For My Great-Grandfather: A Message Long Overdue

You with the beard as red as Barbarossa’s
uncut from its first sprouting to the hour
they tucked it in your belt and closed your eyes,
you with the bright brass water pipe, a surefire
plaything under the neighbor’s children’s noses
for you to puff and them to idolize
—the pipe you’d packed up out of somewhere
in Bohemia, along with the praying shawl
and the pair of little leather praying boxes—
Great-Grandfather, old blue-eyed fox of foxes,
I have three pages of you. That is all.
1895. A three-page letter
from Newport News, Virginia, written
on your bleached-out bills of sale, under the stern
SUITING AND PANTS. My mother has just been born.
You write to thank your daughter for the picture
of that sixth grandchild. There are six more to come.
“My heart’s tenderest tendrils” is your style.
“God bless you even as He blessed Jacob.” Meanwhile
you stitch the year away in Christendom.
Meanwhile it seems you’ve lost your wife, remarried
a girl your daughter’s age and caused distress.
“It was a cold relentless hand of Death
that scattered us abroad,” you write, “robbing us
of Wife and Mother.” Grieving of the one buried
you send new wedding pictures now herewith
and close with mazel and brocha, words that bless.
The second bride lived on in one long study
of pleats and puckers to the age of ninety-two,
smoked cigarettes, crocheted and spoke of you
to keep our kinship threaded up and tidy.
Was that the message—the erratic ways
the little lore that has been handed on
suffers, but sticks it out in the translation?
I tell you to my children, who forget,
are brimful of themselves, and anyway
might have preferred a farmer or a sailor,
but you and I are buttoned, flap to pocket.
Welcome, ancestor, Rosenberg the Tailor!
I choose to be a lifetime in your debt.

This poem appeared in Maxine Kumin’s Selected Poems 1960-1990, W.W. Norton, 1998. 
Used with permission of the author.