REAR VIEW MIND

I spent too much time looking
backward, looking into the past,
looking into the mirror
to frame a dream history
of my desires and fears.
He called one morning, left
a message, “Mother died,
more details will follow.”
A mother his by birth,
mine by legal act.
I should have felt stunned
anger, I said quietly to myself
he’s cocky, has issues, and went
about momentary mourning.
That is the psyche of the adoptee who
was never family, always an adjunct.
Later my antediluvian dreams
gave way under a torrent
of deoxyribonucleic acid rain.
She who I imagined in the mirror
took name, took shape from
and old yearbook, offered
a history, a family, a heritage.
When I knelt at her grave
she told me her story
in hushed tones, or was it
the breeze in the pines on the hill
overlooking the Kanawha?
I bid her farewell that day,
placed a pebble on her headstone,
stroked the cold marble
and mourned an untouched mother.

HOME

I have never been
to Liszkowo but I have been
to Charleston, West Virginia
and visited the B’nai Jacob Cemetery
and for me, that is as close
as I need to come to Liszkowo
for I don’t speak Lithuanian
though it runs through my veins.
I have visited the Highlands
and the Isle of Islay
but I never saw my
father’s kin reach out to me,
although they speak to me
in my dreams.

IMMIGRATION

When you got off the boat
you must have been scared,
but getting away from that life
made the fear bearable.

I have no idea how you ended
up in West Virginia, it wasn’t
at all like Lithuania, and Jews
might have had two heads I imagine.

But you all made do, made
a community, invited others
and were tolerated if odd,
and I am certain you wonder

what happened, why now those
or their children’s children’s
children are so willing to shun
others whose only sin, like yours,

was wanting to get away
from horror, from persecution,
from fear, and make a life
in the hills of West Virginia.

ORIGIN

I am told that I should write
about my origins, that is the stuff
that long poems are made of, or
rather the soil from which they bloom.

I have written about my birth mother
and visited her grave in West Virginia
seen those of my grandparents, met
a cousin, I’ve written all of that.

So its time to write about
my birth father, about the places
he was as a child, a young man,
where he is buried, dead long before

I discovered his existence, our link,
but I know nothing of Burlington,
or Camden and my passing knowledge
of New Jersey is limited
to Newark and its airport.

That is hardly the stuff of great poetry
or even mediocre memoir, so he
will be nothing more than a picture
of a gravestone in a national cemetery.

TO PROTECT THE INNOCENT

I am there, a classroom,
elementary or middle school,
Charleston, West Virginia
1930’s, girls in proper skirts,
saddle shoes, the old woman
at the front of the room,
first day of a new year.

“Jones”, a hand goes up,
“Murphy”, another rises slowly,
“Padlibsky, what kind
of name is that, Jew, or
some kind or Ruskie maybe?”
A small voice answers
Lithuanian, ma’am.

A scene that never
happened, a name changed
so that day the teacher
called out “Wells”
and she smiled and
quickly raised her hand.

First Published in Culture & Identity, Vol. 2, The Poet (2022)

A PERFECT STILLNESS

You lie there, perfectly still,
the morning breeze slides away
leaving the sun to stare down,
and the birds fall into silence. 

I gently touch the stone, feel
your cheek beneath my finger,
see your face, the college yearbook
photo all that I have of you. 

I speak silently to you, telling
of my sixty-seven years, of your
grandsons and great grandchildren
and I sense your smile, and a tear. 

Your parents are here, your
grandparents, sisters, brothers
and cousins, and I know give
you three generations more. 

It is time for me to go, but these
moments are the most I have
of you, and as I place my small stone
atop yours, I now have a mother.

First Published in Culture & Identity, Vol. 2, The Poet (2022)

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.

TREPIDATION

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

NAME IT

Aunt Tzipporah hated her name,
detested it really, came closer to the truth.
“What the hell were my parents thinking?”
she said, “like being Jewish in West Virginia
isn’t going to be hard enough.
On a good day I got away with being Zippy,
but you try spending your Junior year in high school
hearing “Hey Zipper” or having some jerk
come up to you, cigarette dangling
from his lip and saying, “hey, Zippo,
got a light?” and you can guess
why getting out of state to college,
any college, was something I wanted so badly.”
I told my aunt I fully understood,
and she smiled, “I guess you do.
It couldn’t be a party going through
life with the name Shadrach Shamnansky.

MITOCHONDRIAL

I always imagined it would somehow
be romantic, not in the Hollywood sort of way,
but in an idyllic, picturesque manner,
even if that denied basic reality.
Reality, when it comes to origins discovered
is overrated, for the normal percolation time
is denied, and the impact is sudden
with no restraints to temper the blow.
Way back when, you learned by stories
told by the elders, who know, or led
you to believe they did without question,
who painted word pictures, drew out
fading photographs that barely seemed real.
You believed them because they knew,
knowledge directly proportional to their age.
For me it was the inside of my cheek,
a wait, and an email, and then news,
place names barren of detail, Lithuania.
Later, village names, and only then visions
of pogroms, of flight, of a desperate search
for freedom and West Virginia.
Details were added, but the picture
was monochrome, a barren, wordless
palette and no brush to be found.