Sophie

grandmother hugging adult grandson

I never knew my mother’s mother until I left home
    And set out on my own.
One day, I called her;
We agreed to meet at her elder apartment.
About 85, she nearly danced to the door to greet
Her educated grandson
So he could spend an afternoon with her,
This self-described peasant girl
    From the shtetl.

She made me tea and toast with honey,
    Then sat with her honored guest.
“So, Sophie,” I asked, “How were you so brave to flee the Ukraine,
        When just stepping outside was deadly for Jews?”

She took a sip, then lifted her head so her eyes could meet mine.
“In 1909, my parents, and most of my brothers and sisters,
Had already settled in America, leaving my brother and me, the oldest.

    So, at 12 years old, I took your 9 year old
    Uncle Nathan by the hand to an
    Eastern European port,
    Then a big boat from Marseilles
    All the way to New York
    And then a train to New Haven.
    I had no skills, but knew a few stitches.
    I didn’t know English, so my parents they taught me.
    School I couldn’t go, but sewing I could,
    So I scratched out a living as a seamstress.”

I took a few swallows of tea and a bite of toast.

“So, Sophie, how was it, making your way in this strange place?"

She paused and replied, “You know, you wouldn’t know to look at me,
But when I was a young girl, I was quite a looker!
When I was 16, I met a Yale professor and we fell in love.
And I loved him and he loved me.

So I jilted him!”

I proceeded to retrieve my hearing from the Twilight Zone.

“So, Sophie, you loved him and he loved you? So why did you jilt him?”

“Those days, I was a greenhorn, and
This was a Yale professor!
In 20 years, I would lose my looks, and
He'd trade me for a beautiful, educated girl.
Then I would be lost, penniless, in a foreign place,
Living by my wits.
So I broke it off
And married your grandfather
Because he had money!”

In that moment, I grew older.
My child’s eyes opened.
And I saw Sophie’s life, at last,
Reflected in her history’s glass.  

Scratching to stay alive,
Surviving the ghetto,
Landing in America’s streets,
She had fled the terror
Only to land on shores
That might strand her
Miles from Emma Lazarus’s door.

Later, she divorced my grandfather
But always put food on her table.
She sojourned from my aunt’s home
To her own place in Miami Beach
Before she returned to
Reside in the place where I really met her.
She beat the Cossacks
And cancer.
And found friends who never left her.

A week before she died,
She bet on the Jai-Lai with her friends,
And returned with $86.00.

She left the earth on my birthday.
Which felt like a message between us,
One that continues to whisper to me,
Like a candle that will never extinguish.

Poem