My oldest glamour girl sister, your hair looks cut too short.
You command the string of us sisters trailing behind
with your bright red cummerbund and sly smile.
You will try to be our mother in her absence,
will invite me to visit the University of Pennsylvania when
I am in still in school to dose me with Romilar Cough Syrup,
the drug du jour, to exorcise our mother’s evil spirits.
I will blank out, develop panic disorder, and cease
speaking for days; the spells will become a plague.
Sparing only a tiny smile, my youngest sister,
you perch high above us on the top step. After my father
dies and my mother’s first remarriage, you will run
into the woods before school where no one can find you.
You will take care of my mother when no one else
can stand her until she dies. With her perfect
perm and Leave-It-to-Beaver-Cleaver smile, she
courts death with a bleeding ulcer after my father dies.
She will sink in and out of mental hospitals trying to curb
her manic depressive excessives, her alcoholic binges.
She clutches the legs of her youngest son. My dear brother,
you purse your mouth with a vaguest hint of smile.
One day, you cry for your dog, shot and killed
by a farmer for chasing his sheep. You will become a potter
in Vermont; in a drugged state of sleep, you will paralyze
your left arm and get arrested for growing marijuana.
We attempt to look upstanding when we testify at your trial,
relieved when you get off with no sentence. Not long after,
you and your friend buy morphine from a cancer patient.
Your friend will vomit and live, but you will fall asleep and die.
My closest sister who wears pink, you later refuse
to don a dress at all. Your smile appears frozen in your face
before it even becomes a smile. You will turn down Radcliffe
to attend Duke, then drop out to do community
organizing, to become an auto mechanic, a carpenter,
a political activist. You were the smartest of us all. You will
organize a mass protest at a Billy Graham Day extravaganza,
and the cops will throw out everyone who looks
like a hippie. They use the “illegal ticket routine.”
My brother closest to me in age, you look forlorn.
You claim that I broke your nose which was never true.
You will skateboard down an empty swimming pool
and brace your hands at the deep end to stop.
When you break both arms, mother will leave
you writhing in pain in the back of our station wagon
all day long while she attends a family party.
She will inform you that my father would have turned
over in his grave if he could have seen what you became.
Even though at twelve, I wear a fake flowered
headband, I hunch over like an old woman, or like someone
afraid of getting socked in the stomach, probably by you,
my brother. If I am smiling, it is a hidden smile.
I wear my favorite blue dress. Several mothers of friends
will shame me for not wearing black at our father’s
funeral, where our mother tells us not to cry.
My father, your smile looks tentative and forced.
Mother blames you after your first heart attack.
You smoke, drink, and eat too much high-fat food.
Do you realize that this will be your last September?
You never believed that you would die. Why do you take
my mother back to Maine after our family stayed there
in June, July, and August—you had never returned
before? You always said that you wanted to die in Maine.
Good-bye my orchid, how
I have loved you, the subtle dream
of your varying blue colors,
the verdant arc of your stem,
how you are happy
only in certain places, how much
else we have in common no one knows.
Good-bye my backyard
full of palm trees swishing,
bristling, full of tiny lizards
who climb up the screen porch
to bathe in south Florida sun.
Good-bye our two lounge chairs
by the pool where I never sat,
but always thought lovingly of you,
of bathing in the sun.
Good-bye all the mighty bird sounds,
the egrets, the great blue herons,
the anhinga who spread her wings
to dry. Good-bye to the sullen creature
I glimpsed by the pool’s edge.
Whether you were a Nile monitor lizard
or Argentine tegu, I will never know.
When I rushed out after the dog’s bark
scared you away, I found another lizard
you had chased into the pool, and I rescued him.
As if he didn’t know whether he lived or died,
he crouched, stunned and mute in the grass,
but he, too, has run away.
Good-bye, my hibiscus, I have
forsaken you because you couldn’t
survive the trip back up north.
Good-bye intermittent showers that pour
from one cloud like a teapot while neighboring
skies remain blue and sunny.
How I have loved you all.
First published in Live Encounters Poetry & Writing and, also, in The End of Horses, Broadstone Books, 2022.
Margo Taft Stever’s collections include The End of Horses (Broadstone Books, 2022), Cracked Piano (CavanKerry Press, 2019) Shortlisted as Finalist and Honorable Mention for 2021 Eric Hoffer Book Award; Ghost Moose Kattywompus Press, 2019; The Lunatic Ball (Kattywompus Press, 2015); The Hudson Line (Main Street Rag, 2012); Frozen Spring (Mid-List Press First Series Award, 2002); and Reading the Night Sky (Riverstone Poetry Chapbook Competition, 1996). Her poems, essays, and reviews have appeared in magazines and anthologies, including Plume, Verse Daily, “Poem-A-Day” on poets.org, Prairie Schooner, Connecticut Review, Cincinnati Review, West Branch, New England Review, and upstreet. She is founder of the Hudson Valley Writers Center and founding and current co-editor of Slapering Hol Press. As 2021 Adjunct Assistant Professor in the Bioethics Department of the School of Medicine at Case Western Reserve University, she teaches a course on poetry and bioethics. She lives in Sleepy Hollow, New York www.margotaftstever.com.