The poem below was written way back in 1992, when I was sixteen. The inspiration for this poem was my grandmother, Ruth Bernstein. Though I did not know then, much that I know now, I will convey some significant points that were unwittingly relevant to my perception of her when I wrote the poem.
Ruth was born the middle child of three sisters. Both parents of the sisters had immigrated through Ellis Island, but met in Manhattan. Ruth's father was a young man named Isadore Siegel, who came from an affluent Jewish family. (He was second cousin to the infamous gangster Benjamin "Bugsy" Siegel.) Isadore married a poor girl from the tenements, Rose Greenberg Siegel. It seems clear that Isadore and Rose married for love.
Isadore rejected his family's influence and went into business for himself, running a fruit and vegetable truck. His middle daughter, Ruth, had eye problems which required an expensive surgery that he could not afford. She cursed him. Shortly after, while working on his truck in the rain and cold, Isadore contracted pneumonia, and subsequently died. Isadore was twenty six years old.
Ruth never forgave herself. Her relationship with her sisters could be characterized as loving, but conflicted. One might speculate that she struggled with being loved because of the guilt she carried over her father's passing, and because of that constructed emotional walls between herself and those whom she most loved.
Rose went to her late husband's family for help, and was rejected. She raised her daughters on her own, beginning in the 1920's, becoming an example of sheer determination and moxie to the three sisters, that would transcend the generations to come.
Ruth was wooed by a charming mechanic named Jacob. After the war, Ruth and Jacob had two daughters. Her parenting style could be characterized as demanding but also fiercely protective. She loved her daughters deeply, but often pitted them against one another. One might speculate that because of her own conflicted past she saw this as the only way to protect them and prepare them for the cruelty of the world.
Ruth became a social worker, specializing in child advocacy. As her grandson, I once observed to her that sometimes it seemed like she was nicer to other people's kids than she was to her own. She responded by pointing out that her girls never faced the same obstacles as those other kids, who had no one else to speak for them.
Grandma Ruth was never one to shy away from saying something that made people uncomfortable, except perhaps when the uncomfortable someone was herself. But because of her I learned to be comfortable, from time to time, asking her questions that made her uncomfortable. And she was always honest with me.
Most of my insight into my grandmother comes from our conversations. In the final week of her life Ruth reconciled the burden of her childhood with a statement she made to me and my mother. Some portion of my insight into human nature in general, must be attributed to Ruth's influence. She is still one of the most fascinating people I have ever met.
The following poem, is one of my mother's favorites of mine. My mother, Ilene, enjoyed it so much that she used the text in a work of calligraphy for her short lived business venture "Accordion Books". The accordion book with "Blood Face Back" in it was donated to the Center for Book Arts in Manhattan, where it remained on display until a theft in the 2000's.
Love can be a brutal thing, but like this uncomfortable work, it endures.
Blood Face Back
They tell stories of you.
Once upon a time we met you.
You wear a terrible scar,
Of hard times and memories of evil lore.
They told of the grandeur
Of the personality that you are,
But that was to your face.
They speak about you,
You seem, to mine eye, to hold yourself with grace.
They think poorly of you,
And voice it in their speech.
Behind your back they raise the knife
Drooling, preparing for the stab.
You are soaring like an Eagle, when they grab
The gun raised to shoot you down.
The ammunition seems to draw forth pain,
But standing at the pinnacle
It doesn’t wound or kill.
Well that is what they tell me.
How can I find truth in the words of murders?
I wait upon the hill.
When time has gone to meet with space,
When once again red seas are joined in blue,
We will meet, face to face,
To start upon the day anew.
Then all those winds of fury
Will blow on open prairie,
And we shall speak
Of the futility of anger.