Various and Sundry Poetry

sitting Shiva for Muriel Katz

The bowl of fruit on the dining room table
is brimming with kiwi. Outside it is snowing,
New England December in full throttle. She was not
a woman I’ve ever met. In fact, I’ve never been to this house
before this afternoon, when my mother and I came in
with a cake and an offer to help set up the chairs.
Jacqui was home from Rochester, grief
gripping her eyelids. She let me kiss her cheek
as my mother introduced us. I didn’t know quite
what to say. My own grandfather had died the same day
Muriel went under for the last time. They were buried
on a Tuesday, an hour apart. I had been unable to come
to his funeral, and last night’s delayed flight
kept me from sitting the final Shiva. Instead, I was holed up
in an airport hotel in Philadelphia, squeezing a tube of bath bubbles
into a tub too hot to get into.

I wish I could tell you it was Jacqui I came for,
or the memory of her mother, who’d collapsed with a stroke
and never returned. I wish I could tell you I gazed
at the photos set out in the living room as if I knew
what kind of loss this was, as if I could begin to shape
the life they illuminated. But when the service began
I found myself at the outskirts of the circle, on a folding chair set
next to the fruit salad, a stack of paper plates, coffee cake,
spinach quiche, a bowl of dried apricots, store-bought salsa, and kugel.
I said the prayers, rose when the rabbi asked, faced the proverbial ark
where the Torah scrolls would be, but when I turned to sit down again
it was my mother’s face I saw, her hand cradling Jacqui’s,
and I thought to myself, how did she get so strong?

Yet there was something of the survivor in her, too,
the faintest frailty, papery as my grandfather’s wrists.
I felt it in her touch as I stepped off the plane,
twelve hours later than I was expected, the cradle
her hands gave my lower back, the bag she had packed
with a firm, tart apple, a container of yoghurt, the Danish
bought that morning from Henneman’s Bakery.
“In case you’re hungry,” she’d said, as I swung my legs
into the passenger seat and we pulled onto the highway heading north,
and there was a new softness to her voice, a porousness
I took for heartache but which, perhaps, was heartache’s opposite –
the great yielding of love, blood unburdened at last.

Muriel was a woman with enviable eyebrows.
She looked good in a dress. I could imagine her late husband,
Morris, holding onto her arm on a steep flight of stairs.
There was something entirely solid about her.
I wondered if Jacqui had inherited her hands,
those thick fingers. I wondered if she had been handed down
the recipe for the chicken soup now warming in the Crockpot.
There was so much I didn’t know.

My grandfather would have said something about the kiwi.
He would have remarked about the brightness of that green
against the strawberries, the sun-gold pineapple.
He would have taken a pinch of apricots from the bowl,
cut a generous slice of coffee cake, talked to the strangers
in the room about his daughter. “She was a dancer,” he would have said,
before moving onto other things.

We stand for the Mourner’s Kaddish and suddenly
they are both there, Muriel and my grandfather,
each flanking the daughter left among this living world,
and then quiche is served in uneven triangles,
and there is the accidental spill of a plastic cup of seltzer,
and the dog is running underfoot and there is someone
with allergies, and the kugel is cold and no one brought decaf,
and I don’t want to die until I am goddamned good and ready,
and outside the snow keeps falling and falling and falling.