Making Potato Salad

(image from — I chose this picture for the bowl)

I am pleased to share a poem written by my friend from Writing Lab, Kathryn Johnson. Feeding people seems to be one of our basic instincts in the face of grief.


Making Potato Salad

It is better to go to a house of mourning than to go to a house of feasting because that is the end of every man, and the living takes it to heart. Ecclesiastes 7:2

A hundred miles away
Your voice crackles out the cell phone staccato message
Your father is dying.
So you’ll stay another day on the farm to arrange
The hospital bed in the windowed room
Where your mother
And your grandmother
Slept their waning nights next to the moonlit pasture.
I ask what I can do from here,
You list people to call, mail to send, then add
“Make potato salad.”

On the last picnic weekend twenty years ago,
The call came that the old man who had built our new church
Was dying of heart failure.
We arrived behind the ambulance
Too late.
You sat in the living room to comfort the widow and son,
I drifted to the kitchen with the at-loose-ends daughter-in-law.
Aimless strangers in a house of fresh mourning,
We found boiled potatoes and eggs
Pre-cooked for holiday lunch
Hours before this cloudless day tolled
Dark, somber, brassy.
I sliced the pickles, she peeled the eggs,
We measured mustard and mayo in a large mixing bowl,
Believing later
The grieving would be hungry.

But now, since you don’t eat potato salad,
I’ll mow the lawn, front and back,
I’ll wash your navy blue sweater and pin-stripe shirt,
I’ll pile up pictures of your father driving his tractor,
Smiling behind his commissioner’s desk,
Cradling his dark-eyed baby girl,
Sitting on the couch with his middle-aged sons,
Standing by the canal’s edge with the radiant blond wife of his youth.
I’ll fall asleep reading Ecclesiastes,
And tomorrow,
I’ll make oatmeal cookies, timed warm for your arrival,
In case you’re hungry.

Kathryn Duncan Johnson, May 2012

3 replies
  1. Kathryn Johnson
    Kathryn Johnson says:

    Thanks, Bethany, for making the poem more real with the yummy picture (the real salad did not look that good!). I perused more of your blog and learned of your niece’s death. You honor her and her family with your honest reflections.


Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. […] impressed me about Kathryn’s poem — the beauty of this form — was how it did not editorialize, didn’t need to […]

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