Into the Answer

By Erin Murphy

May 23, 2022

Into the Answer

after Rilke

Your high school teacher mother taught you a trick for taking comprehension tests: always skip ahead to read the questions before the passage.

(Why are the mother’s hands discolored?)

You remember her sitting at the kitchen table, her pen carving into the triplicate mimeograph sheets, the edges of her hands bruised with blue ink. Sometimes she’d let you grade her students’ papers—yes, the way Tom Sawyer “let” the other boys whitewash Aunt Polly’s picket fence.

You loved making red checks and Xs for the root of “salubrious” or the Italian city where Romeo and Juliet was set.

(What is the significance of “first”?)

It was in a classroom that she had her first heart attack. A mother yourself by then, you weaned your toddler daughter on the spot to stay three nights on a hospital cot by her bedside, interrogating the cardiologist about circulation and stents and contraindications.

(When does a mother stop mothering?)

She insisted on slipping you bites of applesauce and poached chicken from her cafeteria tray, then tucked the heart attack in her pocket like a secret and taught another decade.

(Is daughter ever a verb?)

As your grandma was dying, she motioned for your mother—then nearly 70—to come close, perhaps for a kiss or to whisper words of wisdom or love. Instead, in her last breaths, she tugged up the zipper on your mother’s fleece pullover, signaling that it was too low cut. This is the gesture that caught in your mother’s chest.


Erin Murphy’s work has appeared in The Best of Brevity, Waxwing, Guesthouse, North American Review, Memoir, and elsewhere. She is author or editor of thirteen books, including Creating Nonfiction: Twenty Essays and Interviews with the Writers (SUNY Press), a Foreword INDIES Book of the Year. She is Professor of English at Penn State Altoona.


Photo by Bruno Scramgnon courtesy of Pexels

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