Chicago Saturdays, 1969

Sarah Browning

My mother in the crappy kitchen, before
the renovation, boiling berries for jam.

The kitchen is crappy so she’s painted it
royal blue and it shimmers in the Chicago

heat, strawberries popping on the ancient
stove. On the ceiling she’s painted giant

petals springing out from the one bare bulb.
Oh, cast-iron sink so deep, narrow metal

cabinet, counter tacked to the wall. How
she labors to cheer, washes and hulls

the berries, cuts and boils, the summer
beating on the city outside. She sterilizes

jars and lids, decants the jam, seals
the jars, sweat and sweat and maybe

by now we’re cranky and the baby wailing.
We’ve driven out to Indiana and picked,

our child bodies low to the ground, hers
crouched and stooping, cradling

one baby and pregnant with the next.
Maybe she gives us a spoonful to calm us,

mixes the baby’s dry cereal, tries to smile
when our father appears at last and does

not pick up the baby, looks at the sticky
mess of the kitchen table, all these girls

covered in it. Maybe this is one of those
evenings when, for some infraction no one

remembers or is even sure of at the time,
he sends us to bed without our supper.

If so, later on, after we’ve sat some time
silent in our room, contemplating

our guilt, our mother arrives with a tray
of dry sandwiches and milk. Maybe this

evening, though, the tray will hold a third little
plate of bread and margarine with a taste of jam,

a bit that did not fill a canning jar: red
and shimmering and a taste of the bright

day, the better part in the Indiana berry patch
where my sister and I, enlisted to pick, gorged

ourselves on the sweetness. We’ll nibble
our bread and jam, our faces still tinged in red,

and our mother will sit with us,
ours alone a few solemn moments.

Sarah Browning is the author of two books of poems, Killing Summer (Sibling Rivalry Press, 2017) and Whiskey in the Garden of Eden (The Word Works, 2007). She is co-founder and for 10 years was Executive Director of Split This Rock and currently teaches for Writers in Progress. An Associate Fellow of the Institute for Policy Studies, she has been guest editor or co-edited special issues of Beltway Poetry Quarterly, The Delaware Poetry Review, Origins, and POETRY magazine. She holds an MFA in poetry and creative nonfiction from Rutgers University Camden. More at: