I want them back now, all
the character actors of childhood
aunts, uncles, cousins, the whole
crazy bunch who embarrassed me so much
Turkish arms flapping in time
to chefti telli, the double-strings tune
from "Oud Fantasy."
Come here, little harem girl, come
put down that book and dance with us...
...and what did I learn from books anyway,
that Jane Eyre worshipped her boss
and Emma scorned her husband
Macbeth took out Macduff's whole clan
all his chicks plus their dam
based upon prideful ambition.
I followed Sister Carrie through Chicago
with no coat. Another desperate immigrant who
hoped. Opa! Swing your hips here, hanúm
let us slap another dollar on your sweaty brow
work the zills and fling the veils
forget all those tales told by idiots.
In the landscape of walking shadows
dance to the double strings, reading not allowed
on Sunday afternoons.
Her name in Italian means "welcome,"
but she actually came from Istanbul.
A lumpy woman in a grainy-brown photo,
her passport reads, 1892.
She clutches her handbag, her chanta.
I remember that shiny black tank
with a world of mystery inside I dived into:
head first, then trunk, and then arms, until
the clasp swallowed up my legs and my feet.
In her bag were Turkish cigarettes, Kleenex
smelling of licorice, bits of halvah, bone amulets,
and my favorite: the amber worry beads.
To punish my misdeed she'd spirit the bag
a Jenem, I'd be told, it is gone, when I begged.
Jenem, a place not on anyone's map,
an underworld where children, lost purses
wind up, especially kids bold enough
to flush grandma's beads down the toilet.
Don't look for Jenem in the atlas.
Benvenuta, my nona, was not always kindly.
In fact, she was quite often scary. Jenem...
she was fond of whispering to me,
is a place where all
will be welcome...
Brenda Serotte is a prize-winning poet and translator of Ladino. Her memories of growing up Turkish and Sephardic in the Bronx appear in a recentissue of the quarterlyHopscotch.
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