Ancestors

I search the ancestors’ faces for clues they might
have understood they weren’t the first ones here.
Burt and Millie don’t smile in the daguerrotype
in the living room of the 1888 farmhouse

my family still owns. Their backs are stiff. My mom
recalls evenings back then, when her elders
sat up straight in ladderback chairs in that room
under the naked glare of an overhead bulb.

Now, framed by gilt scrollwork, under the domed glass
my forebears’ dour mouths seem stoic, proud in that
good way we were taught to be – of hard work,
bootstraps – yet look entitled to each acre

they bought from the land speculator. The chickens
whose necks my great-grandmother wrung each week
to prepare for selling at the curb market – their bones
lie under inches of soil at the bottom of the manmade pond

where these days we float and drink beer on summer
afternoons. Uncle ‘Kiah, a Civil War vet, roamed these woods
in the aughts, searching for white lightnin, a fire, and
a good tall tale before borrowing a bed for the night.

They say he was never scared; sometimes he walked
till dawn. His room above my great-grandmother’s kitchen,
where a wood fire always burned, became a place to store
implements no longer needed on a non-working farm:

scythes, axes, saws, sharp wooden shapes we had no name for
hung from the wooden slats. Dead wasps lined the walls, too,
their stingers still full of venom. We kids would never go
up there, afraid of what those tools might once have done.

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