Years before my grandmother died I’d ask her gently
to stop with the stories of who went swimming,
who was at the latest Hadassah meeting, who ate what.
Tell me about Aunt Lizzie, her aunt who was married
without children, who took care of all related others,
the sons and daughters of working mothers
as if they were her own. Aunt Lizzie who brought me
bright paisley silk scarves, Kvelled with quiet class,
wore black dresses, thick shoes, her white hair
in a bun. She lived until I was twenty-one.
Tell me more of your brother Adolph, who hitched each fall
from Brooklyn to the Colorado School of Mines
where he had an engineering scholarship. He collected
folksongs on each trip, but I don’t know why.
Tell me more about what it was like for a young Jewish woman
in the twenties, who dared to smoke in public, who
“couldn’t marry a man who didn’t love music.”
On and on she’d go about the quality of oranges in Miami,
as opposed to Jaffa’s, refusing to return to days I’d never hold.
And now as I speak to her daughter, because I’ve phoned for a piece of information she can quickly supply, she says what she misses most is what her mother knew — The obscure botanical fact, the lyrics to a half-forgotten song.
When my grandmother died prayer books were buried with her, an ancient honor for the chosen dead, those tattered pages, the ink too faded to read. Each day we lose something critical, and what remains will never be enough.
Barbara Berman is a writer living and working in Washington, D.C. Among other projects, she has directed the poetry series at the Washington Women’s Arts Center. Her poetry and prose has appeared in the Washington Post, the Village Voice, New Age, the Washingtonian.