Chicken Soup

A couple weeks ago I found out that the cemetery where my grandparents are buried had been vandalized. It was one of 22 Jewish cemeteries across the country vandalized in recent months. On the same day cemetery was vandalized, the Jewish Community Center where I often went after school experienced a bomb threat.
 
The day I found out happened to be International Women’s Day.  I felt the best response I could make was to write about my grandmother’s endurance, her strength and some of the ways she showed us love.  And to try to address it to the vandals.
 
It came out as this poem, or perhaps it’s just a song without music; it is a work in progress.  But it feels worth sharing.  I have been reading it at shows and several people have asked me to post it online so here it is.  Thank you to my mom for helping me with some of the facts about my grandparents’ lives.
 
**
 
 
My grandmother made chicken soup
Stuffed cabbage
Chicken salad
The smell of onions rose from her kitchen
A lifetime of onions chopped by one woman
 
At the age of 4 she’d sailed an ocean
Clinging to her mother and her younger sister
Bundled up tight at night they’d whisper
Stories and folk tales in Yiddish and Russian
Dreaming of meals their grandmother made them
Steadied themselves against the rocking motion
Praying for shelter where they’d never been
 
Through the turnstiles of Ellis Island
Their names were shortened
Ferried to Manhattan
A train they boarded
North to Albany and west across the state
To reunite with her father
And settle near others who could relate
She learned a new language
The way children do
She learned the old recipes her mother knew
My grandmother made chicken soup
 
As a teenager she worked in a clothing store
As the oldest child they needed her support
She worked as a one-woman travelers’ aid
In the same place where she’d once arrived on a train
 
Later she worked as a secretary
In 1928 she met the man she would marry
He wasn’t a talker
Except to tell jokes
He liked smart hats and button down coats
He joined the coast guard
He liked working on boats
He had reddish hair
And a pipe to smoke
After the big crash
He drove a taxi
And took any work he could
They tried not to worry that the world seemed so nasty
They held on to each other
And knocked on wood
To her relief he was too old to fight in the war
He sold life insurance
Collecting door to door
In between all the jobs
And a world so unsure
My aunt and my mother
Two daughters she bore
 
My grandmother made chicken soup
She raised two girls
To go off to college
To learn new things
To gain more knowledge
She wore bright colors
And costume jewelry
Eventually her daughters had my cousins and me
 
My grandmother made chicken soup
She gathered us together
For seders and candles
Sometimes there was anger
I couldn’t understand
I was too young
To see past her wrinkled hands
And the smile she’d greet me with after school
When I’d ask again for my favorite foods
 
At 76
She saw her eldest die
Do Grandmothers cry?
She must have cried
As the breath left her daughter’s fragile lungs
But grandma still seemed strong
I wish I had known
More what she felt
But she seemed to zip her lip
And tighten her belt
Through the kind of loss
You can never recoup
My grandmother made chicken soup
 
With matzo balls
Just a little bit of chewiness
The right amount of salt
Sometimes kreplach and soft orange carrots
She held that recipe in her brain
But never talked about where it was from
She wouldn’t talk to any Russians
Seemed like she hated them
 
She waited by the bus stop
To meet me after school
Sometimes on weekends I’d go there too
Saturday nights we’d stay up late
Eating cookies off a TV tray
For Gilligan’s Island, Fantasy Island
While Grandpa sat in his favorite recliner
 
She let me try on her scarves and jewelry
She put on lipstick
She said so she wouldn’t scare anybody
Every fourth Saturday
She took me shopping
We’d ride the bus to Midtown
And if it was raining
She’d make me wear a rain bonnet
I hated the way it pushed my hair down
 
When I was 14
She could see
My body was changing
She said to me
Jessica, have you started your “monthly”
A holdout phrase
A grandmother’s phrase
Something from older
More restricted days
She asked about boys
She asked about college
She beat me at Gin Rummy
She had grandmothers’ knowledge
 
When Grandpa died at age 91
What could she do
But try to keep on?
She played bridge with the gals
In the Jewish home
When I went to see her
She seemed more alone
In those years she was fading away
I wish I had known what she was trying to say
I wish that I’d had more to give
I guess I was too young
To understand what it meant to have lived
 
When she died
At 94
We told stories
Of her stubbornness
I said at the service
I was proud to be
One of a long line of stubborn women in my family
In the synagogue
I touched the sallow skin
On her forehead
It was smooth and cold
I took her hand to hold
Hands that made chicken soup, stuffed cabbage, chicken salad
But although we gathered
She wasn’t there then
 
 
So my friend
When you went
To her grave last night
To act big and brave
With your old ghosts to fight
And you tarnished the stone
My mother chose
The inscription
With the carving of a rose
When you spoke to her
The way those old Russians did
Insulted my grandmother
Betty Cohen Schieff
 
I’d like to ask
What you hoped to gain
If you know that we all share the stain
Of blood and dirt and chicken soup
We’re all travelers here my friend
Even you
 
But you went in the dark so you wouldn’t have to see
All of us who loved her
My family and me
And now i suppose
It’s mutual
Cause I don’t want
to look
at you
I don’t want
to look
at you
But something tells me that i have to
 
You’ve wounded me
You’ve tainted my pride
But your hate won’t win
And here is why:
 
I am already loved
I am already raised
I have already soaked up my grandmother’s gaze
And that’s true of so many
Who ate their grandmother’s soup
And soul food and curry and rice and beans too
Now tell me
Who was your grandmother?
Could you tell she loved you?
 
I’m sorry my friend
But the fear cannot win
The light of us humans
Cannot be dimmed
Even if 6 million more have to die
Me and my family or all of mankind
You cannot un-cook
What has fed us inside
You can shoot it down with guns and lies
Spray it with paint
Build your walls
Try to hide
But it will still try to reach you
It will still try to teach you
We are so much more than we ever imagine
And when we are tested
We can choose a better action
 
She sailed the ocean at the age of 4
She worked with her hands
And rarely rested
She worked til her family tasted the truth
If you come to my table
In daylight
I will gladly cook it for you
Its good when you’re cold
Or you think your chances are through
The recipe in my brain that I can’t undo
My grandmother made chicken soup