The first time we Passagerians visited Henry Morgenthau at his home at Ingleside Retirement Community in Washington, DC this past June, we were touched by his hospitality; he even had lunch prepared for us when we arrived. We were awed by the many photos of him posing with US Presidents lining his walls; by the personalized doodle from FDR, framed and hanging across the hall from a bust of his father, FDR’s Treasury Secretary, Henry Morgenthau Jr. Henry is hard of hearing, so we spoke to him through a little microphone that we passed around during our conversation; that made the experience even more special.
We talked about the poems that were to be in A Sunday in Purgatory, as well as the possible size and “feel” of the book.
We finalized the editorial and design decisions weeks ago, and we’re expecting the book back from the printer any day now. Now that it’s so close to becoming a reality, the impact of the book is beginning to ripple outward.
This past weekend co-editor Kendra Kopelke paid Henry a second visit. Accompanying her were her husband, her brother, and all of their audio equipment. They recorded Henry reading some of his poems and talking about the experience of coming to poetry so late in life.
He didn’t turn to poetry until his 90s, and now 99, with his debut book of poems on the way, he wonders why he didn’t start sooner. “I really started working at it when I came here to Ingleside . . . I tended to be rather alone, and withdrawn . . . These poems have made a connection with people, and I think I’m a friendlier and more sensitive and considerate person. Why I waited so long, I don’t know.”
To listen to Henry read one of his poems, press play on either of the links below.
With fingers blistered by my vengeful stove,
I scrape bitter crumbs from burnt toast,
the taste of the kiss I miss the most.
Afraid to love, I made love
to the beloved of another,
never daring to come out,
I live under anonymous cover.
In a dark room I spy on life
through a grimy window.
To intimates, to those who would love me,
there are secrets I cannot bear to share
that I confess to strangers, who don’t care.
A Sunday in Purgatory
A voluntary inmate immured
in a last resort for seniors,
there are constant reminders
that go with the territory.
The reaper is lurking around that corner.
I am at home, very much at home,
here at Ingleside at Rock Creek,
Distant three miles from my caring daughter
and her family in Cleveland Park.
At Ingleside, a faith-based community
for vintage Presbyterians, I am an old Jew.
But that’s another story.
I’m not complaining with so much I want to do,
doing it at my pace, slowly.
Anticipation of death is simply like looking for a new job.
Then suddenly on a Sunday,
talking recklessly while eating brunch,
a gristly piece of meat lodges in my throat.
I struggle for breath, too annoyed to be scared.
Someone pounds my back to no avail.
Out of nowhere, an alert pint-sized waiter
performs the Heimlich maneuver.
I don’t believe it will work.
It does! Uncorked, I am freed.
Looking up I see the concerned visage and
reversed collar of a retired Navy chaplain,
pinch hitting as God’s messenger for the day.
Had he come to perform the last rites,
to ease my passage from this world to the hereafter?
Don’t jump to dark conclusions.
In World War II on active duty,
he learned the Heimlich as well as the himmlisch.
Knowing it is best administered
to a standing victim,
he rushed to intervene.
On this day I am twice blessed
with the kindness of strangers.