Write About A Relative (or friend)



p e e t c h k a


there was a time when tulips grew in neat rows outside her cabin, she, who i only knew in the years past running barefoot between them. she was beautiful. the dirt was cool between her toes, and sometimes she was very happy. there is a river that runs by her house who’s rocks have been pulled slowly toward the ocean. in her lifetime, trees grew, children sprouted. she had a blonde boy, cooked him breakfast. she had a husband who left her alone before i could scold him. he is in yellowed pictures from a time when no one smiled.


when i knew her, her house smelled like canned soup and dust in the corners that used to smell like tulips, pictures of her great grandchildren smiled at grade school cameras from her walls and deep in my belly, i knew i was best. i sang songs for her at the foot of her recliner, sat on the floor and marveled at her mangled feet. she told stories.


she let her hair fall over her shoulders maybe it had creeks of gray. a mother with round hips. soldiers from across the river eating her pancakes. clean shaved boys saying ma’am. they came because they missed their mothers and maybe their wives and girlfriends, she was a goddess with a spatula in her hand and iced tea steeping in the sunlight, five wars passed. sons became fathers and grandfathers.


there is a picture of a baby in yellow on her lap. her glasses glow and i look like a newborn ogre. she would be proud of my paintings my nakedness, my desire to live in her cabin by the river. i will hang wash. i will bake bread. i will say kiss my ass in yiddish like she taught me. sitting on her front porch i will see her beautiful in her tulips where my garden will grow heavy with food.



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Our daughter, Jennifer, comes home from her trip to West Germany. She has spent much of it, having found a home, in Norden, a mile and a half from the North Sea. Norden, Norddeich, Norderney. It is a music that continues. The town. The harbor preceded by the dyke. And the island in the sea. Cows. Boats. It does not stop. The town goes into the land goes into the sea comes into the land comes into the town and the people make a life by it.

In a house in Norden a child is born midwifed by his grandmother. He grows up, leaves the town for schooling, comes back. He will leave the town again, but meantime has his tools. With his father, the carpenter, he builds houses. The tool box he keeps near his bed. It is elaborate. Pulls up into many trays. His good friend the sculptor has also done his schooling and now for the past eighteen months looks for an apprenticeship. While the American is there, he finds it. The celebration that night in the Borka is noisy. The American lights her cigarette from a candle on the table. People look up. Conversation stops. When you take light from the candle a sailor dies at sea.



There were two ways to get to my grandmother’s house. One was to cross the railroad tracks and go on down the block past the white clapboard building where the tailor had his shop; turn right down the alley which turns again left and rutted up to Mrs. Shebetka’s back door where you could stop, standing in view of my grandma’s back porch. If you stood there in the summer, her neighbor’s garden was mean and small, overshadowed by a row of hot, horny sunflowers, tall as a grown man and grabbing for their share of the air. The row belonged to my grandmother, widowed and fertile.

The other way was through the underpass along Highway 4, across Main Street and down a block of nothing to the alley; turn left past Bill Keyes’ house and hope crazy old Bill won’t come out; cut around my grandma’s barn and up the skinny back walk where my grandpa died:pushed over by a huge stray dog, the walk being brick, it killed him.

Most often I went the first way, up to the back door. Go ahead. Kick it in. The smells of garlic and camphor will no longer assail you. The kitchen belongs to someone else now, but you wouldn’t find the truth there anyway. Stick to the corner of Shebetka’s house. Go on. Walk back out to the initial spot and stand, rooted. Do not move. Feel the sharp edge of that house’s corner where wall meets wall. That’s it. Turn right, now. Turn into the sunflowers. You are tall as a grown woman looking into your grandmother’s gray-green eyes. In the yellow heat of the sunflower patch you are aware of her strength, the diffusion of countless spores flying thick in the air like fine dust swelling your nostrils. Breathe deep.

Monica Ochtrup




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James Baldwin

While the preacher talked and I watched the children — years of changing their diapers, scrubbing them, slapping them, taking them to school, and scolding them had had the perhaps inevitable result of making me love them, though I am not sure I knew this then — my mind was busily breaking out with a rash of disconnected impressions. Snatches of popular songs, indecent jokes, bits of books I had read, movie sequences, faces, voices, political issues — I thought I was going mad; all these impressions suspended, as it were, in the solution of the faint nausea produced in me by the heat and liquor. For a moment I had the impression that my alcoholic breath, inefficiently disguised with chewing gum, filled the entire chapel. Then someone began singing one of my father’s favorite songs and, abruptly, I was with him, sitting on his knee, in the hot, enormous, crowded church which was the first church we attended. It was the Abyssinian Baptist Church on 138th Street. We had not gone there long. With this image, a host of others came. I had forgotten, in the rage of my growing up, how proud my father had been of me when I was little. Apparently, I had had a voice and my father had liked to show me off before the members of the church. I had forgotten what he had looked like when he was pleased but now I remembered that he had always been grinning with pleasure when my solos ended. I even remembered certain expressions on his face when he teased my mother — had he loved her? I would never know. And when had it all begun to change? For now it seemed that he had not always been cruel. I remembered being taken for a haircut and scraping my knee on the footrest of the barber’s chair and I remembered my father’s face as he soothed my crying and applied the stinging iodine. Then I remembered our fights, fights which had been of the worst possible kind because my technique had been silence.

I remembered the one time in all our life together when we had really spoken to each other.

It was on a Sunday and it must have been shortly before I left home.

We were walking, just the two of us, in our usual silence, to or from church. I was in high school and had been doing a lot of writing and I was, at about this time, the editor of the high school magazine. But I had also been a Young Minister and had been preaching from the pulpit. Lately, I had been taking fewer engagements and preached as rarely as possible. It was said in the church, quite truthfully, that I was “cooling off.”

My father asked me abruptly, “You’d rather write than preach, wouldn’t you?”

I was astonished at his question — because it was a real question. I answered, “Yes.”

That was all we said. It was awful to remember that that was all we had ever said.