“As Long as She Likes,” by Ellen Bass


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On the way to the cemetery, I slept.
Not in the limousine that carried my mother’s coffin
but out cold in a van, the family all talking around me.
I was exhausted from her suffering, her pleas—
help me and enough, enough
and trying to get the morphine to stay in the ditch of her gums.
How could I not have studied this in advance?
The way my mother learned to give shots in nursing school,
plunging the needle into an orange
then practicing on the other girls.
God only gives you strength for one day at a time.
How many times did I hear her say this?
Ask yourself, can I make this day?
And then she made her last day.
On the way back, the driver got lost. As we circled unfamiliar
fields and trees dizzy with blossoms, we began to imagine
we could buy some land.
Horses. A lake. Everything seemed possible.
And hilarious. We were a little hysterical,
driving into the luxury of the future.
I’ve never returned to my mother’s grave.
But I see her every day. Here she is in short boots,
coming back from the beach with a jar of seawater.
Each morning she feeds me a spoonful. Minerals.
It’s something she read in the Pleasantville Press.
Here she’s wrapping pints and quarts in that same paper,
sliding them into brown bags.
She’s counting out coins into the customers’ hands,
careful to touch their palms.
And here in her bathrobe on a Saturday night. The store just closed.
She bites into a hoagie, steak and onions, sips a beer.
Tomorrow morning she can sleep late. There’s a law
in New Jersey that liquor stores have to close on Sunday.
A blessed law that lets my mother sleep . . .
and then sit down with a cigarette and black coffee,
one strong leg crossed over the other.
She can sit there as long as she likes.

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