This afternoon, late, as I start out
on my walk, the air feels steely
and sharp in inland
Southern California, but I
am warm in fleece and down
as spectacular light spills
over the brown mountains ahead
making them glow red
against the tenderest blue. It is a light
that says let this rising moon,
glitter-white and frost-gray,
a perfect disk of cold engraved
platinum—its features so distinct—
burn into your brain. It says
winter, still, but you can mark
the day’s slow lengthening
toward spring. It says
drink this! before you arrive
at the worn path to your door,
the hills flat again, lackluster,
before you give yourself,
early tomorrow morning,
into the surgeon’s strict hands.
I’m four or five, lying on my father’s back, grasping his shoulders,
my belly trembling with fear and excitement as he asks
Are you holding on tight? my eyes almost shut
against the black wool of his collar where snowflakes
touch down, their shapes visible for a millisecond, before they
melt. Then the nose of our Flexible Flyer tips,
its red runners skim the icy plowed snow
on the steepest, most knee-buckling hill in our Bronx neighborhood,
so fast I can barely count one-Mississippi
before we zip over the intersection at the bottom, with barely
a look left, look right—yesterday’s blizzard
having all-at-once marked it for play—and bounce roughly
to a stop.
Seven decades ago, and I can’t reclaim the warm shivers of refuge
and thrill as I whooshed through the air on your back,
Dad, though I know I felt them—my trust so whole,
I barely knew the word.
Reader, do you almost expect a downfall now
(unlike that stirring descent) because these days
we know too much about fathers who destroy? whose acts
make stomachs revolt, and sex seem sick at the root?
Oh, Dad, even when—after my Age of Deification—I thought
you had faults—how paltry they were...
Elated, you yelled out my Yiddish nickname—
when you spotted me on the bus after the grade-school
field trip—and made me blush, and pretend I wasn’t
your daughter. You shouted at me, once,
during seventh grade, when we had so little money,
and I’d spent a dollar and a quarter on an enticing
tube of frost-blue eye-shadow. You always added
the immigrant’s extra pinch of ingratiation
to conversations with customers,
and the American-born, and I wanted to hide.
You sent lugubrious tapes about how much
you missed your only child when I moved
3000 miles away.
Excessiveness, perhaps, in the ledgers of affection
and concern—or my minuses.
You’ve left me a lived example of simple
goodness, patient and reliable as crocuses
unfolding even in the snow of early spring.
You’ve gifted me the memory of your face radiant
with joy whenever I entered a room you were in.
I mourn for all those daughters whose legacy
is bitterness on the tongue, self-hate like acid
in the throat. I mourn for all those daughters
who had to expunge their instinctive love,
and turn their hearts into grey fists.
We say may their memories be
for a blessing, we invoke their names
many times as the years circle,
always ending at a new place,
like a spiral, we ask God
to remember our ancestors
and their merit when we pray
for ourselves. But they
fade. Even our images of them
walk away from us,
dimming like the plots of once-loved
books, until they are less, and more—
an almost recognizable ray
of sun touching our shoulders
on a chill day of alternating brightness
and drizzle, the kindness of the first
lamps switched on in the smoke-blue dusk.