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Sandra Beasley is the recipient of the 2009 Barnard Women Poets Prize for "I Was teh Jukebox," forthcoming from W.W. Norton. (Courtesy Author)
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By Sandra Beasley
Sunday, May 24, 2009

"Blue skies," I warbled. "Smiling at me ... " Except no one was smiling. My classmates' faces were glazed with boredom as they waited to rehearse. It was just hours before the talent show, and my voice was shaky, my tempo off. My choreography consisted of pacing the stage and gesturing with a waist-level sweep of my hand I hoped would look jazzy. It looked as though I was cleaning crumbs off an invisible table.

After my run-through, I slumped down on the lobby floor and leaned my forehead against my knees, which were pulled up under the voluminous skirt of my blue batik dress. Lame. My act was lame. Lame even for a science-and-tech school, where a showstopper might be two kids solving Rubik's Cubes to the tune of "Dueling Banjos."

This was nothing like sophomore year, when I'd borrowed my mother's peasant blouse and tied a string of nylon daisies around my forehead to belt out "With God on Our Side." By the spring of senior year, I wanted to be a writer. My chorus folder became a place to keep poem drafts. Now I was stuck with this remnant of my soprano self, an act auditioned before I'd fallen out of love with singing.

My parents were on their way. My dad would wear some bright tie; my mother, the artist, would wear all black. She had been my age when she started painting seriously, and had shown and sold work into her 30s. But it had been years since I'd seen her hold a paintbrush. Her hands were too busy folding laundry, vacuuming, dressing chickens, chopping salads. Still, I kept hoping she'd start again. I gave her sketchbooks every Mother's Day and Christmas.

"Maybe I should read poems." None of my friends looked up from their books. I pulled a stack of drafts from my bag. "Maybe I should read poems," I said, a little louder.

There wasn't time to second-guess myself. I found the show's host and gave her a heads-up. I chose my three best pages. An hour later, I'd rolled and rerolled them into a baton of paper, which I gripped as I stood backstage.

"Next up, Sandra Beasley," came the introduction. "Doing ... something."

No one had warned me about the spotlight. I squinted, looking for my parents, but I couldn't pick out their faces. My first poem was an ode to blue-berries -- marbles caressing my juice-stained skin -- and my shoulders unknotted as the audience murmured in the right places. I launched into a poem about flirting in chemistry class -- kinetic collision, friction of molecules -- my voice strengthening. I'd found a rhythm. "This last one," I said, "is for my mom."

The poem described our laundry room, which had once doubled as her studio. Stacks of blank canvases. Paintbrushes thickening with dust. Years of untouched sketchbooks. She was the artist. Where was her art?

How can I learn, the poem finished, if you do not teach?

"Thank you," I said. The audience applauded. The girls from the track team were on their feet, whistling. A friend grabbed my arm as I left the stage.

"Awesome," she said. "Jeez. Is your mom here?" My stomach dropped as I thought of her out there in the audience. My mother, who had packed my lunch and helped me pick out a dress that morning, had expected to hear me sing "Blue Skies." Instead, she had been chastised in front of a full auditorium for abandoning her canvases. I'd proven myself a writer at her expense. Now I would have to face her.

When the house lights came up, I spotted my dad waving me over. "Well, hey," he said. "That was something else." She was standing on his other side. I waited. She could have said, That's not the whole story. She could have said, That's not your story to tell.

Instead she closed the space between us by pulling me toward her. I pressed my face to her shoulder so quickly that I'd never know for sure if her eyes were wet. There are some tears that a mother is not willing to show. There are some tears a daughter is not ready to see.

E-mail: XXfiles@washpost.com.


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