I read more slowly now, because I read
between the lines. The heroes of my youth,
who gave their lives for justice, art, or truth
(consumed with purpose, driven to succeed),
now seem like puppets pulled by strings of need,
while those who died unknown (except by those
they fed, taught, nursed through illness, mended clothes
and cared for) doled out grace unmixed with greed.
A quilt, a tablecloth she hand-crocheted,
some tips for making piecrust, kneading dough,
the memory of a gumdrop tree she made—
small things of use, of beauty, of delight
are what they leave when they have left our sight.
Don’t tell me what such gifts are worth. I know.
Susan McLean writes: “This poem was inspired by reading that people read more slowly as they get older, because everything they read reminds them of something else. As I thought about that, I also thought about the people I would have called the ones I admired the most, and about the people I actually loved most and why I loved them. The former were mainly men, which made me realize that the lives of women (until recently) have often been invisible in the world and have left no written record. What they leave instead is the impact they have had on those around them, and little things they have said and done and made. My maternal grandmother and my mother are both unseen presences in this poem. My life has been very different from theirs, with opportunities they never had. But that does not mean that I value less what they did.”
Susan McLean grew up in Oxon Hill, Maryland, attended Harvard University and Rutgers University, and taught English for thirty years at Southwest Minnesota State University. She has published two books of poetry, The Best Disguise and The Whetstone Misses the Knife, and one book of translations of the Latin poet Martial, Selected Epigrams. She lives in Iowa City, Iowa.