“The crown of life is neither happiness nor annihilation; it is understanding.” ~ Winifred Holtby
This week I’m thinking about and missing New Jersey poet friend Gail Gerwin, who died of cancer on October 3, 2016.
Some of you may remember Gail as a former Poetry Potluck guest from 2012, when she shared a poem from her poetic memoir Sugar and Sand (Full Court Press, 2009), along with her mother Cele’s Stuffed Cabbage recipe.
I credit Gail with piquing my interest in Jewish culture and cuisine, and we used to joke about my wanting to find a nice Jewish grandmother to adopt me. Kind, generous, and very loving, Gail was devoted to her family and was especially proud of her grandchildren, whom she referred to as “my raison d’être.”
Gail’s death came as a complete shock to me. I learned about it on Facebook while casually scrolling through my newsfeed one day. I had no idea she had been battling cancer, and it was devastating to hear that she was gone. Not too long before that she had emailed a photo of her grandson’s bar mitzvah, so I assumed all was well.
It’s been especially poignant to reread Gail’s last poetry collection, Crowns (Kelsay Books/Aldrich Press 2015), which came out just about a year before she died. In many ways, it’s a love letter to her family, as it examines cherished relationships with loved ones near and far, past and present, with personal reflections about growing up in Paterson, New Jersey.
But it’s also a celebration of our common humanity. As she writes about her sweet sixteen dress, the heartache of losing a college boyfriend, shopping for school clothes with her mother, connecting with a cousin in Israel via Skype, the sadness of losing a beloved pet, or the “Resignation” one feels for unfulfilled dreams, her beautifully crafted narratives, laced with specific details that trigger our own memories, resonate with universal truths.
Today I’m sharing “The Tablecloth” because for me it is quintessential Gail. It reminds me of the interesting things she taught me about Passover, and I remember well her anticipation and excitement at having her family celebrate the holiday at her home.
I will always picture her smiling proudly at her beautifully set table, anxious to share all the homemade dishes she lovingly prepared for everyone. Besides stuffed cabbage, will there also be gefilte fish, matzoh ball soup, brisket, spinach gnocchi, matzoh kugel, and sponge cake? Thanks to her, I can also imagine some of her guests participating in seder holy rituals.
I like thinking this is where she most loved to be — at the table with all her loved ones gathered round — each one a singular jewel in her crown.
by Gail Fishman Gerwin
Decades of dinners sat on the tablecloth, cream
brocade with indelible spots: soup spills, briskets,
turkey gravy, an everlasting stew served up with
debate, whining, laughter, dog yelps from the kitchen,
let me out, I don’t belong in this crate.
One March Passover, winter’s last shot, a half foot
of snow the day before, so many still with us — my
mother, my husband’s parents, our friends, their
parents. We watched them slide down the driveway,
casseroles in hand. Through the cluttered garage they
snaked around parked cars, bikes, striped beach chairs
that longed for summer.
Their coats shed, we gathered around the table,
fifteen crowded where twelve could fit. My husband
dimmed the lights, began a slide show. For months
he’d copied family photos of all present, set slides to
music. He featured the elders as young lovers, showed
hopeful brides, grooms, showed the children (to their
delight) as newborns, toddlers, pre-teens.
The kids cackled at their parents as kids; grandparents
wept for sweet memories (my mother for her husband),
the middle generation watchful for the present, fearful
of the future.
The tablecloth heard a lot that night. The matzoh balls
are too hard. Too soft. You’ll be eating this brisket
for a week. So freeze it. I can’t eat another thing.
And then it heard goodbyes. Time for our friends
to return parents to their nest three towns away.
The tablecloth saw many festive occasions after that,
witnessed gatherings when our daughters’ grandparents
died. Sometimes other cloths, sewn on the machine
upstairs, supplanted its perch. One memorable fabric,
aglow with protective coating, repelled liquid. Spills
beaded and ran down ten feet of table, the direction
depending on which way laughing cousins tilted it.
But this veteran was the favorite, spots masked by
centerpieces, service plates, mismatched water goblets.
Shreds lovingly patched, its life paralleled by personal
growth, its burdens lightened by hungry boyfriends.
Replaced by more splendid cloths, one brought by our
daughter from her honeymoon, it was relegated to the
back of the linen shelf. Until the garage sale. Pulled out,
washed, tumbled, pressed, tied with a gold bow, it lay
regally in the driveway on the ping-pong table, stood
inspection of seasoned garagers.
The familiar family laughter distant, it listened anew.
Why only seven napkins? What’s this spot? Wouldja take
two dollars? How about throwing in these placemats?
And I answered: It’s been sold.
Miss you, Gail.
❤️ Read a beautiful tribute to Gail written by her dear friend Adele Kenny at The Music In It.
🎉 BOOKJOY, WORDJOY GIVEAWAY WINNER! 🎈
Happy to announce that the lucky winner of Bookjoy, Wordjoy by Pat Mora and Raul Colón is:
🌸 MICHELLE HEIDENRICH BARNES !! 🌼
Please email me with your snail mail address so I can send the book out pronto.
Thanks, everyone, for commenting. Another poetry book giveaway coming up next Friday. 🙂
The lovely and talented Tabatha Yeatts is hosting the Roundup at The Opposite of Indifference. Sashay on over to check out the full menu of poetic goodness being served up in the blogosphere this week. Have a good weekend!
Copyright © 2018 Jama Rattigan of Jama’s Alphabet Soup. All rights reserved.