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What I Learned From

August 2023  -  Issue #311

In Julia Kasdorf's poem "What I Learned From My Mother," she does just what her title sets us up to expect. The first time I read the poem, I knew nothing about her life. When I read her biography and found that she was raised as a Mennonite, I had to reread the poem through that lens. That is not a required lens to read the poem but it did change my reading.

For example,she talks about her mother's practice of canning fruits. That seems like a nice, old-fashioned activity. But through the Mennonite lens, I read the lines:
to slice through maroon grape skins
and flick out the sexual seeds with a knife point
in a different way.

Most of the things she learned are not specific to her upbringing. They are more universal.
I learned that whatever we say means nothing,
what anyone will remember is that we came.

Our call for submissions this summer month is straightforward. Write a poem about what you learned from your mother, father, sister, brother, cousin, neighbor, kindergarten teacher...

Choose someone that you had a real relationship with and who really did teach you a lesson of some kind. Must it be a good, positive lesson? Not necessarily.

In Kasdorf's poem, I feel like as the poem progresses, the lessons she learned were not directly from her mother but were extensions of the larger lessons her mother intentionally wanted to pass on. That seems to be a very natural progression.

Either the title or a line in the poem should include "what I learned from."

For more on all our prompts and other things poetic, check out the Poets Online blog.


Our final embrace on that blustering April day,
unlike petals in the wind, shattered frozen pieces
that leave their trace even as they slowly melt.
I relearn the beauty of self-love, something forgotten,
or really unnoticed, as I forget to look at the stars
above tonight, I let go, release the grip
test the freedom of being no longer in tow.
Too early for growth, just change.
I will learn to adapt, find a strange resilience,
scarred, it's true, but mended anew.
It is part of the art of forgiveness,
lightening the resentment and bitterness
that weighs me down on this journey,
less aimless, not waiting to be found.

Lianna Wright


I’m waiting while my car gets smogged.
My doc says I need a walk every day
to keep my bones strong.
A little side road beckons. My dad loved
to walk. Without a word, he’d take the trail.
If I wanted to go along, I’d have to stretch
my legs into his dad-size stride. Now
I walk like he taught me – by example,
not talk. I love to walk, to observe things
close-up. And look! in someone’s yard,
a giraffe made of rusted metal.
The neck is a two-man crosscut saw,
like my dad’s. One day he sat me down
at one end, and he took the other,
and with hardly a word, taught me the give-
and-take of down-pull cut and then
release-let-it-glide, a dance with partner.
Decades later I can feel the rhythm,
muscle-memory of a lesson from Dad
who showed without so many words telling.

Taylor Graham


Mother told me never to snore,
And never to raid the biscuit jar,
Sound advice, which didn't get her far.
She said, "I can't raise you anymore!
Take your problems to your girlfriend's door!"

"A tuppenny pie," my mother said,
"Always costs fourpence once you're wed!"
She said, "When the bills come in,
You can just take to your bed.
If bailiffs arrive, say, 'Do your worst!'
Always get your retaliation in first."

Mother told me that I must be 'good,'
Though what 'good' meant she didn't say.
"And, if you can't be good, be careful!"
"Don't write poems," mother said,
"No one reads them anyway."

"Love many, trust few,
Always paddle your own canoe!"

"You're a long time dead,"
My mother said.

John Botterill


My fifth grade teacher laughed when correcting
me that 'decrepit' isn't a Yiddish word.
What I learned from that embarrassing experience
is the greater value in dictionaries than
my grandmother spitting out phlegm filled syllables.

What I learned from my little sister
is that being funny can be endearing.
My big sister never learned that lesson.
She did figure out how to disappoint
her chuckling parents by making that obvious.

From my father, right arms figure significantly
in the Newtonian Law of Automobile Deceleration.
From my mother, the definition of love:
lifting her grandchildren with arms draped in
bath towels, hugging them from the tub.

Rob Friedman


Because I am a writer who can’t write
in longhand, and because my fingers
are always itching for the keyboard, my silent
piano, and because writing, for me, has always been
more like making music anyway
than having anything to say,

I am writing to say thank you, Miss Statchel,
wherever you are. What I learned from you
back when I was a cross between
a suppurating pimple with sensory organs on it
and a stomach lurching queasily down a junior
high school hallway saved my life,

which sounds hyperbolic, I know, but hey,
as the bumper sticker says, Art Saves Lives,
and I think I can safely say
that typing is the one skill I learned in junior high
that has stood me in good stead, a phrase
that’s been around since the 15th century,
which is an etymological factoid as useless
as all the facts and dates and definitions

we memorized in junior high. But I remember
your classroom, Miss Statchel, a manual typewriter bolted
to every desk, and Linda Farrell sitting demurely
in the desk next to mine. I might have
fallen in love with her if I didn’t
fall in love with typing first: a quirky, QWERTY
love of all the letters, and all the words,
with lots of touching with all my fingers,
except the thumbs–the right thumb making space
while the fingers made time with the letters,

the left thumb hovering over everything, looking on. I wonder
about that left thumb, why its fate is to be forever
left out, left over, like a maiden aunt, perhaps a little
like you, Miss Statchel, lonely, rigid, watchful, chaperoning
the fingers as they make love to the letters and the words–
yet never joining in the joy of the consummation.

Paul Hostovsky


From my mother I learned
that a woman’s needs
are irrelevant.
She’d rush in at 6:00 PM
from a job secured
to protect her family’s finances
because men couldn’t be trusted,
I learned.

While my father read the paper,
my mother put food on the table
that I had set.
We each had one chop,
my father had two.

From my mother I learned that women
will always have more work
and more tears.
How often I caught her unaware
wiping wet eyes with a hankie.

From my mother I learned
that women must move fast
for men get impatient with waiting
and women must endure their demands
for peace in the family
and save the tea and a book
for an hour past exhaustion.

Norma Ketzis Bernstock


Don’t spend one second of this precious life worrying about anything.
Do not dwell on money or food.
Avoid talking about yourself;
Silence is always appreciated, but if someone
Starts boring you to death, don’t bite them.
Just quietly get up and wander off.
Get plenty of sleep, especially the exquisite satisfaction
Of an afternoon nap in the sunlight on a chilly day.
Keep yourself clean, but don’t obsess over
Personal hygiene, yours or anybody else’s.
And if you should make a big mess and somebody else
Has to clean it up, be grateful,
But don’t heap excessive guilt on yourself.
And look after your love life.
When the delicious darkness falls, and you feel
A bit needy, don’t hesitate to jump on your true love’s chest,
Give their ear a little nibble and maybe a lick on their cheek.
They won’t mind. They will probably purr right back at you
And pet you till they doze off. They will even let you
Spend the rest of the night on their bed.
And when you wake up at four AM after a few hours
Of cozy cuddles, only to discover
That somebody has invaded your sweetheart’s pantry,
Snacking on crackers uninvited, compromising the serenity
Of your peaceful home, don’t repress your outrage.
Pounce and take care of business.
Everybody has the right to privacy, not to mention
The pursuit of happiness.
Finally, always take the high road.
Cats don’t wallow in the dirt.
They look for a nice tall bookcase where they can view their realm,
Or a comfy couch, or if they’re lucky, which cats always are,
A high casement window, where they can gaze out at the lovely
World of birds and trees before closing their wise green eyes
For another long, healing and heavenly nap.

Rose Anna Higashi


From Homer that pride and tragedy are
intertwined, that good men are always doomed,
that cities rise and fall, and life is fleeting.

From Sophocles that our Fate is certain,
that atonement is a long road to death,
and desire is the source of all evil.

From Thucydides that power leads to
arrogance, which leads to destruction
and the perversion of once lofty ideals.

From Plato that reasoned discourse can be
a way to understand Gordian knots, but
not always the best way to untie them.

From Marcus Aurelius that facing
the good fight is only possible when
we quell the turmoil and lust within.

They all warn us as we launch into the
stars, always thrusting outward toward
some unknown place, trailing death.

Rob Miller


They were my mother’s brothers, Dick and Ray
Outsized heroes, there to rescue us
When Mom left Dad and moved back home …
They soon became my mentors

Dick taught me how to rebuild houses
He let me be his gopher
Ray taught me how to ride
He let me help him in the barn

But, what I learned from those two men
Was more than how to swing a hammer
Or shovel horse manure

I learned …
Love’s the glue that binds a Clan together
That all precious memories
Are not of trips (we never made)
To Disney World, the Jersey Shore or Broadway

That learning how to back a four wheel wagon
Or frame a wall, involves mathematics
That investing in relationships
Out performs the Market every time

I learned …
Philosophers need not be academics
Old men in coveralls will do
That formal education is important
But knowledge gained in other ways is too

What I learned from my two part-time Dads
Was how to find my way
Through youth’s unmapped terrain
How to adapt, when something key is missing
And still become some version of a man

Frank Kelly


That resiliency and strength just might be genetic like having a sense of direction or being good at math or puzzles or wallpapering
That hard marriages come to an end but there are second chances
That putting your hand into the earth connects you to not just the earth but yourself
That baking is a science but also a therapy a way to reach out and make friends leaving behind that little girl who once felt so alone
That being abandoned by a parent does not necessarily mean you do the same to them in their later years
That some kids are just like you or not like you or are somewhere between the two and you love them anyway
That caring for an aging parent can draw some of us closer humble us scare us teach us the truth of living in the moment
That it’s okay to be upset because we are each of trying to hold onto the same person who brought us into this world who taught us
That we are her gifts to one another we are our mother’s daughters
That we are sisters and sisters stick together

Terri J. Guttilla


Visiting Mom’s parents, two siblings and I
held Grandpa’s complete undivided attention,
much to my jealous Grandma’s chagrin.
      Mom explained her mother’s possessive nature.

Chilled to perfection in his classic Frigidaire,
he stockpiled 10-ounce Coca-Cola bottles,
childhood elixir never imbibed at our house.
Mom lectured all sugar drinks rotted teeth.

Like little Sumerians drinking beer, we
individually sipped caramel carbonated tonic
through thin, multi-colored bending straws.
      Mom recalled how Grandpa spoiled her as a child.

Spoiled heaven high, he’d pass out separate
Chiclets chewing gum packs like Halloween candy,
let us masticate mouths wide—unrestricted.
      We defied Mom teachings on good manners and behavior.

Grandpa gifted us with small treasures on occasion:
empty milky-glass Old Spice bottles (pintles intact),
or square, wooden-capped English Leather.
      Our joy reminded Mom how she cherished his cigar ring presents.

His scent lingered when Mom rustled us up at her parent’ house
and herded us back home. After Grandpa died, we honored
his memory daily uncorking or uncapping cologne containers.
     Teary-eyed, Mom inhaled and watched us, reminiscing about her Dad.

Sterling Warner