Highland Park, Illinois, 1952 to 2020

This is the house my grandparents built,
split-level brick with a brook out back.
This is my grandmother, aproned and aching
for a fourth child, who shapes dough into moons
and these are her sons who eat the moons
that my grandmother made
in the house my grandparents built.

This is the note she leaves on the table
and this is my grandfather arriving home.
This is the kitchen unusually dark
and this is the switch that turns on the light
illuminating the note which is perfectly cursived—
I’m sorry we don’t see eye to eye.
These are the hands that grip the table
that matches the chair in which he sits
in the house my grandparents built.

These are the headlights that split the night.
This is the relief that fills the split.
This is the bed where, later, they lie,
and this is the shawl that covers the belly
that grows my mother
in the house my grandparents built.

This is my mother whose hands play piano
and these are the cuts that scrape her hands.
These are the brothers who lemon the cuts,
who hide in her closet, jump out in the dark
that once cloaked the note
that my grandmother wrote
in the house my grandparents built.

This is the man my mother will marry
and here are the daughters and music they make.
These are the daughters who grow up singing,
who write songs out in ink
that they turn into sound as they travel around
and here are the stanzas left unsung
as their grandparents are buried one by one.
These are the people attending their shows
and this is the virus that keeps them at home
here, where their children say sing Mama, anyway,
who delight in the rhymes they hear in the songs
that they sing while they bake
turning dough into shapes
that melt in the mouths
that call out in the dark
that quiets the lark whose song
writes the day that lifts
the airplane that arcs
the blue as it carries
us—me, my mother, my son—
back to the house my grandparents built.



Click here to read Ariel Friedman on the origin of the poem.

Image: photo by Nazym Jumadilova on Unsplash, licensed under CC 2.0.

Ariel Friedman: My maternal grandparents designed and built a split-level, suburban Chicago home and, in 1951, with three young sons, the family moved in. Not long after, my grandmother started lobbying my grandfather for a fourth child. When he refused, she took the boys and the dog and left. My grandfather loved to tell me this story over dinner with a twinkle in his eye. “Imagine!” he’d say. “A man comes home from work to a dark, empty house. There were no cell phones back then.”

Growing up in Boston, I only visited my grandparents twice a year but when I attended college just a twenty-minute, mansion-studded drive along Lake Michigan from their Highland Park home, I saw them nearly every weekend for four years: their house, my safe haven.

This poem uses a loose, house-that-Jack-built form—the poetic equivalent of nesting dolls — to tell the story of generations: the tenacity of my grandmother in her desire for a fourth child, my mother’s childhood with three older brothers who were not always kind, my parents’ marriage and the births of their daughters, and finally the births of my children and their cousins to whom we now get to tell these stories.

The poem ends with my sister, mother, son, and me returning to Chicago when my son was a baby. My sister and I had performances in the area and my mom came along on childcare duty. On that trip, we visited my late grandparents’ home for the first time since they died in 2010, one a month after the other. We met the new owners. My six-month-old got to sit in the living room where I’d spent hours playing with my cousins. I felt my grandparents everywhere, their smell lingering after nine years in the slate-tiled powder bath and the linen closet that was once a cousins’ clubhouse. I had the distinct sense they’d come walking down the long hallway any moment, arms wide. “Ariel!” they’d grin, wrapping me tight.

Ariel Friedman
Latest posts by Ariel Friedman (see all)


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.