These are the streets you walked, the dust on the soles
of your shoes a finely ground gold of dried sweat,
crying hungry children, lice, disease, and dreams—
dreams of a welcoming America through hard work.
Your sweat the baptism of the abled, opiate of the hopeful,
a fuel that hangs as smog over the Brooklyn Bridge,
on the lawns of the rich whose alien workers square
edge the raveled growth of suburban grass, or work in houses
where others examine the quality of work, not good enough
or wonderful, but it is not their work. The burden of that yoke
bought by their grandparents and those before.
Born in America, native, part of the land, less than a hundred
years for most, not alien, but American. Yes, American.
Many have forgotten their own lineage of exclusion,
the cold water flats, hunger, rats, roaches and those who believed
their relatives were not worthy, dirty, smelled.
Alien, Immigrant, Refugee, Deportee: Some came through Ellis,
others by private boat or plane, some with real names
the processors could not understand, many with papers that paid
their way to a new slavery, and others who stole their entry
with money and assets.
They are all American now, through lies or truth.
I saw them hungry, watched them polish shoes in Grand
Central Station, washing cars of the middle class in Smithtown,
cleaning floors, walls of houses, pruning grass, digging graves,
cutting carrots at the local restaurants for salads. When I was a guest
in their homes for dinner, they spoke American, passed serving plates
overflowing with food, American grandness, even if later in the week
there would be little or no food. I was the honored and celebrated.
I was born in the country of their hope of hopes, their choice,
this place of refuge.
In vague outlines I have hidden, beneath posters and banners,
in the safety of silence. But I speak now for you Maria, who came from
Poland, was a Jew, to frightened to tell anyone, and celebrated your
matter-of-fact acceptance the Saturday I took you to services at Temple
Emmanuel, and for you Ich Ching, who hid in your mother’s arms as bombs
fell on your city, one of the lucky ones to survive, who worked wrapping
gifts at the local Macys, and how you treated us to New Years in Chinatown,
my mother eating shark fin soup, thousand year old eggs, venerated
like your own mother, and for you Jose, whose father was killed
by assassins, and mother passed away from grief, who danced
with me at your wedding, the dance reserved for mothers, even though
you owed me no homage. The work you did for me above all expectations.
I do not know where any of them are now; perhaps they have decided to stay.
In their eyes I saw a certain type of hope, one that irons out the wrinkles of maps,
that lays out topography of countries as tablecloths beneath the elbows of common
hungers. When I watched their faces, saw their smiles, cleared the table after supper,
I saw my family, and wept that they knew me as one of them.
GLADYS HENDERSON’s poems have been featured on PBS Channel 21 in their production, Shoreline Sonata. Nationally she was a finalist for the Paumanok Poetry Prize 2006, has received recognition in the Writer’s Digest Poetry Competitions 2008, 2009, 2012. She was named Walt Whitman Birthplace Poet of the Year in 2010, and recently was chosen as the Poet Laureate of Suffolk County 2017-2019. Finishing Line Press published her chapbook, Eclipse of Heaven in 2009.