If we looked hard enough
we’d find the books
with everything we were too busy to ask.
Books in libraries we never knew about before.
We’d see that everything was laid out, line by line
in cold type set by printers with smudged fingers,
words telling where our grandfather lived
with his mother, the domineering Julia we never knew,
lodgings in a cold-water flat in Cumberland
cheek by jowl with the railroad depot.
We’d know if our mother’s father
was a railroad clerk consigned to desk duty
after he lost his leg on the job
or if he drove a private hack, his mother’s car.
We’d know whether he kicked our grandma out
and kept the kid, using lawyers and threats,
or maybe our grandma, young and wild
wanted something more than keeping house,
chipped plates and mismatched cutlery.
We think if we found the court papers
the birth and death records of the lot of them,
baptismal entries from the church vault
we’d figure it out.
Forget all that. Who they were
is locked up somewhere,
yellowed papers in forgotten files,
archives stored underground, unless
even to historians. Leave the books to those readers
long departed. Now, we have
enough books of our own to leave behind:
scanned, saved on memory sticks
because our memories must be stuck somewhere.
We should have asked more questions,
should have sat taking down the words
of those now long dead,
demanded photographs, asked who was who.
You and I were content with the present, never the past.
We watched television with the ancestors, saw movies,
heard a handful of their stories over and over.
We never asked, never wondered, we just
Waited, bored, for the old punch lines.
If there were a book to tell us
their stories of leaving home, finding work,
keeping or joyfully surrendering their virtue—
but no. All we have are a few
clinical black and white images, like
our grandmother on a porch with her two sisters,
both of them dead long before we were born.
There are no books to tell us
where we came from.
No narrative, no genetic trail,
no monogrammed silver, no names on buildings
or on pews in churches.
We’re not even sure what port
they came through—New York, or Baltimore.
It would take a village
to find the village they fled from.
There’s no way to account for their climb
from coalmines, from railroad beds
into the middle class.
Hold the photo of our grandma in your hand,
A tinted Sears Roebuck image in its cheap gilt frame.
We can’t quite read her expression—
unsmiling, hostile, or maybe only
afraid her fur-collared coat won’t impress, that she
won’t measure up to what we want
and need—in an ancestor.
When she died, we drove west to the mountains
to bury her, to make a funeral
for this nonbeliever, the woman
who couldn’t keep a friend, who
kept her house as clean as a hospital surgery,
loved plumbing, hot water, and a radio
humming softly in the breakfast room.
She took her stories with her.