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.
POEM: 'Mount Zion'