Two Poems by Elliot Ruchowitz-Roberts

Grandmother Bunya,
Now That Grandfather Yitzak Has Died

My grandmother’s hands lie in her lap
like sleeping swallows.
When she speaks, even though
I cannot understand her Yiddish
nor she my English,
they wake, dart into
the space between us,
chasing her words
but never catching them.

My grandmother’s tears do
not fill the emptiness of the house
now that grandfather is dead.
The paper he would have read aloud to her
yellows on the front steps;
the salt and pepper shakers sit shiva
on the oil-cloth covered table;
the pilot light on the stove above
the cold oven, his yarzheit candle.

My grandmother’s voice asks,
“Why have I been given
such sorrow, why has G-d
treated me this way, I
who observe all His laws,
prayed to Him from the back of the shul,
fasted on Yom Kippur,
lit the Sabbath candles,
was a dutiful wife?”

My grandmother’s eyes are still those
of the five-year-old who woke
to the darkness of the shtetl,
walked through the cold, unpaved streets
to work in a bakery, the hot breath
of the ovens warming her slender body,
the scent of challah telling her
she would be fed, that, yes,
somehow she would survive.

When We Least Expect Them

Mornings, I wash the Royal Windsor Fine
Bone China tea cup my mother brought me,
a present from England, the lip now chipped,
inside stained, the flowered, fluted sides scratched.
Chill days, I wear the collar- and sleeve-frayed
heavy plaid shirt I took from my father’s
closet after he died, the only thing
of his I wanted, that and the rose-quartz
figurine that lay in two pieces for
so many years, hidden in the closet
in a shoe box. Now, head glued back, Quan Yin
stands whole on the window sill where winter
sun illumines the rose quartz, warm with re-
fracted light.
                 The dead visit us when we
least expect them.
                         As I work clearing worn
cedar roof shakes from where the roofer has
thrown them, wearing my father’s shirt to keep
splinters from my skin, I feel my father’s
quiet presence, his anger gone; sober, he
has turned away from his disappointment
at what I had not become, embraces
me with the love he could not express when
alive. As I stand at the kitchen sink,
I sense my mother’s footsteps behind me,
then feel her hand on my shoulder—she has
come back as she often does to touch me.
This in daylight, not two specters wandering
through the dark world of dreams but at the pile
of scrap wood and at the kitchen sink filled
with dirty dishes, where now, seventy,
I claim the love I had so long refused.


Mountain Pass

On the steep way down from the mountain pass,
you tell me you did not leave those many
years ago when you were so unhappy
because you did not know I could survive
without our family. This and the tears
that follow open my heart to my own
truth—that I, in my unhappiness, did
not leave because I did not know how you
could survive either. Why such compassion
and love in the midst of such suffering?
Life wrenches us from ourselves, wrests us
from that joyful place of calm at our core,
but moments like this, some mysterious
force cracks the curtain of experience.
These confessions, after we struggled up
the steep switch-backs in the chill morning air,
crested the little mountain pass, and dropped
into the valley with its glacier-fed
lakes, cold wind driving against our bodies,
and looked out to the string of Sierra
peaks; dwarfed by the vastness of land and sky,
just we two; then back up to the pass where
sudden warmth, wind gone, warm enough to shed
outer clothes. With these confessions, we walked
into our 48th year of married
life so open to each other. Before
the vastness of that landscape, the moment
was nothing, yet it is everything, too,
now held here in these words celebrating
what holds us together—like those mountains
and vast sky, the immense beauty within.

Elliot Ruchowitz-Roberts