Mom's Bones

© Penelope Bourk

The clavicles of birds bridge from the wings to the heart. In English, we call them wishbones. For years I have saved them, from the tiniest “v” of a Cornish hen prepared for special guests, through the 59 cent a pound shove-in-the-oven-work-till-dinner chicken fryer/roaster, to the traditional Thanksgiving or Christmas turkey with all the trimmings. Whomever in our family carves the bird, I remind to save ‘my bones’ which I then set to dry in a crockery bowl on the kitchen window sill.

One Thanksgiving years ago, my younger son, a high school student then, asked in a critical tone, “Why do you keep these old bones anyway?”

My older son, returning from his first semester at college with an even deeper voice, added a Socratic, “Good question.”

“They’re embarrassing,” the high schooler insists. “My friends come over and we’re like making popcorn here in the kitchen and they ask me, ‘like what’s with the bones?’”

“I’m saving them,” I tell the boys.

“How come you don’t put them away, like we have to, when we leave stuff in the kitchen? I’ve even seen flies on them.”

My husband lifts a rogue eyebrow and rolls his eyes, smirking back at the boys.

“I told you.” I face them all off. “I’m saving them. This sunny windowsill is a good place to dry them. I boil them in green soap to sterilize them and put them back in this bowl to bleach in the sun.”

“For what?” asks the exasperated male chorus.

“They’re wishbones!” I say, my tone defensive.

“You remember what we used to do with these?” my husband asks, his voice suddenly teasing.

“Same thing we used to do, Dad, before Mom started hoarding them,” the high schooler replies, his set jaw a testament to his teenage unwillingness to return to a childhood game.

“I remember,” my older son says, indulging his father. “Dad would carve the turkey, and you’d pop the bone back in the oven to crisp, and after we cleaned up the dinner mess, like now, we’d each hook a baby finger around one stroke of the V of the bone and you’d say, ‘Make a wish,’ and we’d pull.”

“And the one with the bigger broken half gets his wish,” the younger sing-songs, as if suddenly remembering, slipping a dry bone from the bowl and offering one side of it to his older brother.

“Make a wish,” my older son mimics my voice.


“Wait!” I say. Too late. I hear the snap.

“Finally! My wish!”

“Know what we did when I was a kid, after the bone snapped?” my husband says, his palms extended toward the boys for the bone fragments. He walks toward the pantry, pivots, lifts the unequal halves to shoulder height, sights carefully from on high, as in a game we played as kids with clothes pegs and an empty milk bottle, and one after the other drops the broken bones into the garbage can. Then he whispers to the boys, just loud enough for me to hear, “In case your mother gets some sudden inspiration she should also save the broken bones, let’s shut the lid on this pair!” The males all laugh.

I pout. “I’m saving them.”

“What for?”

“Here we go again.”

“To make something.”


“Well,” my husband’s tone is suddenly conciliatory, “if they’re so important” – he realizes he’s crossed a tender line – “let’s store them somewhere safe.”

My older son rummages through the kitchen cupboards and retrieves an empty plastic jar, also saved. He searches for a lid that fits.

The high schooler fetches masking tape and the indelible marker I use for labeling frozen food. He rips off a swath of the wide green tape.

The freshman takes the bleached bones from the crockery pot one by one and fits them carefully into the old jar. The high schooler, much to my surprise, rummages in the garbage for the bone fragments.

“Sorry, Mom.” He slips the bone shards into the jar and presses the tape on the side of it. The boys turn their backs to me, giggling, and I can tell from the scent of the pen solvent in the room that they are scribbling something on the tape.

Together they bring me their handiwork, the jar labeled in boyish script, Mom’s Bones.

“Where do you want it, Mom?”

I point to the pantry. I am touched by this change, this transformation from irritated banter to humoring support. Their label reminds me of an ancient story about a mother’s bones in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, the bones of Mother Earth.

“So tell us,” my older son persists. “What’s your idea?”

“Some kind of sculpture, I’m thinking.” I shrug and turn away, hesitating to say more, knowing better than to bring an idea into this daunting forum when it is so young, so fragile. I have learned how tenuous my grip, as of a dream. Sometimes I must nurse in my heart my impulse to create, letting it grow and emerge at its own pace, from beneath my own clavicle, my own sternum, my own wishbone. It has often been my experience that once the shadow of an idea takes wing in someone else, it’s harder to protect its delicate beginnings. Though I love the idea of working as a team on creative projects, I get nervous when I first realize I may need the help of others to manifest in physical form my whispers of intention. But at this moment, I do not have the presence of mind to be the "teaching" mother and explain that to my little circle of advisors.

“Really?” the high schooler pushes, as if testing me. “You think you can make something with these scruffy old things?”

“Yes.” I feel my voice firm up and my breath deepen while my resolve to withhold melts away. “When I get enough bones, I might spray them gold or some other color, and do something with them. Maybe with yarn in a weaving, or hang them somehow like a V of wild geese in the Fall – or maybe even make castings of them. Think of the colored bones cast in glass. We could string them together” --

“You mean like a rainbow of bones?” my younger son is caught in the colors.

“Like how telephone poles are strung together with wire?” my older son visualizing the spacing of the bones. “What for?”

“Who’s we?” my husband asks warily. He’s the family detail man, an engineer with practical experience, often commandeered in his workshop when the boys or I have some idea we want to transform into something concrete and physical.

I continue. “Imagine, all the different sizes and colors, strung on two threads through holes drilled in the ends of the bones, and we can suspend them from ---” I wasn’t sure what.

“But Mom, think about it. Telephone poles support the wires that connect them, not the other way around. If you suspend thin glass bones from little holes, they could swing and crash together and break--” says our budding physicist.

“And there’s the question of what will hold them up ---”

I try to explain. “It could be some kind of series, single bones or bones suspended like baby birds from a branch or inside a little cave, like a bat, or inside a heart -”

I flash my husband a coy, pleading look. “Maybe you could turn something on the lathe, hollow it out, like a heart -- like a mother’s heart.”

“Filled with wishbones? You’re weird, Mom.” My tow-head son shakes his head. He doesn’t know yet what wishes hang suspended in a parent’s heart.

“And tonight’s broken ones?” the older boy asks. I can see from the look he’s giving me that he is caught in the metaphor.

I am silent for a moment, not sure whether to tell them what I know. Finally I say, “Sometimes even broken bones are keepers. After all, some heal.”

The males shrug, looking at each other.

“Must be a mother-thing,” my husband says softly to the boys. “What’s clear is that we’ll never get her to throw these bones away.”

“Yeah. She wants to save everything.”


Mother’s bones appear in Ovid’s tale of the repopulation of the world after the Great Flood, the Roman version, not the Biblical. In Ovid’s telling, a young couple, Deucalion and Pyrrha, emerge on a mountain top as the flood recedes. As the story goes, this son of Prometheus and his beloved, the daughter of Epimetheus, and so cousins, are the last humans remaining on Earth, and their little boat washes ashore on the only visible peak of land, Mt. Parnassus, long a sacred mountain of the Greeks. They seek advice from the oracle at the muddy temple at the summit. They are concerned that all life on earth has been destroyed in the flood. They are overwhelmed by all that has been lost and they worry about how to begin again. The prophetess in the temple tells them that the only way to restore life on the planet is to throw the bones of their mother over their shoulders. At first they are mortified by the idea. It takes them a while to catch on, and even then Deucalion must convince Pyrrha, more literal in her thinking, that what they are about to do is not sacrilegious. They pick up stones, the bones of the Great Mother, Mother Earth, and with heads covered, toss the bones over their shoulders.

That we humans are here today is proof of the power of that ancient mother Gaia's bones, of Mom’s bones.


Both of our sons have left home now. Yet each time I enter the pantry, the green masking tape label on the aging plastic jar beams Mom’s Bones at me and I smile back. I continue to collect wishbones, as some save coins, still drying and bleaching them in the crockery bowl on the kitchen window sill. When my young men return for holidays, they gather up any bleached bones and add them to the jar. It’s a holiday ritual now.

Yet this year, as I prepare to leave this house, to sell it and move to something smaller now that the boys have left home, many ideas I have coveted for the past decade suddenly demand manifestation. Mom’s Bones too. I have spoken to my older brother, a glass sculptor, but he thinks the bones are too fragile to be cast in glass. But my other idea of casting them in gold --- that interests him. So we have commissioned a jeweler to cast up three sample bones to hang in some of the spirit caves I have recently carved. My husband helps now and then, mostly when the fallen trees I scavenge for my Spirit Cave series are too heavy and need a stronger arm than mine with a chainsaw.

Meanwhile, I have sprayed some of the bones gold, my earliest, simplest idea, and strung them with threads, some individually, like chakra lyres with rainbow threads, or in formation, like young birds fledging as in Empty Nest, or as small golden flocks to decorate the Christmas tree. I have finished two spirit caves, wishing caves. They house two of the cast gold bones and I plan to cleave a peach root burl to house the third gold-cast wishbone. Mom’s Bones.

And to accompany the actual bones, I also cast Moms’ bones in writing, stringing together stories, like a moment with family in the kitchen, with Ovid’s young lovers’ ritual for creation, and I think of my own mother who taught me to wrap my little finger around the dried wishbone. I think of the bones of my own mother, cremated now, of her wishes for her children and for her children’s children, some like my wish bones still drying, some strung out, some hanging, others, splintered, bones broken, wishes abandoned in the rain like phoenix clavicles on a wet day, waiting for the fire to ignite so that they may rise again. As later I will discover, when I move to the northwest and live among nesting owls, and rethink my life, for instance, attending in memory S for Snake with my boys at the San Diego Zoo, I will have another model. Unlike the snake which can digest all parts of a creature, the owl cannot digest everything it brings home to eat. The owl regurgitates small pellets after meals, spits up the dinner's bones, cradled in feathers and fur. One day in a pellet, I will find a hummingbird wishbone, which I will treasure, remembering my own delicate deep places, my wishes, my love.

Some of my sculptures house my own fragile wishes for the re-creation and re-fresh-ment of the world. Some of the wishbones are still drying, some have holes drilled and their strings yet uncut, the distance between wishes still tentative, pending. Some loop down, like threads of life delicately connected, while some wishbones rise up within the spirit caves, like arms ready for flight --- or like timbers in a deep mine, shoring the chambers of the heart.