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.
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.
Ice, he said, is clearly an invention of Satan, the ice cube a scaled down version of that corner of hell of which no one ever speaks, so little known.
And stop and think, we got by well for eons without a cube of ice, unless with blade we chipped it from a nearby glacier or left water out in the dead of winter, which never worked all that well in much of the world.
Whiskey, that was one of our best innovations, one of which we are rightfully proud, one which we have practiced for untold generations. We’ve been sipping it and drinking it from the word go, and each culture has come up with its own version, and it is only recently that the devil gave us the means of denigrating one of God’s greatest gifts to us.
God, mother told us, prefers things neat, as they were intended, so clearly ice is the Devil’s work. Turn away!
I’ve always imagined that one of these nights I’d see my mother’s ghost. I would welcome the sight welcome she that bore me, not she that stepped in in a way,absolving my birth mother of her sin, while assuming adopting me would make her complete.
She hasn’t visited yet, neither has done so, but I hold out hope, it is after all the last to go, and I do hear her voice, faint and all too distant, sounding very much like my own one instant and then no more than a faint whisper in retreat.
I don’t need a long conversation, a few words would more than suffice, but some at least, a child should in advancing age hear the sound of a mother’s voice, if only to find solace in the fact that her choice to yield the child was made from love not defeat.
I approach it slowly, overcome by fear and desire, warned to step carefully over the uneven earth that on this hillside haven set behind the rusting wrought iron fence , its master lock dangling askew, peers out through the trees to the Kanawha river flowing unknowingly through the valley.
The stone is set in line with the others, neatly incised, a name, English and Hebrew, two petunias, cornered, in perpetual bloom, a beloved sister and aunt, and unstated, unknown perhaps, a mother whose son, gently touching the stone, washes her with my tears, and we speak of love in silence, and I, a child of sixty-seven, embrace my mother for the first time, and I am finally and for the first time, complete
It was a small house, that much I still remember clearly, not wide, what some called a railroad flat, but ours had two floors, as if two railroad cars had been stacked one on top of the other.
We, luckily, had the bottom, or at least that’s what my father said, and his varicose veined legs applauded his selection of our new home.
I was less convinced as Mrs. McCarthy upstairs was a Reubenesque lady, that was my mother’s term, her sons were every bit as large, and they seemed to walk about at all hours, mostly over my room, leaving me to wonder amid the creaking, when the ceiling might suddenly blanket me.
That never happened, and I have no idea what became of the McCarthy’s, but I would have buried my father last year if my step-brother had bothered to give me the location of the body in his text telling me of his death.
So I am again an orphan, but in the process of building a new home as wide as it is long, and with only a single floor, and the birds have promised to be tread lightly at night.
I wrote a poem for my father, about how one afternoon the oddly green ’57 Caddy appeared in the driveway and he polished its chrome for hours, even waxed the black bumper bullets. It was the love of his life he said, except for his wife, he added after a moment. The years would prove that addition was most likely false. I could send him the poem, he might actually read it, he would remember the Caddy, much as he now remembers my mother, with a fondness that fills the voids in his fading memory. He is not much for poetry, never was, wasn’t all that much for reading and poetry had to rhyme, at least the good ones did, but while he agrees with Hecht, he would no more recognize that name than that of Amichai, even rewritten in the grating hand of Ted Hughes. My father does not understand poetry, does not understand all that much these days and what little he does bears constant repetition, and yet he remembers well odd bits and pieces and forms them into his own fictions that become momentary realities. He is Brodsky rewriting Mandelstam, a new Tristia, sharing only a name with its precursor, but one its author claims is truest to its origin. My poem will be tucked away inside a yellowing journal, his Caddy is rust and scrap, but in his dreams he carefully polishes the chrome and waxes the bumper bullets.
First appeared in The Alchemy Spoon, Issue 1, Summer 2020