Another Phone Call When I Have to Spell My Name – Katherine Szpekman

To find my last name, my married name,
my husband’s name on his father’s side,
you must search history, dig
into records of Nazi death camps
and the Warsaw ghettos, examine photos
of the linen identification cards stamped
with a capital J,
with the surnames of mothers and fathers,
sons and daughters,
aunts and uncles,
grandparents.

Here in America, there are only four Szpekmans.
When my son was a first grader
he rode the yellow school bus every day.
He could proudly recite his bus number.
It was his safe passage home.

One afternoon, he heard a message
left on our answering machine
by the school district’s bus company.
The caller thought he had disconnected:
Szpekman. What kind of name is Szpekman?
Go back to your country.

My son, who would have been forced
to wear a yellow Star of David
on the left side of his chest,
over his tender heart,
asked why
the man hated us.

My son, who, like a bus,
would have been assigned a number
stitched into his striped uniform,
or tattooed on his slender arm,
began to cry.

When making dinner reservations,
I’m always asked to spell and respell it.
They want to throw in other consonants.
The unexpected Z causes their brains to implode.

Sometimes, I spell it Speckman,
as this seems to make them feel
more comfortable,
so I won’t have to say slowly,
S as in Sam. (Pause)
Z as in zebra. (Longer pause)
Yes. Zebra.
P as in Peter. (Full stop)
K as in Kathy. (Pause) We are almost done.
MAN, like man. Yes, man.
Then, I always say: Szpekman. 
The z is silent.

The person on the other end of the line
often laughs, somehow relieved.
They say the name several times,
take it for a roll over their tongue
as if tasting something bitter.
Szpekman. What kind of name is that?
Polish, I tell them.
The z is silent.
Like my husband’s ancestors.

Katherine Szpekman’s poetry has appeared in Connecticut River Review, Juniper, Sky Island Journal, Sheila-Na-Gig, Hiram Poetry Review, Connecticut Literary Anthology 2020, Waking up the Earth: Connecticut Poets in a Time of Global Crisis, and elsewhere. She holds degrees in developmental psychology and nursing and lives in Connecticut with her family.

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