“If you have a song to sing, who are you not to open your mouth and sing to the world?” Maya Angelou

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© Julietta Appleton

My dear, he wrote, I am trying to fathom this morale-destroying attack on my psyche
And what’s all this about your genealogy?
Who cares?
If you must know the truth,
we have no genealogy
Like animals
we are the issue of sperm let loose inside birth pockets
in a moment of passion

When I first read this
when my father wrote me this letter
I was 32
And I laughed
He was a ridiculous,
cloudy, demented, old man
He was 83
As always
his pockets were empty
But I was angry
He was denying me
MY history
Just like he denied me
his time
his attention
his hand to hold
his money
his love
his compassion
And after telling me, Who cares?
he went on for two
single-spaced pages
on his old Smith Corona
the ribbon gappy and faded
letters missing from his words
lines x-ed out
notes handwritten in the margins
He did not appreciate the plundering
of his memories
But he still reached for some of them
The earliest ones
He recalled being saved, twice, from child murder
during the two Kishinev pogroms
1903 and 1905
The Cossacks who drank [heavily, he said] at the inn
next to his grandfather’s kvass stand
told his mother to hide him
inside goosedown  pillows
in the attic
And she did
These were the same Cossacks
who slaughtered Jews
who tore babies apart
Did these Cossacks intentionally
pass over pillows?
Or just these pillows,
the Eppelboim pillows?
From Kishinev, Russia
to Bukhovia, Austria
my grandmother
and her three young sons
and baby daughter—
Fishel, Chaim, Ezriel
and Mariam—
trudged  through sleet to cross the border
at Grenitz, he says
Mariam almost froze to death
They stopped to warm her alive again
My aunt Leah was born in Austria
How long were they there?
He doesn’t tell me
Just that our name was changed there
to Apfelbaum
before it was changed
to Appleton
in New York City
That his father was a woodcutter
with a red mustache
And his mother’s father a vintner
(his grandfather, my great grandfather,
the one who sold kvass
in the town square)
That he ate his first banana
on the ship to Ellis Island
That they lived on the Lower East Side
Norfolk Street
and Ludlow Street
and then Suffolk Street
where my Aunt Clara was born
and then 113th Street in Harlem
and then Bathgate Avenue in the Bronx
and then 179th and Southern Boulevard in the Bronx
And then what?
Let’s say that was 1922
I was born in 1952
That’s 30 years of my father’s life
and his memories that
I can’t find
except for gummy, dusty bits
that he shared three years before he died
in 1986
Then there’s hearsay
from relatives and friends
added to my own overcast memories
perhaps scenes my father shared
with me
or with an audience of friends
that I overheard
He, Ezriel, and their friend Jimmy Cagney
boxing their way home from school every day
the allegiances shifting between
Jews, Irish, and Italians,
all tossing epithets as fast as their punches
Jimmy and my father moving
to Hollywood together
in 1924?
Jimmy boxing with his kangaroo Joey
My dad and Jimmy finding a KKK hood
under the pillow of  Jimmy’s brother-in-law
(his wife Billie’s brother)
My dad being crushed like a bug by Hollywood
and choked by his own bitterness 
Jimmy finding fame
even if he puked before every live performance
I never met my father’s parents
I haven’t even seen photographs
Would they have loved me?
What work did they do when they got to New York?
When did they die?
Where are they buried?

All those lives
Whose tendrils touched other lives
and should have touched mine
And those memories  
They belong to me too
but I can’t find them
Who cares?
I do

© Julietta Appleton

I didn’t mean it when I asked you
What did you do? Die on me?
And I thought that you were playing a joke
lying in the garage with
your sandaled feet sticking out
That’s something I would have done
when I was 12
but you weren’t joking
No I’m serious
serious as a heart attack
serious as how much I love you
serious as I’m your huckleberry
serious as I will be there to kiss you on your 75th birthday
serious as I vow to love you for the rest of my life
You’d find it funny if I said
four out of five ain’t bad
but Huck
it’s not at all funny
It stopped being funny as soon as I saw
your eyes
wide open
staring at nothing
and the rake lying across your fallen body
purple mottles on your skin
like berries blossoming beneath the surface
My screams rose from a place
I didn’t know lived inside me
I heard howling
Oh no no no no no no no
a crowd gathered
arms held me
The following weeks are a blur
of the sweet sweaty scent of your hair in the ER
as I kissed you goodbye
of foot massages and cold cloths on my forehead
of migraines
and pain so deep I thought it would bore a hole in my gut
of love and support that
I wanted you
only you
Eric sipping a beer and
swinging his foot on the front swing
like he was at a picnic and
not a memorial
but he did give me a fig sapling
which died
the following winter
Your ashes
under my cherry tree
set adrift in Mystic with white flowers and the words of Longfellow
strewn from a private jet over Drake’s Bay in your favorite city
tossed high into the wind over the malecón in Havana into crashing waves
in Cambridge
in San Diego
by now
eight years later
they’ve probably met
coming and going
I’ve found little bits of bone
under the cherry tree
that have worked their way up
to the top of the soil
I’ve held you between my fingers
and thought how at age three you had memorized
every bone in the human body
I eat the cherries
the ones I can get to before the birds do
and I think body of Christ
But you
won’t be coming back

Baby Girl
© Julietta Appleton
the shock of you
lying waxy and yellow
in that shiny white casket
Blood lips like you never ever wore
Plaits piled like a crown on your head
Now I realize
you were not wearing your glasses
That is part of the reason
I don't recognize you

A glossy poster of you
on an easel to the left
of your coffin
Posed, grinning, long braids
dotted with cowry shells and metal trinkets
Swathed in a blue dress
an airy white wrap
tinted glasses
flat nose
the sweet smile
I remember

It was a long time ago that you disappeared
longer even than the decades I knew you
Perhaps when the first one
or the second
or the sixth
climbed onto you
Was he the one with the knife?
Waiting his turn
while the others
raped you?
Just eleven years old
I can't breathe when I think this

Where did you go?
I know that was just the beginning
But instead of fighting
all the men
the violations
You took Jesus Christ as your Savior
yes you did
to guide you
to hide you
You were lifted up
You married
had a baby
nursed her
homeschooled her
became a midwife
You helped others sanctify the passage
into life

But where were you

The secrets you held
like black chunks of coal
did not turn
into diamonds
You still loved women
I mean really loved them
and hid it from him

All the pain
the old
the new
the ever-present
lived everywhere
in your body
The only escape
was the one you so desired
in your darkest hours

Are you free now?

seeing your husband and your daughter
now grown
looking down at you/not you
Her plaints
bleated out of her mouth
her shoulders shook
She almost fell to the ground

So unlike me
at nine
Looking onto the face
of my mother
waxy and powdered
I remember the caked lipstick
Too too red
like yours
The shock
of an open casket

Feeling the eyes of my father
and my aunts,
blackbirds on a wire
staring at me
as I stared down
No tears
no sense of reality
of death
or my pain
anyone's, really
Only a recognition
that I gave her the rose in her hands
It came from our garden

There was no one
to put their arms around me
to call me Baby Girl
as Paul did yesterday,
He held his own tears in
so he could hold Hope up
such an apt name

I held myself up
I still do

THANK you Jesus!
For what?  I think
Bone-rattling organ music
(I've never liked that sound
It reminds me
of our old next door neighbors
whose house reeked
of moth balls and dog hair)
There was powerful singing
about Jesus
about don't cry for me
about fucking eternity and the forever after
Clapping and
can I get a witness?
Raise your hands if you believe in the Lord!

Big hats
bad hair
large ladies
in shiny beige pantyhose
that doesn’t match the brown legs underneath
I could not take my eyes off of you

Frozen rain
and mud
and a long
long drive
to the final
resting place
of Mount Pleasant
Your casket covered
with rime
and flowers
We said the Lord's Prayer
holding hands
It was not the same as kaddish
which was not said for my mother either

the repast,
that’s what the Pastor called it,
back at the church
We ate
oxtail stew and
fried chicken and
curry chicken and
beans and coconut rice
and cabbage
and lemon pound cake
and strawberry marble cake
and chocolate cake
but no coffee

Women were touching Paul
their hands draped casually over his back
over his inner thigh
Oh we always talk this way
to a man who has just lost his wife
He will be married in no time
Just like my father

© Julietta Appleton
Every day
marks a birth
from Pisces to Aries
around the world
around the sun
again and again
And we observe
with joy and
party hats
and candles that don’t blow out
But lives are also snuffed
every day
In Malthusian ways—
starvation, war, disease—
or just
our quota of cycles
And we don’t know how
to hold this
A yahrzeit candle perhaps
or a memorial
a tombstone
a plaque near a mass grave
or the lace collar
from Mary’s christening dress
we rise and
something like this:
Today would have been
Mark’s 50th birthday
My 20th anniversary
Will’s 1st birthday

Seven years ago
the ambulance took
my mother to the hospital;
Seventy years ago
the Nazis came
to our door
and took  
my father
There is no horoscope
of death
No true counterweight
to the leaden pull
of the heart
each day
each day
each day
as someone remembers
It’s not true:
We do not get closure
This is a myth that
all mourners know
on a cellular level
Grief may soften
or the scar become fainter
But the wound is always there
And as I grow old
I acquire more loss
First there was only
a yahrzeit in June
And now every month
Every day
I could say kaddish
If not for one of mine
then for one of yours
I choose joy
I choose garlands of marigolds
and sweet treats
and light
I will ride my butterfly boat
ablaze with candles
down the river
Come with me
and remember
and rejoice

House of Schmerz
 ©Julietta Appleton
            Now that the local dominatrix has gotten busted, there’s a yawning chasm of career opportunity in the neighborhood. And I propose to fill it.   But I want to make my business a lot more user-friendly, more reflective of the community’s diversity. Since we live between two yeshivas, I think we should offer bilingual services, in English and Yiddish.
            I can just see it now.  My first customer arrives, and says, “Oy, have I had a hard day on 47th Street.”
            “Quit your kvetching and drop those gottkes.”
            “Just give me a minute…”
            “I’ll give you… I’ll give you a frask im pisk is what I’ll give you. “
            “Ah, shaynkeit, you’re making me hot.”
            “HOT? Already you’re hot? Put that putz right back down, mister. Or you’ll get such a zetz you won’t know what hit you. Hot, he says! Feh! Now go wash your hands!”
            “Oh yeah. Talk to me like my mameh does, shayneleh.”
            “Don’t you shayneleh me, mister big shot. I’m not your shayne, and I’m not your mameh. You call me FRAU Zetzer, is that clear?”
            “Ah, yes Frau Zetzer, very clear. I’m your unworthy servant. Please punish me…”
            “Punish, shmunish.  First you’ll eat a little something, then we’ll see about tying you up.”
            “No, just tie me up. I mean please tie me up, Frau Zetzer. I’m really not so hungry.”
            “What do you mean, not hungry? I cooked special for you. All that work should go to waste? A potch in tuchus is what you need, into the middle of next week. “
“Oh, yes, please potch me, please.”
“Enough with the begging. I said put that putz down! You men are all alike, ven der putz shteht der sechel ligt in drerd! You’ll eat, and then we’ll play potchkie potchkie.”
“Yes ma’am.”
“Now we’re getting somewhere. Is the soup hot enough? What, it scalds your tongue? Speak up! It’s TOO hot? I’ll show you scald!”
“Owwwwwwwwww!  Oh yes, yes, yes…..YES! Baruch hashem!”
“You said it mister. And make sure to come back for our shabbos special, a twofer, such a deal! Bring a friend. I won’t be working, of course, but the shabbos shiksa will be here.”
“Thank you Frau Zetzer.”
“Don’t mention it. The pleasure was all mine.”