A little something more than ashes. What?
A sound? A syllable? A thread of light
on the anniversary of her death, yahrzeit?
A kaddish to stir up prayers of the dead?
A temple full of mourners? The soft tut-tut
when they notice a stark absence on my head?
This isn't what she’d had in mind at all.
She’d given instructions, clear and precise,
re: details ‒ latitude, longitude, the size
of the lighthouse. Was all her talk in vain
if we should disregard her wishes, call
a rabbi, do what she least wanted? Feign
ignorance, one might say; or, she’s no
longer here to make decisions for you.
Mourning is the deed of the living. True.
Touché, as she would say, her favorite word
along with “intertwingled”‒ portmanteau
of “intertwined” and “intermingled.” Herd
mentality was not her way. She loved
cottage cheese on a crusty slice of toast
with Thousand Island dressing, or a roast
turkey sandwich dripping Miracle Whip.
Leftovers, leftovers, leftovers! she behooved.
The gospel of her kitchen was, “Eat up!”
and nothing edible ever went to waste
if she could help it. The supermarket,
its infinite aisles like pews, demarcated
spiritual space. Her house of worship
stood proudly in a parking lot, its vast
smorgasbord of options a cruise ship
for the soul, i.e. the appetite. Late
in life she’d had a brief awakening
to God ‒ though less potent than a bee-sting ‒
read Psalms of David, ‘listened’ to a voice
she said spoke, replied; syncretic substrate
deafening her with psychological noise.
But ashes, ashes...we’d made great big plans
to scatter her bright powder to the waves
exactly as she’d always wished. Like thieves
we’d steal up the New England coast intent
on lessening our burden, in our hands
our mother’s earthly dust ‒ unsettled, scant ‒
filling two undistinguished plastic urns
the matter of the woman who bore us.
What would be the use of making a fuss
at this point? She left few friends and almost
no family. May you and I take turns
shouldering the guilt of this heavy ghost
loss upon loss upon loss upon loss
in ritual proper to the species
until its final moment of release
into the painted ether of her dreams
where gull and guillemot and albatross
feed on the tender mollusks, the Supremes
belt out “Reflections” for eternity
and every day is Double-Coupon Day.
Here none of her defects are on display;
only the rough-hewn waves, the antic cries
of ospreys screeching praise, and charity
of wind to coax her atoms to the skies.
Surrounded by Fire
My grandfather was an oxymoron—
an honest lawyer. To his wife of sixty years
an utter failure. “You can’t pay the bills, Sy,
with noble principles,” she’d bark at him.
His father had been an umbrella repairman
in turn-of-the-century Vilnius. Before the war
Vilna was a city of poets and mystics
“the Jerusalem of Lithuania,” though
my papa never knew its glory days—
they sailed when he was only two years old.
Need I mention why he never went back?
By the mid-’30s, Europe was goose-stepping
uneasily towards fascism. My mother appeared
three months before the invasion of Poland,
seven months after Kristallnacht. Yes, this
is how Jews measure time, in intervals
between expulsions, massacres, invasions—
surrounded by fire, as Mandelstam wrote.
She had the fortune to be born in Boston
not Vilna or her mother’s Polish shtetl
whose days were numbered like eggs in a basket.
Lucy Dawidowicz sped to the airport
in a taxi—she later wrote of seeing Berlin
decked out in its Third Reich regalia—
before the wolves could corner and devour her.
She’d come to Vilna from New York City
as a student of Yiddish. She’d go on to write
The War Against the Jews, a history
of what she’d barely fled. She had been armed
with foresight and a place to run home to
while Europe’s Jews were murdered or consumed
by wildfires that burned millions upon millions
of umbrella repairmen, poets and mystics
with no foresight, or just nowhere to go.
The very day Dawidowicz escaped
a photo was snapped of my grandmother
on a porch in Vermont or Massachussetts
forcing the brightest smile I’ve ever seen
her flash. The back of the photo is dated
August 24, 1939 and it was developed
by Gerber Studios in Boston, where they lived.
My great-grandparents are present as well
kvelling over the family’s newest arrival—
my mother, Chana-Basha. But by the time
she was in first grade, her parents’ world
would be a graveyard—nothing would be left of
Vilna, Lida, or even great Berlin
its military shows and death’s-head squads,
its psychopathic leader and his crowds
whose fiery slurs incited Germany
to turn their eyes away as casually
as a boy crushes ants with a bored thumb.
In six years, all of this would be erased
as Chana-Basha sat in her bedroom
practicing her reading from a primer
baffled by her parents’ constant anger.
She imagined, quite understandably,
it was her fault. Little girls always do.
Marc Alan Di Martino is a Pushcart-nominated poet, translator and author of the collection Unburial (Kelsay, 2019). His work appears in Baltimore Review, Rattle, Rust + Moth, Tinderbox, Valparaiso Poetry Review and many other journals and anthologies. His second collection, Still Life with City, will be published by Pski's Porch in 2021. He lives in Perugia, Italy.