To My Great-Grandmother Who Died in One Pandemic From Her Great-Granddaughter Alive in Another – Caryn Mirriam-Goldberg
What was it like for you that last summer,
the humidity of cicadas endless as the ocean
between the sunny fields of Romania and this
throw-away street in what they call East St. Louis?
Were the clouds too low, the children too loud,
or, even worse, afraid to speak at all
while your husband argued with the other men
at the fence, his flask back in his hand,
lighting counting the minutes from the west?
Did you know it was happening in time
to understand? Did you see a flash of red
while the name of that summer bird escaped you?
Did it even matter that you were pocketed
in a white clapboard box of heat where one little girl,
my grandmother, clutched your forearm?
Was the last thing you heard the chickens
racing across the side yard, chased again
by one of the men or babies while your breath
rattled to the cusp of Yes, so far from where
you started, no one left to remind you
that there was never a way to prepare
in a house of gin, weather, and an old dog,
all those cottonwood leaves gone overnight
from the first fall storm that opened up
the seam of the sky, and then—
You could not have known that your little girl,
always worrying about the wrong things,
would run away from her father when she was 16
to the Bronx to work in a button factory.
That she would meet the man who became
my grandfather, Coney Island and all,
that she would argue over pennies and slights
from people who didn’t care for her, and he
would go silent or fishing, far away in life
until he could disappear into an early death.
Where would she ever belong?
But she’d return to the Midwest 60 years
after she left to visit me in Kansas
on a day of low-hanging clouds,
seventeen-year-cicadas, and the flash
of Indigo Bunting to climb into a van
with my friends, riding through
constellations of dying towns.
I would make up story for all of us
of a young woman, just arrived in this country,
who married the wrong man, but loved
growing tomatoes and peppers,
sweet corn too, even if the chiggers and ticks
left their curses on her arms and legs.
We would all eat giant burritos at a picnic table
before watching the Paul Winter Consort
sing and digeridoo about the beauty of this earth.
You couldn’t know that your daughter’s,
my grandmother’s, hands flew with the music,
opening and closing, fluttering and dancing,
and for the first time ever that I heard,
she couldn’t stop laughing.
If the dead are able to know anything
about what they leave behind, you know
I’m in the Midwest after growing up under
my grandmother’s Brooklyn wings.
What are the odds, I want to ask you,
although I imagine you would just lift
your right eyebrow, point to the Osage orange
trees growing those green balls from your time
that, in my time, smash our windshields
in the first weighted storm of fall.
But cars weren’t common in your life, were they?
Nor highways, antibiotics, women’s shelters,
or other ways for a Romanian woman to save herself.
98 years and 297 miles west of you, in the same
humidity that hatched and was consumed by
a thousand storms, I’m write from just south
of the Kaw river on its slow and muddied curve
across Missouri, the geography that separated us.
Distances take so many forms: the years
since my grandmother died, the pandemic
that erased you, the pain and heat
that left so little of you behind.
But here I am, waiting for you,
Celia—that was your name—
to tell me everything.
Caryn Mirriam-Goldberg, Ph.D., the 2009-13 Kansas Poet Laureate is the author of 24 books, including How Time Moves: New & Selected Poems; Miriam’s Well, a novel; Needle in the Bone, a non-fiction book on the Holocaust; The Sky Begins At Your Feet: A Memoir on Cancer, Community, and Coming Home to the Body. Founder of Transformative Language Arts, she leads writing workshops widely, coaches people on writing and right livelihood, and consults on creativity. YourRightLivelihood.com, Bravevoice.com, CarynMirriamGoldberg.com