0

Silence, Memories, and Elegies


An Inheritance of Words, Unspoken


Author's note: In these poems the speaker is generationally, linguistically and culturally removed from her family’s experiences of trauma and displacement. In acting as witness to her grandparents' lives, these poems privilege “words, unspoken”; that is, silence and memory to compose, for the next generation of acculturated (Canadian) children and grandchildren, authentically interpreted experience of ethnic/religious Mennonite heritage. —Connie Braun

POLISHED BUTTONS

On visits to my grandmother’s house when I was five,
I remember taking—as if leftover buttons shining
in the mason jar beside her treadle machine

in the spare bedroom—glances at the photograph
of a child, no longer living,
and not meant for me to talk about. Sometimes,

when my grandmother was preoccupied,
cooking up a pot of borscht in the kitchen, I would steal
away into her sewing room and just stare at her little boy,

or I would press my foot to the Singer’s peddle,
humming a line of invisible stitches to far-away,
where she came from. One time, I tucked

my head into the living room, curious as to why she was lying
on the couch in the middle of the day. This seemed so odd,
she was usually in the kitchen kneading dough, or hoeing

in the garden and I knew something was wrong. I was too young
to know the word cancer, my mother and aunt whispering it.
That must have been when I first learned to tuck away pain,

like a polished button in the pocket of my grandmother’s apron.
She lived on, and as I grew older I understood that she was content
not to story me with stitches of loss, although I wanted details

of her life to fasten her to me forever. So, near the end,
each time I visited her in the nursing home, I took away,
lovingly, without asking, so many questions.


WHAT A GRANDFATHER LEAVES

Scent of peppermint on his breath,

click of candy against his teeth,
those he left by the sink in a glass
and we grandchildren would laugh.
His chuckle almost inaudible,
low quake and belly shake.

He didn’t leave words, he had only few
he could speak in a language he’d never master,
we, forgetting his tongue each year we grew older.
Him, at the table, pointing his finger
at food Grandmother made,
sign-language for us to pass the bowl. “Thank you,”
words he could say for potatoes boiled soft
and the gravy-fat she spooned over.

He had starved during the war. A prisoner,
gone years, he came back all sagging skin
over bones, loose teeth and the youngest, a baby
when father was taken—the family displaced—
confused as to why mother was laughing
and crying at once for the gaunt stranger

who had searched for and found them.
She loved him for surviving. He returned,
but never the same, his leg wouldn’t heal.
Diabetes later, that’s why those cravings,
filling his pockets, palming Scotch Mints
like marbles or coins, or crumbs of bread, rationed.

Evenings he’d sit, she washing
his feet, blue, and still-open sore.
She wordlessly bound all his wounds,
they spoke of them no more. Their vows
sacred despite separation. And when we asked them
to kiss, he’d pursue her, she clucking protests,
then lips pursed, they’d peck just for us
and we’d shriek in delight at the old pair

with false teeth. How he teased her
in front of us, why must she fuss so,
we’d snicker as he dished candy out
by the pocket-full just before dinner, and him,
crawling along her swept linoleum,
we in the sway of our faithful old horse,

his bad back. Was he remembering the draft horse,
muscled and brown, pulling the wagon,
ploughing the soil he loved so? He loved her,

my grandmother, because she was the strong one.
She was the one who gave him
the will to go on, the only one
who could nag him as they started over
without money or home, but the riches
of children still living. We loved him
though we were simply too young

to truly have known him—in the village
in Poland, the stern father who drank,
she burdened with chores of the farm
and church-going neighbours’
heads shaking. Our grandfather from afar
where fighting regimes claimed all he had owned,

but here, familiar round belly-laughter,
suspenders holding pants up
to his chest, full of gratitude, straw hat
shading those faded blue eyes
looking into the sun. In front of their house
unfolding his chair. I still see him. How he’d wait

for our visits, his children’s children, his tribe
in this land, offer us sweets, hug us close
and rub our cheeks with his stubble—so close,

I can almost snatch the peppermint scent of his breath.




THE PRISONER

Bereza Kartuska—Polesie Province, Poland, 1939 (now Belarus)

This body so frail and woundable/ Which will remain when words fail us.

---Czeslaw Milosz

i.

The Place of Isolation is its name in full.
To prevent escape, it was encircled
by five lines of barbed wire, a moat, and finally,
high voltage wire. Only the prisoner’s last breath passed
through the barrier successfully.

A few grams of mouldy bread, a can of thin coffee
or broth from rotten vegetables, just enough rations
to keep from starving. And torture,
wooden boards on the prisoner’s back

struck by hammer blows.

Guards hosed down the cement so no one
might sit or lie down—bodies confined
to cells meant for fifteen, swelling to seventy,
then higher in the tide of a Second War.

ii.

And why him? —
peacefully tilling the river’s soil,
a Mennonite farmer, whose ancestors
settled the Vistula centuries before.

Why not him, too? The world’s descent
began with a pact between dictators. It was the year
my mother was born, a baby that harvest,
when there came a knock at the door,

her father and uncle arrested, hands bound, feet
hobbled in chains, as other men
scurried to haystacks.
Someone passed on the word—a sentence without trial.

iii.

He would have been shot, but the guards
fled as the Germans advanced and the Russians.
closed in. Soldiers opened the gates.

iv.

Un-noticed as if a pickpocket child,
my mother snatched words
she lately remembers he said
long ago, talking with uncles,

chained to his brother
never before had he prayed so hard,
to God as then, daily
their captors threatening execution.

When he returned to the village, the preacher
sagely spoke to him, let go of this and live
among your neighbours without bitterness.

v.

Perhaps that’s why he scarcely spoke of it,
except to mention its name, an old man
in a new country when he later penned
his own brief obituary.

Besides the body,
what could capture the pain of those days,

or all he would come to endure?



TELEGRAM, 1943

On the day the world ends, a bee circles a clover.

---Czeslaw Milosz

i.

The land’s longest river carves a fertile valley
where hamlets grow fields of blonde wheat,
barley and golden rapeseed. Coronas of sunflowers
face the sun. Yellow, too, are the fields of yarrow,

their flowers, according to myth, are known
to stop the bleeding wounds of soldiers.


And the river nourishes the acacias, their roots
fingering into the soil, and those of the pines, trunks
thickened by time, casting shadows long
after the bones of frolicking children have grown ethereal.

ii.

Fog had lifted early from the river.
Sun climbed into its seat on the cumulus clouds
to oversee the comings and goings of the village.
The dark earth had been dug,

the potatoes, with their many eyes,
already gathered and stored
under the house, in the darkness,
along with the onions.

Their sweetness
will cause you to weep.

The floor planks swept bare, the children
by now ,were outside in the yard collecting
speckled eggs from the coop.


The echo of young laughter rang out,
perhaps at the cockerel strutting about.

But one and all stopped
at the ascent of her wail.

From her hands fell the note
its official signature, a crashing weight

the date stamped weeks before,
rifting now the ground she had known.

iii.

Whose memory can recall the messenger?
And was it then, that from the roof of the barn
the stork took flight. And could it have been
a black stork that year, the rare kind
that doesn’t return after winter?

As if a photograph, the particular is frozen.
The children will not forget how every hue
drained from that moment. Nor the thundering
silence that followed, through time was suspended,

like the bee bumbling outside the hive
on that day, its faint humming in the yard
while the rest of the colony was prepared
for the coming of winter. On the chilled air

there hung the dim resonance of dying.

iv.

The black current is swift.
It cuts a swath through the land, where on one bank
roam the living, on the other, the dead lie,

and a mother must somehow learn to go on,

each foot in disparate worlds.



MY GRANDMOTHER’S STRONG NAME

For Jacobine

I think, if you have lived through a war,/ or have made your home in a country/ not your own, or if you’ve learned/ to love one man/ then your life is a story.

---Anne Michaels

1.

The door ajar, you were always open-hearted.

My footsteps slowed before your room—the entrance
framed you like a photograph.

Before you could hear me, I saw you,
your outline, white-haired in the filtered light,

seated at your reading table by the window, your bible
open, and that day’s meditation from the “Daily Bread.”

You sensed me watching you through the gap—
I’ll always see you this way.

2.

Frailty belies strength. At ninety, you had lived
a life large enough to give birth to twelve children,
bury an infant, and grieve your firstborn,

without a gravestone on the Russian front
only a letter bore his name;

large enough to have lost a homeland in,
and gain another. Such expansiveness
your small room holds. Bare, but for your bible

and wind-up clock to mark time.

Twenty years more you lived after his stroke
I was a young bride then. You a widow,
taught me much about vows.

Nun-like with your bible, praying daily for us
in your room, enlarged by your contentment
in small things—cookies and tea
with a grandchild who’d come to visit,
and bible verses. These were your treasures on earth.

You were never one to hold on
to possessions. You held us all

loosely with bonds fine as your lacework,
three and four generations intertwined
after all the migrations.

3.

From Wiaczemin, your people settled here while you remained,
a young mother, pregnant again, though the reason for staying
was Babcha, too old to leave—or to leave her. Nor would you.
Barren, she raised you from birth, when your own mother died.

History redraws the borders, but where
does the beginning end and ending begin
if the land is not the same
our ancestors are born of and buried in?

4.

A current pulls from the Carpathians
through Warsaw. The river Vistula in late winter,
1945; my mother has never forgotten the crossing.

Turned back at the border, armed soldiers
pressing in, forced over the thaw, black water

rising above the river’s ice skin to her ankles—
she didn’t break through. But can you imagine,
she asks me now, what a mother goes through?

Beneath the groans of ice, I can almost hear
your silent fear, praying for the other shore.

After the capture, you were relegated from citizen
to village wash-woman, hands as raw as your heart,
youngest children crying with hunger, older ones

taken and scattered. And you’d walk hours to Warsaw
bringing bread to the prisoner behind the barbed wire.

As a hen gathers her chicks, you sought each one. Footsore,
you led them to refuge where he found you at war’s end.

5.

Small grandmother of Dutch-German origin,
with your strong name in feminine form,

you were named after Jacob, the one who wrestled
with God for a blessing. How you would wrestle with life.

We are the blessed ones, born here,
because you gathered your children.

6.

Your door ajar, I entered your life.
You belonged to elsewhere
at the same time, you belonged to me.

When I was a child, at the approach of our car,
you, knowing its sound, the way the cow, milk-heavy,
her calf, rushed from the kitchen, pushing open
the screen door even before we had parked;

wiping your thick hands on your apron,
pulling off your headscarf . . . .

As I grew older, we had no particular conversations.
I mostly watched the way you enjoyed
family around you, preparing meals we devoured,

serving until your hands thinned,
velum-paper skinned.
When I looked in, your eyes
blurred behind bifocals, a line
dividing all that you had seen
into the past and the future.

My eyes are the colour yours were.


As I see it, you lived as if you had always known
your suffering, and your joy, would be great—not asking why
along the length of temporality’s unfolding shadow.

My inheritance is your unspoken words.




(Variations of) MY NAME

My name means unvarying, at the same time,
signifies a new start. My name straddles birthplaces

and generations, singing pop hits, topping the charts
in the ’sixties when my mother gave it to me, otherwise,

another name would’ve been handed down like a musty coat
from the old world. But my name, with its long and short

vowels, hard and soft consonants, could be pronounced,
accented with the thickness of our first tongue; was suitable

for the first daughter of immigrants, suggested
belonging; sounded refined, like the singer, someday

appropriate for a wife and mother. In the ’seventies,
an American Band even sang out my name in a rock song

about a sweet, sweet stripper, and just the other day, printed
on a poster, “MISSING. Rottweiler bitch, answers to the name . . . .”




Acknowledgements and Notes:

The epigraph for THE PRISONER, pg 5, is by Czeslaw Milosz from his poem “The Body” pg 63 in Facing the River: New Poems. Trans Robert Haas and Czeslaw Milosz. Ecco Press, New Jersey, 1995.

The epigraph for TELEGRAM,1943, pg 7, is by Czeslaw Milosz from his poem “A Song on the End of the World, 1944” pg 30 in Selected Poems: 1931-2004. Harper Collins, New York, 2006.

The epigraph for, MY GRANDMOTHER’S STRONG NAME, pg 9, is by Anne Michaels from her poem “Blue Vigour” from Miner’s Pond, pg 92 in the volume, Weight of Oranges:Miner’s Pond. McClelland and Stewart, Toronto, 1997.

(Variations of) MY NAME, pg 12.

The ’60s singer is Connie Francis

The ’70s American Band is Grand Funk Railroad.

The name Funk happens to be a common Mennonite surname.

The song referred to is titled, We’re an American Band.

The lyrics from the rock song are “sweet, sweet Connie was doin’ her act, she had the whole show, and that’s a natural fact.

Sweet, sweet Connie Hamzy (b 1955) was a groupie best known for her claims to sleeping with numerous rock musicians and more recently, that, then Gov. Bill Clinton propositioned her.

About the Author

Connie T. Braun

Connie T. Braun is an author and instructor of Creative Writing. She has published a memoir The Steppes are the Colour of Sepia (Ronsdale Press, 2008) a collection of poetry, Unspoken: An Inheritance of Words (Fern Hill Publications, 2014), a chapbook, Narrow Passageway (Alfred Gustav Press 2017) and Silentium: Reflections on Memory, Sorrow, Place and the Sacred (Wipf and Stock, Resource Publications 2017). Along with reviews for various publications, her personal essays and poetry appear in anthologies and journals. She has served on the boards for the arts and writing, is a member of the League of Canadian Poets, and currently represents the Mennonite constituency as a member of the community advisory committee for the Peace and Conflict Studies Program at the University of the Fraser Valley. Connie has recently returned from a residency at Hedgebrook for "women authoring change."