Nebraska Center for Writers

by Ted Kooser

Today I put on a cowboy shirt my mother made for me when I was fourteen. It still fits, though the style is quaint. It's red with a white yoke and white cuffs, and the yoke and cuffs are embroidered with plump green cacti. It's the kind of shirt Roy Rogers wore for the Saturday matinees when I was a boy. Long ago I lost my long-barreled pearl-handled cap pistols and wore out the boots with the stars.
Mother made most of our clothes when my sister and I were small, and nearly all of her own. One of the most difficult moments we faced after she died was carrying armloads of her handmade suits and jackets and skirts into a charity thrift shop. And then turning our backs on them. I kept her black Singer with its strap of green felt around the neck, with pins and needles waiting and ready. And the sewing basket my Grandfather Kooser bought for her at an auction when I was a baby.
Mother was working as a salesgirl when she met my father, but when they were married, she became a full-time homemaker and never went back to salaried work. My father was never a highly paid man, and in dime store spiral notebooks, she kept track of every cent they spent from 1936 till the day she died. The hospital bill, ten days for Mother and me when I was born, was $47.38.
For almost twenty years after my father was gone, she lived alone in their house. With the taste for frugality she'd learned in the Great Depression, she saved what she could from Dad's modest pension and her own small social security checks. She invested in CDs, watching the newspaper to catch the best rates, and slowly amassed nearly a half million dollars, far more than the sum of my father's income for all the years he'd worked. I asked her one day if she ever went out to eat, and she said, "Yes, when Colonel Sanders has that two-piece chicken special, I'll pick one up. Then I eat one piece that day and the other piece the next." Even with all that money in the bank, she liked to see if she could talk her doctors out of free samples of prescription drugs.
Perhaps fifteen years ago I was visiting with her long distance, and she told me she'd just finished another crazy quilt. She made about ten of these, handsome, featherstitched along the patches but not quilted, tied instead, like comforters. She made them from garage sale fabric scraps. She told me that because she'd already given a quilt to each member of our family, she didn't know what to do with this one. I asked her how much she had in it, and without a pause she said, "Twelve dollars and forty-three cents." I said, "Why don't you figure out how much you'd like to have for it, maybe seventy-five or a hundred dollars, and I'll buy it from you."
"Why would you do that?" she asked.
I told her I had an old girlfriend who had recently been married and I hadn't yet given her a wedding gift. Mother paused for no more than a breath and then said, "Ted, that's too much to give to an old girlfriend." And she wouldn't let me buy the quilt. I didn't argue. The Bohemians say, "Never blow in a bear's ear."

Reprinted with permission
from Local Wonders: Seasons in the Bohemian Alps
Copyright © 2002
by Ted Kooser
U of Nebraska Press

by Ted Kooser

The door through which we step out
into the past is an easy push,
light as the air, a green screen door
with a sagging spring. There's a hook
to unhook first, for there have been
incidents: someone has come up
out of the past to steal something good
from the present. We know who they are.
We have tried to discourage them
by moving from house to house,
from city to city, but they find us
again and again. You see them coming
sometimes from a long ways off —
a pretty young woman, a handsome man,
stepping in through the back garden gate,
pausing to pick the few roses.

Reprinted with permission
from Weather Central
Copyright © 1994
by Ted Kooser
U of Pittsburgh Press

by Ted Kooser

Rain has beaded the panes
of my office windows,
and in each little lens
the bank at the corner
hangs upside down.
What wonderful music
this rain must have made
in the night, a thousand banks
turned over, the change
crashing out of the drawers
and bouncing upstairs
to the roof, the soft
percussion of the ferns
dropping out of their pots,
the ballpoint pens
popping out of their sockets
in a fluffy snow
of deposit slips.
Now all day long,
as the sun dries the glass,
I'll hear the soft piano
of banks righting themselves,
the underpaid tellers
counting their nickels and dimes.

Reprinted with permission
from One World at a Time
Copyright © 1985
by Ted Kooser
U of Pittsburgh Press

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