My Grandmother the Mohel

By Barbara Hamby

Featured Art: Study of a Baby by Fredrick Goodall

When I tell my mother that a man I know pickets the local hospital
about what his wife calls “his topic” that is, circumcision
and its evils, she tells me this was my grandmother’s specialty
as a nurse, and I say, “You’re kidding.” “No. The doctor
she worked for couldn’t stand it, so she did all his circumcisions.
She loved it!” Loved it? I think—cutting the tips off
boys’ penises? Loved what? The precision? The power? The cries?
I remember sitting with my mother and grandmother
when I was seven or eight, pretending to play, so I could listen
to them talk in front of my grandparents’ house
in Washington, 328 Maryland Avenue, and down the tree-lined street
you could see the Capitol dome looming. A couple
were walking on the sidewalk, and they waved at my grandmother,
who smiled and waved back. “Are they married?”
my mother asked when they passed. “No,” my grandmother
answered, “they’re just shacked up.” The cups of my ears
gathered around those words like ravenous Venus Fly Traps,
because this was just what I had been waiting for,
though I had no idea what it meant, and I knew I couldn’t ask
or my doll dressing and tuneless singing would be exposed
for the subterfuge they were, and I’d be exiled into the house,
and this was before my grandfather died, who didn’t think
a woman should drive, but my grandmother taught herself,
her two little girls in the back seat screaming
as the car jerked over the dirt road behind their house in Kentucky,
and then after he died, she went to school and became a nurse,
but fifty years later I’m chatting with a man on a plane, who’s returning
home after spending the day in New York because
he is a mohel and has made this long trip to snip the tip off
some little boy’s penis, and I think of Mantegna’s painting
of the circumcision of Christ at the Uffizi and kosher laws which
forbid eating crustaceans, which would mean a sacrifice
of gumbo, boullabaisse, cioppino and fish soups the world over,
and it was the fried Apalachicola shrimps that broke
the back of my vegetarianism, what in Louisiana they call
“sramps,” and I’ve heard them called “pinks,” “prawns,”
and sometimes when I’m standing over the stove making a roux
my life seems to be a kind of gumbo, and if you don’t burn
the water-and-flour paste, then it doesn’t much matter what else
you throw in, but okra is a must and a couple dozen
oysters, andouille sausage, all your dark mistakes mixed in
with the brilliant medals and diamond tiaras,
and my grandmother told me she went to her wedding
in a horse and buggy, a seventeen-year-old girl,
probably a virgin, and little did she know where that road
would lead her, from canning tomatoes and corn
to snipping the tips off thousands of penises to the nursing home
where she died, shacked up with all her selves,
that particular gumbo stewing in a body withered by 93 years,
not knowing anything but that she’d rather be eating
ice cream, driving to Memphis, frying chicken, mashing
potatoes, baking a cake with blackberries
her daughters picked that morning before walking to school.

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