Seven years after Auden sat
uncertain and afraid
in one of the dives on 52nd Street,
my great-grandmother arrives, finally, in New York.
She was lucky, everyone will say,
to have left Germany in time,
and to have waited out the war
with her husband in Brazil.
But on September 1, 1946,
she does not feel so lucky.
The endless voyage over, yes,
but she is detained on Ellis Island
while her husband, too weak, too tired,
breathes his difficult last in the Marine Hospital.
Yet again the unmentionable odor of death
offends the September night.
On what would have been their fortieth anniversary
She is admitted, alone, to the United States.
For the first time since 1938
she can see and hear and touch her daughter.
They depart South Ferry and make their way
to West 139th Street, where wait
the son-in-law the woman has yet to meet
and the baby grandson.Read More
My mom can tell you stories
about all her mother’s sisters.
Except for two. One was stillborn.
Nameless. The other was Shirley.
Shirley, the second to arrive once the family
reunited in New York, my great-grandfather
having immigrated first. Shirley, who died,
the certificate says, on May 7, 1924.
Aged thirteen months. Cause of death:
intestinal toxemia, with “contributory”
It’s hard to think of any baby dying,
and hard, too, to imagine Shirley,
buried at once in Mount Zion Cemetery
when her parents and sisters and even
an aunt would be laid to rest together
at Old Montefiore. We visit the graves
at Old Montefiore. We stand gathered
beside them for interments and unveilings.
We recite Kaddish there, and pluck pebbles
from its dirt. We pay for Perpetual Care.
But never—not a single time—
have we visited Mount Zion.
Questioned once, my grandmother,
who was eleven when Shirley died,
recalled the baby’s beauty, the frenzy
that surrounded her illness,
my great-grandmother’s grief.
But of the cemetery, Grandma said nothing.
Who went there, and when, all the eighty-five years
before I looked up and ordered, for a few dollars,
a copy of the death certificate?
Is it too late, even now,
to move Great-aunt Shirley to Old Montefiore?
But that might require a visit to Mount Zion,
and I, at least, am too afraid of what I’ll find there:
the baby buried, alone,
abandoned, with the weeds.Read More