Poets House at Hudson River Park
I want to call my mother—tell her I'm in New York City. Oh, and by the way Mom, there's a Colgate Clock right across the river from the Poets House in lower Manhattan, the exact same clock that sat across from Dad's store (a warehouse actually) in Louisville, KY. My mother would take me there as a child to have lunch with my busy father, where he'd sweep us out the front door and deliver us to Akins Restaurant to have the famously good hot plates of turkey and mashed potatoes. The bridge over the Ohio River, heading towards that clock, was the only route I knew to get out of town, to get away from my parents, the same ones I recall now as I sit down to write.
Colgate clock in N.J.
The Colgate Clock is a dot across the river, just north of the Statue of Liberty, which is an even smaller dot through my camera, and across the river too from the Irish Hunger Memorial, which recalls the Irish potato famine of 1845, and those who made their way to America, with Billy Collins calming voice reciting verse over the loud speaker. The Memorial is just down the street from the Poets House (my destination, if I can ever get there), and on the top is a good view of the clock and a kite sailing by.
I don't know why I've been thinking about my mother on this trip, but twice— twice!—I've sat down to write and she's been right there, letting me know I forgot to tell her my plans; in fact, why haven't I called, and why didn't I let her know I was going to New York for a month, where the shopping is fabulous and the knishes oh so good? I sense it's my fault I forgot to call, but then I remember that's all wrong, she died five years ago.
A theory for my mother's presence is that I'm on the East Coast, the port of call for my family. My grandfather and grandmother came through Ellis Island from Poland in 1908, or so I assumed; but when I checked the Ellis Island database for a Jacob Hildebrand, he wasn't listed; even Tom looked last month when he was on Ellis Island. At the Tenement Museum a few days ago, I asked our friendly tour guide, an artist and second generation German immigrant named Jason Eisner, if that was normal, people passing through without being recorded, and he said Jacob should have been there... but he's not.
(By the way, the Tenement Museum opened my eyes to the true poverty immigrants had to endure on their arrival here...not so different from today.)
Friendly tour guide at the Tenement Museum on the lower East Side
Did my grandparents come under an alias, or under my grandmother's maiden name, Shereshevsky? Or did my grandfather take his brother's name, the one who shot off his big toe so he wouldn't have to fight in the Russian Army? Unfortunately, no one in my family has the answer, as no one knows the Polish village where Jacob and Rosa lived or where they landed. It's all speculation on my part that they were here before they headed to Louisville. I sense them on the lower East Side when we tour the tenements, but I don't really know if that's true.
But for argument's sake, let's say they landed here: still how does that explain my mother's presence and wanting to talk to her? Inside the Poets House, which I finally enter after much procrastination, I sit down in the lovely peaceful library, with the beautiful blue couch.
The first book I pull out is a collection of poems by Grace Paley, one of my favorite NY writers. Almost immediately I find this poem, untitled, about Grace missing her mom. My socks are knocked off by the similarity:
Some days I am lonesome I want to talk to my mother
And she isn't home
Then I ask my father Where has she been the last twenty years?
And he answers
Where do you think you fool as usual?
She is asleep in Abraham's bosom
Resting from your incessant provocation
[Let me stop for a moment: I really love this line, how Grace is an ever-present provocation to her brilliant surly father, even in her old age]
Exhausted by infinite love of me
Escaping from the boredom of days shortening to Christmas
and the pain of days lengthening to Easter
You know where she is
She is at ease in Zion with all the other dead Jews.
This poem gives me hope: maybe my mother is there too.
But sadly, she's not here in NYC. This city is only for the living— for eating, shitting, making money, loving, walking the children to school, working hard at artistic pursuits, going places on the dysfunctional subway, observing hairstyles and Hasids, enjoying the cold rain, trying to catch a show, going with the flow.
And sadly for me I'm leaving tomorrow. I will miss this city, so full of life.