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Julia Alvarez

My mother used to say that she’d end up
at Bellevue if we didn’t all behave.
In the old country when we disobeyed,
she’d drop us off at the cloistered carmelites
and ring the bell and drive way. We sobbed
until the little lay nun led us in
to where a waiting sister, whose veiled face
we never saw, spoke to us through a grate
about the fourth commandment, telling us
how Jesus obeyed His mother and He was God.

In New York, Mother changed her tack and used
the threat of a mental breakdown to control
four runaway tempers, four strong-willed girls,
four of her own unruly selves who grew
unrulier in this land of the free.
I still remember how she would pretend
to call admissions, pack her suitcase up
with nothing but a toothbrush, showercap.
I’m going to Bellevue, do what you want!
She’d bang the front door, rush out to the car.

Who knows where she went on her hour off?
She needed to get away from her crazy girls,
who wanted lives she had raised them not to want.
So many tempting things in this new world,
so many young girls on their own, so many boys
with hands where hands did not belong!
Of course, she wanted to go to Bellevue
where the world was safe, the grates familiar,
the howling not unlike her stifled sobs
as she drove around and around our block.