by Lori Rottenberg (Arlington, VA)
For my grandmother, Margot Butterfass Rottenberg (1912-1996), and her father, Shaya ‘Max’ Butterfass (1872-1932)
The past is not decent or orderly, it is made-up and devious.—Robert Pinsky, “Gulf Music”
A diamond horseshoe
to pin the cravat of a man
smart and squat, grand liar
and survivor, continental pinball—
gold to fix him
to some ground
after so many homes
passed beneath his feet.
Warsaw, New York, London,
truths carved on forms would be
chiseled by him alone:
Birthdays, dates, names,
sworn oaths to bureaucrats
whose countries didn’t want him—
interchangeable as the chickens he raised.
What mattered were the chances
he forged from an alchemy of blood:
escaping pogroms, documents that unlocked
borders like keys, wealth he could wear.
My grandmother transformed
Max’s bit of glittering luck caught
in the Weimar sun, turned tietack to ring
after he died. She carried him
on her pinky to America,
sailing on the paper boat
of citizenship that was his
legacy. She wore him
for 60 more years, married
another hard man who bent
only for her. The ring
became promise—for me,
granddaughter made daughter—
while she lived, piecing
a new life, joining
family to family.
She offered me everything
else before dying but
could not let go of her father’s
When I die you will have it.
This was a lie.
It disappeared where I was not
but should have been: at her side.
Now without the light
from her twinkling ring, reminder
of the man who birthed my future,
I pull strings of truth from tangled memory.
Almost as old as Max would live to be,
I am bloodbound to tend his words,
to pick the paper bones of his life:
all that remains of my birthright.
I am the one supposed to know,
the one to smith our story into words
that will last like gold, like diamonds.
Max’s horseshoe can’t help me
tell truth from lie—all
I see is history’s churn,
countries changing every generation,
life’s work scattered; the ring’s one
more thing lost in the journey.
But its luck is my life, my great wealth
the pinky it graced: an estate
I will claim the rest of my days.
Lori Rottenberg is a writer living in Arlington, Virginia who has published poetry in many journals and anthologies. Her most recent work on her Jewish family history will be appearing in 2023 in Minyan Magazine and Open: A Journal of Arts and Letters. Through the 2021 Arlington Moving Words competition, one of her poems was chosen to appear on county buses, and she served as a visiting poet in Arlington Public Schools for over a decade. She works at George Mason University, where she teaches writing to international students and poetry to students in the Honors College. She is in her third year of studies at the George Mason University MFA Poetry program. For more information, please see https://lrottenberg.weebly.com/ or https://yetzirahpoets.org/bios/lori-rottenberg/.