A poem begins with a lump in your throat ~~ Robert Frost

POETRY

A poem begins with a lump in your throat. Robert Frost


The Yellow Dress 

                                  Atlanta, Georgia, October 1958

yellow-dress

I loved this dressy-dress

as I spun round and round

in the dressing-room mirror

of Rich’s Department Store –

swirling the skirt, checking it out,

front, back, side-to-side,

yellow chiffon, scooped neck,

puffed sleeves, starched crinolines

two-toned crisscrossed green sash.

On the store telephone my mother called

my father, an attorney in his office

a few blocks away, to come see the dress

and pay for it. He refused.

            It is too expensive for a sixteen-year-old girl.

 

Mother and I took the escalators

to the Rich’s fifth-floor executive offices

where Mimi, my grandfather,

pulled from his gold money clip

fifty dollars in new bills

— he always had crisp money—

and handed it to my mother.

***

The first time I wore the yellow dress

was for my installation as president

of The Temple Youth Group during

its fall membership party in the synagogue social hall—

a plain boxy room we’d decorated

with ribbons of colored crepe paper,

a banner reading “Let’s Break All Membership Records”

and black construction paper 45 RPM records,

names of current hits printed across them—

“All You Have to Do Is Dream,”

“Catch a Falling Star,” “The Purple People Eater.”

 

I felt pretty—really, really pretty.

***

Five hours after the Youth Group party ended,

while I lay asleep in my bedroom twenty miles away—

the yellow dress across a chair,

a trail of stockings and dyed-to-match

yellow shoes on the floor—

the synagogue of The Hebrew Benevolent Congregation

(known for generations in Atlanta simply as “The Temple” )

was bombed–

a gaping hole blasted

in the north side of the building

where just hours before we’d been dancing

to Elvis Presley, Perry Como,

and the Kingston Trio.

Long-time custodian Robert Benton,

arriving to open the building for Sunday School,

was the first to see

walls of religious school classrooms

and offices blown out,

stained-glass windows shattered,

dust and shards of elaborate

plaster friezes representing

the twelve tribes of Israel

scattered across the sanctuary pews and floor,

and construction paper 45 RPM records

strewn among broken brick and concrete.

***

Five men with histories of racist

and anti-Semitic associations

were arrested and indicted within a few days –

George Bright, Kenneth Griffin, Luther Corley,

brothers Robert and Richard Bolling—

indicted for setting off fifty sticks of dynamite

in the recessed side entry of The Temple—

dynamite supplied by J. B. Stoner,

founder and chairman of the National States Rights Party

who had conveniently left town before the bombing.

George Bright, a thirty-four-year-old cotton mill engineer,

the probable mastermind, was first to be tried –

represented by, among others, James R. Venable,

Imperial Wizard of the National Knights of the Ku Klux Klan.

Bright’s first trial ended in a hung jury;

his second in an acquittal.

Discouraged prosecutors dropped charges

against the other men indicted

for bombing

the synagogue that my great-grandparents

had helped found in 1867,

the synagogue whose Rabbi, David Marx,

had married my grandparents,

the synagogue where my mother had been confirmed,

the congregation whose Rabbi, Jacob Rothschild,

was active in the Civil Rights Movement,

the congregation where I had just become

president of The Temple Youth Group.

***

Twenty years and dozens of loved dresses later,

I come across the yellow dress

on a wire hanger in a chifforobe

in my childhood room in my mother’s house.

I throw it across my arm, take it home,

hang it in the guest room closet.

Looking for extra pillows in the closet

one morning, I pull out the yellow dress,

hold it up against my body,

twirl round and round in front of the mirror.

I can feel the sideways sway of “slow dancing,”

the hand of a teenage boy at my waist.

I can hear the Platters singing “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes.”


Miss Lizzie’s Kitchen

Turnip greens, green beans, green tomatoes

in the garden just outside Miss Lizzie’s screen door,

Mason jars of yellow-orange peaches,

dense purple-red beets, bread and butter pickles;

Slow-cooked chicken dripping from the bone –

she had raised the chicken, wrung its neck,

watched it flap and flop all over the yard,

blood soaking the ground.

Her father took her out of school at ten,

put her to work in the Georgia fields,

Girls don’t need to learn to read.

Sweet acrid collards, creamed corn,

Big Boy and Beefsteak tomatoes.

Once the law allowed, Miss Lizzie

never missed voting. In Sunday-best,

hair freed from the rag she tied around it

during the week and braided into a crown,

she rode to the polls with my mother

who wore gathered skirts and tailored blouses,

a soft bun at the nape of her neck,

a little rouge her only make-up.

Ages identical, skin colors and stations distinct,

these women named one another “Sister,”

shared five decades of secrets,

I’m gonna take what I know to the grave,

so jus’ don’t ask.

But at eighty-five she told me of the day

she stood between my mother’s parents

until they made peace – no other details;

told me of anger, still, with her father

for cutting short her education,

I could have been something!

Chestnuts freed from porcupine burrs,

sweet potato pies cooling on the windowsill.

Warmth flooded Miss Lizzie’s winter kitchen,

tiny beads of sweat lined her summer brow,

one-eighth Cherokee. We were forbidden

to mention her Indian heritage;

she’d been taught Indian blood is dirty.

We wondered if that one-eighth accounted

for her acute hearing, her dead-eye shot

with a .22 Remington rifle,

her care of others, black and white equally.

Every so often she’d come by our house,

Can I borrow a little change?

always for someone else – for bail, for brakes,

a funeral, a back alley abortion or to repair one.

We knew better than to ask,

or to mention her husband,

succumbed to syphilis before I was born.

Black-eyed peas shelled in a white enameled pot,

butter rounds crosshatched with a knife handle,

a black iron skillet of steaming corn bread.


A Brief Autobiography

 Mrs. Davis, the Dunwoody Elementary School

principal, worried my brothers and I

would go to hell. We didn’t believe in Jesus.

Maybe that’s why I didn’t get to be Maid Marian

in sixth grade and kiss Robin Hood, aka Philip Lawson,

or why, when I saw the Ku Klux Klan

crossing Mount Vernon Road at the Sandy Springs

water tower, wearing white robes with pointy hoods

and flaps hiding their faces, I believed they would

take me and my family away, or why,

when I was president of the Temple Youth Group,

our synagogue was bombed. Maybe that’s why I had

difficulty getting pregnant, had two miscarriages and,

twelve hours after learning I was pregnant for the fifth time,

my mother’s heart stopped in the middle

of hip replacement surgery and she survived

thirteen years, unable to walk or feed or bathe herself,

or to read – she a Smith College Phi Beta Kappa.

But surely not believing in Jesus wasn’t why,

after twenty-seven years of marriage,

my husband’s heart valve collapsed

and he died in the St. Joseph’s cardiac care unit,

sixty-five with hardly a gray hair.


Circles in the Sky

 What did I know of war –

a girl of eight or ten on a dairy farm bordered

by a winding river with an Indian name I couldn’t spell,

green terraced pastures cascading from red clay hills.

Children wore dog tags embossed

with their name, address, and date of birth –

grey metal rectangles, rounded at the corners,

a small “v” notched at one end to keep teeth apart

if you were dead. Mine hung around my neck

on a chain of tiny balls like pull chains on lights.

I knew savings bond booklets, twenty-five cent stamps

pasted into squares until the total

was $18.75 and would mature into $25.00,

I knew air raid drills, duck and cover under

school desks, line up along hall walls crouching

with arms on top of our heads, as if our

thin arms and small hands could protect us.

I knew fighter pilots from the Chamblee Naval Air Station

tracing the river because the topography resembled Korea,

somewhere so distant we children

could not imagine. They’d swoop up, dive down,

cut their engines and glide. We’d hold our breath

until the engines restarted and the planes turned skyward.

 

I knew Uncle Joel, a hero in the Pacific ravaged

by war and dysentery, weighing ninety-seven pounds –

called “Colonel” as he practiced law,

gave me a dollar for each year of my age

on birthdays. His brother, Uncle George,

also a Colonel, never mentioned military rank –

his back brace a sufficient reminder

of his jeep rolling at the Battle of the Bulge.

We could feel it when we hugged him. Neither

had children, no cousins with whom to play

or reconstruct this history.

 

I knew my grandparents hosting veterans

and locally stationed military for barbeque

and beer suppers, whole pigs cooked all night

in an earthen pit by Negro veterans returned

from World War II to plow and plant alfalfa

and corn, bail hay and blow silage. One had been

a driver in the Red Ball Express – mostly Negro soldiers

considered unfit for combat, convoying nearly

six thousand vehicles more than

eighty days and nights to supply Allied forces

at the European front. These Negro veterans

were not invited to sit at the table,

ate standing by the hot open pit –

but I was innocent of race and history.

What did I know of war

watching silver specks leave contrail circles

in the blue sky, certain those circles

were the size of bombs, that they marked

the place from which bombs would drop –

barefoot child on summer days

picking cornflowers beside the ditch.


My Mother’s Hands

When did this happen?

My hands have become my mother’s hands.

I see her when I pass storefront windows,

pause to look at size zero mannequins

with flawless hands wearing clothes

I can neither fit in nor likely afford.

Reflections in the plate glass are surely not me –

that woman’s shoulders are slightly curved,

her thumbs tangled with arthritis,

her palms a map of lines and intersections,

blue veins and tendons slip sideways

as her fingers move over the computer keyboard.

My mother’s hands flew across the keys

of her black manual Underwood typewriter

as she wrote poetry and political protest.

I’d stand beside her left shoulder

mesmerized by the speed of her fingers,

keys jumping out and hitting the ribbon –

magically leaving letters on the paper.

She’d let me pull the carriage back

after the bell dinged at the end of a line.

I see my mother’s hands guiding mine

as I learned to bridle a horse;

once in the saddle she wove the reins

through my fingers and thumbs.

My mother played Schumann’s

Scenes from Childhood every night,

taught me Chopsticks and Hannon Exercises,

my small hands with chewed nails

beside her neatly clipped and filed ones;

I see her hands adjusting the angle of her hats –

straw ones, felt ones, wide brim, cloche,

soft cotton ones at the beach,

a few feathers and bits of sparkle when attending

the Metropolitan Opera in Atlanta each spring.

I spent a summer in France sewing hats

on a treadle Singer sewing machine

for the Fetes et Jeux du Berry,

learned to synchronize my hands and feet

fashioning elegant ladies bonnets,

red cardinal hats, military caps.

When my children were young

I made them elaborate jester costumes,

hats with tentacles and bells.

My mother sewed on lost buttons.

I see my mother’s hands after she was divorced,

took off her gold wedding band

with a sheaf of wheat engraved into it.

She filled her fingers with new rings –

amethyst, coral, topaz, turquoise.

After my husband died I wore both

of our wedding rings, side-by-side

for more than a year – I gave my husband’s ring

to my older daughter at her college graduation,

gave my handmade gold ring to my other daughter,

a talisman to make her safe.

People stared at my naked left hand, or so it felt.

My children bought me a thin gold ring

with tiny diamonds between horizontal bars;

I wear it every day

on the middle finger of my left hand.

I see my mother’s hands cradling

my first two children as newborns,

their tiny fingers grasping hers.

I see her hands, stoke-like disabled

after her heart stopped during surgery,

unable to hold my third child.

I trace my hand in a family journal,

trace the hand of my first grandchild

inside of mine and date it.

I will trace the hands of all my grandchildren

and I will teach them Chopsticks

on my mother’s Steinway piano –

but first they must wash their hands

with Ivory soap and warm water

as she always made me do

before touching the black and white keys.


 

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