Sylvia Berek Rosenthal is a prolific writer. And it’s no wonder, as Rosenthal, a resident at Oakmont at Montecito in Concord, CA, who will turn 92 this August, has had plenty to write about. Her latest book, Marry Me With Marigolds, is a delicious collection of poems that reads like the spicy narrative of an interesting life. The genesis of Marry Me with Marigolds began when Rosenthal won First Prize in the 2010 Benicia Annual Love Poem contest.
The writer strongly resembles someone’s smart and jolly Nanna, with her shock of white hair, large black-framed glasses, bright floral silk jacket. She smiles gleefully. “It felt so nice for an old lady to win with a love poem,” she says about the contest.
Sylvia Rosenthal didn’t begin writing poetry until she was 75, an age when people tend to be outspoken with their truths. The poetry in this collection reflects a whole lot of truths, as it was written in the 15 years between 1997 and 2012. Many of her poems are funny and downright irreverent. Some are rich and tender. In all, her personal voice rings true. In the poem called “Maid in America,” she speaks of how her parents met.
My mother was born in Detroit.
You can’t get any more American than that
When she turned seventeen she met my father.
He spoke Yiddish and Polish
She spoke only English.
They had no trouble.
Pillow talked worked just fine.
When she turned eighteen
They celebrated by getting married.
One year later
World War One
In the book’s namesake poem, Marry Me With Marigolds, Rosenthal uses language in a way that is both playful and evocative:
Marry me with marigolds
Tempt me with your tenderness
Covet me with coriander
Favor me with foxglove
Gather me with the garden’s garland
Circle me with summer squash
Woo me with water lilies
Nurture me with nutmeg
Pamper me with peppers
Red green and
And I will stroke
Your balding head
Bake you babkas
Cook you cabbage
Pat your pot belly
If you will only
Marry me with marigolds.
Rosenthal may live in Concord, CA, but to hear her speak, you know she is pure New York, where she was a grade school teacher and guidance counselor. Her husband, George, was a ceramicist and artist. For years they lived something of a bohemian lifestyle, sojourning back and forth between New York to San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. After a time, the Rosenthals moved to San Antonio, Texas, to shorten the commute between San Miguel and the states.
It was when the couple lived in Texas, that Sylvia discovered poetry. Her husband had broken his shoulder and was recovering from surgery and she had tired of being his nurse. “I decided to take a writing class at the San Antonio branch of Texas University and the only two courses available were poetry and a business writing course,” she explains. “I wasn’t going to write letters, so poetry it was.” In San Antonio, Sylvia became deeply involved with local writing and poetry communities. In San Miguel, she wrote columns for the Atencion and El Independiente newspapers.
Her first book, Mrs. Letsaveit, is the collected body of these columns, which are mainly food literature essays very much in the style of Sonoma County’s M.F.K. Fisher. The cover of Mrs. Letsaveit features a close up photograph of some of her late husband’s ceramics. The direct and humorous essays filed between the covers of the book are redolent of a happy home as Rosenthal describes her life in Mexico through a series of narratives about cooking and eating food. “Think of it as recipes through a filter of Like Water for Chocolate,” she says, referencing the 1989 best selling book by first-time novelist Laura Esquivel. In Mrs. Letsaveit, Rosenthal writes about making bagels, corned beef, Mandelbrot, and other family favorites in Mexico, far from New York – or Texas style grocery stores.
An avid reader and writer still, Rosenthal is a member of the San Miguel PEN and San Antonio Poets; she is now involved in writing and poetry groups in the Clayton/Concord Area. Is her work fact or fiction? She smiles mischievously and replies, “I like to think of poetry is a piece of the truth, but not all of it.”