Tender – Chiara Di Lello

Who held you as a child? I search for memories of touch
and come up blank, then wonder how my mother
would answer the question. What I know is thirst
for that soft spot inside her elbow, the comfort
of her breath around me. If I knew, wouldn’t I remember
such tenderness, the give and take of skin?

My mother always kept the change, risked her skin
for each Archie comic bought in secret. She touched
the color pages, thumbed the English print, a reminder
of things too American for her father or mother
to allow. A first lesson: how to scrape comfort
from duty, how to follow your own thirst.

They could have seen it if they looked, how she thirsted
for more, to break the tether of one culture, shed like skin.
A nice Ukrainian boy, a house in the suburbs held not comfort,
but constriction, her honey-colored braids pinned a touch
too tight around her head, the blouses her mother
embroidered in tiny stabs of red and black. She remembers

that the only soda she could have was ginger ale, remembers
the sweetness she could only have when sick, fevered and thirsty.
She would lie in bed then, wait for her mother
to bring a cold drink and brush a hand across her hot skin.
I can feel the medicine in that touch
she kept like a pilfered nickel, a tiny comfort all her own.

Nowadays she’ll say she never cared for comfort
—it’s easy to say you don’t remember—
but I wonder what she’d do for another chance at touch,
wonder how many ways she found to bury thirst
sooner than cry into her harrowed skin
sooner than say I just want my mother.

I know I am answering for you, mother,
inventing stories from scraps for my own comfort,
soft stuff to press to my longing, hungry skin
how else could I be born remembering
if I was not already a child of thirst,
of women who bartered wounds for a tending touch?

Mothers of errands and stolen pleasures, mothers without touch
you taught me to break my own skin to quiet my thirst
when we should have been comforted. I will remember this.
Chiara Di Lello

Chiara Di Lello is a writer and educator. She delights in public art, public libraries, and getting improbable places by bicycle. For a city kid, she has a surprisingly strong interest in beekeeping. Find her poems in Rust + Moth, Crab Creek Review, Yes Poetry, and Best New Poets, among others.

Share your thoughts

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.