Waking My Mother: Lost and Found

When someone dies, we say to the surviving family members, “I’m sorry for your loss.” And we mean it. But there are other ways than death to lose someone dear—or someone who should be dear.

Angela Alaimo O’Donnell explores these varieties of loss in her latest poetry collection, Waking My Mother. The poems reflect on her mother’s dementia and dying; on her mother’s relation to Angela and her siblings when they were kids; on the emotional complexities of living, after her mother’s death, with memories of a mother she wasn’t loved by.

Yes, this is the tough stuff that O’Donnell takes on in these poems. And she takes it on with grace.

One of the hardest things to take on—perhaps the hardest to read about—is her memory of her mother’s succession of lovers after their father died.

Other girls’ mothers

sold Avon, Bee-line, Tupperware.

 

My mother took lovers.

Young ones. Dark ones. True ones.

The kind that came back,

parked their cars in the drive,

 

and slept in our house

night after night after night.

 

Or this, from the sonnet cycle that opens the book:

 

Laying claim to what we no longer possessed,

we each performed her offices of love,

while our mother grew more distant and obsessed,

we spent our days and nights trying to prove

we could cure her selfishness by giving.

We learned to live, as people do, by living.

Our mother fell in love with scotch and men.

She kept the bottle on the kitchen counter.

She brought men home with her to be her lovers.

She got so lost in them we never found her.

 

For me, that last line shrieks with pain. The kids lose their mother’s love because she is lost in her lovers. Isn’t this a type of child abuse? Yet O’Donnell won’t call it that, and she controls the pain within the sonnet form.

These poems are searching rather than cynical. What they keep searching for is a way to honor her mother’s life. A way to “wake my mother” (as the book’s title puts it)—wake her into a truer motherhood.

And so, in the opening sonnet, O’Donnell is at the bedside of her dying mother, making the sign of the cross on her mother’s forehead. And recalling her own choice in adulthood to place her own children above her care for her mother:

 

that I have made a choice that means the loss

I claimed so long ago is mine forever,

all sealed by this Distant Daughter’s cross.

 

Rhyming “loss” with “cross.” I sense that all the emotional complexities of this volume are captured in that simple rhyme.

For all our losses are crosses, aren’t they? The loss of love, of hope, of health, of dignity, of a life. We say of someone dear “he lost his job”—and all the pain emanating from that loss is surely his cross. I say of a period of my life “I lost my bearings”—and the cross of psychic breakdown reverberates in the phrase. The bank forecloses and my friend “loses her house”: the words look as simple as “she lost her gloves” or “she lost her car keys,” but what a cross in that loss of a home. Yet another typhoon strikes the Philippines, and people “lose everything.”

O’Donnell is exploring varieties of loss. But her book is also a lost and found. Poetry can find something in our losses. The creative act itself, Elie Wiesel once said, is a gesture against despair.

Here is “Losing My Mother”:

 

I’ve lost my mother,

careless daughter,

 

mislaid her,

left her behind.

 

I’ve let them take her

to a place I cannot find…

 

I’ve lost my mother.

Like a sheep,

 

but number one,

not ninety-nine.

 

Like a coin.

But the most valuable and fine.

 

Like the pearl I owned

but is no more mine.

 

Like my mind.

 

The poet has “lost her mind.” And yet of course she hasn’t—not when she can create a sharp, crisp poem like this one. In the poem, she “finds” at least as much as she has lost: she finds just the right rhymes to tie all together, just the right gospel parables to expand the poem’s referent way beyond personal loss. She finds, in these parables, the kingdom of God.

If loss is a cross, then finding is the resurrection. What’s found in the creative crafting of poems is a new sort of life.

Peggy Rosenthal is director of Poetry Retreats and writes widely on poetry as a spiritual resource. Her books include Praying through Poetry: Hope for Violent Times (Franciscan Media), and The Poets’ Jesus (Oxford). See Amazon for full list. She also teaches an online course, “Poetry as a Spiritual Practice,” through Image’s Glen Online program.

  • Linda Goddard

    Striking. Stunning poetry. Affirms the losses of my own life that often turned against me, robbed me of family, of the celebration of becoming a mother, of the joys of being a woman . . .

  • Allison Troy

    i absolutely needed to read this today, and need to read these poems.

  • Maureen

    Through her poems, Angela found “a way to honor her mother’s life.” She also, I think, shows us a way we might reframe our own thoughts on loss.

  • Denise Demesne

    Thank you for introducing us to O’Donnell and her poetry. (Well, at least for me.) It is always exciting to hear of a new voice. I was struck in some of the excepts you chose to discuss by the surely deliberate lapses in rhyme and cadence. O’Donnell seems to cultivate the use of mis-rhymed endings where the words appear they might rhyme but don’t (love/prove) as well as poignant off-rhymes (kitchen counter/never found her). Similarly, while the meter meanders in and around iambic pentameter, it avoids nailing any particular metric pattern. I mention these formal qualities because several allusions, including that of loss, reminded me of nursery rhymes, and particularly of “Little Bo Peep.” Indeed, I personally hear the cadence of that opening “sonnet” as a discordant nursery rhyme, one that would be a failed effort in cheering a child or lulling a baby to sleep. How potent, then, is the image of a bottle of Scotch on the kitchen counter, rather than nurturing milk! It prepares the reader for the final jarring line in which the mother is the one who is lost, not the sheep from a proper rhyme or the soon-to-be-found Hansel and Gretel from a proper fairy tale, and lost in an entanglement of assorted, and maybe sordid, men at that! The purposeful poetic discordance here is what “shrieks with pain” but, as you so astutely qualify, such poetic mastery shows that the poetic voice is in control. I look forward to reading more.

    • Peggy Rosenthal

      Denise, thank you for this perceptive analysis of the formal qualities of O’Donnell’s poetry. Your analogy to nursery rhymes is fascinating — and persuasive.

      • Denise Demesne

        You are too kind. Thanks. I seem to confuse nursery rhymes with lullabies at one point, but I’ll otherwise stick to my original comment. I now hear even more a lurching in the meter that reminds me of drunkenness. Not a peaceful domestic picture.


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