Questions for Our Mothers

Ilona’s desk, in the apartment on Attila Ut, Budapest, June 2005 (her ninetieth birthday)

On October 16, 2015 at the West Stockbridge Historical Society, I’ll be reading one or both of these “question” poems as part of an evening of readings from the anthology Writing Fire, edited by Jennifer Browdy, Jana Laiz, and Sahra Bateson Brubeck, Green Fire Press, Housatonic, MA, 2015. Other readers are Jayne Benjulian, Jennifer Browdy, Barbara Dean, Teresa Gentile, Lorrin Krouss, Jana Laiz, and Robin Zeamer. 

These poems were occasioned by the Berkshire Festival of Women Writers call for writing on the topic of “Questions for our mothers,” for Mother’s Day, 2014.

It’s a wonderful topic, taking us out of the usual “what we want to tell our mothers,” and our often arrogant, immature assumptions and presumptions, into a new realm of curiosity and genuine open-mindedness. What have we failed to ask? To understand? What did we assume we knew, and now realize we did not? Who was, or is, this person? Whether the questions are ever answered, or can be, is in a way beside the point. Just recognizing how much one doesn’t know is itself a revelation.

Read first at the Berkshire Festival of Women Writers Mother’s Day Celebration, Sandisfield Arts Center, May 17, 2014.

Questions for Our Mothers

What we haven’t asked.
What we don’t,
or can’t, ask now,
except on a page.
What we imagine they knew
but didn’t say. (How do you say
such things to a child?)
If they are dead,
we imagine they know
everything, and would tell
the women we’ve become
if we find the right words
at a certain time of night.
If they are alive, we grab this chance
for a different kind of conversation.

Of course, they did know everything.
Of course, we never asked them much
except for what we needed.
Now what we need has changed.


All those years I asked “Who were you?”
to the mysterious woman in the photograph,
when what I really wanted to know was,
“What does who you were make me?”
No wonder you didn’t answer.
This time, let the question be real.
Tell me about that other woman –
the you who has nothing to do with me.

To Ilona, My Step-mother

How did you stand my father?
The tantrums that drove my mother
to tears, to drink, to leave?
The red face and clenched fists
I mirrored at twenty-one, squared off
across a room, standing up to him  –
didn’t scare you. You laughed
as if he were a child.
How did you know he was?
Was it the actual war you’d lived through,
or just being a Hungarian
instead of a Swede? I don’t know
what he deserved. I do know
you were more than I did,
loving that difficult man
until the end, bringing together
the broken family – a daughter,
a son, a father – in your home.

My question began as a joke,
but now, remembering,
I think you deserve more.
Ilona, if you will tell me,
I will listen…

How did you stand my father?