“I’m thinking of my ancestors, grandparents, parents, the challenges they faced of dislocation, calamity, rupture. I’m trying to channel what might have been their thoughts and feelings—not knowing what’s ahead, sensing that nothing will be the same, but finding strength to carry on in the face of tremendous loss.”—Deborah Kaufman
After the Imperial Palace
five of us in a taxi,
tired from miles of mirrored hallways,
portraits of princes,
ceilings florid with winged cherubs.
We pass the giant Ferris wheel,
steel web of spokes and cables,
then parks with iron gates.
Behind them, headstones leaning.
Father starts to cry,
he wants to stop the car,
walk inside where
chestnut trees tower over wet grass,
place stones on the graves of Jews,
heavy, like his childhood there
where cobbled streets and carriages
are mixed up with memories
of the boys who beat him
outside the synagogue.
But mom stiffens,
doesn’t want to hear his stories,
or see his tears,
commands the driver, “Go on!”
We three girls in the back seat
with our camel hair coats
and patent leather shoes
are the bargaining chip
they use against each other.
It’s over in an instant.
What’s left is his silence,
our cries to stop for ice cream
at the next konditorei.
A Father’s Work
He’d disappear early
with a black leather bag
bulging with stethoscope, bandages, morphine,
an inheritance from his father, the country doctor.
Silent, though his spine throbbed
as he shuffled down the stairs into his car
into the cold to do hospital rounds
in corridors mopped clean with disinfectant,
and the curtained cubicles where patients lay
with IVs and thin blankets and feeble smiles,
thinking maybe he’d get the nurse to up the narcotics.
In the doctor’s lounge,
coffee in a Styrofoam cup
then on to his storefront office
where the waiting room was crammed with old men
and neighborhood drunks, biding time on frayed chairs.
After dark he’d go on house calls,
mostly to the ones in dirty bathrobes
who chewed tobacco and smelled like pee
and had strange stories to tell.
Late at night we’d hear the garage door open
gather around as he ate warmed up meat on a chipped plate
telling us about the heartbeat,
the gin under the bed, the color of their fingernails,
making us guess the diagnosis.
It was a running competition between sisters
desperate for their father’s attention.
He’d peel an orange with steely precision
while we three girls chirped “heart attack,”
“stroke,” or “overdose,”
hoping to win his approval.
And mom stood, back to us all,
water running at the sink,
cleaning pots with steel wool,
scouring until her knuckles were white.
She was the quiet one
an only child
lived with her immigrant family
in the back rooms of their deli
on West Portal Avenue.
Behind the glass shelf
salamis and strange cheeses
were laid out in broken spirals
like the journey her parents had taken
My mother referred to it in code
something about camps
I didn’t understand.
Each week, we made a pilgrimage to the Lido Delicatessen,
past Toy Village, the Manor Coffee Shop,
and the produce store where the Italian guy flirted
with all the housewives.
At Halloween our school organized teams
to paint holiday pictures on shop windows.
Gloria and I were assigned Shaw’s
popular ice cream parlor and candy store
down the street from their deli,
with its red and white awning, smell of fudge
butter brickle, and candied cherries.
We hatched the idea together
the Devil and Dracula,
blood dripping from their fangs
heads the size of the entire storefront windowpane
scars and bloodshot eyes
mostly black and red
a stark contrast to the other children’s designs
of happy pumpkins, cats and spider webs.
We won a prize for artistic merit
not for the dread and horror
of her family’s secret story
which we’d drawn on the glass.
And then we had our picture taken
in front of the terrible truth.