Jan Zlotnik Schmidt/ prose poem/ A handprint in alabaster- a cornerstone of memory

What will I tell my grandchildren, maybe in a time when we are not wearing masks, checked, blue flowered, beige, with blue satin ribbon ties? When our words are not muffled by breathand spit, our smiles not clothed in despair. When we don’t watch neighbors on a walk,calculating whether they are three, six or ten feet away, or wearing masks. When like a treasure hunt, I won’t scavenge for abandoned rubber gloves, azure fingers possibly poking outof fallen rose of Sharon pink and white petals, branches and bramble, trailing grape vines, or pokeweed, gloves that define our time.

A handprint in alabaster. A cornerstone of memory. My hallucinatory image, I’ll tell them. And I don’t know what the cornerstone is. A building, a gravestone, a mausoleum? But there it is in memory, in dreams. And in one nightmare I have nobody; but still I am capable of thought, as I gaze at white marble, at the imprint of a hand, wondering why I am seeing this.

I remember a different handprint. Deep down in a cave in the Dordogne, shadowed by pale daylight, I trekked down steep, jagged rock steps to see white spotted and umber horses, sienna deer, and dark brown bison striding across contoured cave walls. Red and black pigments from rocks and earth transformed into cascading gallops, incandescent motion. Then almost in the near dark, high in the corner of the cave, I saw a handprint, the stretched-out fingers and palm of the artist, etched into stone.

What will I tell them? What is etched in memory? Will I say I saw a Broadway actor from his balcony on the West Side, belting out “The Impossible Dream” from Man of La Mancha, New York City people standing below on the sidewalk, clapping at safe distances from each other. Will I say I heard the melancholy strains of Yo-Yo Ma’s cello online, like the keening of klezmer music, or watched friends raising glasses to better times, zooming in from hazy pixels?

Or will I say I remember this: hands pressed to glass, family mouthing I love yous to figures on the other side. Will the press of our flesh endure?


Jan Zlotnik Schmidt is a SUNY Distinguished Teaching Professor of English at SUNY New Paltz in the Department of English where she teaches autobiography, creative writing, American and contemporary literature, women’s Literature, , and Holocaust literature courses.  Her work has been published in many journals and has been nominated for the Pushcart Press Prize.  She has had two volumes of poetry published by the Edwin Mellen Press (We Speak in Tongues, 1991; She had this memory, 2000) and two collections of autobiographical essays, Women/Writing/Teaching (SUNY Press, 1998) and Wise Women:  Reflections of Teachers at Mid-Life, co-authored with Dr. Phyllis R. Freeman (Routledge, 2000). Her full length volume, Foraging for Light was published in September 2019 by Finishing Line Press. She has a B.A. from University of Rochester (1969); an M.A. from University of Wisconsin, Madison (1970); and a Ph.D. from Syracuse University (1977).

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