You sold coupon books
collected white elephants
dropped pennies in the pushke
while I stood on tiptoe, peered into
the can, waited days till it overflowed
till it was whisked out of our house
replaced with a new one, light
as air, empty, calling out to be full-filled.
You met in basements, dens,
living rooms with plastic-covered sofas,
coffee, rugelakh. There were matters to discuss.
I snuck down late in the evening
let the smell of coffee connect me
snitched a sweet, I snuck down
to hear my future in your voices.
The money traveled far, to children in the pictures
of letters you received and recited, sad children
sick children, children like me. And not.
You competed with other ladies
in other basements and dens
and rumpus rooms, I imagine,
with knotty-pine paneling,
around card tables, ping pong tables,
around coffee tables of carved mahogany.
I can still hear your voices of assurance
hear the clink, clink
filling the blue pushke.
Growing up in my home in Northwest Detroit in the late 50s and 60s, there was always a pushke, a donation can, for the charitable organization my mother actively supported. The can sat on our entry cabinet, and family and friends would regularly drop coins into the slot — mostly pennies, a quarter was a big donation. All the women who were active in that organization (Selma, Faye, Serena, Ann, Martha, Sophie, and others) had the same cans in their homes.
One year, my mother was recognized for her hard work and leadership in the Detroit chapter of the national organization, and our family boarded a train to Denver where she received her honor. (That train trip is a “whole nother” story, as they say.) The city of Detroit recognized her volunteer work as well. Those active movers and shakers were part of a vast, spirited, well-organized, effective, and powerful cadre of Jewish women who creatively and successfully raised funds for a plethora of charitable organizations — supporting research, programs, assistance and care.
The pushke and the meetings stuck with me, and my mother’s passionate commitment guided me — I’ve served on the board of at least one such group — though I use a virtual pushke now to support charitable organizations. All these years later, nothing compares to the aromas, the sounds and the potent sense of purpose I can so clearly recall from those days.