Joe Mills, Home and the Holidays

Home and the Holidays

Pumpkin spice, peppermint, cinnamon, pine,
these are the mass-market tastes and scents
of the holidays, evoking a generic nostalgia
akin to the music of school band concerts.
Not offensive, but not particularly intense.
For a shiv sharp memory, it needs to be personal.
For me, it’s the Velveeta my mother used
in her “holiday dish,” green beans with cheese,
we ate twice a year, Thanksgiving and Christmas.*
For you? I don’t know. You might not either
until you’re in someone’s kitchen and see a label
on a condensed milk can or a pack of Kool menthols
and suddenly you’re nine again and vaguely aware
there are things happening you don’t understand,
like the shouting and crying in the driveway
or why your parents keep those old photos
of strangers in their bedroom dresser drawers.

Defender of the Faith

She tells her mother there’s been talk
on the playground about Santa Claus
not being real. “Some kids,” she shrugs,
the way one might say “nut jobs” or
“punks” or “heretics.” At the same time,
they’re insisting God exists. It’s puzzling.
Her mother asks, “What do you think?”
which takes the daughter aback. Long ago
she recognized a response like that
usually means something is going unsaid.

The next afternoon when the mother asks,
“How was school?” she says, “Fine” then
begins pulling papers out of her backpack
as if it is a lawyer’s briefcase. She had been
in the attic, rummaging its holiday boxes,
and in the cabinet with its folders of her work.
She has gathered evidence. “See,” she says,
“Santa has written to me. Letters. Cards.
Plus there are photos and the government
tracks his sled each year.” The case is conclusive.
When the mother asks how people responded,
she says, “Bobby insisted only babies believe
in Santa. I said, “Oh yeah, you got a letter
from Jesus? Let’s see it. That shut him up.”

A faculty member at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts, Joseph Mills has published multiple volumes of poetry, most recently Bodies in Motion: Poems About Dance. His book This Miraculous Turning was awarded the North Carolina Roanoke-Chowan Award for Poetry for its exploration of race and family. In 2019, he published his debut collection of fiction, Bleachers, which consists of fifty-four linked pieces that take place during a youth soccer game.

Information about his work is available at

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