Remembering Sr. Mary Holy Cart and Pondering Jewish Roots
Long ago, Mary Grace and I,
New England transplants from Brooklyn,
bought an ugly needlepoint picture for $1
at someone’s yard sale.
We dubbed her Sr. Mary Holycart,
ungentle blue nun’s eyes, under old-style habit.
Irish guilt won the wrestling match
so Jewish guilt, the loser in that game,
got to take Sr. Mary home to live in a corner,
forgotten by all but dust and cobwebs.
Who knows what happened to her?
Maybe tossed with old toys, chipped cups,
hippie jeans embroidered with yarn flowers,
crumbled friendships that grew stale as we aged,
adult consciousness that crept in unannounced,
deciding she might offend a visitor who spotted her.
I think Jews are a little like Marines,
or I am , anyway.
You know, “Semper Fi”
no matter how we have roamed other spiritual paths
paved with interesting, unfamiliar stones,
exotic flowers poking out between the cracks.
We plucked wild blossoms
as we journeyed the decades,
far away from Brooklyn roots,
away from chicken soup with matzah balls.
No matter that we embraced more than men
who never wore skullcaps and prayer shawls,
who ate bacon, licked their fingers
with joyful waspish abandon,
renounced their own churches,
who loved the tales of Sholem Aleichem,
spewed Yiddish phrases like tender love songs
we remembered just long enough to teach them,
then packed them all up in pickle barrels
of briny distant memories.
We never imagined one day wanting
to unearth these, lovingly uncovering
each one, holding it to our hearts,
like the memories of Passover dishes
unwrapped once a year, the glass ones,
along with the dog and cat black
and yellow salt and pepper shakers,
the white enamel pail for storing
hard boiled eggs and potatoes, Passover snacks,
the pan we used for making fried matzohs
while our neighbors put on Easter bonnets.
My brother-in-law, dying of brain cancer,
might smoke a turd in two hells
but I don’t think there is a hell
in the books of my forefathers.
Baptized Catholic, later a Bar Mitzvah Boy,
(shhh, it’s a big secret)
now as passive as his sweet, insecure mother,
who swayed like bamboo in winds of conflict,
who bowed to dictates of others, mostly men in her life.
He wants to speak to a rabbi, but settles
for the priest his wife corrals in the hospital hallway,
and he even wears a crucifix for weeks.
We don’t know what he is thinking, fearing,
have no knowledge yet of how it feels
when threads of death wind tightly around you,
pulling you closer and away from living.
We don’t know what dreams swell up
next to the cancer and play back
murky pictures, whether he wants
to see them or not.
We don’t know if the visions are soft promises,
pastoral paintings, or more like wild highjacking
of the senses after ingesting peyote mushrooms,
dreams of colors, or of shadows and ogres.
We do know he has asked three times for a rabbi,
perhaps a messenger from his grandmother’s world,
papered with rules and singsong lessons learned as a boy.
He thought this world had been painted over,
but it slowly peels itself off the surface of his days
in brittle strips, landing on couch, or wing chair
piled high with stacks of books and hats.
The grand piano we never heard played,
the cello, violin, the apartment crammed
with remnants of a life saved for someday,
all watch, asking questions and answering
with more questions, like ancient Jewish scholars.
Fiber Optic Search For My Birth Mother
(Story Poem for Gertrude, My Mother, My Mamala)
Crunched in the chair, chalky tiny chicken bones
smiling, grinding out complaints like kosher chopped
meat from the old grinder in the big kitchen pantry
She says she wants to leave now, doesn’t care
but marcasite necklace and earrings she fishes out
in a contradictory ritual of choosing life, still light up
her face, stars perched on skin of thin, pale strudel dough
lighting my way back to what and how she used to be
My father called her beautiful, with dark, wavy hair
diminutive body, carved ivory bones then, so delicate
soft like antimacassar lace on the blue corduroy couch
Our Jamaican friend, Joyce, says he watches her from
shadows only seen by lives barely hanging here,
seized the right moment to push her down, made her
fall because he wants her there soon to join him
frozen in a faraway life we don’t see
Now so small, my mother might even be an official
Little Person but would her membership get perks?
Free movie passes or a discount for the dismal wares
of our local Hebrew Funeral Association?
My vigil began when the moving truck came
eleven years ago from Brooklyn with kosher
pots and pans to a final nest in My Connecticut.
Ed thought he had met the character actress
who played my mother, but no, there she was,
the new incarnation of the tough prison guard
from my teens when she held me hostage
in the bathroom, washing out my mouth
with a spray of reprimands and guilt
An unfamiliar gentle side oozed through sliding doors
where New England snow formed one more sad
deterrent to her fierce, though fading independence
Still feisty, still spewing out embarrassing morsels
in the restaurant while slowly chewing and ingesting
others, -“Will ya look at the Can on her! Oy Vey!”
These days she adds ingredients to the pot, mixing
complaints with unexpected condiments of praise
She sits in the alarmed-chair, eyes cloudy
with vivid travelogues we can’t see and I know
she is in flight as we interject pills or conversation
She startles, makes a rocky landing, not adjusting
to our time zone and asks, “When did Bubba die?”
pointing to her mother’s picture as my heart
contracts without aid of her Lotensin
I, too, am looking for my real mother and am
having a hard time finding her
The camera captures her epiglottis as food
dyed with coloring advances more slowly than
the posted speed limit on the nursing home door
I expect to see Harry, my father, with camera poised,
snapping the highway down her throat, searching
for autumn colors or giant pink peonies
I watch the journey on the screen and in my mind
am optically caressing a familiar neighborhood nearby
(Later we learn there is cancer in my old neighborhood,
sitting not far below the rusty, worn pump)
Transported back in time, I, a most unobservant Jew,
find that I am born again, remembering how she said
when they cut the cord, I gave her a dirty look
I’m sorry, but it’s too late now for that
Soon she will reach the mountainous terrain of my
memories, which I climb all night, never sleeping
Soon she will find a kitchen drawer to become one
more yellow-paged yahrtzeit calendar that reminds
me how all the rainbow bubbles dance on our heads
and pop without any human intervention
Her hand is veined like a small grape leaf
I think again of a fetus, then of nagging,
spilling from her mouth between gates of
iron stained clenched dentures, though it
doesn’t matter, because what made me
hide in Vermont, California and Connecticut
now only seems like glue mixed with spittle,
turned into love, fully expressed
She is my birth mother and each day her life
is an inchworm dangling from a branch overhead,
ready to fall and I know how much I love her
Mamala- Little Mama
Bubba or Bubbie- Grandmother
Oy vey- Oh woe! (Woe is me!)
Lotensin- A cardiac medication
Yartzeit- Death anniversary
Iris J. Arenson-Fuller is a mom, grandmother, poet/writer, and certified life and loss transformation coach. She also founded and then ran a licensed adoption agency for about 30 years. Iris has written all her life, with some interruptions due to caregiving for multiple family members, young widowhood, and busy career. Some of her work has appeared in: “Compass Magazine,” of New Directions Support Group, Inc. of Greater Philadelphia Area- 2010-2015, “Esme Magazine On Line”-2015, “What the Flicka,” blog owned by actress, Felicity Huffman, “StoryBleed Magazine”-2014, “Issues Anthology”-Published by Bob Vance, Petoskey, MI-2008-2014, “Omen, An Anthology of CT Feminists in the Arts”-1971, “Poetry Anthology, Treasures of Parnassus”.-1960’s, and “The Journal,” a community newspaper, May 2016. She reads locally and will be a featured poet in June 2016, at a celebration of local poets and writers.
Thanks for sharing, Iris. Such vivid imagery and deeply felt emotions. I loved many parts of both poems.
Spellbinding tales from a most sensitive poet whose images dance before me like a spinning dradle.