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Washing the Streets of Holland

ISSUE:  Winter 1997

When I was twelve, I read The Diary of Anne Frank.
I identified with her having to live
stories above a busy street
over a business, and having to keep quiet
for hours at a time.
I’d pad about on tiptoe,
trying not to disturb the customers
shopping in my parents’ dress store below,
their voices drifting up through the floorboards.
I’d pretend I was eavesdropping
from Anne’s attic, while downstairs,
life went on without me.

That winter a frozen pipe cracked,
thawed, then flooded the cellar under the store.
Broken mannequins lay in heaps
and rats scuttled up through the drain.
My old books, old dolls, stuffed animals
bobbed among the giant torsos.

When the water receded,
I dredged up a china plate,
sole survivor of the Blue Willow tea set
I had when I was six.
Its boat and bridge and willow plumes,
its turtledoves hovering above a pagoda roof,
were glazed the same delft-blue as the windmills
on our tile hot plate made in Holland.

My family admired the Dutch people;
they’d hidden Jews in their houses during the War.
Once, while I was playing with my tea set,
I heard my aunt Roz say that exact thing:
“The Dutch hid Jews during the War.”
My aunts and uncles sat in the living room,
arguing the Holocaust—the inevitable subject—
who had helped and who had not.
A moment later, our German cleaning lady,
Mrs. Herman—my mother liked her—
literally scrubbed her way past,
on hands and knees, dragging her pail and rags.
My aunt Lil spoke a few sentences in Yiddish.
“What did you say?” I begged her.
Mrs. Herman had just rolled up the oval rug.
My aunt said, “Germans were bad. The Dutch were good.”

“And the streets of Holland are immaculate,”
my mother said, “because every morning
the Dutch wash their sidewalks down.”

And so I made up a game I called
“Washing the Streets of Holland.”
During my bath I’d climb out of the tub,
and sprinkle Old Dutch Cleanser on the floor.
I’d hold my breath, careful
not to inhale the deadly powder.
The Dutch Cleanser lady wore a bonnet
whose flaps completely hid her face.
In her clogs and blue skirts and clean white apron,
and with a raised stick, about to strike,
she was chasing something—or someone—
on the other side of the can.
Chases Dirt, the label said.

Naked on my hands and knees,
I’d scrub the floor with a washcloth
until my bathwater turned cold.
There was a lot of dirt in Holland;
but I was doing my part to help.
One night, my father yelled from behind the door,
“What are you doing in there?”
I was washing the streets of Holland.

Blue woman on the powder can,
blue willowware plate,
gentle brushstrokes of the pagoda roof,
blades of windmills, glazed waters of the lagoon,
blue tattoo inked in flesh,
blue ink in a diary,
blue ocean whose water is really colorless, like tears,
a flood of tears, all seven seas running together—
blurring the words
and washing them away.


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