Author's Note: These poems are about a dark family secret revealed to me by my mother when she was already in old age and suffering from dementia. I never met my uncle, who died—I learned— two years before her. In fact, I'd never seen so much as a photograph of him other than one from his bar mitzvah. When I found his obit online, the poems followed in a breath, so to speak. They are from my book Unburial, about my parents' lives and deaths.
My uncle was the first to disappear in a lineage of disappearing acts. A photo of him at his bar mitzvah staring darkly at the camera, eyes hoarding some abominable secret my mother on the other side of him seven or eight, her vision razor-sharp from merciless stropping. The blades of life spare no one—eventually, each of us is butchered in one fashion or another like Isaac on the chopping block. Her face is stubborn and bullish, her unhappiness targeted, precise as the crosshairs on a rifle. She wears a mask of hatred: for him, herself, her family, her world. Her expression has a quality of light about it, of an explosion taken place a billion or so years outside her body. Stars have died within her and been reborn stitching their tissues across the fissures of her phoenix heart, rising & falling breaking & being broken without fail by every man she’d meet. She will conceal what happened, reveal it only in old age, leave it for her grown children to decrypt. What can I do with this burning message? Read it? Destroy it? Bury it? His name was Jerry—short for Gerald—Prof. Emeritus of advanced mathematics at MIT. That’s all we ever knew about him—that, and this dark matter swirling in our brains overshadowing his numinous presence, invisible and tenebrous. Did he have children, unknown to us as we to them? My grandparents sit proudly, Star of David fluttering on the curtain behind them, my bubbe-zayde. Their own parents, too, grin ceremoniously as their grandson becomes a man under the Law of Moses. Was he attracted to mathematics, I wonder, as a way to abstract pain? He would eventually disown our clan, sever himself entirely from us, run off to Germany to find a wife. The Star of David could not protect my mother from one who, like David, took what he wanted when he wanted it. David, in love, sent Bathsheba’s husband Uriah to the front to kill him off; he then usurped his wife. In Hebrew, the Star of David is a shield, magen-David, suggestive of protection, safety. It offered her no such outpouring. The only story she ever told of him was one of brutal, naked violence. “He got so angry he threw a hairbrush across the room, aimed it straight at my head. Back then they had steel bristles, not plastic like ones today. He was trying to kill me. It took a chunk out of my bedroom wall.” I grew up with that chunk of wall ingrained in my skull, the dry weight of it crumbling grainy as a black and white photograph. I’d fall asleep wondering what made him murderous. Was it what she alone knew? Was it the fear that she would tell someone? That was seven decades before #metoo – Who could she tell? Who would’ve listened to a girl making up lies about her brother as he crept across her delicate threshold into the dark jungle of his manhood?
I’d Googled him a hundred times to no avail until I conjured his cold shade into my skiff. He appeared to me as suddenly: smiling, hale. I parsed the details: MIT, a German wife, his age—I added and subtracted years on years. They matched precisely—my senses keening, ready. I trained my vision like a scientist or seer. Two photos—one teenaged, another edging eighty. Was this the crooked look, the shameful fallen face biology and chance conferred on me—to wit— as uncle? Moved by the singular need to trace an arc of history, to place one further dot on the spare timeline of my shipwrecked lineage I tossed in that ocean no pardon could assuage.
©2020 Marc Alan Di Martino
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