Wise Poets – Barbara Quick – Conjuring Nana

Barbara Quick

I learned how to make Nana’s chicken soup
by shadowing her steps in the kitchen,
taking notes on a white paper napkin.
A cauldron of sorts is required, as well as a
once-animate chicken submerged above
the stove’s blue flame.
“You put in the onions,” Nana said,
her Russian accent as fresh as the breeze
must have felt on her face when she debarked
at Ellis Island in 1916 or so.
“How much salt?” I wanted to know—
and when she shrugged I could see
a palimpsest of the girl she was at my age.
The water boiled and the air filled with steam.
Not offering an answer in words,
she poured salt into her upturned palm
and tipped it out into the pot.
No measuring cups for my Nana.
“A little this, a little that,” she’d say,
cocking her head, adding a pinch of black pepper
and copious piles of carrots and celery.
I thought about the chestnut-colored braid
my mother showed me, wrapped in a piece of sea-green silk.
Nana was beautiful when she was young.
Everyone said so.
Cleaning a leek, she told me, “I don’t know
what it’s called, but it makes the soup good.”
Sixty-four now and all my elders dead,
I add a parsnip as well, just as I watched Nana do,
and I feel the velvet touch of her hands on my forehead.
All the old people I knew
spoke English with sounds borrowed
from Russian and Polish, Yiddish and Romanian.
I assumed, as a girl, that I would speak like that, too,
when my hair turned gray and the pads of my thumbs
grew soft and pillowy.
Gathering parsley for the soup from my garden,
I seem to hear Nana saying my name
made rich with her guttural R’s and broad A’s.
“Bahbra, dahlink!” the birds are singing today.
I boil Manischewitz noodles, only adding them
to the bowl when I ladle out Nana’s love.
Golden and gleaming with fat,
as bejeweled as the star-filled sky must have looked
when, shipboard, she tipped her kerchiefed head back
and filled her eyes
with all the dazzling possibilities,
and all the dangers, of a new place,
a new language, a new land. Her favorite brother
waiting for her with his Romanian wife.
The brother-in-law she’d marry.
Twenty-seven years following the end
of Nana’s life, her love fills me up
and restores me.