By Jennifer Judge
This is all your fault, this hurt,
gravity bound that travels down
through the generations—it’s like
swallowing a too large stone.
A family wants to revert
to what it was, wants to undo
itself—coal mines, black lung,
alcohol, and cheap apartments.
You moved once a month then.
My mother was so embarrassed.
And then, finally, it happened—
your captor died and you were free
(though you didn’t see it that way).
The apartment I used to know was pure grandmother—
furniture in heavy blue brocade,
bronze clock on the wall, curio cabinet stuffed.
Nothing else showed. The truth of your past
leaks out in seldom-told family stories,
but at first I only knew you this way:
toast and tea on rainy days,
the doorknobs always shocked me when I touched them,
sometimes mother was there, sometimes not.
And I remember the smell of the pantry cabinet,
the safety of white walls, slow apartment elevators,
soft old voices, and the feeling of abundance,
always enough, always something. Normal life.
That was a lie.
A family travels backwards—sometimes
there is no other choice.
You live in public housing now, welfare housing.
Furniture decays and falls apart,
my mother has to buy you groceries.
Some of the old things remain—
a ceramic snowman, the sewing machine.
But now I don’t trust these things.
Today you turn ninety,
a strange triumph.
I make a pasta salad to bring
and feel nothing
even when my mother says,
“Your grandmother will be so happy.”
I know later on you will tell her
that this birthday party was not enough,
these gifts were not enough.
And when I think of you,
I think of my own mother,
how she gives me the best she can, but
still, she gives me you—the everyone-has-more,
the perpetual dissatisfaction that still shocks me
each time I touch it.
I think of your death,
of how maybe I will sit on that blue couch
with my mother and sift
through the leftovers of your life,
or, more likely, we will sit there in silence,
hold the taste of nothingness in our mouths.