Preparing for Yom Kippur

Charlotte Newberger Poetry Contest - First Place

Panes of sunlight fall around my hands on the morning
counter as I begin the meal we will eat before fasting.
For dessert, Tante Etta’s special German plum torte,
the sticky dough protesting into a pan burnt with caramel,
a dark blade halving and pitting sweet plums for the top.
At her husband’s shiva years ago, she promised to teach me,
electing me plumcake heiress for the simple pleasure
of disinheriting some other misbegotten in-law in training. 

Tante Etta, a mountain of a Berliner, sits in my kitchen.
Voice guttural with the smoke of thousands of cigarettes,
accent undiminished through thirty years of exile.
Her suffering, her kindness feeding scraps to children locked
in joyless Berlin, her hard-earned spite. She swears like a sailor
Or a woman left barren by circumstance.  

As if Etta’s large and heavy soul
Has left a tear in the membrane that separates them,
The dead begin to drift into my home, as various
as snowflakes but not evanescent; they accumulate.
Their silenced voices bid us to speak words of joy
Their dessicated hands and empty kitchens beg us to bake.
When it is time to dress for dinner
I stagger upstairs under a foggy blanket of lead. 

As I stand at my dresser, their jewelry cries out to me.
My grandmother’s aquamarine earrings, which she swore
had held diamonds until the family ran out of food.
The sapphire bracelet I cannot latch myself
Reminds me of helping Norma dress for Poppy’s funeral,
Putting on her necklace, zipping up her dress.
Aunt Rita’s bracelet, long promised to me, weighs
Down my arms with chiming charms whose meanings I forget. 

A cardinal sings in the still-green leaves, hoping for his mate.
Left in the drawer is my mother-in-law’s gold bangle.
Still strange to me. One day my daughter will wear it,
Standing tall, her shoulders braced against the weight
of all her gold, the plum cake recipe strung around her neck
like a dog tag, a yellow star, or a badge of honor.

Mel Patrell Furman is a Jew by choice and a member of the Jewish Reconstructionist Congregation of Evanston, Illinois. She studied poetry writing at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and the University of Iowa Summer Writers Festival