This is the title poem from Maria Gillan's book Ancestors' Song (Bordighera Press).
I come from a long line of women, who never gave up,who knew how to work hard, not stop. I imagine them
working in the fields built into the mountainside
in San Mauro, the fields to which they walked each morning
and returned each night to their stone houses to cook
and wash and clean. For me they will always wear black dresses
like the mourning dresses my mother wore for years.
Each time a relative died in Italy, my mother would wear
the black mourning dress for at least a year.
That was what she was taught to do as a girl in San Mauro
and that’s what she did long after she left San Mauro behind.
When I visit San Mauro I see my first cousins look just like me,
though I never met them before. We are short, squat, sturdy.
They are physically stronger than I am,
still work in their gardens and kitchens for hours each day,
but in so many ways, we are alike.
My cousin Liliana’s sardonic humor so like my mother’s,
my other cousin Anna’s exquisite handiwork
and the neat precision with which she folds the delicate napkin
and serves her homemade cake. It’s as though I’ve met them all before.
My mother’s stories kept them alive
as I try to keep my parents alive for my children
In my daughter I see my mother—my daughter who works
for twenty-four hours straight on a paper or a book,
my daughter who demands perfection from herself,
my daughter who does not know how to sit still
or to pamper herself.
And I know that the one thing I wish I had not given her
is this drive to succeed, to be better than she was the day before,
no time for long days on a beach, no time for vacation,
no time for dreaming, only this, this need to keep on going
even when she’s so tired her eyes look dazed,
to keep on going the way my mother did, the way I always do,
and I want to erase that part of our ancestors I passed to her,
though I tell her to take a vacation, to rest, she only
has to look at the way I live to know that I have not
been able to take my own advice, all those women
that came before us beating in my blood, that song I know
without ever having heard the words,
just as my daughter knows,
and nothing I can do or say to save her.
Maria Mazziotti Gillan's most recent books are the poetry and photography collection, Paterson Light and Shadow and the poetry collection, What Blooms in Winter . Her collection of poems along with some of her paintings is The Girls in the Chartreuse Jackets . Maria's official website is MariaGillan.com.