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left Russia at fifteen to follow her betrothed.
Good-bye, skinny chickens and fly-bitten cows,
synagogue leaning on one side, as if to dodge blows
from a Cossack’s boot.
Hello, crowded, terrifying boat,
creaking over the vagrant waves.
Let’s draw a veil over her journey in steerage,
thick and homespun like the curtain
put up to separate men from unmarried girls.
We’ll catch up with her on arrival:
bewildered, homesick, excited, ashamed,
scanning the crowd for a face she won’t recognize.
He’s found a job, he drives trucks
for the sanitation department,
hoisting heavy buckets of stink on his shoulders
for the next forty years, for the rest of his life.
She hugs her shawl around herself,
trips on strange concrete in her heavy shoes,
and speaks only Yiddish.
So they begin their marriage.
She was young. She must have had hopes.
Let’s not dwell on their wedding night
or the nights afterward when she wept
uselessly, until, as good girls were taught,
she settled into her fate,
and sat all her life behind that same curtain
separating women from everything important.
She kept to her home in Brooklyn,
with her pockets always full
of candy for the children.
Sweet, she was, my father says,
and in the only photo I have of her, stout,
in her wire-rimmed glasses and flowered dress.
She’s holding a small book—a Bible?
in her hand, though she couldn’t read,
she’d never been to school.
It must have been a prop,
a pretense, its own kind of prayer.
She wanted to be remembered
studying The Word, which in men’s mouths,
dark and terrible, could make or unmake the world.
In me now combine uneasily
her meekness and silence, his rage,
as I scrawl and type, click and tap
through thickets of English, ravishing the page
as she never could. And this is not
how she would have recounted her life,
were she given leave, had she even thought
such a thing possible. But I’m the one
who’s here, now, so let me sing
the thready off-key melody
of Shayva, (which I’m told means “Cry For Help”),
who loved a glass of sweet wine
and a fierce game of cards,
and, God rest her, my uncle says,
never said an evil word.
As for her maiden name,
which no one remembers anymore,
let’s put an X.
Copyright 2020 Alison Luterman. From In the Time of Great Fires by Alison Luterman (Catamaran 2020).
Alison Luterman is a poet, essayist and playwright. She lives in Oakland, California.
The Steerage by Alfred Stieglitz. This version of the photograph was published in 291 in 1915.
The beauty and saving grace of life is that sometimes good can be born from evil.
LikeLiked by 1 person
Thank you, Daniel! Yes, they were brave and their hearts were broken. And I believe they live on through us somehow…
LikeLiked by 2 people
A beautiful, heart-breaking tribute to a generation of immigrant (Russian/Jewish) women.
LikeLiked by 3 people
They were a tough brave generation, weren’t they?
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