Beneath the Shadow of the Freeway
by Lorna Dee Cervantes
Across the street – the freeway,
blind worm, wrapping the valley up
from Los altos to Sal Si Puedes.
I watched it from my porch
unwinding. Every day at dusk
as Grandma watered geraniums
the shadow of the freeway lengthened.
We were a woman family:
Grandma, our innocent Queen;
Mama, the Swift Knight, Fearless Warrior.
Mama wanted to be Princess instead.
I know that. Even now she dreams of taffeta
and foot-high tiaras.
Myself: I could never decide.
So I turned to books, those staunch, upright men,
interpreting letters from the government, notices
of dissolved marriages and Welfare stipulations.
I paid the bills, did light man-work, fixed faucets,
against all leaks.
Before rain I notice seagulls.
They walk in flocks,
cautious across lawns; splayed toes,
indecisive beaks. Grandma says
seagulls mean storm.
In California in the summer,
mockingbirds sing all night.
Grandma says they are singing for their nesting wives.
“they don’t leave their families
She likes the ways of birds,
respects how they show themselves
for toast and a whistle.
She believes in myths and birds.
She trusts only what she builds
with her own hands.
She built her house,
cocky, disheveled carpentry,
after living twenty-five years
with a man who tried to kill her.
Grandma, from the hills of Santa Barbara,
I would open my eyes to see her stir mush
in the morning, her hair in loose braids,
tucked close around her head
with a yellow scarf.
Mama said, “It’s her own fault,
getting screwed by a man for that long.
Sure as shit wasn”t hard.”
soft she was soft
in the night I would hear it
glass bottles shattering the street
words cracked not shrill screams
inside my throat a cold fear
as it entered the house in hard
unsteady steps stopping at my door
my name bathrobe
slippers outside at 3 A.M. mist heavy
as a breath full of whiskey
stop it go home come inside
mama if he comes here again
I’ll call the police
a gray kitten a touchstone
purring beneath the quilts
from his suits
the patchwork singing
“You’re too soft…always were.
You’ll get nothing but shit.
Baby, don’t count on nobody.”
– a mother’s wisdom.
Soft. I haven’t changed,
maybe grown more silent, cynical
on the outside.
“O Mama, with what’s inside of me
I could wash that all away. I could.”
“But Mama, if you’re good to them
they’ll be good to you back.”
Back. The freeway is across the street.
It’s summer now. Every night I sleep with a gentle man
to the hymn of mockingbirds,
and in time, I plant geraniums.
I tie up my hair into loose braids,
and trust only what I have built
with my own hands.