Carolyn Martin

An Elegy in Two Memoirs

Tower with Still Life on a Plate by Lajos Vajda


What my father wrote in his:

Don’t hit him! He’s only a little boy!
my mother shouted through the kitchen door.
One misstep and my father knelt me
between the stove and wall – hands over head,
a two-feet space. A minute was too long.
The crime? I forgot his cigarettes –
Lucky Strikes – thirteen cents a pack.
They kept a tab at Shifman’s corner store.
Some things you can’t forget.


What I will write in mine:

Only once: a swat on the rear I deserved.
A minor gaffe – he bought the wrong
brand of bread his wife/my mother sent him for.
One snide remark took him down:
It’s your blunder, I sneered
when he asked me to take it back.


What my father wrote:

Off the kitchen,
a nook big as a photo booth.
My father pulled the curtain tight
around his fishy meal, a nod
to its sickening smell.
No nod to the black man
trying to be neighborly
with a few hard-practiced Russian words.
My father, the White Army cook,
knocked him down two flights of stairs,
translating friendly as mockery.


What I will write:

My three sons, my father laughed.
Fishing with his two boys;
softball games with me.
Until his back broke down
along with his blue-collar salary.
Pushing papers, starched white shirt:
indignity for half the pay.
Busy, was all he ever said
when we asked about his day.
Busy translated hating work
without complaint.


My father wrote:

Our story began at Burry Biscuit Company –
your mother/my best friend boxing what I baked.
A month before I asked her to foxtrot,
waltz, polka to live bands in New York.
Ice cream sundaes at the corner shop.
I shipped out in ’42 and she said, Yes.
Choosing me over nursing school
and smelly cigarettes.


I write:

I saw them kiss a half-dozen times,
watched her shrink when he tried
to touch her hand: testaments to a lost career
and scorched dreams of a white fence
and Sunday drives. I begged him to take
our side when her anger burned our days.
She’s my best friend, was all he’d ever say.
Some things I can’t forget.


About the writer:
From associate professor of English to management trainer to retiree, Carolyn Martin has published poems in more than 125 journals throughout North America, Australia, and the UK. She is currently the poetry editor of Kosmos Quarterly: journal for global transformation.

Image: Tower with Still Life on a Plate by Lajos Vajda (1908-1941). Tempera on paper. 12.5 x 9 inches. 1936. Public domain.