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Lori Rottenberg


(for my grandmother, Margot Rottenberg, 1912-1996)

Woman Sewing by Carl Holsøe

What of yours would I want, you ask, sweeping your arm towards your expert stitchery, the framed botanicals hung a little too high. Each work would have taken weeks, your practiced fingers inventing worlds, the art you were allowed.

Whether we watched soaps in unhurried hours between twice-daily swims at Leisure Village East’s pool or sunbathed on your tiny jalousied porch, your hands never stopped tugging inchoate fibers into the recognizable.

At 21, short and shy, you traded your dog, your horse, your maid, your china just for fish, a piano you didn’t play well, your language, and all of Berlin for sleeping on Aunt Hildy’s couch in the Bronx.

At 30, tall and opinionated, I reject your catalog of virtuosity, find it suspect merely for being crafted in ersatz 1970s brown and gold acrylics, but don’t say this. I know I should claim something, so I ask for the delicate pansies, done in shimmery cotton floss.

“That’s all?” you ask.

I aver, demur, say I can’t find room.

What I want is for you not to die.

What I want is the horseshoe of diamonds worn on your pinky for six decades. What I want is your mother’s silk embroidery, a pre-war bouquet that hung—again a little too high—over your bed, for all my years. These things as much you as your skin or hair.

You seeded my mortgage, made my wedding veil, and with your magic needles had already spent a life conjuring treasures in which I could wrap myself. To ask for more: unseemly.

You offer me your ancient Corningware, the hodgepodge of worn utensils that once held our daily feasts. “Nothing?” you ask. I already needed little, appreciated less. I wasn’t yet used to death, didn’t know to reassure you what you had spent a life making wouldn’t easily come undone.

Near the end, the diamond horseshoe vanishes, stolen by an underpaid orderly or washed down a sink, the precious gold-framed embroidery sold for pennies to a junker as you haphazardly emptied your home to prepare for assisted living, my uncle and I livid with loss and mourning.

“You never told me!” you protested, correctly, our unsaid lines again tangling. After a few months, you decided you hated the Sunrise you had hocked your heirlooms to fit into and instead asked me for something for the first time in my life: to end your days with me.

I freeze.

The expensive dollhouse you helped me buy: 500 square feet per floor, no toilets without steep stairs. I worked long, imagined a hospital bed filling our toy living room, tending you with my new husband.

“I can’t,” I said. “There’s no room.”

I should have asked for all the pictures. I should have opened all my doors. I should have embraced your untidy, inconvenient dying and accepted all your gifts the way you once made room for me, an unplanned baby born to your teenage son and his unsteady fawn of a bride.

Yet even my selfishness was a skein your expert hands could unwind: my disowned father, in his backwoods exile, had ample room for messy living. He who once tore us all astonished with eleventh-hour gallantry, so you packed your tools and created your final piece in Alabama, tucking that nettlesome loose thread neatly at last.

As his due, he kept what I coveted—sepiaed echoes of your family living still-normal days in Berlin, teenage you on horseback, you with your still-mourned dog—but he sent me instead what he says you wanted me to have: hundreds of small, yellowed squares, Kodachrome scenes of my first days, the small bud of a family you tried hard to stitch into bloom, inviting us for Sundays, letting us nap on your bed as you cooked pot roast. He had not yet cast us off, forcing you to choose. Without a pattern you had knitted us tightly into your world. And as always, what you gave me was myself.

I can move through my days without the ring, your mother’s embroidery, but these photos I would bound into my blazing house to save, your best work: this patchwork proof of your love.


About the writer:
Lori Rottenberg is a writer who lives in Arlington, Virginia. She has published poetry in such journals as UCityReview, WWPH Writes, Burningword, Moving Force, The Dewdrop, Artemis, Potomac Review, and Poetica, and in anthologies by Paycock Press, Telling Our Stories Press, and Chuffed Buff Books. She has a non-fiction essay upcoming in The Vincent Brothers Review and has published additional poems and essays through the Unitarian Universalists for Jewish Awareness website. One of her poems was picked for the 2021 Arlington Moving Words competition and appeared on county buses, and she has served as a visiting poet in the Arlington Public Schools Pick-a-Poet program since 2007. She is currently a writing instructor for international students at George Mason University and is in her third year of studies at the George Mason University MFA Poetry program.

Image: Woman Sewing by Carl Holsøe (1863-1935). Oil on panel. 46.5 x 49 cm. By 1935. Public domain.

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