Two Poems by Nancy McCabe

Photo by Kevin Jay Photography

Pajama Dolls

They weren’t just any dolls, these gifts from our grandparents,
but, an aunt said, special ones, with skirts you could unzip
to reveal secret compartments for storing pajamas.
My cousin Melinda’s was pink, mine blue, vastly unfair,
since my room was pink and hers was blue
but our aunt said it would be rude to swap

and it was just another example of how Melinda,
with her tiny feet and sweet voice<
got all the girl credit. The perfume my aunts and uncles gave me
made me sneeze, and the bracelets
I unwrapped strangled my arm
and I’d sneak away to read my book
while Melinda talked fishing with grandpa,
complimented the aunts’ scarves,
whispered with our cousin Leslie about boys.

I never stored pajamas in my doll,
just items too awkward or ugly for display:
grimy shells from the beach, jagged stones
from the rock and mineral show,
things long since lost, things that didn’t really matter,
but I didn’t know I could throw them away.
Maybe Melinda stored a diary there,
or love notes, or birth control pills, or photographs:
I never asked her, too busy
tucking away my own secrets
like garments zipped away
in the plastic hoops of a doll’s skirts.

She’s so sweet, so hot, all the guys said of Melinda
long after her doll had gone to Goodwill.
She’s your cousin? they said.
In the pictures, she is buoyant and bubbly
with great hair, like a girl nothing bad ever happened to,
while I fold in on myself, turned away from the camera.
She went to college on a pompom scholarship,
I tucked myself away, zipped up tight in silence.

Now she owns a gun range. I write books.
I have no idea how to hold a gun
and she was uneasy at my booksigning.

But sometimes on summer afternoons
I dog paddle in the deep end while she perches
on the steps in the shallow water of her backyard pool,
and we reminisce while the skirt of my suit swirls around me
like the pajama doll’s secret compartment,
but I have written my secrets and dissolved their power.

Buoyant now,
I hold memories before us like artifacts.
Long ago, I gave away my doll
bottom heavy with unsightly things.

Photo by Gee Hair

Combing a Niece’s Hair

My comb tugs out tears.
Aunt Nancy, that hurts, she says, like I meant to.
I lack the deft, knowing fingers, the gentle pull into safety
of my own aunt’s hands. But I tell my aunt’s stories
with wolves and grandmothers, doctors who defy death,
frogs who are really princes, and girls with long, long hair
their aunts climb like ropes to reach them.

I don’t recall the route to happy everafters,
just long afternoons held captive by an aunt
who braided and curled and weaved stories
I didn’t know were about her.
That wolf, her lupus, preyed on her even then,
turning her hands clumsier than mine
until I shrank from her touch.
Candles burned in countless rows,
hers the stub about to go out.

Now I know how it feels
to comb a niece’s hair all the way dry,
to stroke skin soft as grapes left out in the sun,
to not mind my legs numbing from her sleeping weight.
On a long, long phone line, she asks for a story.
All I know is the end, my aunt’s favorite part:
how it took three iron bands around a heart
to keep it from bursting.

Nancy McCabe’s poems have appeared in Nelle, Spillway,  Harpur Palate, Nelle, and Literary Mama, among others, and her creative nonfiction has appeared in Salon, Prairie Schooner, Massachusetts Review, Newsweek, LARB, and others. She’s the recipient of a Pushcart Prize and eight recognitions in the notable sections of Best American Essays and Best American Nonrequired Reading. She’s the author of six books, most recently Can This Marriage Be Saved? A Memoir (Missouri 2020)