(For my maternal grandfather, Gersten
Nearly sixty years after
leaving, I return —
a stranger to the land where I was born —
and visit for the first time a neglected part
of the Jewish cemetery in Budapest.
The caretaker finds
my grandfather's grave |
with difficulty, the stone askew and sinking,
the name hardly readable, the dates erased,
as if he’d not lived in time but another dimension.
The grass is high,
and from a nearby maple,
seedlings not thinned for years, choke the rows
between the stones. Here lie the remains
of a man I never met, my mother's father,
who could hear a
melody once, and play it back
faultlessly on piano. He died when my mother
was twelve. When I left home at eighteen,
I knew she wasn’t crying just over me —
she’d never gotten
past his leaving.
At mealtimes he’d quip to the grandmother
I also never met, “No need to change
the plates for every course, Karolina—
it’s all going to
the same place.” Yes, Grandpa,
it and we, all going to the same place. And thank
you, because now tunes are finding new instruments —
my ears, lips, breath, and fingers — to come through.
I step back, and the
grave is gone in the growth.
The caretaker offers to clean the stone, gild letters,
restore dates, maintain the site — for a price,
of course. Aren’t all Americans rich?
I take a photo, a
hand-hold for memory to climb
back up, and leave the grave to the embrace
of what grows — for the earth belongs to roots.
The living can keep a burial ground only
for so long. And
then it’s memory singing
in younger bones — memory so at home
in song. And how we find and hold our place
on earth. And the grass grows, and the trees.
Nazi said to him, “Hey Jew,
which hand do you use to wipe your ass?”
father looked at him carefully,
hooding his eyes to hide his hatred.
Nazi shoved him with his rifle butt.
“Hey, Jew, I asked you a question.”
father got up slowly, looked down,
and said, “With my right hand, sir.”
Nazi sneered, “I use toilet paper!”
and howled at his own cleverness.
father told this story many times,
each time asking, “Have I told you this?”
lived to be 95 and told it again
just a few months before he died.
long did the Nazi live?
What did he remember?
what stories did he tell?
When I was young,
some years that was
the day we had to go back to school.
And there was no way
I could convince
my mother that being it was my birthday
I should get to stay
home. She said life
was a school and I’d started learning
from my first
breath. And when I
pointed out that I’d had no practice,
no teacher for that,
she just said,
get your shoes on, it’s time to go.
Now that it’s much
later, I wonder
if death is another kind of school
I’ll enter with no
practice, no teacher.
Some day or night that’s scheduled
on a calendar hidden
I’ll gradually or very suddenly be told,
take your shoes off,
it’s time to go. Or
perhaps that time is supple and improvised
like a Coltrane solo
where not the breath
not the body not the horn know where
the music was or
where it’s going
only where it is — and it’s not talking.
Laszlo Slomovits, Ann Arbor, Michigan