A Literary Magazine in Support of the Jewish Community

Back to Issue Eleven


"Mum" by Lesléa Newman


The moon, that unblinking eye in the sky watches

warily as I tiptoe downstairs on icy feet

to sneak the treats my mother won’t allow

me to eat: Ring Dings, Yodels, Oreos, Devil Dogs,

Nutty Buddies, all bought for my sliver

of a brother and strictly forbidden

to me, the daughter who was told only

this morning, “Do yourself a favor and lose

a little weight,” my father brandishing his butter

knife and scowling at the untouched pancake

plopped across my breakfast plate. “Eat, Mameleh,

I don’t need all this,” said my grandmother who tried

to foist her food onto me, my father, my brother,

my mother, and failing to do so, lowered her dish

down to the floor to feed the dog

who happily obliged her. But I knew better

than to eat today of all days, the day my mother

drags me to the doctor’s office, where I am stripped

of everything but my shame and made to stand

on a cold, heartless scale as the doctor narrows

his eyes and slides a metal marker up up up

past fifty pounds, sixty pounds, seventy,

eighty, ninety pounds, stopping just shy

of the dreaded century mark.

The doctor sighs, my mother sighs,

the scale sighs as I step off,

dress, and wait while my mother

and the doctor discuss the disgustingness

of me, whose only crime is living

in a body that just won’t quit

growing, blooming, blossoming, bursting

into something monstrous as The Hulk

stomping through my brother’s comic books

no matter how much I deny it.

And now at last it is midnight and I am lightly

floating through the dark, creeping closer

and closer to the quiet kitchen

with its hidden treasures huddled

together behind the Frigidaire’s door.

But as I put one foot across the threshold

I see something that stops me cold,

my grandmother hunched over the counter

next to the sink, her bulky body covered

in a flowered housecoat (Grandma, why

do you wear a coat in the house?)

her flat feet stuffed into scruffy slippers

that were once bright green but are now dull gray,

the bald spot at the crown of her head glowing

like a distant star. In one hand she holds

a silver knife that glints in the moonlight,

her other hand pinning something huge

mottled, and unmoving to my mother’s

worn wooden cutting board.

I know I should not be seen

seeing this so I turn to go as my grandmother

who is deaf but hears everything turns

to me. To my surprise she smiles,

and then without a word goes back to hacking

off bite-sized pieces of the mound of marbled

muscly meat lolling before her, the pink part

of the cow no one else in the family

can stomach but tastes sweeter

to my grandmother than chocolate tastes

to me. Once more she turns from the counter, dangling

a boiled bumpy-edged slimy slice from the tip of her blade

and I take it, knowing this is our delicious salty secret:

my grandmother and I remaining mum,

as we silently, greedily both bite our tongue.

Lesléa Newman

Lesléa Newman has created 85 books for readers of all ages including the dual memoir-in-verse, I Carry My Mother (Headmistress Press, 2015) and I Wish My Father (Headmistress Press, 2021), the novel-in-verse, October Mourning: A Song for Matthew Shepard (Candlewick Press, 2012), and the children’s books, The Babka Sisters (Kar-Ben Publishing, 2023), Welcoming Elijah: A Passover Tale With A Tail (Charlesbridge, 2020), and Ketzel, the Cat Who Composed (Candlewick Press, 2015). Her literary awards include poetry fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Massachusetts Artists Foundation, two National Jewish Book Awards, two American Library Association Stonewall Honors, the Association of Jewish Libraries Sydney Taylor Body-of-Work Award, and the Massachusetts Book Award. Her newest children’s book, Joyful Song: A Naming Story (Levine Querido, 2024), celebrates the arrival of a new baby into a Jewish two-mom family. Information about her work can be found at www.lesleanewman.com.



Leslea Newman
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