“When I was a child, the idea of ‘mother’ was problematic to me,” notes writer Judie Rae. No wonder: She was adopted as a toddler—and then, when she was 5, her adoptive parents divorced. She was raised by her adoptive father at a time when it was rare for a man to rear a child alone—especially a girl.

But Judie did acquire a mom—her adoptive dad’s mother, Hettie. “She taught me many things: to crochet, to bake, to garden, to love the natural world. And she brought to the task a wisdom a younger woman might not have employed,” Judie says. “She gave me a childhood to remember: At her cottage on the Ottawa River we were our own entertainment. Evenings we worked crossword puzzles or read or my grandmother knitted while I made my own paper dolls from old Sears catalogues. I’d sit on her lap watching a summer storm over the water while lightning sparked the sky. After the sun returned we’d watch as Canada geese filled the skies, their honking a sweet, aching sound. Now when I see geese on local lakes and ponds, I am immediately transported to a place that remains etched in memory.”

Here is her tribute to her no-nonsense, yet nurturing, grandmother.

 

THE CORSET

my grandmother wore
could stand upright
unassisted,
the stays so rigid I could feel
them through the housedresses
she favored.
I’d touch not flesh
but substance as unswerving
as she.

Every morning
was the same—
even during the heat
of Canadian summers
she’d rise,
fasten with rheumatic fingers
the endless hooks.

I’d watch, a bean-pole child,
as she strapped her ample body
into the straitlaced
straitjacket, leaning over
to arrange her large breasts
so they conformed
to the outline of her confinement.

Next, she’d attach
stockings to the garters
that hung like sleeping
insects around the base
of her girdle.

In a shallow bowl
on her dresser lay
extra stays, bone people
I played with, marching their sturdy
bodies across the silken cover
of my grandmother’s bed,
the quilt stained with brown
shoe polish I, as a toddler,
found and spilled
on the downy quilt.

My immaculate grandmother kept it,
she said, because when I wasn’t there
the comforter reminded her
of me.
It’s such a small stain, eh?

I can feel yet the severe
girth of her body
entrapped in a bundle of bone,
though love spilled out,
see her as she gardened
so outfitted, burrs
catching on her dark hose
and on the laces of her
no-nonsense shoes.

She needed no corset
to keep her upright.
My grandmother was
as unyielding as the undergarment
she wore, holding firm in her
God, her family and flowers,
her commitment to enfold her grandchild
against her upright bosom.

Though the stays poked
tender skin, I said nothing,
glad to be held by this woman
who corseted me, whose wide arms
ceded just enough to accommodate
one small form.

 

(This poem originally appeared in Sanskrit, Vol. 39 (UNC Charlotte) and is published with permission of the author.)

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  • Lynne Miller May 2, 2015 at 11:36 am

    Judie–this poem of an undergarment turned metaphor for an embracing, protective grandmother’s love touched me deeply.
    And, I love the memorable details of corset and body.

    Thanks for the pleasure of this captivating poem.

    Reply