The Cemetery

There is a cemetery on a sunny green hill
In Worcester, Massachusetts
Full of old Jews.

And although many of the stones are new
There is not one in ten
Born in this hemisphere.

I watch from a distance as two old women,
My mother and my aunt,
Meander among the markers.
They are visiting their friends,
Their parents and their brothers, mixed in random patterns on the hillside.

Who is Esther Rosensweig,
Born in what place
In 1882?

Who was Morton,
Beloved son and brother,
Taken in his twenty-fourth year?

Why was Harry a 42 year old private
In the Second World War,
And what Irishman placed his bronze plaque into the ground?

What winds of history
Washed the dust of these poor souls
With antique names
Through Minsk and Munich and Vilnius,
Through muddy grey rain splashing on shtetl streets,
Running in eddies to the Oder and the Rhine,
Washing across the face of history, to end
In disarray
On a sunny green knoll
Five Thousand miles from home,
To be viewed by strangers
In Worcester, Massachusetts?

My aunt pauses at a family plot.
“Do you know,” she sighs.
Not a question, just an introduction.
There is a story here
Of slights inflicted
By people with thick accents
Upon other people with thick accents
Sixty or seventy years ago,
Remembered across those decades.
What insult could there be, so severe
As to transcend the death of all
And constitute the memory of these people?
What fragile vanity is memory
That all of life, all suffering and effort(roots ripped from the Pale,
floated nauseous over an ocean,sweated at the machines,
forged in the Depression,
hungry on the bread lines,
studying English at school house desks too small
and pledging to a new flag)
Should leap across these ages,
Transcend all else they did,
Eliminate their deeds and progeny
And be remembered thus, by children’s children,
A bitter moment in 1926,
The sum memory of an entire life?

The women shop for remembrance and pain along the rows.
They visit schoolmates, beaus, acquaintances, enemies.
They cry silently, together and alone.
They cross into the Seymour Kaplan Section:
What sort of man has a cemetery named for him
In 1908?
What group of tired immigrants,
Fingers dirty with the threads of tailoring,
Palms blackened by the burning coke
At American Steel and Wire,
Knees stained with the dirt of tilling
Pulled themselves across the alien night
In 1908
To sit in a neighbor’s kitchen,
Sitting at a white painted table
On a hard chair,
Hot tea in a tall glass set in a metal frame;
Who made what motion
To dedicate this hill
To Seymour Kaplan,
Worthy Jewish burgher he, no doubt,
Whose name was considered
As his peers traced the black-edged scroll-work round the table’s rim?
That vote of the Workingmen’s Circle
Was a good night’s work indeed
‘Though today, “Seymour Kaplan” has no meaning to the likes of me.

One day my grandchildren may visit me
On a similar hillside
And wonder what the world was made of
The day I was born,
The day I died,
The day I dreamed.
And will they know that I too wandered out
Among these stones
And found no answers buried in the ground?