In the cellar, on a rusted lawn chair
beside the water heater, I find
our Baba. Wearing black lace-ups
with cubed heels, a dress with
handsewn buttonholes - identical except
where her waist makes one grin,
she stares at me until hectic spots stain
cheeks. Light penetrates high,
fly-specked windows and illuminates
her forehead below folds of
pale sheitel. Around her: detritus
of decades. Our cellar is for things
which have no use. First we stockpile
them at the stairs. Then by the door.
At last, below, they molder on shelves
or atop the child-sized workbench:
flower pots, old Lincoln Logs, last year's
cancelled checks. Eyes passing over
all, aware of heat and drip of
water heater, I stare again at Baba.
What are you doing in the cellar? I ask.
Rolling socks, she tells me. Like most
bubbes I stay at home and roll socks.
Now her cheeks deepen. Or sometimes,
at night, I roll in sweet-scented hay...
it's dark and damp,
I tell her. You don't belong down here.
She smiles, layers one thick-fingered hand
over the other. But I do, my Dumpling,
she replies slowly, because upstairs
in your fine house, I forget to
roll and can't remember my name.
Poised before her scale, Mother -- arbiter
of family myths -- weighs truth against
fabrication. But it never happened,
she insists, balancing her perceptions,
discarding mine. Baba
was Grampa Jack's mother's mother,
dead before you were born.
I insist, she was
there, sitting in the dark dressed in
worsted. With hands like mine
and a long face. She spoke to me.
Mother, unwilling to pardon unreality,
adjusts her blindfold, recalibrates,
scoffs at me. Then it's
her photograph you remember.
Just a picture. We used to store it in
the cellar wedged between
our furnace and the hot water heater.
Shuffle, step, shuffle, step. Down in
the cellar I am tapping out all the bright
things that Mother and everyone tell me
are not true. Shuffle, scuff, turn.
Look at me. Then look again.
My cane, my hat -- both are props,
for I am not yet Baba, not yet my mother.
Still, upstairs, I can't practice on
satin-finish floors because I'll scar them.
So, between furnace and water heater,
using the workbench as barre,
I dance against time, against rage. Days
are short now.
danced in Szumsk,
I'm sure, but never here. Looking on,
she finds me as disconcerting as my house:
strong-hipped, grown woman in black
skivvies, socks, and TeleTones tapping
into gathering darkness. Why? she asks.
Because, I answer, eyeing squared hands.
Shuffle, flap. Shuffle-hop, toe.
Because as winter comes, I, too, need
time -- shuffle, roll -- to contemplate