Strange to feel inferior, but that
was the job of live-in European servants:
to confer shine for a pittance. English nurses,
Scottish maids, Estonian women doing laundry,
German POWs pruning roses.
Out through glitter, back to the dock.
Mrs. Anthony motored around town
in a humble Ford wagon, but in her garage,
a Daimler banked its gleam. I had to study
eight degrees of grandeur for the table,
a bewilderment of china. Her daughter
Kitty curtsied to me once, a faux-pas.
Those manners were too silver for the help.
Economical strokes, green
folded neatly behind her.
Come summer, I decamped with the Anthonys
to Fishers Island. Another empire. Eight more
sets of china. Kitty and brothers buffed
by swimming, boating, tennis. Another domestic
and I liked to steal an early hour
on the courts, a pretty German girl
who volleyed dares: ask for a raise, learn
to drive. Sporty in hand-me-down whites.
I didn’t know who Susan was. Mr.
Anthony’s aunt, maybe. Unmarried. No fuss.
She swam every day, climbing down the ladder
from the quay. I wobbled over with tea.
Thought eighty, but I was too young to gauge.
Craggy-featured, slim, her metallic bob
tucked into a rubber bathing cap.
She urged me to paddle out, but I clung
to the ladder. Which one of us was the nurse?
Out and back, resisted and
supported by the water.
If the sea had corners.
She asked: You traveled to America
to remake your life. Why linger here?
Women’s roles are changing. Later I guessed
she was Susan B. Anthony, but the dates
were wrong. Her circulation, she hinted, had been
limited. She left me a tip: five Liberty dollars.
I left the job before my year was up.
Nicer to tend babies for less wealthy
Jewish families. Funny how they worshiped
Winston Churchill, the political failure. I
was welcome at their dinner tables while
their black maids went home for the night.
Somewhere it’s still happening—
four springer spaniels jingling into the car,
bound for the ferry in New London. Harvard
boys trade books for boat shoes. Servants
fly in from poorer countries to chip
gilt dessert plates in the stainless sink.
Another Susan, having withdrawn
from the exchange, launches herself seaward.
Her issue is impervious to salt.
That’s a poem I wrote about five years ago, submitted to magazines for a while without success, lost track of, and just searched through old files to find again. I brushed it up a bit for the occasion but I don’t really know how well it works as a poem. I just love the story–my working-class mother having her first real encounter with serious wealth and snobbery in the supposedly democratic U.S., and that independent elderly feminist with the suggestive name. I dedicate it here to my mother, my daughter, and daring women everywhere.
Onto the last week of classes here, followed by the Bridgewater International Poetry Festival, where I’ll read on Saturday morning at 10. Have a liberated week!
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