Gronnets by Julia Griffin
My mother’s mother’s father looked like Einstein:
So Grandma said, and photos bear it out.
Sadly, the likeness stopped there, though no doubt
He had his strengths: finding his prospects fenced in
By dangerous Europe, fearing to be pounced on,
He sailed for Liberty, alone, a scout
For wife and son. They joined him, in about
Five years: henceforth he never did a hand’s turn,
Or so my mother said. Her cousins talk
More warmly, though I’ve not heard anyone
Deny he pretty soon relied for pay
On his wife washing vesh. Their Polish son
Was followed by eight siblings; she would walk
Miles to the kosher butcher, every day.
Miles from the kosher butcher, every day
She trudged back with her heavy, bloody shopping,
Our Bashe Henna, flesh and muscles dropping
Before their time. Pregnant again, oy veh!
Mendel improved himself in shul; her way
Was reading newspapers. After the mopping,
She wrestled with Amerikanish; chopping
Their food, she learned her children’s speech, which they
Learned better. “Wipe me off the table!” Pressed,
Themselves, with froyen-arbet, the first two
Daughters would grin as, rollers in their curls,
They swept and scrubbed Lafayette Avenue;
But once a week, set free, they brushed and dressed
In their own handiwork: sweet Ragtime girls.
In their own handiwork, sweet Ragtime girls
Smiled primly at their beaux, as if they’d never
Been glimpsed through windows, skivvying. Their clever
Brothers’ keen mirth flew off them in their twirls
And knee-flicks, keeping time to Dukes and Earls:
My Grandma kept the joy of it forever.
Back in their narrow room, when all was over,
They found the younger girls, agog for pearls
And pumps from A&S. But first, the growing
Up through the hand-me-downs, and all the lessons
Provided by the School Board. What great luck
They had! Their mother knew; but adolescence
Despises history, and they, unknowing,
Stumbled in class, wrote schmecken, schmecke, schmuck.
Stumbling in class on schmecken, schmecke, schmuck,
They vainly blamed their brothers, always rife
With mischief, when at home. One took a knife
And cut the swing’s rope: Tillie fell, and struck
Her tuches. Girls must learn to jump and duck,
And also, when the time comes, have the life
Their brothers wish for them: to be the wife
Of someone Jewish. (Not one brother stuck
To such constraints himself: they married shiksas,
All five of them.) The girls were always taught
The boys came first; they took, accordingly,
Upon themselves the rôle of minor fixers,
Paying from their small earnings to support
The youngest, studying for his M.D.
The youngest, studying for his M.D.,
Made doctor number 2: not really rare
In families like this. Our millionaire
On Wall Street was a rarer bird (but he
Died young, and married twice). The family
Had, even with these well-placed sons, its share
Of sufferings and secrets hard to bear,
Like Tillie’s daughter, hurt past therapy
While driving with the grown-ups. Other stories
Are happy, like my mother’s: those we share.
Watching her children’s so-few children grow,
Old Bashe Henna, scrubbing, would declare,
With many: Groisser kinder, groisser tsures;
And honestly, she had enough to know.
Yes, honestly, she had enough to know
Experience: how hard it is to hold
Inside one’s mind at once what’s new and old.
Absent from Poland thirty years or so,
Some unknown reason prompted her to go
In 1936. While Mendel lolled
(So we assume), she found a ship, and told
Young Florrie to get packing. Photos show
The daughter in a fetching hat; the mother
Scowls at the sunlight in a flowery kleyd,
Clutching her bag. Some memories still live
In these grey snaps. The mill house where they stayed
Survives there too, and, out in front, my other,
Lost family. If time is relative,
Lost family – if time is relative,
I’d say that relatives are time. Returning
To these, I find brave Bashe’s English-learning,
The daughters dancing, brothers’ pranks, outlive
Much of my own life, dropped as through a sieve;
Nebbishe Mendel’s scandalous non-earning
Still sparks disputes. And then there was the burning.
It’s not the present’s business to forgive
The past; I’m only eager to retrieve
(Ageing and childless) something from these roots,
Before more losses, mine and others’, strike
The shmatte-thread of time that constitutes
How we relate – at least if you believe
Einstein, my mother’s grandpa’s lookalike.
Julia Griffin lives in Southeast Georgia with a demanding basset hound. Inspired originally by her father, she has been writing verse for decades, but has only recently found a home for it—mostly in wonderful Light. To win a prize named after Kim Bridgford has delighted and honored her more than she can express.
Praise for the winning sonnet crown:
While other crowns attempted more ambitious or experimental forms, “Gronnets” won me over—maybe even “grew on me”— with its plain-spoken clarity, its effortless and unstrained use of form (it seems to emerge as a crown organically), its narrative drive, its texture (weaving in of Yiddish vocabulary, even as rhyme words), its many moods, affectionately humorous to tragic, as family history intersects with world events. I’ll avoid spoilers, but I am also utterly charmed by the way the first line and last line of the poem are quantumly entangled.
~ A. E. Stallings, Judge