BY JACK GOODMAN
Finalist for the 2021 Adroit Prize for Poetry
My mother was from the Old Country
imbued with some shtetl magic
us ordinary folk can’t comprehend.
Maybe it was something
in the water, like that cholera
of Yiddish fame. Have I ever told you
that your Uncle Arthur (Papa’s
brother, you know, dead
before you were born) your Uncle Arthur
would wish cholera on the schmucks
who cut him off in traffic? The worst driver
you’ve ever seen, Uncle Arthur, even worse
than Papa. Once, when Uncle Nathan
was in the first grade, he was buckled
in the passenger seat—different time—
when Arthur’s shoelaces come
untied. So your uncle turns
over his shoulder, gestures at the wheel,
and straightens his strings with a foot
on the gas, a seven-year-old steering
all the while. But cholera on the men
who drive with no thought to their laces!
Was I ever mad. Papa found it funny;
my Uncle Simon, now there was a funny guy,
sort of a black sheep, he had a problem
with gambling, spent some time in jail.
My favorite uncle, and I still say
he liked me best. One year at the track
in Fort Lauderdale, a jet-black horse
named Simon’s Princess was racing.
My sister Sara and I had a good-natured bicker
over that title. In the end, we both bet
on Simon’s horse. Lost. He died the day
you were born, a good Jewish death—
none of that half-in, half-out nonsense.
When his time was done, he up and left.
God, if only Mother were so lucky. A beautiful woman
with a refusing end, that one. In her best days,
she was truly of the Old Country,
where a woman was measured
by her pick of the fish. Grandma Esther
could read their eyes like street signs.
Well, that’s not quite right, Esther was never
good at street signs—to her dying day
she refused to turn left, made three rights instead,
Old Country stubborn. And she turned the wheel
in little jerks like a broken musicbox—still
a better driver than Papa. But she understood
her fish. Could cull the stale and the unholy
with a discerning Russian eye.
Her gefilte fish puts your Aunt Ruth’s
to shame, though of course
your Aunt Ruth has no cholera water
to season up her cooking. Anyway, my mother
would fly in every Passover from Cleveland
with an olive suitcase bigger than she was.
She’d order her pike and cod
weeks ahead, for me to pick up
from the market. And every year
she’d beg me, flustered: did you look
into their eyes? And I would say no
because whatever scroll she saw inscribed
on the retinas of dead whitefish
was lost on me. She’d glower
towards the heavens, an I walked six hundred miles
to Warsaw for this? and proceed
to draw God from my subpar wares.
One year she arrives at O’Hare
with two suitcases. The olive,
like always, for her clothing and toiletries,
and now also a brown, buckled thing
for her fish. A suitcase of Esther-inspected
product, presumably so fresh
she could have clubbed them herself.
When she unpacked her socks into the dresser,
the whitefish and cod were sorted
into careful rows at the base of our bathtub.
What a joke—sea-faring creatures
in a post-death-but-pre-dinner holding pen
with rubber ducks and Jergens shampoo.
The stuff of Yiddish insults. But when the lights
were switched off, their eyes still gleamed
pearly black, like car wheels, or patriarchs,
or little Jewish villages that no longer exist.