March 26, 2023

In My Grandfather’s Memory

About his life before I knew him,

Before my mother and uncles were,

Before he came here,

This much he told, 
How he slipped across the border;//,

He was twenty-one and a draft dodger.//Twenty-one and …

Jews sat shiva when Tsars took their sons,

Though he said his own father had served

And returned, allowed then to live

Outside the pale, managing the estate

Of one of those leading Russia to war.

And so he was hidden beneath straw

In the back of an oxcart,

Tsarist gold coins sewed in his vest.

He still had them years later,

And a diary written in pencil,

In Russian he could no longer read

When I was a child. He sold the coins

After the Tsar’s overthrow;

The diary in a kitchen drawer

Was gnawed by mice years ago.

The story I heard as a boy no more

Than ten years younger than he was when

He took the journey that brought him here

Was simple enough in its outline :

The year was 1904; his new wife left

Behind, his brother waiting in America,

He left Odessa, crossed the border

And walked across Europe to Hamburg

Where he set sail on the Koenig Albert,

All the while making notes.  I was told

What lay behind; I know what lay ahead,

But of the time between, he never spoke.

It’s about a thousand miles from Odessa

To Hamburg.  If a car traveling sixty

Leaves on a Tuesday and there are

Highways enough, it will arrive well before
I’ll ever know what it must be like
To be so utterly alone.