FINDING PEACE

It wasn’t lost on me, mother, that this year
on the anniversary of death, you had been gone
eighteen years, Chai in your beloved Hebrew,
a lifetime for me, having never met you
save in the half of my genes you implanted
in me when I was implanted in you.

As you aged, alone, did you wonder what
became of the closest family you had after
your parents were interred in the soil of Charleston?
Did you ever regret not knowing, or were you
comfortable that the Jewish Family Service Agency
would make a selection of which you would
have approved had your approval been sought.

You have grandsons and greatgrandchildren
who will mourn me, carry my memory forward,
but know that I do the same for you, and you
never aged a day from that one when the photographer
took your college yearbook photo, a grainy
copy of which is tucked in my wallet and heart.

ARGOT

There is a language
spoken within a family
that no one outside speaks.
It may sound familiar
but listen carefully
and learn otherwise.
It is so with my brother
even though there are
thick walls between us
and yet, in a few words
intentions are obvious.
He keeps me far
from a place
I’d just as soon not go
and in her panic
my mother hears only
our words and not
their hidden meaning.
It is when we fall silent
the conversation begins.

ON LOSSES

By the way, the headstone is lovely,
designed by your niece, it pays tribute
to you as aunt, as sister, as friend.

I do wish it had said mother as well
but I know I’m the one secret you thought
would fit into a corner of the pine box,
buried with you, to be, like you, reclaimed
by the rocky soil of West Virginia.

Little could you have imagined that
a few cc’s of saliva could expose
what you so carefully hid, and you
were helpless to avoid it regardless.

My adoptive father, the second one,
slipped away slowly, dying before death,
under the living eyes of aides and nurses.

You just lived your life your way,
answered to yourself and perhaps God,
and decided it was time to go, needed
no permission, made no farewells,
and in that regard, I am one of the family.

IF ONLY A BULL

In our family Murphy was a god, and his law was the eleventh commandment. I often wanted to ask at what moment my childhood ended. Had to be before my twelfth birthday, before the day on which I went from greeter at one of my father’s business parties in our oversized family room, to bartender, with no increase in pay. But I did develop a taste for Southern Comfort, so that was something of benefit. Once I did talk mom into letting me take the terror kids for an ice cream while she carried on her endless quest to replace the one small plate from her Royal Worcester china, never mind that she’d only once used eight place-settings which marked her personal best. But if you had twelve of every other piece, you could hardly have only eleven small plates. She did, I was told years later, finally give up the quest when, reaching for what she thought was the plate of her desires, she knocked over a Wedgewood platter, three large Belleek Vases and a Royal Daulton soup tureen. I had two sons, never saw the need to go to china shops, and the terror kids never married or had families.

DOG DAYS

Growing up my family always had dogs,
only one at a time, of course, since we
were a modern suburban family,
which may be why we had a dog.

It clearly wasn’t because they loved dogs,
they tolerated them on good days,
ignored them the rest of the time
and the good days were few if any.

I never asked for a dog, knew
the daily care would fall to me, for
my sort of brother and sister would
never lift a finger if they didn’t want

and they rarely wanted for other than
themselves, but I didn’t mind, for each
dog became my true family, we all
shared a common blood among us,

which is to say none, and we all said
in our own languages, which we all
understood while no one else did, that
we were orphans who beat the system.

WHAT’S IN A NAME?

He only wants to know
my spiritual name, “your false
world name is of no matter.”

I tell him I have only one name,
the one my parents gave me,
and it has worked to this point

quite well, and no one has ever
suggested I might need another,
although my Jewish friends have two.

“No,” he says, “your spiritual name
isn’t given to you, not by family, but
by one who has tapped into

the universal harmonic, who flows
along its energy as that energy
flows through him or her and they

don’t so much give it to you as
listen to the voices and tell you
what they are calling you, that’s it.”

“Ah,” I said, “well I know my Native
American name so that’s something,
call me Doesn’t Buy Into Bullshit.”

FORMAL PROOF

First Proposition: You were put up
for adoption because your birth
parents couldn’t or didn’t want to raise you.

Second Proposition: We or I adopted you
because I wanted you and not another
and to give you the good life you deserved.

Argument: Given all of the possible
alternatives, you ought to be thankful
that we saved you from that other life.

First Fallacy: My birth mother feared
rejection for getting pregnant but would
have been a loving, educated parent.

Second Fallacy: My adoptive mother
had two children with her second husband
after they married, her children at last.

Opinion: You will he told that you are
one of the family, a coequal part inseparable
from and of the others, and the same.

Fact: You were made an orphan and
always will be one, and the best you can
hope for is to be just like family, a simile

that you know will always be a transparent
wall that you can never hope to climb
and which keeps you always separate.

PARENTHOOD

Two headstones
Name, rank, branch
of service, dates.

One New Jersey, one
Virginia, both Bittle
neither certain.

An email from
another Bittle, never
knew my father

but his was
William, and in
that moment,

James Owen became
a father yet again
and I complete.

And later still
a single picture
he in the back

row and the mirror
agrees that we
are truly family.

UNCLE

My uncle writes his journal
in cramped Yiddish, English
will not do, it lacks the words
he says, to describe his world.

He describes the flavor
of the capon left to stew
on the stove, the sweet taste
of carrots and prunes.

He carefully notes the thumb
of the butcher sliding onto
the back of the scale, applying
just a dollar of pressure.

He writes pages of her
monologue, the slow twisting
of words stuck under his skin
like so many shoots of bamboo.

The language is sweet, he says
and when it is lacking, he
can reach into its roots
and graft a new word.

His journal sits on its shelf
gathering dust, its words
lost on my tongue, a tome
consigned to history.

First Appeared in Cold Mountain Review, Vol. 25, No. 1, Fall 1996.

TUESDAY TRUTH: BROTHER JOHN

Are you serious? You have the temerity to ask me if I am sleeping? Seriously? If, for a moment, you thought that I was sleeping, why in hell would you jostle me and then ask me if I was sleeping? And how many times do I have to tell you that I never liked the name John. I am Jack and you know damned well that is what I want to be called, by everyone. It is not that hard. Here’s a hint, I was sleeping until you woke me. You realize if we weren’t family what I would be doing to you right now. But mom and dad would have a fit, so just consider yourself lucky, but know that someday I will get even with you. Remember I was there when you were a baby, so I have seen it all. And if the bells didn’t wake me, why should I care if they are ringing? Answer me that. Now go away, preferably forever.