SAMPLES FROM THE BOOK
Copyright © 2017 by Jean Sands
When Mother Stopped Remembering
She called everything “the thing.”
Get me that thing in the closet to sweep the floor
the thing to scrub the pot
Last night at dinner with friends
I couldn’t remember the word memorial—
there is a memorial in Warsaw,
a temple in Krakow, in Auschwitz,
a place where time stopped, the earth
split open and swallowed memories.
Seated at the restaurant’s round table—
a journalist, a doctor, two poets, an abstract artist
who could hide a thousand souls in her paintings
but instead volunteers for the Shoah project.
We talk religion, each naming the one true way—
Catholic, Protestant, Judaism, the Universe.
We discuss art exhibits, colors brilliant
and shocking as a staring dead eye.
Mother couldn’t name kitchen utensils
she’d used for forty years
but never forgot the German soldier
when she was a child in Hungary.
The journalist writes about rights,
marriages “the church” won’t sanctify.
On weekends, the doctor photographs
blue sky, blood-red flowers, ivy
like fingers scratching Birkenau’s walls.
At the table we talk about the mercy of God,
His benevolence to those who are good.
Where was God on Kristallnacht?
Was He at Auschwitz? Birkenau? Belzec?
Dachau? Treblinka? Buchenwald? Bergen-Belsen?
As Mother’s memory failed she grew silent.
Her eyes clouded over. She gave up books.
In Germany, they emptied the shelves,
burned the books, the men, the women, the children.
I’m out on the deck peeling carrots
where I always peel vegetables,
letting the papery orange fly from my scraper
onto the grass and I think of my mother cooking
on her Tappan range in the house my father built.
Cut carrots in two for beef stew,
into chunks for chicken soup
she said, teaching me her way.
The day is damp, chilly, mid September,
the sun sliding from clouds only on whim.
I look for a butterfly in the lilac bush
that leans over the rail
because after Mother died she came to me
as a yellow swallowtail and hovered around me,
landed on my hand. Ever since,
butterflies visit each summer,
rest in the lilacs, open,
offer their beauty, their trust.
Mother loved the lilac’s sweet scent
and kept in her misty-green vase
the bunches I brought home,
cut from a country lot, vacant
but for the ruined rim of an old foundation.
My friend Lorraine and I made up stories—
a family that lived there in the 1930s,
went bust in the Depression,
a daughter our age sent to relatives,
the parents getting jobs with a circus
or died of heartbreak, buried
in the cemetery up the road,
how the house went to rot.
We never felt guilty cutting armloads
of purple for our mothers
from their gangly overgrown bushes.
There are no butterflies on this mostly gray day
and so I say into the stiff wooden air
Where are you, Mom?
and carry the carrots into the house,
cut them in chunks, drop them into
my simmering soup.
It was October and I was running counters
in a food booth at the Danbury Fair—
hotdogs, sauerkraut, burgers,
grinders with sausage, peppers and onions,
hot greasy fries, chicken halves.
There were two guys on the grill
Phil and Al, up from Florida,
both with smiles that could melt ice.
One a sharp dresser, the other in dirty whites,
Phil peeling potatoes and onions, chopping
them with peppers all day long,
wiping those huge hands I longed to have touch me.
The air at the fairgrounds smelled of beer,
sausage, pepper and onions. Back then,
I was always hungry.
Turn That Goddamn Thing Down
Me at the bottom of the stairs shouting
Turn that goddamn thing down!
Zeppelin screaming from my boys’ room
where they strum air guitars, drown me out.
It is 1980 and soon they will graduate
from high school. I am a naive mother,
have no idea they will travel far from me—
the oldest joining a carnival, his brother
in the Navy. The day I drop the sailor off
at the recruitment center, long blond curly hair
down his back, I have no idea
I won’t see him for four years.
The carnival kid comes home
every few weeks, stays a few days,
eats, showers, washes dirty clothes
he brings in a huge, black-plastic
garbage bag slung over his shoulder. I hate
him working with a carnival, afraid
some seedy character running a ride
or working a chisel game on the midway
will hurt him.
My shrink friend says kids have to break hard
or they won’t be able to leave home,
that separating from parents is natural,
a part of growing up.
That’s really what all the arguments were about—
trying to dislike each other so the separation would be
easy, not about the loud music
I would one day miss. They had to leave
and I had to let them go
though God knows none of it was easy.
I couldn’t stop crying after they moved out
and thirty years later, when I hear
Babe I’m Gonna Leave You
playing on the radio,
I don’t turn it down.
Working in a Discount Store after the Divorce
Blessings are hard to count—
rock music blaring, cash registers banging,
check-out girls gossiping.
Sun glares through windows so big
I could imagine myself outdoors
if there were no line of customers,
old men in checked shirts,
their insistent puffy fingers
stroking my palm for change,
worn-out women dragging metal carts.
My feet ache. The kids are home
alone after school. We live like transients,
all of us eating in front of the TV,
dressing from baskets of unfolded laundry,
our life fragile as these big glass windows.
At the Vet’s Office
I take our cat to the vet this morning
for the third time in two weeks
and when I say to the cat,
to calm him, or myself,
He hasn’t killed you yet,
the vet jokes, But we’ll keep trying!
and I begin thinking of men,
kind and mean, and how—
unlike this vet I chose
straight off, first visit,
to care for all my pets—
it took me three tries
to find the right man.
The first one I married was a hitter—
open palm, threatening fists,
a knife that promised
to cut my throat before I escaped.
The second one, worse. A handsome man
with no past. I should have known
his clamming up was covering up
what no woman would want to know—
that he lied and cheated and stole and played
head games and made weapons of words
crazy, sick, lazy, liar, leech.
The vet leans over the exam table
gently holding open the cat’s eye,
drops in numbing solution, strokes
the cat’s white chin, waits patiently
for the eye to freeze
so he can examine the ulcer
on the animal’s yellow-green cornea.
The cat’s eyes are tearing
and so are mine. The vet says
the procedure isn’t hurting the cat
but it hurts me
and I mumble something about not being able
to raise children again, how cat worry
is all I can handle these days,
and he nods.
I know being a vet is not just a job for this man
who would never blow a pheasant apart
with a shotgun, never catch a jackrabbit’s foot
in a steel trap, never say killing a deer
is hard work. You don’t know how far
I had to track it before I got a good enough shot,
the secretive one said.
The cat’s eye is numbed and the vet
peers into it with a light, tells me
surgery is necessary to cut out the blight
and tears spring to my eyes again.
The vet blinks and says, Don’t fret,
you will have him back home tonight,
and I am overwhelmed with gratitude
for the sweet husband who will pick up the cat
and pay the bill without a word.