Chicken Soup - For My Grandmother

I don’t usually perform words without music but in March 2016 I wrote a piece that only came out as words and I think will remain that way.  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 rapid succession. 

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.

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