Mom Says

Liz N. Clift

The following poems are excerpted from Dear Mom, Don’t Come Home, a middle grade novel in verse.  

First Day of Summer

Summer was going to be perfect:

the mall, the beach, the computer,

no Kevin whenever he was at camp,

which was all but one week this summer.

And then I was going to get paid

to watch him, which means I’d sit him

in front of the TV and make his lunch

whenever he got hungry. Tammy

was going to help. Mom said it was okay.

And then, after dinner today, Mom

and Dad told us we were going out

for dessert. I wanted Kernel Kustard,

but Kevin got to pick and he choose

Cheesecake Factory which is stupid.

He doesn’t like cheesecake, just that chocolate

tower. We waited twenty minutes

for a table. And when dessert arrived:

a chocolate tower, two tiramisus, a goblet

of dark, plump, strawberries for us to share,

peanut butter cheesecake for me,

Dad said Mom had been called

to duty. She took his hand, looked

across the table at me and Kevin
(who had chocolate on his chin)

explained it wasn’t just a weekend

or two weeks, that it was for a year.

In Kuwait. Dad pulled out a map—

just like Dad to bring a map to a restaurant—

spread it on the table, pointed out

Kuwait, a little country nested between

Saudi Arabia and Iraq. Iraq is on the news

Dad watches every night with his black

work socks still on his feet, even though

he always puts on a Hawaiian shirt. Kuwait.

We don’t even learn about it in social studies.

I didn’t eat my cheesecake.


Kernel Kustard No. 1

Our special place, with bright blue

booths and blue and white tiles,

where Mom took me when she told

me about Kevin, still growing inside

her, and then again three days after

she brought him home. She had dark

circles under her eyes and her stomach

looked deflated, like the air mattress

when Tuxedo, decided it was a perfect

scratching post. Where we went when I

turned double digits, and when I got

my period. Where I took her when her

mother died and spent my whole allowance

to get us both frozen kustard sandwiches,

vanilla kustard mushed between fresh

chocolate chip cookies, edges rolled

in mini chocolate chips as we watched.

Hers dripped

down her arm as it melted, milky tears

that matched  the clear ones that rolled

down her cheeks at the funeral.


Kernel Kustard No. 2

“I’m going to be okay.” That’s what she said

when we arrived at Kernel Kustard. I stared

at her for a moment, and then lowered my head

so I couldn’t look at her, “That’s what Jared’s

dad said before he went to Iraq.”  I remember

the funeral, the way Jared and his mom sat

in the front pew of the church last December,

the way Jared never takes off the hat

which says U.S. Marine Corps. “Kuwait

is not Iraq. We’re not fighting there. I’ll

only process mail.” It was already late,

We sat in our usual spot, the booth in the corner

and around us the workers stacked chairs

and mopped the floor. My kustard melted

in the cup and Mom put her hand on my hair.

I twisted away. My life has halted.


First Day of Seventh Grade

Mom’s always been around for my firsts

First steps, word, birthday

sleepover, pizza party,  play

(I was a mouse and forgot my lines). First

time failing a spelling test, scoring a goal,

getting a report card, making cookies with Toll

House chips (the cookies got burnt). First

time making cookies that didn’t burn, eating

with chopsticks, drinking coffee, caught cheating

(I didn’t want to fail multiplying fractions). First

time Kevin said my name, crush, dance,

buying a bra, period, group date with Lance

(who dumped me for Susie). But this first

she’ll miss, the first day of seventh grade

and last night on the phone I made

her cry because I cried. That was the worst.


When Letters Come Back

Mom wrote me a letter

about the letters that come back,

that she addresses: return to sender

or sends to the next of kin.

“It means they died,” she wrote

“Can you imagine, writing the letter,

worrying, waiting? I imagine those

letter-writers excited about the worn

envelope. Only to discover their own

handwriting. And for some of them,

maybe questions are raised—what happened,

when?” Then she went on to talk

about the families, whether they

knew the people writing the letters.

She talked about soldiers being adopted

by strangers, about how they form

friendships with people their families

never know. “Write to me,” she finished.

“Even though we talk on the computer, please

just write to me. I want my own letters.”


The Art of Folding Notes

So I write to Mom. And then I start writing

notes to Tammy, like we used to do. And like

we used to do, I fold them into paper puzzles,

the ones Tammy taught me, the ones we

learned from origami books, the ones I spent

half the summer practicing while Kevin

watched kiddie-shows on TV. Only now

she doesn’t pass them back half-filled with

her tiny handwriting that cramps on the page,

cowering from my bigger, loopier handwriting.

Her answers are short and she just folds

the paper into a simple, white rectangle. No

puzzle, no mystery, no careful creases

meant to be softened by repeated folding

and unfolding. That is, if she writes back at all.


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