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My grandmother never did learn to write.
“Making love” was not in her lexicon;
I wonder if she ever took off her clothes
when her husband performed his conjugal duties.
She said God was watching,
reciting Psalms was dependable medicine,
a woman in pants an abomination.
In their hut on the Dniester
six children scraped the daily potatoes from a single plate;
each one held a bare spoon.
Five years from the shtetl her daughters
in lisle stockings and flapper dresses.
The boys slick their hair with pomade.
What do they remember of Russia? “Mud.”
That's grandma in the center. At ease in owl glasses.
“Don't run, you'll fall.”
Mostly she keeps her mouth shut; the children
would rather not hear.
What does a full stomach know
of an empty stomach?
It's time you opened your mouth, bobbe;
I'm old enough now to ask you a thing or two
and you're too dead to be annoyed.
You'll know where to find me,
I'm the daughter of your second son.
I have the spoons.
First published in Blood Honey, forthcoming in “Swimming in the Rain: New & Selected Poems, 1980-2015,” forthcoming in January from Autumn House Press.
Many Jews around the world are closely following particular dots on the changing map of Ukraine because their families came from the hamlets (shtetls) and towns in the Pale of Settlement, or “Little Russia”, – the only part of the Russian Empire where Jews, with few exceptions, were allowed to live between 1791 and 1917.
From the decades prior to World War I until after the Russian Revolution, the impoverished, persecuted, fearful, hopeful and mostly religiously observant Jews of the Pale were on the move out of there. They had little material wealth but lots of gumption. Somefollowed ideology deeper into Russia, and many went to North America or elsewhere in the West as labor migrants. A relative few opted to be pioneers in Palestine.
Chana Bloch – the California-based author of five books of poetry and six of translation from Hebrew – sets this poem in a family that emigrated to the United States. The first stanza views, critically, the inner life of “my grandmother:” Just literate enough to recite psalms as a panacea for all things, she is sexually prudish (maybe) and disapproving of modern ways like women wearing pants.
The second stanza steps back from her to observe the poverty from which the family fled – potatoes, and not a lot of them, were the dietary staple, and the third contrasts the relative glamor pursued by her children in America to their memory of mud in the old country.
The poem then focuses directly on the old woman again, now more colloquially and sympathetically called “grandma” -- as though American cousins and siblings, who don’t share or want to share the experience of Europe, are looking at an old photo and reminiscing fondly. Perhaps the “owl glasses” hint at wisdom after all.
In the final, most intimate stanza, the poet speaks directly to “bobbe,” addressing her in Yiddish with the word she would have used herself, imagining a real conversation with her in the world to come and defining the identification between the two of them – “I have the spoons.”
Musings: Apart from eating utensils, what are “the spoons?” What would you ask your dead grandmother or great-grandmother?
Bonus 1: The daily potatoes are immortalized in a Yiddish song, “Bulbes”.