Aut Pax Aut Bellum
Mother needles & threads her way into conversations,
as she does with everything,
& there, piercing
the cotton weave of our family, her place secure.
Long ago she embroidered the Gunn clan motto
onto our lungs.
Aut pax aut bellum
My sisters & I lived out this interdependence
in the Jacksonville fairytale streets of Tom Thumb,
Snow White, Flopsy,
Mopsy, & CottonTail,
each lane twisted, a thread
in a grid.
In an adolescent
era of RC Colas, coin operated cigarette
machines, color TVs, missile strike drills,
and bomb shelters, hemmed in place,
we did as she said.
We kept peace.
We trained for war.
In an old family Polaroid, three sisters
wore home-made crowns. The dated image
sends shivers spineward, fine hair
like compass needles, unwavering. Behind them:
kitchen wallpaper in stripes of goldenrod
yellow with fingernail-sized foil diamonds,
a white oven, single sink empty, draining
rack full. In the forefront, the girls’ pre-teen
faces predict their future in a timeless
deference; each gaze exits in a different
direction: one out a window, one out a marriage,
and one lingering behind the hand that pushed
open the camera lens. If we could sequence
the origination of each face: father’s ocean
eyes and grandmother’s nose; mother’s
milky skin coloring; uncle’s mouth; low-
lidded eyes the grandfather’s; mom’s pointed
chin; the family ears—all curb appeal
like paint, trim, and shutters which remind
the parents of that Jacksonville house when—,
the concrete block ranch in which—,
our Memphis apartment where—we lived
long before the girls were born. The sisters
to warmer cities, shoes tied tight, laces triple
woven. A beginning that took decades
to end memorialized on a faded film square.
Quiet, the Celebration
No cake. No presents.
I invite no one else.
How can I explain a ceremony
for a failed plan? Parked alongside
the St. John’s river, I recall the hospital
rush, doctors’ expressions stalled
between blame and concern,
each face etched on my corneas
like war memorials on granite.
Now, no more days of bleached wards,
calendar boxes filled with meetings,
social workers bent on assisting. You
no longer are aware of the date,
that there is a counting—that I count—
every extra year I am allowed with you.
So, each April, I hold a second celebration,
quietly, a joy-remembrance
of what was almost lost.
I cast a prayer
across the water and watch grey herons
stilt their way through reedy grass.