First day of fall

Mom, I'm on my mirpesset
on the first day of fall.
You loved that word --
a little taste of Jerusalem

or Tel Aviv. Two of the zinnias
my son planted last spring
have sent up new buds, like
dancers reaching toward heaven

with palms outspread.
They're trying to bloom
once more before first frost.
I don't think there's time,

but who am I to say I know
when death will come?
All morning I've been practicing
Torah in the golden melody

of the season. Last year
you watched holiday services
from your bed, Facebook Live
on the iPad propped on your lap.

From olam ha-ba I expect
you'll have better picture
and clearer sound. I wish
I could feed you honeycake.

I wish I could sing for you
and know that you hear me.
I don't want to be starting
a year that never had you in it.


Now

 

Suddenly the two stately trees
outside my window are shot through

with sprays of gold. My heart rails
against the turning season

like a child resisting bedtime, but
the trees hear the shofar's call.

Come alive, flare up, be
who you are: let your light shine!

The katydids and crickets sing
the time is now, the time is now.

The last time I visited my mother
I told her "it's okay if you're ready

to go." My heart railed against
her dying, but after one last burst

of color she was ready to rest.
This year the trees' razzle-dazzle

speaks to me in her voice: be here
while you can. Drink every drop

of daylight. And when night falls,
it's full of stars: don't be afraid.

 

poem by Rabbi Rachel Barenblat, 2019

 

(Each year during the month of Elul -- the month leading up to the Days of Awe -- I write a poem to share with family, friends, & blog readers. This is this year's. Those annual poems are online here -- most recent at the top.)


Star light

Mom, tonight
after I got
the kid to bed
I stepped outside

onto the balcony
-- the air cool
without a robe
already, late

August preparing
to give way --
and the Big Dipper
gleamed above me,

and Cassiopeia.
I forgot to say
"Star light, star
bright," but

God knows
all the things
I wish for,
including

you listening
for these missives
lofted skyward
for you.

 


Hair

The alligator clips
for holding a hank of hair
while the rest is blown dry

wait patiently
for you to return
and need them again.

In your last years
you joined the ranks
of little old ladies

who let the beauty shop
wash and style.
Like your mother used to.

I always thought
they needed the bowl dryers
to set their curls.

I never understood
it was because arms
couldn't reach anymore, or

ports or open wounds
couldn't safely handle
the sluice of a shower.

I'd give anything
to talk over the hum
of your blowdryer again.

 


Return

Not sure what I fear more:
that your house will feel the same
or that it won't. The wheelchair
and hospital machines will be gone, but

the books in the library will still
be arranged by color, abstract
modern art constructed from their spines'
gradations. The heavy crystal bowls

of roasted nuts for cocktail hour
will still adorn the living room
where you used to hold court with
vodka soda and lime in hand, where

you let us take a family photo
that last Shabbat. I was shocked
you let us bring out the camera:
your hair was wild, unwashed.

You smiled as though nothing hurt.
You knew it was our last chance. Mom,
I don't know how to visit a Texas
that doesn't have you in it.

You're not there anymore. You're
not anywhere. But I want to believe
you're watching. Not all the time,
but maybe you feel a tug

when I'm thinking of you. Maybe
you were there when I went shopping.
I bought a dress for the trip.
It's deep yellow, like a loquat,

like your lacquered kitchen cabinets.
I chose it to show off your necklace.
You'd like it because it's bright,
it's vivid, like something alive.

 


Postcard

This is a postcard --
oversized, five by seven
and glossy. On the front
a photo of my garden:
look, the half-dead bushes
are gone, and the tangle
of wild mint and weeds.
In their place
tall purple astilbe,
silver-leafed brunnera,
a hydrangea, periwinkle
and columbine, shasta daisy.
On the back -- "wish
you were here" is trite.
Instead I'll write
that the sharp scent
of fresh mulch wakes
me like a shofar. All
around town tractors are
cutting tall grass, turning
summer's verdant beauty
into something sustaining
for when all this life
is gone.


Watch me

"Watch this, Mom, watch me."
My son jumps into the pool,
surfacing to ask "was that

a perfect pencil dive?" Or
"look at this, do I look
like a dolphin," wiggling

through the water, "or more
like a whale?" breaching
and landing with a splash.

If I don't witness, it's
as though it didn't happen.
Sometimes I watch, hungry

for every instant of his
nine-year-old summer, glimmer
of sun-sparkles on the water

and maybe a popsicle after
with hair still dripping wet.
Sometimes behind my shades

I want to roll my eyes: kid,
I can't be there your whole life
to see every move you make.

But what else are these poems
if not me calling out to you
watch this, Mom, watch me?

 


Chrysalis

On my Italian parsley plant:
a fat green stripey caterpillar.

It's a black swallowtail
in fourth instar, readying

for its chrysalis. Unlike
the monarch, predictable

in its cycle of rebirth, these
take an indeterminate time

encased in green or brown
before emerging wet-winged.

Growth has its own pace, can't
be hurried. How do they know

when they're ready to shed
what's protected them

and open, tender, to a world
waiting for them to soar?

 


Sun

Best hours for sun: ten until two.
You taught me that, sunbathing
on the flat woven chaise by the pool
straps pulled down so you wouldn't mar
any off-the-shoulder blouse
with lines. No one thinks like that
anymore. Here and now even boys
don't swim topless, exposing chests
to the depradations of our star, but
when I walk to the condo pool for a dip
I still notice whether or not I'm in
the good tan window. And later
in the shower when I see my forearms
darker against the soft pale flesh
of my belly, I feel at home in my body.
I don't look like you. But
after an afternoon spent dipping
into cool aqua waters festooned now
with tufts of fluff from cottonweeds,
my warmed skin comforts my touch
the way yours used to do.


In your shoes

When I shot up like a weed our feet
stopped matching. Our tastes
diverged too: once I moved out
I chose Docs, clunky Mary Janes.

When you got sick your shoes
languished, replaced by scuffs
and slippers. Two days after
we buried you, your daughters

and granddaughters gathered
in your walk-in closet
for a different kind of memorial.
I chose scarves and beads,

purses and pocketbooks. Didn't
bother with your shoes, those rows
of gleaming heels in leather
and lucite: like Cinderella's

step-sisters, I would've needed
to chop my feet. But one pair
of open-toed sandals beckoned.
Against all odds they fit, but

February is winter here. They went
on a shelf in my closet to wait.
Mom, last night we shared shoes
again. Were you watching as

I walked circles around the house,
relearning how heels swing my hips
playing dress-up in my mother's
shoes, now my own?

 


Blackbird

My son's dance performance opens
with a song you used to play.

I weep for how you rolled these chords.
I can still hear you singing

"I need someone to love and
understand me," the way you'd slow

for emphasis on "oh what hard luck
stories they all hand me! Make

the bed and light the light,
I'll be home late tonight..."

But you won't be. Or -- not with us.
Dare I hope that the world to come

feels like home in all the ways
this world sometimes doesn't, that

now you feel loved and understood
in all that you are?

 


Revelation

On the night before Shavuot
I fall asleep thinking
about revelation.

In my dream you give me
a necklace, a cluster
of charms on a long chain.

Some are golden plates
engraved with the words
we'll say about you

at your funeral and shiva.
We both know it's coming.
I ask you before you go

to give me my name again.
We stand in a vast shower
-- warm water flowing,

like a mikvah, like
the chevra kadisha
washing the dead clean --

and you say my name
and I hold you
while you weep.

 


Pedicure

I got a pedicure the day you died.
I was numb and shocky, couldn’t bear
to bury you without looking as good
as I knew you'd have wanted me to be.
In the chair I blurted out, "I'm going
to my mother's funeral." Today 
I took that polish off my toes, replaced
with periwinkle, luminous and bright
like your big string pf pearls you do not know
are mine now that you’re gone. I can’t text you
the nail polish emoji as a way
of showing where I am. But hi, Mom, from
the temple of appearance, holy place:
in making myself shine, I honor you.


Ring

It's a simple circle
of pink coral, set

mid-century modern
in silver and gold.

There's a spiral
of tape on the bottom,

wound around and around
to shrink the band.

Most of your rings
had that, artifact

of fingers growing thinner
with illness and age.

Today my sundress
is navy and aqua,

turquoise and lime,
banded with coral

to match the ring
that used to be yours.

I wish I'd asked you
about its origins.

Look, Mom, I'm
wearing colors. I'm

emerging from mourning,
from winter's long grasp.

 


Peonies

After your mother died
you used to visit her
on her birthday

with flowers,
Texas yellow roses
you'd leave on her grave.

Were they her favorite
or just local color?
I wish I'd asked.

You loved peonies best:
their big, blowsy
spectacular faces

too tender to grow
in the hot south
where you were planted

but you knew
the best florists
would have them...

I'm too far to visit
and anyway you're not
there in the ground.

For your birthday
I put peonies
on my dining table.

The tight buds stand
straight like
young ballerinas.

The bigger blossoms
bend over,
already flirting

with the fragrance
of decay. Nothing
lasts for long.

 


Mother's Day

 

It's a year of firsts
and most of them hurt.

Hallmark doesn't sell a card
designed to be burned

so smoke can ascend
to reach the afterlife.

And why didn't I save
every card you ever sent me

so I could reopen them now?
I miss your handwriting.

I kick myself now
for every deleted voicemail.

When I remember earth
thudding onto the wooden box

futility claims my heart
and won't let go.

 


I don't mind

Today someone asked how I am
and I said fine and meant it.

Maybe I'm growing accustomed.
Maybe all those years of bracing

for your death paid off.
Maybe it's just the sunshine.

It's easier to be honest now
than it was when you were alive.

I don't have to worry
that I'm disappointing you.

And if I believe you hear me
then you're listening no matter what.

I know this ease won't last.
I'll see someone who looks

like you, or a mother
and daughter with heads close...

I can't even think about
the first Rosh Hashanah,

all the occasions to come.
But right this minute

with the trees leafing out
and birds chattering excitedly

I know you're dead
but I don't mind.

 


Field trip

You walked through my dream last night
as a crowd of family crossed a hotel lobby.
Your blonde hair blown-dry and styled,

full face of makeup, earrings gleaming.
"You look great," I said, and you beamed
as though you knew the secret: you're not

in this world anymore. Was it a field trip
to visit the living? I greeted your parents,
gone thirty years. And then I was alone.

I seized my phone to call a friend to tell
the tale. "Next time, ask her for a bracha,"
he suggested. Waking, I thought: what would

you say? In life you would have laughed, or
said you don't know how to give a blessing
but maybe in the afterlife you're less afraid.

Or maybe you'd repeat exactly what you said
in life: make hay while the sun shines. This
life is too short. Choose to find it sweet.


Stars

In your filing cabinet you left
notes for your obituary:

you played the doxology
on accordion

you earned
your junior lifesaving certificate

you wished you'd learned
to tapdance, or written a book.

You included for us a list
of loves: dad, of course

travel, a good party,
Judaism and your children

your nutritionist guru,
the Big Dipper, the moon.

On Nathan J. Pritikin
we part ways. I'm likelier

to emulate Samin Nosrat
scattering kosher salt

by the handful (sorry
Mom) but I love

that you loved the moon
enough to mention her, and

the other stars you steered by
still show me the way to shore.

 


Dishes

Your Pesachdik dishes lived
in cartons on a high shelf,
strictly for the Dallas cousins.

When you hosted seder
the "help" covered the kitchen
with foil, brought the boxes down.

Yours were plain white.
Some of mine are red,
gleaming like polished apples.

Others are hand-me-downs
in melon and aqua and blue,
a gift from another mother.

Does it comfort you to know
mothers reached out as I joined
this motherless daughter club?

Back to the dishes: I know
you never kept the Pesach.
Did you wonder

why I've reclaimed
traditions you and Dad
were glad to discard —

did you shake your head
at this pendulum swing
of generations? Still

you'd like my table this week,
bright as your nail polish,
vivid as a Fiesta parade.