By Nicole Stellon O’Donnell

Maybe it was my skirt, like yours,
or my hair, curls tangled
with youth.

Maybe it was the way we both raised
our hands to our lips in surprise, or the girl
in me you had watched come up as you raised
only sons. Something the same in us
led you to warn me.

Leave him before he kills you,

you whispered a week before the wedding,
brush frozen in my hair, as still
as the pins on the dresser.
Our eyes locked in the mirror.

I gauged your tone, the stillness
of your fingers on the back
of my neck, the set of your lips

and turned my eyes down to the mirror’s handle,
silver, black patina broken by prints.

His father…

you started, moving the brush again,
stroke and pull.

His father,

you repeated, breath weary
with the storm that threatened
every night until his liquid disappearance
shamed and freed you.

I know,

I said and thought of your boy, gray eyes,
his smooth promise, our planned escape

I weighed the mason jar,
its cool contents, the burn in the back of your throat,
my youth, the boy in him, the man not yet born,
and I stayed.

Mother-in-law, I took you at your word,
but it took me twenty-one years to do it in.

I know now what you knew,
my own boys newly men.

In one I see the promise
liquor and time washed away.
In the other I see their father, your son.
I would warn a woman against him,
my own boy, tell her to leave.

Our skirts would rustle, my hand
would freeze on the worn handle of the hairbrush.

She would meet my eyes,
gauge them, and then she would look away.

And I would smooth her hair,
pin it up, and ready her for dinner.

“Mother-in-law” is from the collection Steam Laundry (Boreal Books, 2012), and appears here today with permission from the poet.

Nicole Stellon O’Donnell is a poet and essayist who lives, writes and teaches in Fairbanks, Alaska. Her first collection, Steam Laundry, was published by Boreal Books, an imprint of Red Hen Press, in January 2012. Her poems have appeared in Prairie Schooner, Beloit Poetry Journal, Dogwood, The Women’s Review of Books and other literary magazines. Her work has been recognized with an Individual Artist Award from the Rasmuson Foundation. This summer Literary Mama will begin publishing her monthly column about Alaska, getting outdoors and raising girls.

Editor’s Note: Nicole Stellon O’Donnell’s debut collection, Steam Laundry, tells the story of Sarah Ellen Gibson, a woman who followed her husband first to San Francisco and then to Alaska during the gold rush. Stitching together a history from nonfiction and fiction alike, O’Donnell pieces together a life from letters, documents, photos, and the depths of the poet’s own imagination. The poems in this book tell the story of a woman otherwise lost to history, and poems such as today’s selection bring to life a character as rich and haunted as the real life Sarah Ellen Gibson, if not more so.

Want to see more by Nicole Stellon O’Donnell?
Nicole Stellon O’Donnell’s Official Website
Literary Mama
“Canzone Basking in the Pre-Apocalypse” in Dogwood
Nicole Stellon O’Donnell on KUAC


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