On the Way to Coney Island

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I was eight or nine, rummaging through her basement, through my dead grandfather's books, when she appeared at the foot of the old see-through stairs, nostalgic and moved that I was searching through his things. There were no windows, and the only light came flooding down the length of stairs over her massive shoulders, giving a sheen to her matted gray hair. When I turned, she seemed an immigrant deity. I ran to her with this relic, so worn that the cover was indented with a palm print, the edges crumbling like petrified wood. The book seemed very mysterious. The letters weren't in English but in strange and beautiful configurations. She almost cried and sat on the bottom step. I snuggled between her legs, against her apron. She gathered me in as she opened the relic and said, "This was your grandfather's Talmud. He brought it from Russia." I remember running my little hands all over it the way I do large boulders. Her hands were huge and worked, like moveable stones themselves. She turned me by the shoulders, and with the light flooding my face, she whispered, more firmly than I had ever heard anyone whisper, "You are why we came to this country..." She took me by the chin, "You are why I live." She put the relic in my small hands. I was tentative. She gripped me to it firmly, and my small palm slid into the well of my grandfather's touch. She stood on the bottom step, blocking the light, "I love you like life itself." She reached down and sandwiched my little fingers, "These are the oldest things you own." As she waddled up the stairs, the light wavered on and off my face. Without turning, she went back to her kitchen. I stood and the light settled in the impression of Nehemiah's grip, a man I never knew, and I didn't want to leave this dingy threshold. I was afraid to climb back into the light. I stood before those stairs, a grimy little innocent, and felt like an orphan who'd been told I was a prince to a kingdom that had perished before I was born. I leafed through the strange letters, watching the light make glitter of the dust. I put the book behind a secret shelf, afraid it would crumble if brought into the world, and walked the lighted stairs, taller than I had descended. I entered her kitchen older yet still a child and climbed her lap like a throne.

A Question to Walk With: In conversation with a friend or loved one, tell the story of an important elder in your life who believed in you.

Recently, Sounds True published a major collection of my poetry, The Way Under the Way, which contains three separate books of poetry, gathering 217 poems retrieved and shaped over the past twenty years. These poems span my life's journey and they center on the place of true meeting that is always near, where we chance to discover our shared humanity and common thread of Spirit. The above poem is from the book.

For more poetry for the soul, click here.

For more by Mark Nepo, click here.