In Albany, New York, where and when I grew up, the grandparents spoke with an accent, the women were large and sloped with freckled arms and sturdy orthopedic shoes, and the food smelled of onions, always. Some elder women smiled in Yiddish, because their English wasn’t so good. My mother’s mother knew how to sign her name but was otherwise unable to read in any of her languages (and she had grown up with some Russian, some Polish, as well as Yiddish, the mameloshn, the mother tongue). Meanwhile, the parents might speak to each other in a tsebrokhene Yiddish, a secret language so “the children won’t understand” except with words like “movies” or “pizza” cropping up here and there, arousing our excitement. And there was always the sheyne meydl, pretty girl, and gey shlufn, go to bed, and a few others, some not nice, and that was it.
But my brother and I were just plain American, which was how my parents wanted it.
There weren’t any Holocaust survivors in our midst; my grandparents had crossed the Atlantic around 1912. So the Holocaust was an education, not an inherited trauma. My family watched Night and Fog together when excerpts of it were shown on TV, and in silence my parents watched us watching the cartloads of stringy corpses. The next day, when my brother and I go to school, we exchange glances with other Jewish children whose parents had had the same agenda that night.
But we saw no tattoos in the realm of our family and friends. Instead, we were instructed in our difference from the Mahoneys, the Hunters, the Horans, and also fed pork and shrimp. Why not? If the grandparents had carried the Old Country with them, their children would create their own country club (the one already in Albany did not accept Jews), and the grandchildren would go to the best schools. For my parents, becoming hyphenated Jews was key. “Nothing but the best” and “think of number One” were my father Norman’s credos, as he worked himself up from a plumber laboring for his own father to a proper businessman, a mechanical contractor. Then he relied on his “boys,” young French Canadian men, to lay pipe on brutal mornings in December or July and fill up the insides of entire business complexes till everything chugged right along, and he could buy us whatever we wanted, and a new car for himself every year.
When the economy crashed in the early ‘70s, my brother says, Norman’s business folded. Because he had always preferred to chase a dollar someone owed him rather than be generous to a friend, nobody helped him out. My parents got divorced, and he wound up leaving town. I knew he’d left, of course (I was in my freshman year at Brandeis), but I hadn’t known about the context, nor did I know what had stayed a secret—and what Jewish man did this?—that mom had to go on food stamps for a while, due to dad not sending her alimony.
A phrase recurs in my journals:
I just want to keep moving.
A list of my movements since I left my birthplace, which happened by chance as well as by choice:
an island in Big Lake Rideau, Ontario;
Cambridge, Somerville, Brighton, and back to Cambridge, Massachusetts.
This was followed by a return to Albany for a few years, after which I left it again for Oakland, California,
then (with a husband), to Ann Arbor, Michigan for a year, returning to Oakland.
Then I moved back to Albany for a graduate program, followed by some summers in New York City, then back to Oakland (my home address for 18 years).
Then came the move to Louisville, Kentucky.
I traveled further when I could, with multiple visits to London (England) and Edinburgh (Scotland), spread over thirteen of the 20 years I lived and worked in Louisville.
And now, Bloomington.
Something my Sudanese student Isaac wrote in 2002, when he was in my class at Catholic Charities Refugee and Migration Services, in Louisville—
before he moved to Seattle to work in a meat-packing plant, before he got married and had children (his American success story):
back when he was a man called a “Lost Boy,” recently released from a refugee camp in Kenya to which he had walked many dangerous miles.
And was taken, sent, expedited, to the States (because this was a time when the U.S. was accepting refugees seeking asylum).
Isaac wrote: I consider myself knowing more about the whole world…[than] many of my people and some other people…[who have] never been to another country, from since they were born until they went under the ground.
Specially here in the United States of America, some have never been to other States apart from their own state.
When it comes to Kentucky, he was definitely right about some people having never left “their own state.” Many of the American-born students I later had at my university had never been on an airplane.
And he himself had traveled so very far…Isaac, who unknowingly disturbed me once by telling me I was his “mother” in America.
Does Isaac think of Seattle as his home? I should ask him.
Maybe Isaac would ask me where I feel most at home.
—Except he wouldn’t, because “feeling” at home is both an American concept and a privilege I have that was torn away from him, in Sudan.
Or maybe he would assume that I am now, finally, at age 60-something, irrefutably at home because I am living with a man (married? No—boyfriend, I texted him)—a new partner. 2019 would have been Terry’s 46th year of marriage but for his wife’s sudden death, three years earlier. “We spent a lifetime together,” he said. “Now I am in a new lifetime.”
And so am I.
I have never been sure what “home” means, though for some, it surely is:
from since they were born until they went under the ground.
And I am no refugee,
but I counsel myself:
if they confiscate your documents, keep your mind moving.
And my grandparents were immigrants, with the force of pogroms at their backs.
1995: The warmth and disgust of family
I have returned to my hometown to enter a doctoral program in English at the State University of New York at Albany. So, I can go out for lunch with my late mother’s older sister Roselee (nickname, Butchie) and my cousin Ellen (daughter of Jennie—my other maternal aunt, who had died in 1982). We are joined by Butchie’s old friend, Hilda, the woman who I remember frightened me as a small child with her enormous shelf of breast (later removed by cancer, or cut in half). We’re in a Central Avenue diner with a quasi-Jewish touch: greasy matted latkes, stale bread; tough pastrami (according to Butch), “tough as an old shoelace,” and she should know. Bins of dirty dishes are visible from our table. Ellen bows to the old women’s tough-talk about Gladys so-and-so’s run-around husband—Hilda says, “she acts like her shit don’t stink.” Ellen murmurs something ameliorating, with her quiet, seeking-to-please voice. At the end of it, I feel like Butchie and her old crony have put a hex on me, observing my habits with a humiliating fineness: “You drink too much water and you go to the bathroom too much. Go to the doctor.” (Diabetes, my family’s familiar, lurking in the shadows—or so they think.
But they’re wrong.)
Two weeks later, Butchie’s in the hospital—a heart weakness. She’s frail, with large, luminous teary eyes (like Mom’s were), but still tough. Wizened as Georgia O’Keefe, skin on her arms loose & blood-purpled with strange bruises.
I spend a few hours at her bedside. She’s the only one in the family who can really remember anything about the culture they’d shed, and it feels so irreplaceable and I don’t know what to do except keep learning Yiddish, the language that was home to them, growing up.
She remembers Yiddish sayings. She remembers “Di Grine Kuzine” (My Newcomer Cousin) and sings it in perfect tune. She talks about “ma,” her mother Goldie, selling vegetables at the market for some extra cash, sleeping in the back of the truck. Goldie had been widowed when Sid, the eighth and youngest child, was still an infant. “We had nothing but we didn’t know any better,” Butchie says. “We had each other.” And her everlasting bitterness over some people who looked down their nose at them: “I fought for my family,” she says. She left high school early to work as a bookkeeper, to keep the younger kids fed—and Butchie was the smartest of the bunch.
What “ma” had brought “from home” (the Old Country of somewhere, Eastern Europe): feather beds, crystal cups, little-girl Butchie and two younger brothers.
“When I met someone in Albany who didn’t know Jewish, I was shocked—how could they not know Jewish?”
 Yiddish is not only the name of a Jewish language; it means “Jewish.”
Before I say goodbye, Butchie asks me, in the same tone as if she were asking for a sandwich: “Do you believe in an afterlife?”
The Archivist Speaks
My best friend when I was in Israel would see me lying on the floor of my room, writing in a big red notebook and say: “Your book of secrets.”
I still have that journal and many others here in Bloomington, a writing habit however sporadic that began at age 13. In boxes, these “books” have accompanied me…. For years, my life was compartmentalized in boxes.
Like the victim of some murder, dismembered, limbs tied with a sash here, feet there, head in a hatbox.
Carrying with me through every change of residence the growing written records, plus three or four boxes from childhood—the autograph book, the Barbie dolls, the letters from overnight camp, the stories written longhand, the card my best friend Laurie made me for my 7th birthday....
—and my mother’s dusky sweater, her notes about the medications she was on before she died, the wavery, uncharacteristic handwriting….
Is this the kind of stuff I want to carry?
A piece of velvet glued onto the handmade card, an introduction to the color “royal blue,” I knew I would keep it forever.
The boxes still hunker in closets. Some of the letters are organized: what cousin Hal wrote me from Canada and his Buddhist monasteries in Japan, what my high school English teacher wrote me from NYC, what Debbie and Margaret Anne and Janet and Gina and Danny wrote, and xeroxed copies of what I wrote them, tucked here and there.... A trail of letters through my teens and 20s, and even into my 30s.
Just a bunch of paper, stuffed in boxes, adding to my specific weight in the world. The materiality of what’s past, proof-texts of my life.
It falls to me now to make sense: create boundaries. For what is the task of the archivist if not to take a welter of paper remains and make from them a structure, a space other people can enter?
Unlike a real archive, of course, in this one there are no order slips and no way for a reader to remove the papers (dated and undated) from a box. So I mark these offerings by the place and year in which they were written (or took place).
Paper stands in the place of bodies, I think.
I am keenly aware of bodies that no longer exist: not just of my relatives—of Aunt Butchie, who died a year after that lunch, having made it to the valiant age of 81; of cousin Ellen who died of leukemia in 2007, only 56—but also of my own, former body/selves: at 16, 25, at 33, 41…
Body-time takes on special valence after age 60; for my mother and most of her siblings, 60-something marked the end of the road.
I think of:
the goneness of gone. The Buddhist chant, the Heart Sutra:
Gone, gone with all beings, gone to the other shore
A beloved aunt grew sick and spent three months in the hospital, before I moved far away to California.
The aunt was 62. I was 25.
I would visit her, hold her dry and weightless hand, rub cream into the cracking skin. Observe various changes in light and season, outside the cordoned windows. Someone restless in the bed opposite might vanish the next day, a new someone come in, a few days later, snoring away the morphine.
What took root between us?—me and my mother’s sister. It was something I was too immature to let flower. It was not pleasant to spend a lot of time at her bedside (though I allowed my mother’s encouragement to lead me there). There were things I had to do, an inner tumult of excitement connected to being elsewhere, on the move, moving out of Albany in just weeks.
At that time, I was learning American Sign Language, the language of the deaf, which seems pretty ironic.
—Leaves scuffed down a blackened street at night.
—Rain’s sepia smudged against a second-story window.
—Pines held curlicues of breath.
No, those were different seasons.
Aunt Jennie passed away in spring, in May actually, a day before my birthday.
Always floating, brink-trembling, half-hovering outside the physical frame. Is that my younger self? Or my aunt, pale figure under starched, scratchy sheets, her weary mouth, deep, deep eyes—?
They had finally taken my aunt off the ventilator. “Take good care of your mother,” she whispered, looking straight into my eyes. “She tries so hard.”
I can’t even remember what prompted me to write this, years ago—about Jennie, and how I would visit her at Albany Med.
As a person, I’ve been a stone that skips across water.
It’s a surreal bounce, never quite tasting the waves.
Whatever happens, whatever exists, whatever is, there’s water beneath it.
The choosing to rent, to remain provisional no matter how many years in a particular city, despite even marriage, to stay singularly intact (no children). The husband came and after much time and struggle, went. He provided the structure, then other structures rose to take his place and I moved on (though the new apartment was technically a 20-minute walk away from the marital home).
And I keep writing about it and not publishing, because writing is a process and there’s never an adequate place to call a halt.
So, I address myself as follows:
Your mother never lived more than thirty miles from her birthplace, but you have lived East and West and now in the part known as fly-over country. And everywhere, you’ve lived in apartments, or with collections of individuals in rented houses where food is labeled in the refrigerator and a chore wheel hangs on the wall.
That was in your 20s, 30s.
Now you’re older than Jennie was in that spring of loss and departure.
Your abiding choice: apartments, compartments, meant to be temporary zones of habitation, not “owned”: so you never buy the final set of dishes, the ones for “company,” you don’t shell out for matching silverware, you get by with the desk picked up off the sidewalk on junk collection day—but you make sure to have sturdy shelving for books, beginning with the ones from college classes and extending from there in row after row after row. Books in the bathroom, in the kitchen, the hallway, floor-to-ceiling in some cases, because they are (apparently) where you really live: a thread of permanence: here lives the poet-scholar (no matter your shifting external shapes, the succession of unsatisfying day jobs).
How you missed upstate New York, when you made it to California: so even in San Francisco, with its wedding cake hills, its painted ladies (a diorama of gilt splendor, each one more lovingly restored than the next, more expensive)—even in San Francisco, a sense of lack.
At the top of a little-used path up Russian Hill, the view explodes in almost every direction, higher than the birds. Ships pushing past Alcatraz look like grey sticks, tossed by an indulgent grandmother to please her children. The red bridge, a licorice dream, peeping through cloud.
Every weekend for the first few years, you took the train from Oakland into San Francisco and wandered around with a notebook you rarely wrote in, observing the light, the houses; turning into the park, walking through its changing tree-scape, past the haunted crystal palace that was once an enormous greenhouse, with the sad sign in front of it: “This restoration will require two million….” Once you got as far as the buffalo paddock, and then out to where parkland fell away into dunes and a lick of ocean. You wrote your friends: “It’s enchanted here!” You wrote your mother: “I miss you....” Yet somehow knew that small scraps of yourself were floating off into your surroundings, shreds and bits of you were mixing with the royal color of the water, the sheltering redwoods inside the Park arboretum...until after a while you were a version of yourself, diminished and hungry.
Hungry for home, the real home, where my mother’s family lived, sprawled with cousins and clans across Albany, Rensselaer and Columbia counties, with pockets downstate (my father’s side), claims to New York, the big city, and seasons revolving according to a childhood timetable.
Surely home is where the names of places sound beautiful, even if you’ve never been to those places and have no intention of going. Saugerties. Schaticoke Creek. Scoharie…Valatie.
Warsaw, Soroca, Bessarabia.
July 2020, Bloomington
My mother’s name was Elaine.
It was a name she took for herself, to replace the one she’d grown up with: “Gitl” in Yiddish, it emerged as “Gussie” for some reason, in English, and she’d hated it.
She’d also gotten surgery for a wandering eye—must’ve been back in the 1930s.
Wasn’t she brave to do that?
And Gitl is a Yiddish diminutive for “good” or “goodness,”
little good one.
The Green Room
It’s September now, a time of year I always feel closer to my mother’s family—aunts and uncles and now some of the cousins, gone (to the other side; the other shore).
Yener velt. You tend not to have a choice about when you go there.
My mother once drifted in and out of a small green room. That’s the private room in St Peter’s Hospital where her sister Roselee waited as her husband, Moe, slept, uncertain of whether or not he would ever again wake up.
Others waited in a larger green room, with out-of-date magazines and an analog clock on the wall (this was years ago). Each room was a kind of purgatory through which one would pass, and with age, the passage tended to be in a single direction.
“No backsies,” I tell the dog when my partner Terry and I take her for a walk. She strains against the leash to recapture a smell, but there’s only one way at this point, and it’s to the park.
And then it’s home again.
My mother drifted in and out of her metallic canoe.
That was another time, when she was the figure in the bed and on a ventilator, to boot.
The opening to the Islamic holy book, the Qu’ran, is also the prayer that one says at the beginning of any of the five prayer times (two more than in Judaism—was there some kind of competition?). This opening is called “The Opening,” and it’s eight lines long, as far as I can tell, in the transliteration. It ends: Guide us on the straight path—the path of those whom You have blessed, not of those…who have gone astray! (Those ones have earned God’s wrath.)
But you can go back and forth, it seems, for a long time before you head in just one direction: can’t you?
"Home, and the Water Beneath it" is from Thank You For Being which will be published by Wet Cement Press in 2022.
Merle Lyn Bachman is the granddaughter of a numbers runner, an opera maven, a tailor forced to raise chickens and a woman whose heart was so big, it failed too soon: in other words, ordinary Jews who immigrated to the U.S. (New York) from Russia and Poland in the early 20th century.
During some of her own migrations, she has published the following poetry chapbooks and books: The Opposite of Vanishing (EtherDome), Wrecker’s Ball (Finishing Line), Diorama with Fleeing Figures (Shearsman), Blood Party (Shearsman) along with Nameless Country, an anthology of poetry by A. C. Jacobs (Carcanet), and Recovering Yiddishland (Syracuse University), a book of literary criticism and translation. In 2015-16 she was a Translation Fellow of the Yiddish Book Center and is currently developing a manuscript of selected poems by Rosa Nevadovska, in translation.