Marge Piercy is the author of seventeen novels including Gone to Soldiers, The Longings of Women and the classic Woman on the Edge of Time, as well as her critically acclaimed memoir Sleeping with Cats. She is the author of eighteen volumes of poetry, including The Hunger Moon: New and Selected Poems 1980-2010 and The Art of Blessing the Day: Poems with a Jewish Theme. Also, PM press republished Dance the Eagle to Sleep in December and Vida this year with new introductions.
A popular speaker on college campuses, she has been a featured writer on Bill Moyers’ PBS Specials, Prairie Home Companion, Fresh Air, the Today Show, and many radio programs nationwide including Air America and Oprah & Friends. Her poems are read frequently on The Writer’s Almanac.
Praised as one of the few American writers who are accomplished poets as well as novelists — Piercy is one of our country’s best selling poets — she is also the master of many genres: historical novels, science fiction (He, She, and It won the Arthur C. Clarke Award for Best Science Fiction in the United Kingdom), novels of social comment and contemporary entertainments. She has taught, lectured and/or performed her work at well over 400 universities around the world. http://margepiercy.com/
What and When I Promised
I was ten years old and visiting my grandma Hannah in the mixed poor Jewish and African American ghetto where she lived upstairs in a wooden tenement. Part of every year, bobelah stayed with us in our little asbestos bungalow in Detroit and we shared a bed. But several times a year, we went to Cleveland, where most of my mama’s family lived. I loved Cleveland. It was an escape. Loving embraces and good food and houses with books and music, even when the apartments were small and crowded. I was absolutely sure my grandma loved me; I was only as sure about my cat Buttons. I was doubtful about my father, who did not think much of me, and my mother and I were often at each other in kitchen skirmishes.
The big war of my childhood had finished the summer before. A great crowd filled the Campus Martius in downtown Detroit and everybody was yelling, shooting off firecrackers, kissing, dancing. I thought it was great. In our neighborhood, we kids had a parade with our bikes round and round the block waving a couple of flags and some balloons, banging on drums and shaking noisemakers left over from some New Year’s Eve.
Grandma was my only grandparent. Both my father’s parents were dead and my maternal grandfather’s head had been bashed in by the Pinkertons when he was organizing the bakery workers in Cleveland. I had nearly a dozen and a half aunts and uncles and gaggles of cousins, but only Hannah to tell me stories from the stetl where she had grown up till her marriage, stories of wonder-working rabbis, of the golem and Lilith and dybyks and Cossacks. She had been hungry often, she had often been afraid, but she had belonged, the daughter of a rabbi, and she had many girlfriends with whom she bathed and washed clothes at the river and gossiped and shared her dreams. I knew that since the war ended, she had been trying to get in touch with relatives and old friends back there in Lithuania.
Grandma’s apartment was tiny and mostly we sat in the kitchen with her cat Blackie and sometimes one of her neighbors who went to the same shul, where she would take me and we would sit behind the mehitzah. At that age, I did not mind the segregation because I was petted and made much of by the old ladies who had the same thick accent as my bobuleh. They told me how smart I was and what pretty black hair I had, worn in two braids down my back.
Hannah was short and stout with dark brown hair streaked with white. She wore it in a bun, but at night when we shared a bed she would let it down like Rapunzel. I wished I had long hair like hers, but my mother cut it every two months. My mother’s hair was as black as mine but kept very short. She curled it from time to time. Mine was straight and there was a lot of it. My mother would complain when she washed it with tar soap [she didn’t trust me to wash my own hair] and then rinsed it in cider vinegar that I had enough hair for a whole family of girls.
Hannah wore thick glasses. She had made money doing embroidery but now she had cataracts and she said, “My eyesight, it’s going too fast. Soon I’ll be blind like a stone.”
In Hannah’s kitchen, neighbors came and went while her cat supervised from a high shelf. Most were Jewish and some were Black. That did not surprise me, as we lived in a Detroit neighborhood Black or white by blocks. My parents were openly prejudiced, but I had never lived in an all-white world. My first boyfriend was Black. That lasted until my parents found out and I was beaten hard by the wooden yardstick they used on me.
My parents had driven off to see one of my father’s younger brothers in Youngstown, Ohio, leaving me overnight with Hannah. That made me happy, as I was the oldest and she insisted the smartest of her grandchildren instead of a disappointment to my father from being born a girl. Also the woman married to my father’s brother was just anti-semetic enough to make sly hints and drop little phrases like, “That woman at my yard sale, she was trying to Jew me down on the price of the crib.” Her sons would pick on me when we were out of sight of the grown-ups. No, I was delighted to stay in Cleveland.
We had bagels and lox for breakfast with thick slices of onion and cream cheese that didn’t come in a Philadelphia package as it did at home. I had brought my best doll. Hannah was making a dress for her out of an old tablecloth that had almost disintegrated. She could no longer do fine embroidery, but she could still sew by hand or on her old treadle machine. Late in the morning she sent me down to get the mail from her box. Proudly I brandished the key. Our mail at home was generally left on the front steps. Unlocking a metal box felt special. At home, I had just gotten my own house key that I was expected to wear on a string around my neck when my mother needed to be out when I was due home from school. Keys were very adult, I felt. I was old enough to be left alone. Kids were more independent in those days. At twelve I would be babysitting until two in the morning.
An electric bill, a postcard with palm trees from my uncle Danny in the merchant marine, a circular for a new dry cleaners and a thick official-looking letter from a Jewish organization. I carried them all carefully upstairs, proud of my errand and myself for doing it so well. I hadn’t dropped anything and my hands were clean. I even brought up the circulars.
Hannah was laying out plates for lunch, the plates with roses around the edges that I loved. To this day, when I am a so-called adult and in fact a senior citizen, as they say – Bobah would just say, old lady – I am fussy about my dishes, my mug for coffee, which sheets I put on the bed. My husband thinks this is crazy. I say it’s because I’m female. Or maybe I’m just fussy.
She had soup boiling on the old gas stove that always stunk a bit. “It leaks a little – like me,” she would say if I mentioned the smell. (I won’t give you her accent; that would turn her into a caricature and I had no trouble understanding her, including the Yiddish.)
She had a little radio sitting on the shelf that Blackie preferred, and often it would be turned to classical music or else the news. But whenever I came into the kitchen, she would turn it off. “Who wouldn’t rather listen to you than some stranger?” she’d say. “What a nice voice you got.”
“At school the music teacher won’t let me sing. She taps me on the head to shut up.”
“What does she know? A nice low speaking voice is nice for a woman.”
Everything about me could use improvement according to my mother, and was just perfect by Hannah.
I put the mail on the table. She riffled through it and pounced on the official looking letter, tearing it open and squinting at it. “Ketselah, read it to me.”
“Dear Mrs. Adler,” I read. That was her name from her second marriage. “In regard to your query about the following persons,” and there was a list of perhaps twelve names I sounded out slowly.
“Yes, yes,” she said, “Mach snell, ketselah. Who lives?”
“We regret to inform you that all the inhabitants of…” I could not pronounce the name as there were too many consonants and almost no vowels.
She spoke the name and stared at me.
“All the inhabitants were killed. There are no survivors we have been able to trace.”
She made a noise like I had never before heard, a shriek that went on and on as she beat her chest and shook back and forth. “Alles….alles…”
I read on. They had been shot, the entire village, and left in a mass grave. Relatives were trying to raise money for a stone monument. I did not know what to do except to rise and hold her by the shoulders, standing behind her chair. I was afraid. I felt too young to deal with her grief. I felt helpless and shaken myself. I tried to imagine what it would be like if everybody I knew died, how I would feel.
When she stopped shaking she said, “Because they were Jews. That’s all. Little babies, my niece Rivka, my neighbors who had only one cow and two hens, the rebbi my father taught, what did they ever do to anybody? Just because they were Jews, made to dig a big grave and then shot and piled in.”
When she was cried out, she just sat in her chair, shoulders stooped and grey in the face. Her grief scared me. I had cried when my previous cat Whiskers had died. I cried over a baby robin I tried to save. I cried when I got beaten up at school. But never had I seen anybody weep like Hannah. The soup had boiled over on the stove and I shut off the burner. The scorched smell filled the kitchen but she did not seem to notice.
Finally she said, “Soon they will be no more Yids. They will wipe us from the face of the earth. We will be done. Four thousand years, and no more.”
I tried to think what I might say. “Bobah, I will always be a Jew. No matter what, I will remain a Jew so long as I live.”
She looked up into my eyes. “Promise. Your mother has forgotten everything. She doesn’t know who she is any longer. Your father has no religion.”
“But I do. I promise.”
“As long as you breathe.”
“So long as I have breath in my body.”
She nodded. “I need yarhzeit candles. I go to find out the day of their death so I can light candles for them and say Kaddish.”
“I can write a letter for you.”
“Do it. There’s paper in the drawer of the little table.” She pointed. I fetched paper and pen and wrote the letter she wanted and addressed an envelope. She sealed it and kissed the envelope. “This is all I can do.”
“Should I go mail it?”
“Go ask my nextdoorsikah if she got a stamp.”
I knocked, got a stamp and came back. “Okay.” She nodded wearily. “Go mail…. Do you mean what you promise me?”
I did. And I have kept the promise ever since.