Poetry Sunday: Little Lesson on How to Be by Kathryn Nuernberger

The death of someone you love is something that you never really get over. You learn to cope with it somehow and you move on. But you never really stop missing them in your life. There's a hole there that can never be filled.

Kathryn Nuernberger understands that. The woman in her poem lost her mother eighty years before but she has never stopped missing her. I lost my mother sixteen years ago and my life still feels her absence. My mother's name was Reba. Reba. 

Little Lesson on How to Be

by Kathryn Nuernberger

The woman at the Salvation Army who sorts and prices is in her eighties
and she underestimates the value of everything, for which I am grateful.
Lightly used snow suits, size 2T, are $6 and snow boots are $3.
There is a little girl, maybe seven, fiddling with a tea set. Her mother
inspects drapes for stains.
Sometimes the very old and lonely are looking for an opening.
She glances up from her pricing and says something about the tea set
and a baby doll long ago.
I am careful not to make eye contact, but the mother with drapes has
such softness in her shoulders and her face and she knows how to say
the perfect kind thing—“What a wonderful mother you had.”
“Yes, she was.”
Why do children sometimes notice us and sometimes not?
From the bin of dolls: “What happened to your mother?”
“She died.”
The woman at the Salvation Army who sorts and prices is crying a little.
She seems surprised to be crying. “It’s been eighty years and I still miss
When my daughter was born I couldn’t stop thinking about how we
were going to die. If we were drowning, would it be better to hold her
to me even as she fought away or should I let her float off to wonder why
her mother didn’t help her? What if it’s fire and I have one bullet left? I
made sure my husband knew if there were death squads and he had to
choose, I’d never love him again if he didn’t choose her. If I’m lucky,
her crying face is the last thing I’ll see.
The mother with drapes is squeezing her daughter’s shoulder, trying to
send a silent message, but children are children. “Why did she die?”
“She was going to have a baby and—And she died.”
“But she was a wonderful mother.”
I’m holding a stack of four wooden jigsaw puzzles of farm animals,
dinosaurs, jungle animals, and pets. Each for a quarter.
“It’s silly how much I still miss her.” She takes out a tissue and wipes
her eyes and then her nose.
When my grandmother threw her sister, Susie, a 90th birthday party,
one hundred people came, including 5 of the 6 brothers and sisters. At
dusk only a few of us were left, nursing beers with our feet kicked up
on the bottom rungs of various walkers.
Susie said then to my grandmother, “Can you think of all the people
watching us in heaven now? And our mother must be in the front row.”
Grandma took her sister’s hand. “Our mother—Estelle.”
“Yes—her name was Estelle. I forgot that.”
They looked so happy then, saying her name back and forth to each
other. Estelle. Estelle.


  1. It is true that some have wonderful mothers and miss them always, but it didn't happen for me. By any realistic measure my mother was a miserable, mean, at times vicious person, and I was three times removed from her care. The last time I saw her was when I was sixteen, the age I could legally leave home without being brought back. I never saw her again, thank goodness. From one year to the next I never give her a moment's thought.

    1. How terrible for you, David. Having spent a career in social services, I'm well aware that such mothers do exist. I'm glad that you emerged from such an experience to have a very different kind of life.

  2. I often find myself thinking of someone I loved and suddenly remembering, Oh, she is dead. I feel sad to have lost so many people I love.

    1. There are many absences in my life as well. I carry the memories with me always.

  3. I read your post earlier today and waited a little bit to comment. The 5th anniversary of my childhood best friend passing is Thursday. Her mother was like a 2nd mother to me after my Mom died (weeks short of my 13th birthday) I wish I could have spent more time with both of them as an adult. This, for me, was a very emotional poem, which shows the power of poetry.

    1. We are so fortunate to have had such lovely people in our lives. And they never really leave us as long as we keep them in our hearts.


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