Detroit Poem: “Waking Up At Home” by Leslie Reese

This morning I completed reading Detroit Resurgent. Writing my impressions of the book proves to be challenging because of the strong emotions I have about my hometown, which I visit regularly.

Today—instead of posting about Detroit Resurgent—I am posting another of my Detroit Poems, “Waking Up At Home.” I will post about the book later.

“Waking Up At Home”
in Detroit, circa 1973
by Leslie Reese

mornings are clean
not bruised and scratched like late afternoon….

Dad
is already at work: he is gainfully employed
at the Chrysler Plant
Our mother is a teacher
who elects to work part-time
so she can be home
to greet us with her raised eyebrow
every day after school.

if we return looking like a gang of ragamuffins she
comes out on the sidewalk to look up and down the street
for her
real children
what happened to our hair?
how have our socks come to be twisted
sagging in bunches around our ankles?

some days when she hugs us she
sniffs the armpits of our blouses and scowls,
hating the thought we’ll be using deodorant, soon
no more days of
baby fresh skin

once our underwear slide down the clothes chute stinking

too strong
she teaches us how to
do the laundry;
soon as one of us hits herself in the face
or busts a light bulb
she breaks up our fun habit of
kicking our shoes off, toe-tossing leather
to the ceiling.

Our Household
does not lack for groceries
even on slim days
Mommy explained

about keeping staples:

eggs, flour, milk, rice, cornmeal
bacon grease
we eat
vegetables out of Daddy’s garden

we go to school with our stomachs
full from cereals
sometimes
with raisins, or bananas

when our ages are 12, 10, and five
Mommy
sensing discordance in the rhythm of
our school morning routines
shouts from upstairs;
“Come here so I can see you!”
right
when we are trying to walk out of the door with
our skirts hiked-up too high or
the lunches we’ve packed are nothing but sweets or
we’ve draped hair around our heads
like a trio of shake dancers.

in Our Household
we are held accountable for our behavior
(we aren’t allowed to say we don’t know
why we do the bad things we sometimes do)
we have chores and responsibilities
as well as books, bicycles, and
whiskery older relatives who visit
us from Down South
looking us up and down, their eyes
with precision knife skills
survey the house
and approve
the prayers we say before eating and going to bed
—as if they are auditors come to investigate
the degrees to which
urban life has corrupted us.

bad behavior is broadcast
via telephone, or at the front door if you’re visiting
which means that if you’re an Auntee or somebody like that
you’re free to say Uhn Uhn Uhn
I thought you knew better than that

but Uncle Colvin always winks an eye
he says “You’re still alright with me”
and when nobody is looking
he sneaks us money for getting A’s on our report cards
(if Mommy knew she would make us give it back)

Our mother: she be the Queen
of Stretching a Dollar

she be bent over her sewing machine
stitching ensembles for us to wear.
she be saving money

so she can
purchase theatre tickets and
march us into museums, restaurants, and event halls
so we be getting accustomed
to having experiences and not just
things.

for Christmas she’ll work hard
to make Santa Claus seem wise and holistic,
leaving gifts under the tree which meet the following criteria:
something to wear
something to share
something to read
something for fun

&
something to encourage a current interest:
a chemistry set (for the one mixing baby powder with lotion)
a lab coat and stethoscope (for the one always listening to folks’ heartbeats)
and knitting needles with yarn (for the one practicing on pencils).

Dad and Old Mrs. Moore
who lives six houses down
share gardening tips and plant clippings between them
sometimes entrusting me to transport brown paper sacks filled with moist dirt and roots
or unwashed vegetables picked fresh from their
competing gardens.

She
is old and white
He
is young and black
The both of them hailing from good old
Alabama

compared to how it would be
if they both still lived there

they behave like old chums fending
for their dignity
in a world full of Yanks
who don’t understand
the good parts of being Southern.

****

I am grateful to the editorial staff of AUNT CHLOE A Journal of Artful Candor, who published an earlier version of this poem in 2013.

Related: “Aromas of Family Folklore.”

19 Comments

  1. Good morning! I did read it to the group last night and people adored it! We are a group of women in our 60s (mostly) who live in Kansas, read a great deal of non-fiction and hail from everywhere. And we are all white and looking for ways to increase our understanding of people of color. One woman grew up in a diverse neighborhood in the city and your poem really hit home, especially when you talked about your dad’s vegetable garden. I’m from a small town in Wisconsin and it resonated with me too (and I adore your mother btw!). They wanted me to write you and thank you for this poem. And they especially wanted you to know it is universal in its appeal.

    1. Thank you for sharing my poem with your reading group, Gail!
      Did other members bring poems to read as well?
      Do you have a few non-fiction book recs you would like to make? (I know you don’t really know my taste in books, but I just wonder if there is anything at the top of your mind – if not, no pressure 😄).

  2. I loved your poem! I have to bring a poem to share with my book group this week and I think I’ve found it. You write so beautifully and though I was born and raised in Wisconsin, I can still relate to the imagery and feelings you evoke. Thanks for writing it and sharing.

    1. I’m so glad you enjoy this poem, Gail. I’m glad you don’t have to be from Detroit, Michigan for it to resonate😊. If you do wind up sharing it with your book group, I’d be curious to know how it is received. Nevertheless, I am appreciative.

  3. Like you I love Detroit and how the city grew us. The poem is beautiful. The Broadside Lotus Press anniversary event will be this September. We were just speaking of you last Saturday. We are really hoping you can join us and participate. I’d like to share with you a few lines of one of my Detroit poems, “Love the Children”:

    The small shoes leave only
    fingerprints in the snow.
    Cold fills their broken gloves.
    Even the little coats
    Carry winter in their pockets.
    One is sweet cream laughs anyway.
    Bright eyes and small bodies
    throw snowballs and loud sounds
    At the passersby who remember
    when they too made snowmen,
    Love the children…

    my best to you Leslie, always.

    1. Al – I so love this passage: “Even the little coats/Carry winter in their pockets./One is sweet cream laughs anyway.” Oooo thank you for sharing this and saying that you “love Detroit and how the city grew us”—so eloquent and true!

      Would you be interested in being a “Guest Blogger” here at folklore & literacy and publishing “Love the Children” in its entirety—or else writing more about loving Detroit and how the city grew you? Let’s talk about it.
      xo,Leslie

  4. Beautifully done, Leslie! You evoke the memories so clearly that I can really participate in them. Thank you!

    1. It’s a great blessing to share my memories and have them wonderfully received. Thanks for strolling along memory lane with me, Margaret.

  5. Such beautiful memories, so artfully documented. Thanks Leslie. You know I love your childhood ruminations.

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