for Joan

︎︎︎ Travis Stephens
︎ SEPT 16, 2021

We have begun to trace the flight
of my ancestors, trying to lay claim
to the 1492 diaspora, and with it,
EU Passports for all. My son,
fair, as his Anglo father,
coaxes stories from his grandfather.
He hopes to practice law in Madrid
or the Hague. My father recalls
his mother saying that they came
from Russia, originally further west
and travelled through Turkey.
I look at him. We could never
be Ashkenazi; and I was welcomed
throughout South America as
someone returning home. In a
San Francisco restaurant the waiter
addresses me in Spanish. “Do you
know,” my daughter, astonished, “how
certain he must be?” She is shiny as
a nickel, another Gentile dad. Then,
“Hola, Maria,” she teases, “Quesadilla por favor...”

My newest husband holds his tongue,
bides his time, moody as the sea,
he reads history late at night.
“Imagine,” he said, “if Columbus had borrowed
from the Jews to pay for ships, what claim
on a new world.” Instead, necklaces,
a reluctant king’s kiss.
We did not sail in caravels
followed by birds
or in barkentines recognized by
the heavens.
We came in fetid iron tanks
where the molasses
made the rats fat and bold, their scaly
tails the color of a papist’s tongue.
Typhus, TB were some of our new
names at Ellis Island.
Lithuania? You are a painter of buggies?
Cities named Cleveland, Detroit, Tenement.
They did not let us babysit or keep the books.
Not be firemen or cops.
A relative went west and bade us.
Uncle Joe’s name is blessed,
my name a version of it.
Garment district, housepainter, pharmacist.
I was born in Los Angeles, as was my mother.
Walk home and light candles that
burn in memory, lighting the faces
of my father, my past, my son.

Travis Stephens
is a writer and tugboat captain from California. A Wisconsin native, he lives with his family in a much warmer place. His book of poems, skeeter bit & still drunk, will be published in 2022 by Finishing Line Press. Visit him at