We were girls, said my grandmother
We went to the river with our laundry
we beat it on the stones, washing
it clean, and then we spread it
on the wide grey boulders to dry.
We were laughing, said my grandmother
all of us girls together unmarried
and mostly unafraid, although of course
as Jews we were always a little on edge.
You know how a sparrow pecks seeds
always watching, listening for danger
to pounce. We gossiped about bad
girls over the river and boys and who
had peeked at us as we passed.
We took off our clothes, hung them
on bushes and bathed in the cool
rushing water, telling of Maidele
who threw herself in the current
to carry her big belly away, telling
of ghosts and dybbuks, of promises.
Then grandmother would sigh and dab
a small tear, and I would wonder
what she missed. I would rather
bathe in a tub, I said, in warm water.
The mikvah was warm, she said, and
the river was cold, but we liked
the river, young girls who did not
guess what would happen to us, how
our hopes would melt like candlewax
how we would bear and bear children
like apples falling from the tree
so many, but a tree that bled
and some would just rot in the grass.
You never forget the ones who die
she said even if you only held them
two months or twelve, they come
back in the night and circle like fish
opening silent mouths and never
do they grow older, but you do.
Your hair hangs like strands
of a worn out mop, your flesh
puffs up like bread from too much yeast
or dwindles till your arms are brittle
sticks and the frost never leaves you.
I want to go down to the river
again, I want to hear the singing
and tell stories with friends we would
never tell in front of our mothers.
I want to go down to the river,
wade in and let it wash my bones
down to the hope that must surely
still form their marrow, deep
and rich in spite of the sights
that have dimmed my eyes
and tears that have pickled my heart.
Marge Piercy, Lilith Poetry Editor, has a new book of poems, Colors Passing Through Us (Knopf). Her memoir Sleeping with Cats, is now available in paperback from Morrow/Harper Collins, and her latest novel, The Third Child, will be published in November.