--For my mother, 1906-1948
"May the Great Name be blessed..."
1. Mother's Limousines
"Mourn like a Jew," Grandfather says,
tearing my shirt
from the collar down,
"and when she's buried, rip out the grass
Expose your heart. Lament for her."
mother of the inflamed heart
Car door slamming behind us as we exit...
I don't really like her, I'm thinking,
I really don't like her.
Bar-mitzvah'd boy, 13, I say it once,
say what I'm told to say,
"He is the Rock, His work is perfect..."
"YIT_GA_DAL V'YIT_KA_DASH SH'MEI RABA B'AL MA..."
the Kaddish of sounds, not words.
"May a great peace from heaven..." I say,
"May His great Name be blessed,
...Magnified and sanctified...
'Y'HAY SH'LAMA RABA MIN SH'MAYA V'CHAYIM
ALENU...'" I say.
...a week later,
no to the rabbi,
no to mourning,
no to twilight,
no to the mid-day prayer
no repeating the prayer three times a day for a year
no, I say, and no to the shul.
"We're animals first and human second,"she says,
and there is no God.
Do you hear me?"
Fox-trotting mother. Dancer mother. Beauty Queen
in the house of prayer.
"Mom," I ask, "how do you pray?"
She shakes her head and turns away.
"Snap out of it," she says.
"Better to go shopping," she says,
"better to get a job, better to make money."
I reach out. "Mom --"
"Hands off," she says,
"Kids," she says. "Oy vay."
"Holocaust," she says. "Oy, oy, oy."
"God," she says.
"Bless the Lord who is blessed," I don't pray.
"May the Great Name be blessed," I don't pray,
but burn a candle so Mother,
can find her way back.
Later, I cannot recall her face.
"...you're not to look on any photo of her,
not for seven days," says Grandfather.
What did she even look like?
mourning a faceless mother,
mourning on the fly.
"She'll wander for seven days," Grandfather says,
"then, when she's wormed, her soul will return to God."
lacks a body and I can't recall her face
lacks a body and I can't recall her face
"Save her soul from Gehenna.
Join us," pleads the Rabbi.
No, no is my prayer
No to duty and no to prayer.
Who was she? Some brunette rich girl
I never knew.
a stranger dead at 42.
Mother, the beautiful secretary.
Itouch her in a dream. She turns,
and there's no one there.
I shake from head to foot.
I stand and I sway.
"Mother, Mother," I say.
Blessed be the stranger.
No, no to the stranger,
no to the stranger.
No is my Kaddish
No is my prayer.
I am the no
I am the not
I will not be her savior,
I will not.
2. Gehenna, or Purgatory
Mother applies Pond's Beauty Cream. Her face glistens.
Massages her forehead with one hand.
holds the other to her heart.
"What's the point?" she asks, cigarette ablaze,
When she dies, they bury her not in a shroud,
but in pancake make-up
and best gray dress.
"Turn the photo to the wall," says Grandfather,
"and cover your lips.
That's right. Now cover your face.
Isolate yourself -- groan -- let your hair grow wild.
The mourner is the one without a skin, says the Talmud.
Understand? You are no longer whole."
And I think: "I am going to die, too."
Sit in silence and say nothing.
"How about a prayer to locusts?" I pray,
"How about a prayer to boils?"
"O murdering heaven," I pray.
Grandfather cooks lentils,
lentils and eggs. "Mourners' food," he calls it.
A prayer to rats,
and a prayer to roaches."
"Death is the mother of beauty," he says.
"The death of another makes you want to die," he says.
"The Angel of Death is made entirely of eyes," Grandfather says.
In Jewish hell --
I am the unknowing,
the not Jewish Jew.
No, no to blessings,
no to teachings,
no to reading from right to left.
I pray with them,
I pray with the no, I pray with the not.
I pray with the dead, I pray with the damned.
God, God who is a wound, we pray.
3. Against Darkness
"Kaddish is a song against darkness,"says the Rabbi.
"'YIT-GA-DAL V'YIT-KA-DASH SH'MEI RA-BA B'AL MA...
Magnified and sanctified
May His Great Name Be...'
No, it says, no to darkness. No to nothingness.
'May His Great Name be blessed.'
Kaddish praises God...
Kaddish: a mourner's prayer
that never mentions death.
'Y'HAY SH'LAMA RABA MIN SH'MAYA V'CHAYIM...'"
"Now then, let R..., the son of G....,
come forward,"says the Rabbi,
but I freeze, pretend not to hear.
Again he calls, calls me to say Kaddish.
(Loudly)"Let R..., son of G..., step beside me."
Ten other mourners turn in my direction.
Again I pretend not to hear.
Staring, face crimson, then white, he turns
and continues with the service.
"The Lord is our God, the Lord is One..."
I mourn her - mourn Kaddish - mourn shul
and head for home. Age 13, I walk out
I might hurl into heaven
* * * * *
I am the un-bar'd mitzvah,
Jew from nowhere,
Jew, pause in the beating of the heart.
* * * * *
Once home, I pray, "Damn Him,
damn G-d," I pray.
Lying in bed I make up my mind to sin.
Holding open my eyes with the fingers
of one hand,
I use the fingers of the other
to masturbate my cornea.
Mother, car door slamming,
the shovel biting
Mother, whose body is the world,
spinning into space -
"Life rattles," she says.
"My son, the prima donna,"she says,
"get used to it."
"Mom, is there an afterlife?"
"Shape up,"she says. "You are my afterlife.
God help us."
"We're just subdivisions of one person.
One's no better than any other.
Someone dies and you move forward
into the front lines," Grandfather says,
lighting a yortzeit candle.
"'Blessed art thou who raises the dead...'"
Shaking the match, he turns. "Gottenyu!" he says.
"I should have been next."
Tears well up
and I see him see her
"Same color hair,
same eyes..." Grandfather says.
"Remember seeing her in her coffin?" he asks,
grabbing my arm.
"Your mother didn't believe, but she'll be raised and rest with G-d. Does love quit?"
"Can you feel her... hear her inside you?"
"Here, in my chest."
"And what does she say?"
"She says nothing," I reply,
but she does:
"Loopy doop," she says, "Rest in peace!
Wait'll you die, you'll see. There is no peace.
When you're dead,
Meshugge!" she says, and shakes her head.
"Pray, damn you," he says. "It's your mother."
"...Now it's over," he sobs.
"But you, the un-mourner
will mourn for her all your life.
"Wanderer, breaker of the circle,
seceder from the faith,
Jew, Jew without beginning," he mocks,
"Jew who got away,
rebel Jew, slacker, defector,
sinner, sinner," he yells,
"snap out of it.
Return... and become a Jew," he cries.
Copyright (C) 1999 by Robert Sward