Seven Ages of Woman

She had a beautiful mother,
serene in a sepia photograph
who cried over every debt;
her father was happy-go-lucky,
a charmer and very bright;
a Methodist grandfather killed himself;
her grandmother’s hair grew down to her knees.

Cycling the three miles to grammar school
in a uniform sizes too large
with a second-hand hockey stick
and fingers chapped from the cold,
she identified flowers by the roadside.
Small round glasses and wrinkled stockings,
her life was all books and the seasons.

She worked as a teacher, then as a secretary,
and on the train from Luton to London
she met a fellow commuter. They loved one another
but for months she wouldn’t take him home –
her sister had a baby and an atmosphere;
he insisted, and after the wedding
they lived in a flat close to Paddington.

She gave her daughters comfort and stability,
caught their floods of words
which rushed from every day.
Best times were half-term shopping in the town,
then cups of tea and reading by the fire.
Eventually they left for work and college:
she never held too tight, but missed them.

Her fellow traveller journeyed on –
he formed a company and she assisted.
Through the days she typed and checked;
at night and in unsettled dawns
lay listening to his plans and fears,
always reassuring, willing his success:
she only turned from him to hide the growing lump.

Disease had spread and held her hostage –
feline cancer seldom lets its victims stray.
For years it failed to mawl her spirit
even when the stick progressed to wheelchair;
only when she couldn’t stir from bed,
jousting pain with ranks of coloured pills,
she said, ‘I hope this won’t go on much longer.’

Her taut neck stretched across the pillow,
face attenuated back to youth,
the ageing woman and the little girl are one.
The curtain descends on seven ages –
invisibly, they take their final bow.
Nurses, importunate ushers, quickly confer
and parcel her up in a sheet.


©Virginia Rounding, 1995

The Night

When I came to say good-bye that night,
Already you were drifting off
Beyond the realms of speech and sight
Or any common sight. Your cough
At last was silent; eyes half-closed,
Unseeing, yet I knew you heard,
Felt my kiss, without a word
Consented to let go. I dozed,

And slept for half an hour or so –
Awoke to words my sister said:
Come on – Mum died a few minutes ago.
And so we sat beside your bed
To say our last goodnight, and saw
Your thin neck taut and stretched with strain –
But all that gone now, and the pain
Was past, so you would cry no more.

Then while we had a cup of tea
The nurses wrapped you up, so small
And shrivelled, save the swollen knee
Where cancer broke the bone. And all
At once my flesh began to creep:
For in place of my comfortable mother
Was a sharp-nosed shape in white, quite other,
Which frightened me and took away my sleep.


©Virginia Rounding, 1989

First published in  The Eclectic Muse, Vol.4, No.3, Christmas 1994