Friday, March 29, 2013

What My Father Believed: An Easter Post

My father grew up in poverty, an orphan working on a farm in Poland. When he was 20, he was taken to a concentration camp in Germany.  He didn't have much education at all, could barely read and write. But he had faith. This is a poem about what he believed.

What My Father Believed

He didn’t know about the Rock of Ages
or bringing in the sheaves or Jacob’s ladder
or gathering at the beautiful river
that flows beneath the throne of God.
He’d never heard of the Baltimore Catechism
either, and didn’t know the purpose of life
was to love and honor and serve God.

He‘d been to the village church as a boy
in Poland, and knew he was Catholic
because his mother and father were buried
in a cemetery under wooden crosses.
His sister Catherine was buried there too.

The day their mother died Catherine took
to the kitchen corner where the stove sat,
and cried.  She wouldn’t eat or drink, just cried
until she died there, died of a broken heart.
She was three or four years old, he was five.

What he knew about the nature of God
and religion came from the sermons
the priests told at mass, and this got mixed up
with his own life.  He knew living was hard,
and that even children are meant to suffer. 
Sometimes, when he was drinking he’d ask,
“Didn’t God send his own son here to suffer?”

My father believed we are here to lift logs
that can’t be lifted, to hammer steel nails
so bent they crack when we hit them.
In the slave labor camps in Germany,
He’d seen men try the impossible and fail.

He believed life is hard, and we should
help each other.  If you see someone
on a cross, his weight pulling him down
and breaking his muscles, you should try
to lift him, even if only for a minute,
even though you know lifting won’t save him.


Garrison Keillor reads my poem at his Writers Almanack.  Click here: 


Anonymous said...

Like so many times when I have tried to express my feelings after reading your poems, I am now into my third or fourth version. I want to convey something about how much your words mean to all of us who have learned late in life what happened in Poland in WWII. But I always fall short. But I'll say it again....your writings and readings and speaking engagements are among the most important efforts of any out there. Your work grabs the heart and forces one to deeply think about events that have been, for many reasons, kept in deep shadows. Therein lies a problem...the most common reaction to have to face horror is not to confront it but to quickly run back into the safety of sunshine of our daily lives. To stay away from that which hurts too much to think about. Something's are too painful to dwell upon too much. But like that car accident, we rubber neck to see how bad it was, knowing we can keep driving away from the human wreckage and misery. We hope that never happens to us. So on we drive, slowed down temporarily by our collective curiosity, swearing about the traffic jam, that terrible mess of things meant to flow easily, that we became part of....just by being in the wrong place at the wrong time. For the lucky some, a traffic jam may be their most traumatic challenge. For others, like your parents-the wrong place can not be so easily driven away from.

Jannett Matusiak said...

Very moving poem John. I agree with the comment above. Hard to express my feelings after reading it. It just resonates. No words.