Today is the anniversary of my mother’s death, 13 years ago. I want to re-post two poems I have previously shared.
-Iris Arenson-Fuller, Feb 2011
Gertie was no master European pastry chef
creating glorious golden strudels or pies of scraps
and wishes from cupboard and ice box.
That was her mother, rotund, sweet-faced
sporting a flower in her hair, large drooping breasts
hiding under full length patterned apron.
Gertie’s mother gathered ingredients in the apron
holding it out gently like ancient treasure,
carrying baking bounty from pantry to work table.
Grandfather prayed and swayed in the next room
droning, bending, sniffing as wife sifted,
rolled, pinched, conjured up sweet miracles
Did she think of Romanian campfires and gypsy
remedies while magic and surprises hovered in
her kitchen, invisible vibrating hummingbirds?
My mother planned and measured, pounded dough
into resignation, beat the white floury, eggy mess
till what made no sense sighed,
assuming the order she needed to feel safe.
Mama’s kitchen was unlike mine,
where things spill, have minds of their own,
jumping from blue glass bowls, creating chaos.
Her kitchen was sparkling, predictable, as she knew
the real world never was, never would be.
On clear, cold nights, when we went outside
to watch for shooting stars, she studied recipes,
chopping precisely, never adding odd tidbits stashed
in the cupboards of imagination, as I would.
She hummed the song, Ramona from the days
she and my father courted, but hummed so softly
that the dog sleeping under the table could barely hear.
When perfect crisp logs, never lopsided, emerged,
more measuring, then cutting and frosting.
Vanilla, chocolate, strawberry in equal numbers.
Warm prizes peered out from an every-day white
china plate or the flowery one for company.
Hands reached, teeth unearthed fruity secrets
while eyes found my mother’s smile.
Yearning is foolish but how well I remember
the predictability of us at the table, counting chews,
entering Gertie’s orderly world, where for that quiet moment,
we wanted nothing more.
Crouched in the chair, chalky tiny chicken bones
smiling, grinding out complaints like kosher
meat from the old grinder in the big kichen 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
and seized the right moment to push her down
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 and mixes
her 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
Soon she will reach the mountainous terrain of my
memories, which I climb all night and never sleep
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 and then of nagging,
spilling from her mouth between gates of
iron stained clenched dentures
Somehow it doesn’t matter and what made
me hide in Vermont, California and Connecticut
is only glue mixed with spittle now, that has
turned into love, fully expressed
She is my birth mother and each day her life is
an inchworm dangling from a branch over my head
ready to fall and I know how much I love her and why