August 12, 2016

Risa Potters

IN MY MOTHER’S THINGS

specifically, in one of the old recipe boxes she kept in the kitchen pantry,
was a poem. Soon after she died I went through her kitchen,
carefully opening each drawer, and like an eavesdropper I inspected shelf
after shelf, getting to know her intimately through the objects I found.
I separated the dishes to be kept and the pots and pans to be given away.

In a large and beautiful antique cabinet she kept in the dining room,
I found her silverware. I opened the lid of the dark mahogany box
lined with burgundy-colored velvet, and remembered
how often I had polished each piece before a party, rubbing them with
a soft cloth until they shined, getting to know them.
It is astonishing how objects can hold memories,
how you can be lost in them, just by looking. Feeling the weight of
the knives and serving pieces in my hands, the small and large forks
and spoons, some tucked in soft pouches to protect them
from scratching, the memories were all there, among the silver.

Recently, I heard the story of a Buddhist monk who came to America and,
when presented with a fork, had no idea what it was, or how to use it.
Coming from Tibet as a young boy, he had never seen one.
What would he think of the box of silverware and the many
sets of dishes carefully wrapped, waiting to be used?

In the front of one of the dusty boxes marked Recipes
was the poem. On an index card, mixed in with the recipes
she hoped to make one day, some torn from the newspapers she read daily
and the hand-written she copied from memory, the poem was there.
My mother thought it belonged there, in the box, loosely filed with the rest.

Written by my grandmother, my mother’s mother, it was printed
on newsprint and she had cut it out and taped it to an index card
so it would fit the box. It had the caption, Read my poem from
our News and Views, written in my grandmother’s hand. I think she
must have been referring to the Jewish rag put out
by the Community Center in Brooklyn, and I noticed how both
their handwritings, my mother’s and grandmother’s, looked the same;
I had to look carefully to tell them apart.

I picture my grandmother sitting at her small table in the
middle of the main room of her small apartment in Brooklyn,
perhaps after a night’s sleep, writing the poem.
In it, she talks about sweeping her hair from her eyes and
I see her soft, beautiful white hair, not yet braided, and her sleepy eyes.
When I visited her, she would ask me to help her put her hair up,
and I would brush the fine strands, braid them and pin
the braids to her head, like a crown. And then, I would help her
fasten her large corset, before stepping into her dress, as she bent forward
to position her large breasts inside the cups; there were so many hooks,
they went down to her waist and when she took it off, after a day
of being cinched in, the body that had been tightly secured inside
its stiff bones became itself again, able to move.

The poem is simple, just a few lines, but in it,
I know her; I know her struggles, her dark thoughts and,
most of all, her courage. In the poem, though her name
is not written, is her mother, my great-grandmother and namesake,
tragic in her own right; I feel her there; I feel her struggles.
My own mother, who endured a motherless childhood, is there, too.
In the courage of those few lines, I can see the months of pain and
separation away from her children, hoping to find relief from
the depression that plagued her. My grandmother suffered deeply;
manic depression is a cruel companion. She was removed
from her home for months at a time, hidden from her sadness,
relieved of her duties, relieved of her life, until she could return.

You never know what you will find in a recipe box.
Amid the recipes filed loosely, mixed in with the cakes and pies, there was
her poem. But where in the box do you file sadness? Where does that belong?

And, in this short poem, there is also me, not yet born, but struggling
to free myself from the depths of a sadness passed down
from generation to generation of women, each one rising slightly above
the rest. Many generations in four lines, that’s all, a prayer of sorts,
that’s all it is, heartbreaking and hopeful.

from Rattle #52, Summer 2016
Tribute to Angelenos

__________

Risa Potters: “It sounds like such a cliché, but the first things I remember when landing in California from Brooklyn were blue skies and palm trees. To my eight-year-old eyes, they were the bluest skies I had ever seen and the palm trees, all lined up in a row along the boulevard off the airport, were beyond exotic. To me, the West has always held an expansiveness that I treasure. The West fits me, and it fit my father as well, who brought us to Los Angeles after falling in love with it so long ago. He drove his blue Buick across the country looking for a radical change from the life we had in New York and then, finding the new beginning he sought, sent for us—my twin brother, mother and I—setting us up in a small furnished apartment a block from Santa Monica beach. There, we spent every summer day walking down the California Incline to the sand and diving into the Pacific Ocean, coming out only to eat tuna fish sandwiches. It was heaven. Since then, I have never taken the California lifestyle for granted. The beauty, the diversity and the ability to be outside every day are things I yearn for when I am away from home. Although I have been to many beautiful places, I am still astounded by the stunning beauty that is right outside my door. From desert trails, to lush California Oaks, there is a landscape here that I use and is my constant, dreamy companion. I am grateful for my father’s vision; he loved it, like I do, and once he hit the California sand, never looked back.” (website)