American Life in Poetry: Column 763


We've published several poems by Washington, D.C., poet Judith Harris, who writes beautifully about her Jewish heritage. Bruno Bettelheim, writing about fairy tales, remarked on the closeness of the relationships between young children and elderly people, and this poem touches upon that. Harris's most recent book is Night Garden, from Tiger Bark Press.

Grandmother Portrait

Here's a small gray woman
in an enormous beaver coat
standing at the end of the curb
of a street in Brooklyn, her strapped heel
about to be lowered to asphalt.
I'm strolling beside her carrying a sack,
the sidewalk shaded by cranked out awnings:
butchers, bakeries, shoe repair shops
the smell of rotting eggs,
as we climb up to her sixth floor apartment
with its plastic slip-covered chairs,
the long chain for a toilet flusher,
pocks in the plaster ceiling.
She is my Romanian grandmother
who speaks little English,
but taught me to crochet,
now lost among the broken headstones
of the old gated Jewish cemetery
we passed by that day
after buying our milk and our bread.

We do not accept unsolicited submissions. American Life in Poetry is made possible by The Poetry Foundation (, publisher of Poetry magazine. It is also supported by the Department of English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Poem copyright ©2018 by Judith Harris, "Grandmother Portrait." Poem reprinted by permission of Judith Harris. Introduction copyright © 2020 by The Poetry Foundation. The introduction's author, Ted Kooser, served as United States Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress from 2004-2006.