Mother Love

Virginia Starrett

Going to the Foursquare Church unsettled him.
Not just the sermon and singing, but the scent
of hope wending in the air, like smoke, filling bare
souls.  And all those urgent, upraised hands,
they worried him, too, reminded him of his pa’s
calloused palm, upraised, ready to strike

whenever the mood hit.  Snakes strike
quick like that, sudden, the way pa whacked him
if the heater ran cold, or a station pause
on the TV took too long.  Once ma sent
him for olive oil, put a dollar in his hand
and kissed him wet on the cheek.  He could hardly bear

the kindness such a tender act told.  Bear
cubs understand belonging between the strike
of correction and the affectionate nuzzle.  “Hand
on the plate,” his ma’d urged, the choir’s hymn
calling tears from her eyes.  The boy’d dig a few cents
from his pocket, toss them in without pause,

then turn to endure the glare on his pa’s
stony face.  His pa sat stiff in the pew, bare
headed, slicked hair broadcasting the scent
of cheap oil.  “There ain’t no God,” he’d say.  “A strike
against him, since God don’t help those that don’t love Him,”
his ma’d say later, over constantly praying hands.

She made the boy pray, too.  On his knees, hands
against the bed.  “God bless Ma,” he’d say, and pause.
“And God bless Pa.”  But inside, he wished him
dead, wished his pa on a cross, stripped bare
and bleeding, suffering the cutting strikes
of the soldier’s whip.  From where was Pa sent?

Surely he wasn’t divine, a man-God sent
to teach one little boy such hard, hand-
to-mouth lessons.  What devil’s chord did he strike,
moving swift, like a hungry bear batting his paws,
scooping helpless fish to squirm in the dust, silvery bare,
dying a thousand humiliations before him?

On Sundays, the boy touched his mother’s hem, breathed
    her scent
of soap and lavender rising from bare neck and hands:
“Precious Mother most holy of all,” he’d pray, then pause,
    waiting for God to strike.