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.
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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Liz N. Clift
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