Home > Poetry > When My Mother Gives Up Her American Dream to Marry My Father
Published: Sun Mar 24 2024
Diego Isaias Hernández Méndez, Convertiendse en Characoteles / Sorcerers Changing into Their Animal Forms (detail), 2013, oil on canvas. Arte Maya Tz’utujil Collection.
Online 2024 Relationships Spirituality Loss
When My Mother Gives Up Her American Dream to Marry My Father

She says it was for love,
as if the sound of the word
blowing in the wind

lifts the sails of her white dress
and sails her body back to my father
on his ship in the Panamá Canal.

She says it was for love,
as if love were a place
above the clouds from which

she could see the earthrise
blanketed in dark space.
A sign, she says, told her for certain that

their lives would be wasted
if they were spent apart,
as if to say for certain were to

fold ginger lilies into
First Corinthians on
the page with her favorite verse,

saving the flora to offer them
to a god she hadn’t yet met, one day
when she’d believe in love again.

She always knew
it was coming, the harpy on
horseback, deity of her dreams with a

gray-and-white-feathered halo for a crown.
I never understood religious offerings,
giving back to creators something

they could so easily take themselves, whether it be
taking her lamming for slaughter or taking her
dreams deferred of becoming a

nurse like Diahann Carroll’s Julia on
U.S. TV stations that my mother watched
as a little Black girl in the Panamá of the 1960s.

Julia’s good looks were an act of
defiance. Black women on
TV were never that beautiful.

In the sixties, my mother takes notes and
in the seventies offers my father her
velvet on their wedding night.

He crushes it to bring the
beauty out of the thing,
like all men taught

by their fathers to
press a grape for wine or a
body for blood when it was the only

red the village men said he should take for a
wife, when she was the only kind of
woman the village men said he should take for

love. There’s always a bit of
violence to sacrifice—flesh
crushed under the pressure of

other people’s expectations, giving
life to the machos, the patrones, the pelaos, like me.
The blow of birthing machismo was only softened by

promises of sainthood, promises of
power over man now that her only
son was going to be one.

Today, she weeps when I don’t go to church and
Hail Mary, and longs to return to the sea and a time when
the wind blew her dress perhaps in the

wrong direction. Tough for a mermaid to swim
upstream. Tough for love to be like water, able to
sustain you any way the wind blows.

These days, she dreams of life at the
bottom of the sea. These days,
breathing air feels like drowning.

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Darrel Alejandro Holnes, an Afro-Panamanian American writer, performer, and educator, is the author of Stepmotherland (Notre Dame Press, 2022) and Migrant Psalms (Northwestern Press, 2021); the coauthor of Prime: Poetry & Conversation (Sibling Rivalry Press, June 2014), an Over the Rainbow List selection of the American Library Association; and the coeditor of Happiness, The Delight-Tree: An Anthology of Contemporary International Poetry, published in 2017 to commemorate the United Nations International Day of Happiness. His poems have appeared in The American Poetry Review, Poetry, AGNI, Callaloo, Best American Experimental Writing, and elsewhere. The recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship in poetry, the C. P. Cavafy Poetry Prize from Poetry International, the Andrés Montoya Poetry Prize from Letras Latinas, and the Drinking Gourd Poetry Prize from Northwestern University Press, he works as a college professor in New York City. (updated 4/2024)

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