Janet Ruth Heller – Mother-in-Law on the Phone

Heller LE P&W January 2024

Download PDF Here
Live Encounters Poetry & Writing, January 2024

Mother-in-Law on the Phone, poems by Janet Ruth Heller.

Mother-in-Law on the Phone

Your court is in session.
Like a prosecutor,
you wedge questions
between me and my peace of mind.

“When did you get up?
Did you shower?
Are you depressed
at the end of your semester?
When will you buy a larger house?”

You reveal your other children’s secrets,
but warn me not to tell anyone.

You demand that I see
the same movies that delight you, attend
the same lecture series, shop
at the same stores, buy
the same clock radio on sale.

“Goodbye, little girl,”
you conclude gaily,
leaving my 36-year-old,
five-foot seven-inch body
seething with rage.

Snow-Woman in Portage

I stroll across my neighborhood
during a January thaw.
Young Karl and Erika frolic
on their mountain of snow.
Andrew and Ryan
scoop out an igloo.

But a snow-woman
on Tattersall Street
stops me in my tracks.
Shapely legs end
in a bikini brief,
and a buxom torso
a bikini top.
Winter sunlight sparkles,
tanning the snow-maiden.

Mark’s Progress II

For my nephew

Mark had trouble
opening his mouth
and some sounds
posed obstacles
for his lips and tongue.

When Mark was a toddler,
doctors predicted
that his autism
would prevent him
from learning to speak.

But Mark worked hard,
encouraged by his parents,
his sister Karen,
and skilled therapists.
They proved the doctors wrong.

Mark began with hand signs,
then mastered phonemes
and full syllables.
He struggled with words
like “Karen” and “home.”

Mark lagged behind his grade
in language skills. But he kept
pushing sounds into phrases,
then three-unit sentences:
“I want pancake.”

At Cousin Jay’s bar mitzvah,
Mark’s mother wept,
prayed that her son
would someday catch up,
live as a normal man.

The Jewish community
sent teenagers to mentor Mark,
play ball games with him,
build his confidence,
become his friends.

He learned to read
in English and Hebrew,
mastered crossing streets
even in hectic New York,
grew tall and strong.

At age thirteen,
Mark had his bar mitzvah,
chanted from the Torah,
led songs and worship,
made his family proud.

The rabbi compared
this achievement
to the Jews’ exodus
from Egyptian bondage
and praised the youth’s courage.

Mark continued to study,
held summer jobs,
graduated from high school,
then lived with roommates
while completing a new degree.

As COVID raged,
Mark and his mother
shopped for senior citizens
and delivered their groceries.
Now he works for a hardware store.

Mark’s progress gives me hope
that more differently abled children
will develop their skills,
reach for distant stars.

© Janet Ruth Heller

Janet Ruth Heller is the past president of the Michigan College English Association and a past president of the Society for the Study of Midwestern Literature.  She has a Ph.D. in English Language and Literature from the University of Chicago.  She has published four poetry books:  Nature’s Olympics (Wipf and Stock, 2021), Exodus (WordTech Editions, 2014), Folk Concert: Changing Times (Anaphora Literary Press, 2012), and Traffic Stop (Finishing Line Press, 2011); a scholarly book, Coleridge, Lamb, Hazlitt, and the Reader of Drama (University of Missouri Press, 1990); a middle-grade fiction chapter book for children, The Passover Surprise (Fictive Press, 2015, 2016); and a fiction picture book for children about bullying, How the Moon Regained Her Shape (Arbordale, 2006; 7th edition 2022), that has won four national awards, including a Children’s Choices award.  Her website is https://www.janetruthheller.com

2 Replies to “Janet Ruth Heller – Mother-in-Law on the Phone”

  1. Dear Janet, I am Very happy to learn of Mark’s progress! And, for sure, your Great attitude in encouraging him. So sorry to learn of your mother-in-law’s attitude – and that you are forced to cope with such backward talk. She is lonesome and ill-equipped to stay in community with others. I hope that it might be a solace to you to know that – it might – and for me, it does – come from the other direction: my daughter-in-law – to whom I have given my most cherished, most loved person on earth – my Son – to be her partner (already for 35 years). She does not value him to the extent he deserves; she feels free to criticize my friends; she exhibits jealousy about my close relationship with her daughter (my granddaughter). So – I am trying to say: Such is Life! sometimes, Unfair – but teaching us that it is necessary, sometimes – to let other folk’s opinions roll off our backs; simply pursuing those things that make ourselves content.

  2. Hello again, Janet! I value our long if often geographically distant friendship. Reading your inspiring poem about Mark made me remember hearing your warm encouragement to your students as we shared an office so long ago at NIU.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.