Endowed in perpetuity by the Glenna Luschei Fund for Excellence

At Thirty

At thirty my mother was seven months pregnant,
thin as milk and luminous in blues and ivories,
colors for grown, quiet women. She asks
what I am mourning in my terrible black clothes
at my age. Her daughter has grown into no one
she knows, and she is the one in mourning now,
for the daughter I am not, for the mother
I am not.

This year, turning thirty myself, the simplest math
surprises: my mother reaching twice that age.
At sixty we Japanese celebrate coming full circle,
returning our frail, shrinking bodies
to the ritual crimson clothes of a newborn.
For her birthday, someone else’s daughter
would send a maroon sweater or a coral scarf,
but what I want to buy us both is
a red, red dress.

Prairie Schooner, Vol. 77, No. 1 (Spring 2003), p. 98

Author Comment

“Motherhood: Some women make a choice without choosing; others have no choice but to choose; still others have no choice whatsoever. But no woman chooses her daughterhood. She makes of it what she can. The speaker of the poem in her ‘terrible black clothes’ perhaps mourns the loss of both. Meanwhile, the mother mourns the woman her daughter will never be; the daughter mourns the woman her mother never was.

“When life expectancies were shorter, five cycles of the Chinese zodiac must have seemed a long, full life; traditionally, one’s sixtieth year is occasion for celebration, a complete and fulfilled circuit, an end to the journey that is also a return to one’s beginnings. When the speaker reaches the age at which her mother became her mother, it is the mother who is symbolically returned to infancy, as though changing places with her daughter — who had been meant to repeat this circuit in her turn. It is, in a way, a sterile cycle. Perhaps the womb need not be the only defining reference point for mothers and daughters—imagine emerging anew into the world together, simply as two women.

“It has been startling to see what I’d thought of as long-resolved issues about choice lately questioned again in U.S. policy debates. As women we all live with the choices we make—or refuse to make—and the consequences reach far deeper than the confined parameters of political controversies. The point is for women to be able to choose how to live their lives fully, not simply to live with whatever choices they are given. In the early 2000s, at a reading in Washington, DC, Doris Lessing said, essentially, that women needed beware, that the younger generation had no idea how hard-won the rights they took for granted were, that they already were being eroded. Ever the prophetess-mother, grieving for us.”