My grandmother’s life was an exercise in triumph:
motherless too young
crippling poverty and fear of persecution
forced her into servitude at six.
She told me stories
of curling up behind a stove at night
of being a child sold to care for children
of angry mobs outside her door
and then two ocean voyages – because when they reject you,
you must work harder to return again.
In her new home, new challenges:
poverty, lack of education, illiteracy
but she had two good hands that knew hard work
and two good eyes that could find imperfections.
She worked when her husband could not.
She worked, though signs said “not not apply.”
She learned how to read. And sign her name.
In their one bedroom apartment
her two daughters did not know hunger.
They went to school.
They learned to do what she could not.
Her hands continued to stitch and sew and knit
and lovingly prepare feasts on a penny.
And then, when it was finally time to relax,
when the hard work of raising children was long behind her,
that’s when new hardships arose:
arthritic fingers that still baked and cooked and sewed
and cared for growing things
eyes that watched through coke bottle glasses
as my grandfather got lost
in the candy aisle
her eyes made sure he had his insulin
then later, when his memory faded, her voice called him home.
She struggled through his illness like a champion marathon runner
never resting for herself
keeping up with his pace of degradation
She outlived him by ten years.
When cancer came for her, she met it with a smile.
And when her heart grew too weak to keep up with her pace,
she moved into her long sleep with a peaceful countenance.
And though her greatest shame was her lack of education,
my grandmother was the smartest woman I have ever known.