Pebbles

I know I must have talked with you
after unveilings for relatives

or friends, but I don't remember
what you had to say. Probably

we talked about shopping or haircuts
or Shabbes dinner, what Marie Howe

called "what the living do."
When you drove out of a cemetery

you moved on, but part of me still
hasn't left where we buried you.

Soon we'll gather to bless the slab
that marks the spot. Did you know

the tradition that says we stop
saying kaddish after eleven months

because only wicked souls require
a full year of kaddish to ascend

and we wouldn't want to imply
you weren't righteous? I think

you'd laugh and say whatever works
for us is fine by you, then ask

where we're going for lunch after
and what kind of shoes I'm planning.

Almost eleven months now I've been
writing to you, each line a monument

to memory. These poems,
the pebbles I leave on your stone.

 


A year ago

A year ago you kept falling. Bloodied from landing,
bruised as though beaten. Dad couldn't lift you, so one
night you slept on the carpet until morning. Did you know
your children were scheduling frantic conference calls?
There was no knowing how much worse it might get.
When you consented to hospice, you texted us, "if my decline
troubles you, have your doctor prescribe a happy pill."
I laughed until I cried. A year ago you were still alive.
This month I keep saying that, like a mantra.
Soon I'll never be able to say it again.


Chanukah gift

The closet in my study
holds picture frames, half-empty
boxes of stationery, old books,

pillows and blankets
for the guest bed. And tucked in
amid all of these, a small box

emblazoned Priority Mail,
addressed in your handwriting,
postmarked two years ago.

It slipped behind the quilts
and the crates of journals,
unseen and forgotten.

As I slice open the packing tape
I can scarcely breathe.
A letter you wrote to my son

for the last night of Chanukah
and some old coins -- a poem
and gelt, though I know

what in this box is truly gold.
Your words, your memory --
the oil that keeps on burning.

 


In this place

You're sick, but
still offering opinions
on which cut of trousers

best suits me. You promise
a pair of new boots, stylish
as yours, before you go.

Then you're dead, and
I roam your closet
(Narnia-sized, infinite)

with empty hands. But look:
on a countertop, the boots
you promised, in my size.

I wake laughing.
You're nine months buried
and still giving to me.

 


Recipe

The year your mother died
I was in college, living
off-campus for the first time.

As Rosh Hashanah approached
I called you for recipes.
I didn't know how to cook, but

I roasted cornish hens
and honeyed carrot coins
and assembled my housemates

around a table covered
with a bedsheet because
I didn't own a white tablecloth.

As this first Thanksgiving
without you draws near,
I'm emailing my sister

and scouring the internet
for a recipe that looks
like the mango mousse

you always made. It's a relic
of the 1950s when your marriage
was new. I don't think

I've ever bought Jell-O
or canned mango before, and
I don't own a fluted ring mold

but when my spoon slices
through creamy sun-gold yellow
it will taste for an instant

like you were in my kitchen,
like you're at my table,
like you're still here.

 


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?

 


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.