by Gail Mazur
You knew the Founding Fathers, all five
Great Lakes, every capitol of every state.
When the teacher asked her questions
you always raised your hand, you thought
her whole momentous enterprise might be
an embarrassed failure without you.
You read a book a day, hard ones:
gold stars gleamed beside your name,
a glittering, prideful dance along
one line of Miss Tate’s book-report
chart. Those stars always in mind,
you read in the kitchen, the cloakroom,
even on the tarmac at noon recess.
Breakfast, dinner, tag, kickball—
you’d be reading something. Saturdays,
your father drove from Auburndale
to Brookline, to Temple Israel.
you learned the Hebrew alphabet,
the dietary laws, a lot of psalms
and the begats. Sundays, the other
Burr School kids would walk to church,
to Corpus Christi or the “First Congo”;
Wednesdays, to Junior Fellowship.
Some of them, not many, were children
of missionaries. They all lived
in the Missionary Home on the hill—
dilapidated, different but not exactly
foreign, Old people rocked in gliders
on a wraparound front porch.
They’d usually stay a year or two
(you never were invited in),
then back to India or Africa or China.
One of your grandfathers was born
in America, the other was a blacksmith
in the Old Country. No one you knew
had died. You had to know everything:
how a scab forms; the causes
of the Revolution; what amber waves
of grain were; what sins Catholics cleansed
when they made Confession; the reason
Hannah let her seven sons be torn
limb from limb then roasted on a rack
rather than partake of “swine’s flesh,”
rather than forsake the dietary laws—
why didn’t she just tell them Ess!
the way your grandmother told you?
Weren’t they terrified of pain? How could
they face the dreadful punishment?
Why did Antiochus the Babylonian
king slaughter her boys one by one
for not eating pork? Why not eat a little?
Was there a difference between “good” and “evil”?
What made her a heroine for teaching those refusals?
Who could you ask? The rabbi said
someday you’d know. Know what?
What change could occur within you
so you’d understand the history of the Jews?
What were children to the king? To the mother?
Who could explain the question inside
your question? If Hannah and her sons
were right, weren’t they also God-forsaken?
What mattered the them more than life?
The dinner table had no place for this discussion.
The questions tossed your bed at night;
you’d only wake with more; they multiplied
like the little boy’s hats in your sister’s book
that reproduced on his sinless head,
each one more extravagantly lavish,
more intricate and unwanted than the last,
no matter how fast he tried to doff them
to the tyrannical king demanding he bow
bareheaded, subservient, like all other subjects.
Copyright © by Gail Mazur. This poem is from Zeppo’s First Wife, University of Chicago Press, 2005. Reprinted with permission.