“When can we have cake?” she wants to know.
And patiently we explain: when dinner’s finished.
Someone wants seconds; and wouldn’t she like to try,
while she’s waiting, a healthful lettuce leaf?
The birthday girl can’t hide her grief-
worse, everybody laughs. That makes her sink
two rabbity, gapped teeth, acquired this year,
into a quivering lip, which puts an end
to tears but not the tedium she’ll take
in life before she’s given cake:
“When I turned seven, now,” her grandpa says,
“the priest told me I’d reached the age of reason.
That means you’re old enough to tell what’s right
from wrong. Make decisions on your own.”
Her big eyes brighten. “So you mean
I can decide to open presents first?”
Laughter again (she joins it) as the reward
of devil’s food is brought in on a tray.
“You know why we were taught that?” asks my father.
“No.” I light a candle, then another
in a chain. “-So we wouldn’t burn in Hell.”
A balloon pops in the other room; distracted,
she innocently misses talk of nuns’
severities I never knew at seven.
By then, we were Unitarian
and marched off weekly, dutifully, to hear
nothing in particular. “Ready!”
I call, and we huddle close to sing
something akin, you’d have to say, to prayer.
Good God, her hair-
one beribboned pigtail has swung low
as she leans to trade the year in for a wish;
before she blows it out, the camera’s flash
captures a mother’s hand, all hope, no blame,
saving her from the flame.
“The Age of Reason” by Mary Jo Salter, from Sunday Skaters.