To the North Country

Photo credit: Lillian Kalish


You do not like the look of awe and terror on their faces when you tell them this:


You are young, going up north to where your mom’s family is from

And you wish to dance among the fallen autumn leaves

Outside of your aunt’s house, those tall unwavering trees

Those bare branches and strong trunks

A pile of leaves on the sidewalk that someone kicked up just for you

Some of them got sap on their leaves, others dusty from the summer breeze


You make friends with a could-be house cat

Who lives under your grandmother’s porch

You go out there for a week with a bowl

Of milk in hand even though cats have a hard time

Digesting dairy and your skin has a hard time

Touching cat’s fur

The two of you fall in love at a distance

Now, an expected sort of intimacy

When you walk up with the white, china bowl

You are delighted to find out

That the cat is a mommy with a litter

Of five little, stinking runts


No one else is happy at the news


They’se for outside, someone says

You can’t remember who

Your mom’s allergic, says dad

They can’t come in the house

No, sorry

Fine, you stomp around


You sit in that old musty house which you learned

Had burned down when your mom was a kid

No one was hurt, ‘cept the ghosts, yes and a lot was destroyed

But someone made a new room for all the

Burned up photographs and all the new babies

That mom’s sisters and brothers and their sons and daughters were having

And there were kids that looked like you

On the walls surrounded by rows of other generation dolls

Sitting up straight and tall


You remember that smell of grandma’s house

The spookiness of the dark side of the living room

The shades always half drawn, shadows resting on the sofa

You remember when black was a word only used by aunt carol

When she was talking with your dad about politics


In your second grade classroom when you learned about the civil war

Then it was used when you were with dad’s family

Your cousins asked how you were related because of that word

And by your mom years later

When you no longer went to the north country

She warned you ahead of time how many black people would be at the barbecue

She warned you because where you grew up, you were one of few

And maybe you had learned a nasty kind of fear

She wasn’t sure so she took her precautions


That is the story of how black became

Something else

Not the color of your family but,

A word that made you squirm in your seat

Was used to compliment and insult in the same breath

Black: only a source of confusion, never solace


And now, you regurgitate that word ever so clearly

With a performed authority that fits strangely

Between your teeth

You watch as others try not to wince as you spray

Black over your words

You watch as they sit paralyzed as you once were


Oddly, however

You have made a home between the awe and terror when you speak


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