B. E. Kahn
Spring Apples Silver Birch
Spring Apples Silver Birch by B.E. Kahn
Published by Greenleaf Press Flourtown, PA 19031
Copyright 2008 by B.E. Kahn ALL RIGHTS RESERVED B.E. Kahn 1209 W. Wynnewood Road #202 Wynnewood, PA 19096 610-649-1288 firstname.lastname@example.org
Acknowledgements Grateful acknowledgment is made to Christopher Bursk for his early encouragement and critique of these poems. Thanks to many in the community of Philadelphia poets, especially the 34th Street Poets Collective, for whose gracious support and critical reading of these poems I am most appreciative. The author also wishes to thank the editors of the following journals in which parts of Spring Apples Silver Birch, originally a group of individual poems, first appeared: Laurel Leaves: “She Loved Apples” (pg. 1) CQ/ California State Poetry Society: “Inflections” (pg. 13, top) Poetry Ink: “I Still Want to Know” (pg. 17, bottom) The Jewish Spectator: “Imprints” (pg. 19, top) The poem “Imprints,” earlier entitled “Breaking Traditions,” won first prize in the Philadelphia Writers’ Conference Poetry Contest. Lotus Blooms Journal: “Shedding Light on Problems of Translation” (pg. 19, bottom) Schuylkill Valley Journal: “Wishes to my Mother, Dead Fifty Years” (pgs 21-22) Lifeboat: “The Joining” (pg. 23)
For my mother Anna Goldstein Elfman 1892-1946 and for her grandchildren, great grandchildren who never knew her
Spring Apples Silver Birch
She loved apples they tell me. The serpent offered, the fruit peddler yelled, “Red apples! Who’ll buy red apples!” In the gardens she left in the Ukraine leaves mixed of sky and yellow light. There she’d meet in secret a young boy forbidden to her. Soon in America, “Here for adventure,” she said. (Does escaping pogroms, like The Fall, fall in that category?) She did seamstress work and wore “a dark blue skirt and white waist.” Father lovingly recalled setting eyes on her. Being eighteen neatly sewed it up, apple fragrant dreams of garden gone across the sea.
I don’t remember what color lipstick she wore if any—No, it was mercurochrome gently smeared and mmmmmed across her lips and mine on this special occasion, my brother’s wedding. I think I was five. I don’t remember the music at his wedding, who played, who sang, except Yiddish floated up and through the circles of men and separate circles of women. And I flitted in and around making everyone lovely and light. I don’t remember going home that night but somehow we got there. Then Mom undid the brassiere and girdle, more foreign to her than speaking English; the two garments scattered above and below her waist like misplaced countries on a map. My Kiev queen, I don’t remember you kissing me good-night—Only your sigh in the still May air.
Churchill, Hitler, F. D. R., their voices scraped into me through the Philco’s cathedral shaped speakers. I sat next to Mom, rapt. Her breath and smooth white arms wove in and out with mine across our softly spoken years. Although I did not know it then, world cells multiplied, divided unmercifully. Gray rapier excised a whole people—bright tongue. And she, about her death and life, as if family had turned off the radio and only a louder stillness remained. “Come on ‘a my house my-y house. I’m gonna give-a you ca-and-y.” So the silly song went skipping through the radio in our little house, one of my mother’s favorite tunes. Did she really hear it asleep on the couch in tattered dreams? And was it a beckoning to sweet release?
Stretching on tiptoe I open the medicine chest door: Razor blades, scissors— Mercurochrome to brighten my lips— I feel the smooth glass tube glide burnt-orange color into taste. Rubbing alcohol, witch hazel that barely stops the itch of bites, iodine with tan sting, hard to bear at seven but nothing like Mom’s indelible stain. (Did I ever help lighten its mark?) My mother laden with her cancer walks down Seventh Street. I hear her clop, clop, clopping along the way in her black, worn oxfords with Cuban heels. (My sister remembers her two-stepping though I never saw her move to any beat.) In her thin cotton housedress combs pulled back, to clear fair brow— Her hair a wavy sea of pepper and salt.
She grasps the brown paper bags with groceries in them— liverwurst, sour pickles, maybe, Lucky Strikes for her, meat and cabbage, sweet halvah. It was not just me, but a whole neighborhood hearing her step— not soft, not mincing. The pale white wine of street light toasts evening, mocks the slum houses. Mother—ill, thirsting for sleep, distressed by urchins’ chatter as they gather by lamppost, rises from her couch, morphine worn off, yells at boys, “Play somewhere else. Gay avek!” They mimic her centuries old language, her tired anger. Slowly they drink from the half-full goblet of their night. Aunt Mina dropped a fork. Then Mom, who knew a superstition for every imaginable incident, said, in Yiddish, “A gust vet cumin.” And I, about five or six, puzzled out loud, “A ghost is coming?” They laughed, guffawed, held their bellies—I saw all the empty spaces, Mom’s missing teeth.
Aunt Mina (not a relative, but Mom’s friend) six feet plus tall became as small as I— as small as Mom too, seated on the couch— all of us the same size. As if my unwitting joke had shrunk them and we could each fit separately in the yellow pinafore I wore, un-ironed like our laughter. Crumpled as I reeled, back hugging the wall, felt the slide of wallpaper from my nearly four-foot height down to the baseboards, eyes and curly hair crinkled with laughter—backbone tickled against the feel of paper-covered plaster—my frame cascaded with the laugh—scrumptious for its rarity. They held their cups of tea, secured fated spoons. The jam at cup-bottom, strawberry nubs translated into more giggles of ghosts, gusts, guests—“A guest is coming.” The fork’s bouncing to the floor announced it. How did I know that ghosts would follow gusting through the years? No extra food to give her own, I heard that once she snatched a bottle of milk, a neighbor’s— to feed folks, even poorer than us, and delivered it, anonymously of course. She was not
a citizen here—but during the war three of her sons serving, she organized a victory rally. How did she manage to have the flag-draped platform built in front of the house—from her bed, the couch red, the rest white and blue— to reach a phone (we had none) to hire a rabbi who spoke peace to war-torn hearts, though we were the only Jews on the street. She took in boarders, gave them food and care when there was hardly enough to go around. And cats! Not cuddly, they scratched— alleys, strays, some sick with mange. She treated those with a harsh home remedy when she, herself, could not stand without leaning against back door lintel. I saw her sway, then dash the stinging liquid at the cat as he yowled away into the yard. She did what she felt had to be done. I knew her hands when she baked on a very good day, when she smoked, held the cigarette as if she knew it were poison, when she reset the combs in her hair.
And wasn’t it her hands that gave me cough syrup, dark red, warm tasting? I knew her hands as she held a glass of tea, Swee-Touch-Nee brand, and when she turned the radio dial. Most of all I knew— felt her hands when she taught me to sew. Mother’s hands, European-trained to be seamstress, binder of rent fabric, creator of patterns, fine detail. Down through cloth the needle sent, trailing thread. Up again. Even then, the rhythm entranced. Plain smells— corn starch mixed with her own body scents—How safe her powdered inner arm, white filled elbow creases, tiny clinging reservoirs. Moth balls tucked behind, below sofa cushions. Feisty odor to ward off moths. Who knows? Polio? Maybe even her cancer would shrivel up and die, beaten into a heap in the corner— she and camphor vapors triumphant. Rubbing alcohol, a fast substitute for bath. Just one whiff revived her as it quickly evaporated on pores
and wakened anyone else in the room from drowsiness. She, not able to eat much— the nicotine staining her teeth— smoke melded with her favorite song. “A cigarette that leaves the lipstick traces...” Fragrance of tea—a richly steeped mainstay. These small places of life, near death— hard won against fear. You turn around and they’re gone— all the angel things you ever dreamed: Mom’s silk-white, inside upper arm, her standing, confident by the stove, conjuring delicate crusts that wrapped knish fillings. At air raid drills in the dark, her cigarette’s lit end, reassurance she was there, though her pitch black hair, woven with the shade drawn night. Or she’d sigh with day radio’s Helen Trent, hear Gabriel Heater’s war news. At times, talk with the laundryman who delivered sheets and towels, clean, brown-paper bundled.
Rationed jelly sweetened her tea in those fragile hours. Outside, street boys garnered and crushed tin cans. From memory’s bin, I too collected scraps, gold in slum light, used them in my own campaign not to forget her. Even so, my heart scarred by those crumpled bits of mother, sharp angled from illness I thought I’d caused. Change-of-life child, too young to know world’s churn. -One photo remains. She, eighteen, hair smoothed back, almond eyes full lips, cameo face. Beauty—born a century ago—and salt tears too? Gyrated battles. Cross-helixed gears of war machines humming. Families, nations gutted. Fears fed the hungry. Torqued love. -Later, much later all things need sifting strained like tea leaves in a metal sieve. The tasty liquid gone into the cup—then sipped through oblivion’s lips, licked and parted.
When did she die? Was it two p.m.? Am I remembering it right? I had not been told yet, I had just been told to go outside. I don’t know if my father had arrived. The doctor’s leather bag was there. It held the death certificate that gave the time; took mine away. I was not It—playing tag with my friends. I remember my brother came outside and asked, “Do you know what ‘dead’ means?” I answered, “Sure.” It was 1946. Like my brothers, I tried to be brave, a good soldier, ignore the foxhole in my heart. Shell shocked they called it then. I could not face her funeral. Furious and afraid, I lied: “I want to remember her alive.” When did she die? Never. I lied. My hair curled with imagining—black, shiny. Little girl, afraid I’d be tossed, a dust cloth, old before my time—along a road deserted. If my birth had caused sweet mother’s death, then I had better not be born—ever—
just send a reasonable facsimile of myself to the world. No return address. Had I been there I’d have shaken those bones out of her grave, rattled that addled spirit—till she shook with all my fears, died again, drowned in my salt tides. I’d have known the slippage of mud beneath her when the earth no longer holds body weight. (How does she like being dragged out of eternity?) Nothing new about why they conceived me. Yet she forty-five, did she think then she would live forever? Oh, to stamp—no, stomp— on her grave. But I was there that day, late March 1946. I did see Mom die. I clicked the shutter of my eyelids shut, not to see. But the photograph, inside. In the living room, the trace of mothballs tucked between cushions of the dark red mohair couch. She lay there like a monarch butterfly pinned to another time.
Teacher said everything better than Mom whose Yiddish accent early brought me shame. “Notice the position of your teeth,” Miss Green said, “where yours will be when they grow in.” She held the hand mirror for me. I made a sort of grimace; tongue pertly placed, not to extrude. Teacher modeled: “Say Sssssss, the snake sound.” Damned mimicry! Left to puzzle why (not to see the dead reflected in my eye?) all the mirrors were cloth-draped in our home, during the seven days of mourning. I hear that speech I once scorned. And now it soothes me, licks at me, mother tongue, a cat with its needy offspring. A healing custom, Shivah, and yet I could have smashed with tight child’s fist those mirrors. To Mother: your pain is like the sun’s afterimage— eyes closed and neon green light flashing in the dark. Shadow of fire that’s lasted
and lasted until now I see how raw and searing its edge. Aura that beggars my color, pales my power to act. I feel its heat, sometimes even mistake it for love’s ardor. I did not stoke the fire of your death. Did not go close enough to breathe the fumes. Would not have recognized death pyre’s name or stench. My task—remembering— your precious flame of life. Oh, the earache cure-all, white cotton sock filled with hot salt, its shiftings finally lulling me to sleep, the folk Russian shaman’s purge of toxins. I barely recall the pain eased.
When I had a burning fever, perhaps I felt her cool lips on my brow. But probably just my sister’s cold bony little fingers there. For no special reason
maybe, once or twice, Mom kissed me.
If—truly pressed to my forehead—that kiss erased all memory, even of itself I would still want her soft flurry of lips, though it would hurt to lose her whom I learned by heart. Hannah sighs and I hear her name in the wind outside. It streams through my blood as “Chana,” deeper toned, guttural the way my father called her—with love. A year and many more later, on her grave marker, “Anna” (Chana the real, Hannah the imagined) prayerful renaming in a new land.
Ill wind wheels insto night— sucks dry her breath, breasts. She, emptied slips into stone. Love wind shuts doors, opens doors, kisses shoulders ruffles my hair till it’s an airy lion’s mane fills me with the ocean’s salt breath. Flies around the world bringing memories from far places—Kiev, Vilna—bittersweet winds that blew the seas that brought my parents here to start new life. Planting seeds from other times, June weddings, July and January birthdays celebrated now only to mark their passing. Love wind with angry, raging moments— carries scent of rose attar and friend’s dusty toys—cinnamon tea, hyacinth, paint, pine trees, libraries.
Mother was poor. She had no childrenâ€” only me, the last of seven. No one there to deter the deadly joy-and-marrow-hungry robber. Timeless poverty, dogged thief, took her dance, song, her fragrance. Faith, hers, from an earlier age, now yields me the fenced goods. I still want to know her breathâ€” Even if cold like Russian steppe or warm as golden grain fields of Ukraine and gardens filled with spring apples silver birch. Never too lateâ€”to hear the wind chime the hour of angels.
How did space breathe around you? What colors evolved, blending with yours at dawn, midnight? Did your breath finally reek from cigarettes you chained, un-daisy like, inside you—And did they help your cancer to grow wherever it took root, womb or colon? Did you teach the others, my brothers, sisters their silence so that they rarely speak of you—surely not to name the insides-eating serpent’s exact location—precise seed of your death? How did your voice sound? The record plays in my brain like an old seventy-eight, too scratchy to hear. How did you look with your hair wet? I half remember or think I do. When I knew or didn’t know you, you drank only tea, could no longer eat. What watered your mouth in earlier days? Towards the end, did music help? Did anything help? Did you love before the pain? During? Was your parting blameless?
Can you hear me?
From a yahrzeit glass I drink her memory. I drop her death’s reminder. It shatters on the ivory-colored floor. The shards, a puzzle spread out on milk and cream like my mother’s skin. Sisters said, brothers said, “Don’t touch it! You’ll get hurt.”` And my tongue, our mother tongue is cut— I try to lick the honeyed center into history, on pages that stick as barbs and halt all speech. (Though rabbis would drop the sweet stuff inside a child’s new book, open to the spine—Torah, all learning tasty forever.) Torn custom asks us, willing groom with bride to break the wine glass, with love stamp on it hard. She probably died in Yiddish. That must be it—why—I didn’t understand what “dead” meant. The angels that came to her speaking gibberish, already translated. No glitch there. But I, bright yet still a child, could not read the words posted on the gate through which she walked. I like to think she felt at home.
She could talk to anyone about anything. So I hope, if she chose to, she did. Somewhere I’d read, the dead are attracted to light. Now years later, Friday nights when I light Sabbath candles, she comes, as through a mirror, hovering around the flames. Is she comforted to hear me chant the Hebrew prayers, pleased this tradition has endeared itself to me? Had I earlier spoken Yiddish, Hebrew or understood better, I’d have been more fluent with Mom. Now in grace, our souls—hers, mine yield in Sabbath glow. And now I hear you whose inside wrenching sounds— of cancer and being torn from life, family, perhaps especially from me, the youngest— sounds, contained, constrained from outward show. To sense the end, sure you would not see the dawn, want pure release from tortured bed, yet know I’d have to travel on without you, child of eight, alone—must have shorn you of all peace. I weep you could not know beyond that pain, my thanks, dear Mother. I’ve wished you here so many times
to share a joy—the life you have given me— like the apples and honey that each new year taste better. I weep too you could not offer answers, at least soothe my questioning lips— the taste bittersweet, at times. With all life’s weave, I wish you could have held the varied fabric in your hand, smelled its scent, wrapped us—both warm within its folds. Now the light brings tender comfort— though time has sung your bones to rest— your spirit so strong, I learned to sense your touch, to imagine a lavender fragrance you might have worn, learned to kindle Sabbath candles, speak threads of your speech love song and dance and story, learned to try to be a good mother, love family, those bright souls you brought forth, give to others in need, try to be as gracious as your true name, Chana. Absent your on-going breath, I hear it in my heart. Fifty years dead— Milkweed pod, sharp-edged breast I tried to suckle. Monarch butterflies, you and I, both enticed by bitter blooms. You, the cancer—that poison digested. I swallowed hard too hard to ask for love.
Now pod seed hairs float and carry wishes. I blow the wispy seed hairs to the wind. First I wished you dead, then alive—all my life. Either way your ghost light fills the room. This wish I now release— for your teeth to grow in like a baby’s. Those null spaces no longer hurt me. Gone the shame I felt for them and our dear tradition’s tongue. This wish I now release— That you are (had been) young, strong, able as all the other mothers to walk, bake, sew with me a lifetime full of whispers, banter, scolds. I embrace this wish once more—kisses and laughter I missed—before it grasps the breeze. Fly, fly away wish hair. Fly to rest on the gray tousled head of earth.
Spring orchard echoes wind song wishes Apple taste lingers near Freckled kid on the way to school dappled light on blue green yellow leaves Full heart a sometimes ragtag birch or queen in winterâ€™s ermine robe One silver tree Breath waltz lilts
two loves received arches bright sky.
Artistâ€™s Bio B. E. Kahn was born in Philadelphia and educated at Antioch College, Temple University, and The College of New Jersey. She is a recipient of Pennsylvania Council of the Arts and Pew Grants. Her poems have appeared in Harrisburg Review, Philadelphia Poets, Bridges: A Jewish Feminist Journal, Mad Poets Review, and The Tupelo Press Online Poetry Project among other publications. A retired speech therapist, she lives in Wynnewood and teaches poetry to intergenerational groups. Her chapbook Landscapes of Light, is forthcoming in 2009, from Poets Wear Prada Press.
Poems by B. E. Kahn