Things That Matter

Things that Matter

Going gingerly up the stairs, afraid they’ll give way

I’m escorted by a lady cop who’s sensitive, and never breaks under pressure.

The room stands as it always stood

but overcooked now, and missing important parts.

There is broken glass on the sofa where I used to nap.

Sunlight pours in, giving rest to memories.

She calls me to the kitchen with a whistle and I go see

 smelling flames and melted lampshade

without doors on the cabinets, or labels on the cans.

Moving aside an old photo I see one perfectly white place

a single untarnished square of her life.

Nothing else in these rooms is her

not shattered perfume bottles or baby blankets in the making.

But here are charred sheets

folded back

waiting for me to slip in and be loved, unannounced.

I move crushed platters and ashes of tablecloths, to find a set of dishes intact.

Faultlessly flowered in faded greens and yellows, homely as ever.

They are warm, like skin.

Even though she never cared for them, they were collected by the women before her, one at a time.

They never were her style, and now they are mine.

I pack them in milk crates, which makes me laugh, sobbingly.

Milk made her sick. 

Milk, and this china pattern.

I find that lady cop across the room bawling for the both of us. 

For all three of us.

We can never keep the things that matter, and the things that don’t matter seem to stick

the lady cop tells me.

I nod, and search

for remnants of saucers.

My grandparents going to the Cosmopolitan Ball in Harlem.

I wrote this poem a few months after losing my grandmother to a house fire.  We’d plotted her return home from the hospital after a fall, and set up circles of support around her; My mother in the morning, me at mid-day, and my older sister in the evening until the night nurse came to put her to bed.  We bought supplies, added rails in the bathrooms, disconnected the stove. 

Operation Get Grandma Home was bullet proof; she wanted to be at home, and what Grandma wanted, Grandma got. 

Then one day, a couple of minutes after my baby daughter and I left our afternoon shift, and a couple of minutes before my sister arrived, there was a flash electrical fire. It ended up suffocating my Grandmother, taking her life and destroying the hub of our family.  If something like that ain’t ridiculous, moving her home to a building that may well have already had fire in the walls, then nothing is.   I think we are only now beginng to recover from the shock.


My mother and my children playing at Grandma's house shortly before the fire.


So, time passes, and I found myself in a screaming brawl the other day.  In the street!   When I told Gregory the details he was amazed, knowing that I’m not much for arguments and rarely raise my voice.  Telling him my side of it, I was even surprised at myself.  And the more angry I got, the more angry I was.

As my Grandma would’ve said, “Sow the wind, reap the whirlwind.”

I could only think, when the dust had settled, how horrified she would have been had she seen me yelling in the street.  And, I thought of how hard it is to search for remnants after the fires of anger and fear have swept through our lives.  So I asked God, broaching the subject very gently, “Is that a thing that matters?  Was it the right thing to do, get involved in a fight to defend my honor?”

The answer:  Nope.

Of course, I had a comeback because I was feeling quarrelsome and I thought, “But what about the answer being yes?  What about the fact that I didn’t start that mess?  When, exactly, do I get to finally punch the people who need punching?”

As soon as I thought that, I knew the answer is Never.

I can’t even begin to tell you tell you what the point of the whole conflict was.  Not just because I’m ashamed of my behavior, which I am; But because the whole conflict just doesn’t matter.

Here’s what I do know:

–          I was mad (as in stark raving)

–          I thought I was right to be offended

–          It was ON.

I also know there are people who yell all the time.  They find it an energizing means of communication- and a great way to settle conflicts, as well as the score.  Me, I find the whole yelling thing to be traumatic.  When anger gets the best of me, as it did that day, I become a raging lunatic, the kind of person that I dislike intensely.  In fact, I feel usually feel disdain for those who let their emotions rule them.  But there I was, the star of my own tacky reality show, putting the whole world on blast.  Ick.

And so, I put my pride in my pocket and made an apologetic phone call.  Not only was I apologizing to the person who’d offended me so deeply, I was making amends with myself, for showing up in the world in a way that dishonors me, and my own legacy. In apologizing, I was free to let that conflict not matter, and therefore, not stick to my heart.

 Then, I searched for what might be left in the ashes.

Thanks, amen.

Grandma Lil, my role model and biggest fan.

About thanks amen

Michelle is an artist from Milwaukee, Wisconsin whose professional experience spans working as an educator, nonprofit executive, and consultant. She has a fear of clowns and pecans, and works every day to listen at least twice as much as she talks.
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