“Houseplants:” In Memory of Feodosia

Feodosia was my maternal grandmother, an illiterate peasant woman who came to the United States with Vlas, my grandfather, when she was a young woman. Like immigrants of all times, they came to this place looking for a better life – for hope, for dignity, for a place for their children. They left Ukraine with other Eastern European peasants, before the 1917 Revolution that would result in the formation of the Soviet Union. In leaving, they left behind the people, the places, the smells, the memories of what they knew. Many never spoke of their homeland again. And for many, the new life they entered was as difficult, as poor, as hostile as the one they had left. That was true for Feodosia.

Many years ago, the spirit of my grandmother – Frances, as she was called in this new country – came to me, and I began to write poems about her life. Many women have known such a visitation from their grandmother. Maybe you do, also. Although my grandma did not speak English when I knew her – and she spoke very little, even when her chldren were young – the poems that came from her to me are simple, eloquent visions of her life, of the life she had given up, of the people and places she had left to journey to this unknown land. To her own children, she did not speak of her land, of her birthplace, of the people she had left behind.

Of the poems she gave to me, “Houseplants” is one of my favorites. The coleus that my grandmother grew in that rented flat in Milwaukee were beautiful, even lush. In a way, those plants were all she had. They are all she had to give to me. Here is her gift.

Houseplants

My little friends,
yellow and brown and purple and green,
I treasure you,
my hands among your leaves, 
my fingers at your roots.

My little friends,
there is so little I am good at in this world:
My children want for what they do not have.
I have only these hands among your leaves
and a few places of sunlight in the house.

My little friends,
my eyes drop, tear-less on your stalks.
I protect you from the cold in this place.
I touch you with these worthless hands
and you flourish.

Mary Elyn Bahlert/1999

Coleus, Oakland, 2021

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