Family Tradition

Poem by Geoffrey Diver

Talking to you
is like pulling teeth

Even when we shared a roof
the most I got from you
was a grumble of discontent
reluctant consent
or a mumbled appreciation and
half a grin for pouring you
another gin

But
you once used to write to me and
I might say you have said more to me
in letters,
word for word,
than in person

I recall the first one best:

imprisoned
abandoned
stranded
on an island in Pretoria

starved of any
contact with the outside world for
weeks
until your first letter was
handed to me
like a punch in the gut

Snail mail in a pale
brown envelope
to match my new uniform
typed up and printed in
Times New Roman

You said I made
you proud:

This is family tradition; I am fourth generation

I cried then for the first
time since being placed in that prison
such rage
such grief
and my utter disbelief
that you thought that those five
years
would be the best
of my life

I was so angry with you and
so confused

But
still I missed you
and it must have hurt you
or at least disappointed you
that I never wrote you back

Those brown envelopes
I still have them
in a box somewhere, next to the brown prison shirt
and the brown prison socks
That my mother insists that I keep:

I’d like to think I would have got rid of them years ago
but its family tradition to act only when given permission

But
I did send you an email once
many years after your
first letter to me
in the hope that it would
make up for every word I hadn’t spoken
to you since

You must have missed me
and I wish it didn’t hurt me
or disappoint me
when you never wrote me back

Now
you are practically blind and
fast growing deaf and
we are all so aware of your imminent death and
although it was you who taught me and
the rest of us how to say
nothing honest when we speak:

It’s family tradition, all this fear and repression

I still feel guilty
for not being able to say to you
or hear from you
the words

Thank you, and
I will miss you, and
I love you