A family recipe, a childhood memory, a Depression-era handout
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Graduation was awful. When I handed Jholie her diploma,
that idiotic, oversized black mortarboard slid down my forehead
& covered my eyes & out in the stands everyone started to laugh,
& if that wasn’t mortifying enough, at the reception a colleague,
ladling himself another cupful of punch, mentioned in passing
that final-grade rosters were due the next morning at ten.
I was seething: it meant two hours of work & it was Friday evening,
& no way in hell was I coming back Saturday morning at eight,
which is why, when that damn graduation was done & the last
cars had driven out of the lot, I made my way back through the dark
to my office, disgruntled & sullen — & that’s when I saw them:
two huge skunks in the doorway, sipping the water I leave out
for the stray cats who roam the campus by day, & just
to their left their three diminutive tykes nibbling away at the bowl
of kibble: a family of five furtive skunks, surviving the way
the despised & ill-starred often do, by desperation & stealth,
hiding by day to slink out & scavenge at night.
I stood in the shadows grinning,
taking them in — wide assed & bandylegged, snouts to the bowls —
till at last, having slurped & eaten their fill, that whole miraculous,
heartbreaking crew waddled contentedly off on their stubby little legs,
single file, like school kids, their glistening rumps high in the air
like lowriders, the stripes down their backs thick & white,
magnificent tails sweeping the grass in their wake.
I watched till they were lost in the dark & even then I kept watching,
cheering them on. I could hardly bear seeing them go.
Like the students I teach year after year, who clutch their diplomas
& vanish, their fates were out of my hands. Which is when
it came to me that in my cantankerous mood I’d missed
the whole celebration: that solemn procession, the gowns,
the ceremonial feast, & those immigrant families whooping it up
in the stands when Yasmin & Gai Lin & Juan Carlos stepped
to the stage had, in truth, been sweet all around me.
& that understood, I see myself yet again for that flummoxed buffoon
in the old Zen tale who, when the Master points to the rising moon
of awakened mind, stares instead stupidly at the Roshi’s finger.
Office key in my hand, I take a deep breath & look up
& notice at last those unbelievable millions of stars,
& low in the east an exquisite, sumptuous moon, three-quarters full.
A different version of this poem previously appeared in the online journal Gargoyle.