I wrote this poem in 1991 while I was working on Secret Lives. Both the novel and the poem were partly inspired by the women I observed at a convalescent home while I was as a companion to an eighty-two-year-old woman afflicted with Alzheimer’s disease and partly inspired by my grandmothers and some of my friends’ grandmothers. One stanza, for example, was inspired by my memory of when Grampa was failing, he didn’t always know who Gramma was anymore. I’ve also known other elderly women who have spoken other thoughts expressed in this poem.

Here’s a true story a friend told me. Her grandmother and her buddies were sitting around one night and the subject of husbands came up. “Who wants another husband at our age?” one woman asked. “Not me,” said my friend’s grandmother. “Not even if he had a diamond prick.” That went right into my novel! It also inspired me to write a sex scene with a man and woman in their eighties. (Yes, they can still do it.)

I receive emails from women who have read this poem. They always tell me about their own mothers and aunts and grandmothers. “Gimme Back My” was published in Issue 1 of The Isis Papers. Some friends honored me by reciting the poem in public venues. It’s also in the front of Secret Lives.

The old women slump in their basement circle,
settling brittle bones on shaky metal chairs,
shading eyes against harsh light,
fanning away hot, stale air.
Canes and walkers at their sides,
they still wait,
nodding, trembling, drooling.

The duty nurse,
a slim brown woman,
sits in the shadows out of reach
silent as the basalt queen on her basalt throne.
Sits thinking about her husband
who disappeared last week
(she’ll search seas and deserts to find him if she has to).
Sits dreaming about her baby boy,
aching to hold him to her breast again.

The social worker shimmies in the center,
a vigorous amazon whose ancestors
were stolen from central Africa.
“Girls! Girls!”
She rattles the sistrum.
“Y’all ready now? Look lively here.
Get the spirit on,
Ladies! Get some life in it!”

It’s their favorite game,
this basement therapy,
their memory game.
What’ll they bring to mind today
in their call and response around the circle?

Gimme back my
long pearl necklace from my wedding day.
Gimme back my
smooth white hands that did such fine embroidery.

Gimme back my
plain old house
and my kitchen, too.

Gimme back my
crazy quilt my mama pieced
garden where the robins played
barefoot bashful beaus.

Gimme back my
dear old husband
—he didn’t know me when he died.

Gimme back my
babies that I loved so much
—they died so awful young.

The sistrum’s call hurls ancient lights around the women
and Hathor sprinkles stars reinventing primal time.
Her voice reflects the clear-calling crescent moon,
and the wind calls, too,
bearing scents of flowers, spices,
fruitful earth, ancient waters,
silver tide, crimson flow, ebony drought.

The nurse stretches,
spreading golden wings,
waking from her age-old dreams.
The Giver of Life is back in touch again,
feeling new life
(in her belly, too).
Isis wakes again,
rising to the call of life.
Isis quickens to the calls of age and life.

Songs of archaic queens
echo through the circle now,
songs of power,
songs of return.

Gimme back my mother’s milk
Gimme back my healing touch
Gimme back my sexy body.

Give me back my dignity.
Give me back my peaceful world.
Give me back my crown.