Legacies

Monday Morning Musings:

 

I called my mother

just to say, “hi,”

a seemingly inconsequential chat

that opened a door to an unknown world.

We talked about the house my younger daughter will soon have

the number of bedrooms, the bathroom–

and suddenly my mother remembers

as though hurtling back in time.

 

When my mother was little

she tells me,

she sometimes visited her grandmother

and stayed overnight,

the house had a summer kitchen

where they kept pickles,

her unmarried aunts lived on the third floor

they placed a bucket there at night

because there was only one bathroom in that house,

on the second floor

where the artist, her cousin, Abraham Hankins, lived for a time.

Sometimes there were other boarders, too.

Was it convenience or concern for propriety

and the virtue of unmarried women

that caused the bucket,

the literal pot to piss in

to be a fixture of that third floor room?

Who emptied it? That is what I wonder.

A question that will never be answered.

 

When my mother was little,

she tells me,

around four years old,

she had diphtheria.

It’s an ancient disease,

described by Hippocrates,

it can cause the throat and other membranes to swell,

It can be fatal.

There may have been an epidemic that year in Philadelphia,

there were several diphtheria epidemics in the 1920s,

thousands of people, mostly children, used to die from the disease*

before there was an effective vaccine.

(Were those the good old days?)

An ambulance took my mother to the hospital,

her father didn’t have a car,

they had no way to get her there,

they also didn’t have a telephone.

I wonder who called the ambulance?

She remembers–

she says this a few times–

She remembers

her mother standing there

watching and crying

watching her daughter, my mother, being taken away.

My mother dropped her doll,

and they—whoever they were—

would not give it back to her.

She doesn’t say she was sad or scared

but she remembers this,

losing her doll.

The memory has been with her

for almost ninety years now.

They must have thought it contaminated and germ-ridden,

though they didn’t give her a reason,

or she doesn’t remember.

It doesn’t matter now, but–

I hope they were kind to my four-year-old mother.

When she was finally well,

well enough to come home,

her mother made her oatmeal,

comfort food.

The image of her mother crying seems to haunt my mother.

I suppose she seldom saw my grandmother cry.

My grandparents were immigrants,

no nonsense people.

But I have a different image of my grandmother now,

a young woman fearful that her little girl,

her only child, was dying.

This wasn’t supposed to happen in America.

 

When my mother was little,

she tells me,

her mother spent time curling her, my mother’s hair,

wrapping it around a finger to form a ringlet,

a tender gesture, as I imagine it.

But my grandmother was constantly interrupted by customers,

customers arriving in their candy store.

My grandmother took care of store and household

because my grandfather also worked another job.

Home and shop were separated by two stairs,

a boundary of sorts,

a division between two worlds.

My grandmother muttered about those two steps,

up and down all day long.

I imagine my grandmother,

a small woman, like her sisters,

complaining in a mixture of Yiddish and English,

cursing those two stairs.

 

And now my mother is little again

little in height,

not that she was ever tall,

but now she has shrunk several inches,

though her formerly slender body is now large,

These are my earliest memories

she tells me,

as we talk on the phone that morning,

her voice emerging from her little-large body.

These early memories

of people and places long gone

of a way of life that no longer exists.

Someday my mother won’t be here

but her memories

a legacy

like her curls,

I carry both.

Her memories will

float around the Internet

perhaps forever,

or

until something replaces them,

and perhaps my own daughters will write

of my memories on some device that I can’t imagine.

But for now,

my memories and hers blend together here,

in her telling them to me,

her memories become mine,

they now belong to me as well,

colored by my perceptions and imagination.

I think of a grandmother I didn’t know,

who cried when she feared her daughter would die,

who lovingly curled that same daughter’s hair

And I share that image with you.

 

* “During the 1920s in the United States, 100,000–200,000 cases of diphtheria (140–150 cases per 100,000 population) and 13,000–15,000 deaths were reported each year. In 1921, a total of 206,000 cases and 15,520 deaths were reported.” CDC

 

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