TO MY POLISH AUNTS by Mary Kovaleski Byrnes
Skin pale and pocked with moles,
your names pulled from Slavic litanies,
were strong enough for farm work, had the taste
of whole milk: Bertha, Elsie, Hannah,
in your kitchens, I sat on wooden chairs,
one eye looking out for the coal-grayed cats
come up from the mouse-paradise cellar, the other
on the glass jars of oils and herbs—
twisted alien forms floating and preserved
like the saints to whom you’d pray
to make me fatter, to cure rashes,
never a prayer for a child of your own,
or at least none answered.
In your houses, I was all brash New World—
wanting peanut butter and Dr. Pepper,
my summer shorts a shock of orange
against the dust and pickled wallpaper,
all American lust for plastic and new-made,
distaste in my mouth for the crackling
polka record, the girdles waving on the line
like Polish mother-ghosts, or spirits
of your younger selves, the selves I couldn’t see
who spoke love and energy in another
tongue, danced on bunion-less feet,
hair crimped with flowers. What I’d find—
long locks of waving auburn—
wrapped in tissue, after you’d all died.
Even with that bird-weight memory
in my hand, I mocked you—
your porcupine kisses, the haunted
player piano, witch herbs, deaf ears—
with a laughter that made my father frown.
Dear Aunts, the Pope is dead,
the old country prospers
tentatively after a thousand years
of tanks. Dear Aunts, we left
the Saint Joseph buried in the yard.
Forgive us our forgetting,
forgive me my blonde youth
burning like your yesterday at the table.
Know I will be you some day—
my face will turn
as foreign as a century.
A small child will sit in my kitchen,
smelling of grass and citrus,
the food I’ve served her untouched,
for fear she might cross over
the invisible line between us.