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For the Girls: An Elegy

by Amy Richlin

In 1954, the girls went out to play
on the green lawns, under the maples lush with June,
and brought their cat’s-cradle strings and dolls
and a book.

“She’s always got her nose in a book,” their mothers said,
wondering about the distant years,
and called them home to dinner:
“Barbara! Natalie!”—names little girls had then,
just as they once were Sylvia and Celia,
Fanny and Minnie and Ida before that.

Serious girls, or rowdy, they got straight A’s,
they couldn’t leave the books alone, and wouldn’t rest,
but thought they might write one,
much to everyone’s surprise.
(No one expected a girl to write a book; not someone
who loved the color pink, and liked to go shopping,
and once wore Mary Janes.)

Once they wore red Keds, and collected barrettes;
once their skin was smoother than a Band-Aid,
and their eyelashes lay as they slept on cheeks like peonies.

Now it is summer again, and the trees cast the same green shade;
underneath, they still lie, reading;
and their mothers are calling them home.


In memory of Natalie Boymel Kampen (1944-2012), Barbara McManus (1942-2015), and all the women of my generation who are gone; and thinking of all the rest who are gone too soon. Sylvia was my mother's name (1917-2003); Celia was the mother of a friend (1913-1973); Fanny and Ida were my grandmothers, Min was Fanny's cousin. Names mark generations, and each generation has its own roll call. “Barbara! Natalie!”: maybe in small towns they still do this, I hope they do, but in our childhood mothers at twilight would stand on the front stoop and call their children home, on a falling minor third.

Virginia Woolf said, “We think back through our mothers if we are women.” Not only my own childhood but my mother’s and her mother’s are part of me just like the rings of a tree: “We used to play under the front porch”; “The ladies used to hide us under the bundles of cloth when the inspector came around.” The “distant years” come from W.B. Yeats’ “A Prayer for My Daughter,” from which this poem departs.

July 2015

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