing trouble
With memory made her less inclined to speak.
But still, she wrote her letters.

Before we’d started school, she’d made us readers:
Books were our favorite toys; once every week
We’d take some back and borrow more. Our table
Was used as much for reading and for Scrabble
As for our meals. She’d also made us writers
Of thank-you notes, considerately worded,
On stationery bordered
And colorful. She praised our early scribbles
And showed us how to make our cursive better.
Sometimes, in the summer
I’d lean against our maple tree, write doggerel
On pads of colored paper,
And in the autumn, watch the tree change color.

And when we’d moved away, she wrote us letters.
I read each one two times, and then I stored it
In a shoebox in my bedroom closet.

Dad often called. He hinted that she’d started
Forgetting things; but I had disregarded
His worries – was unable
To think of her as feeble –
Till one cold day, fatigued with lengthened winter,
I slit an envelope – “My dear, sweet Daughter,” –
At last observed the trembling lines, the crooked
Words, and felt a shiver.
I’d filed my fears away with each letter, guarded
My eyes from slips of her pen that should have alerted
Me. Now each word she wrote looked like a splinter
Of that old maple tree whose limbs are breaking
Sliver by fragile sliver;
Each phrase lay on the paper
A gnarled bough, its twisted figure speaking

Of weakness read between its scribbled lines,
As a broken branch inclines
Against another, not detached, but creaking.

Then came his anxious call
To tell me of her fall.
As usual, she’d gone
Out for her morning run.
A neighbor saw her foot land on some rubble
Beside the road; she crumpled limply down.
Later, conscious again, she was unable
(In spite of cuts and bruises) to recall
The incident. Since then, she cannot spell
Her name, or speak a sentence when we call.

I’m cleaning house, and tossing out assorted
Disorder from the dark depths of my cluttered
Closet, melancholy and bewildered.
Perhaps I should have long ago discarded
These memories before intense emotions
Forbid it. Now I’m paralyzed by notions
That, since her speech and writing are in tatters,
These letters can’t be tossed out like old sweaters.

Her brittle, trembling hands can no more hold
A steady pen; her memory’s not stable;
No longer are her mind or fingers able
To stop from quivering against the cold.

That time of year my children may behold
In me before too long,
When green or yellow words no longer hang
Upon my boughs when I am very old.

She’d taught us words; but now her words were shaking,
As are our souls, to see her sweet soul breaking.

Cynthia Erlandson

Cynthia Erlandson has had poetry published in First Things, Modern Age, Anglican Theological Review, Touchstone, The Book of Common Praise (Reformed Episcopal Church Hymnal), and Forward in Christ. Her first book, a collection of poems for the Church year called These Holy Mysteries, is available on Amazon. The incarnation of the spiritual in the physical -- the gift of being able to know our Creator through His creation because we are made in His image -- is an important theme to her. As a Personal Trainer and Senior Fitness Specialist, she helps people with the physical side of life.

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