Picture by Daniel Rozin
A story, with a moral: When I was a baby, my parents – new immigrants to the US, for whom hard work blessedly replaced introspection and, occasionally, memory itself – bought a tract house in Holly Park, Gardena, California. Next door to our corner lot, the Reinhardts: Korean-War vet Marvin, his wife KathiAnn (then expecting my future, furtive comrade Cindy), and KathiAnn’s mother, the white-haired, pouf-coiffed Grandma Florence. Who baked. And cooked. And kept the house while Marvin worked – as an aerospace engineer, just like my Holocaust-refugee-but-professional parents – and KathiAnn took steno for the bigwigs at Hughes.
As a toddler, I rocked myself to sleep. More thrash than lulling glide, I basically hurled my small self from side to side in the crib, until sleep came. My parents grew used to this behavior; it had never been an issue in our first house on Globe St., where the floors were carpeted. But the new house came with new linoleum floors and my crib, on wheels, now made a giant racket as I thrashed my way across the room, almost but never quite reaching the opposite wall. Come morning, my crib was never where it had begun. They’d push it back in place with me in it, along for the ride.
Early one Saturday, the story goes, light had barely begun to warm the cul de sac of West 141st St., and I was awake, thrashing back to sleep. The familiar sound woke my parents who, reasoning that I was safely contained within the wooden crib, elected to remain in bed. Until, that is, the street-lit silhouette of a man with a rifle loomed black and sharp on their windowshade. It was Marvin, locked and loaded, at my bedroom window. Combat-ready, he was somehow convinced of an intruder and ready to defend the homeland, even if it meant the house next door. Rifle butt to his shoulder, he took square aim for my bedroom window. And that’s what got my parents out of bed.
But in the instant, Grandma Florence, like a cold-creamed apparition, appeared, from the Reinhardts’ side of the driveway. “Marvin,” she’s said to have said. “Marvin! It’s cold to be out with no slippers. Come inside.” And as suddenly as she had appeared, Marvin’s soldier’s stance dissolved, and he turned docile, took down his gun, and padded home across the dichondra “lawn,” the screen door whacking shut behind him.
It was never openly discussed, of course, as my parents would never question their American neighbors or speak with me about what it meant, to see again, a man with a gun and all that was dear at risk. But when I overheard the story – which I did, more than once, sorting poker chips by color under the table while my parents played cards with their survivor friends – the moral was always the same. “Thank God for the grandmother. If not for the grandmother...” and then, a knowing lift of the brow, the rueful cluck through the teeth, the careful, surreptitious, symbolic (but never omitted) ptu, ptu, ptu through the fingertips, to spit out the very words that could tempt the evil eye (as if that evil eye hadn’t seen, and done, enough). There it was: Thank God for the grandmother. I wanted that protection, too.
But I didn’t have it, because I had no grandparents to protect me. By the time I figured that out, I also knew that my friends all had two grandmothers, and at least one grandfather, too.
Where was the equity in that? I had Auntie Celia, whose diamond-drooping earlobes and crepey thighs transfixed and repelled me. She was my father’s aunt, my grandmother’s sister. (Did they look alike? Could I pretend?) But was Celia almost a grandmother? No. She had real grandchildren of her own, having raised two US-born boys and a girl, well before my parents emigrated. She had real grandkids, not pretender great-nieces like me. She loved my mother, taught her about America (from her own, vintage-1916 point of view: she came alone on the boat as a young girl, between The Wars), how to make parties for big, new holidays like Thanksgiving and the Fourth of July. But my grandmother she was not. She belonged to her own grandchildren.
Auntie never spoke to me of her sister, my dead grandma. Now, I find this criminally strange, a total negation, an erasure of history. Then, it just seemed normal, part of the gigantic black abyss to which I owed my life: I realized too young that IF the six-million hadn’t died, my grandparents-aunts-cousins among them, I would never have been born. My parents would never have met without the war; no war => no meeting => no marriage => no me. Q.E.D., cause, means, and proof: Brutal, simple, and true.
Another, more opaque, story. I am 5 ½. My sister is born. My mother, who disappeared a week for the birth, is home at last. I am her happy shadow, so glad she’s back, frisking at her heels, pulling her hands, begging her to put the baby down. She needs the bathroom. I go with her, just like always. But before she sits, she lifts her housecoat and slides down her briefs, and I see it. Her body’s changed, marked: A leering scimitar of an incision stretches from hip to hip, hatched by vertical stitches in coarse black thread.
“What is that?” I say.
“It’s where the baby came out,” she says, as she tears a length of toilet tissue on the perforation and folds it in half, in quarters, eighths.
“Oh,” I say. Nothing more is mentioned.
I lay in bed at night, my curtains’ fuzzy pom-poms in one hand, my thumb snug in my mouth, and consider. I must have come out of that, too. (It does not dawn on me for years that there is another place.) So, I thought, that’s where I come from. From a bloody, sewn-up place. How did they open it up? It must have hurt a lot. Why didn’t they use matching thread? A grandmother would know, I decide. If I had a grandmother, I could know, too. I wish, as I fall asleep, that I could see my grandmas, just once. I wish I could meet them. But I can’t imagine them, beyond the three witches that enchanted Sleeping Beauty: Who were they, and why aren’t they here to help me?
There was no correcting my misconception. Another gap, never discussed. In its way, the gap itself was consistent. Much of my young life was simply ‘not’ – like knowing about my grandparents. Even bursting with curiosity, I knew to never ask. Well, that I learned. One day after I found my father’s books, I asked my parents after dinner. “Why were my grandparents killed? Were they bad?” Child of Saturday morning TV, I knew my Dudley DoRight and Rocket J Squirrel, also the Lone Ranger – good guys lived, bad guys didn’t. My mother wept and wept, her shoulders heaving as she sobbed, a cigarette burning in the ashtray; tears and smoke wreathed her face, separating her from me.
“Moye cohanu, moye cohanu,” said my father, lapsing into Yiddish or Polish or something else unknown with a giant sigh that I knew wasn’t good. “They were good, and they were killed. You don’t need to know more.” So, I left the kitchen.
My father’s books were, even more than Celia’s drooping skinfolds and pale, gartered, wobbly thighs, irresistible and repulsive in one. My father kept them hidden in his nightstand, behind a metal box of Important Papers and his shoeshine kit: Spine-cracked paperbacks called HIMMLER and AUSCHWITZ and two big, thick hard-backed books about the Reich and the Jews. The paperbacks’ newsprint pages were dense with tiny type that I couldn’t read, but there were sections of slick, white pages with grainy black and white photos in the middle of each book: of trains, of ghettoes, of tangled limbs; of people so skinny you couldn’t tell if they were boys or girls, much less alive or dead. I sneaked looking at these pictures whenever I could – when my parents were at work and my babysitter was distracted, or now, when my father and mother were at the kitchen table, in their own world of smoke and whispered Polish – so I was safe to pad into their bedroom, ease open the night-table door, and take HIMMLER back to my room, where I read the captions over and over and tried, in the heaps of faces and upturned, socketed eyes, to find someone who looked like me.
Cindy’s father Marvin had secret stuff, too, but his was hidden in his shop in the garage, and therefore, much easier to explore. We found a pinup calendar in the shop: January was a blonde perched on her knees, in a powder-pink baby doll pajama, with a sweet smile and Veronica Lake hair, and red-lacquered fingertips that grazed her dimpled, rosy kneecaps. When we lifted the plastic film that was the calendar’s cover, the beautiful girl was naked, nipples pink as peonies against milk-white skin. Her clothing was printed on the clear plastic film, a gesture toward minimal propriety. From February forward, clothing was dispensed with entirely, and a year’s worth of blushing, bouncing, bountiful young women straddled, lounged, and draped themselves on props befitting the seasons. We stole the calendar and hid it in Cindy’s room: We knew, somehow, that if her father had hidden it in his workshop drawers, he would not ask to have it back.
In the afternoons, when our parents worked and Cindy’s Grandma Florence watched her shows on the TV, we took out the calendar and copied the poses, studying them carefully, critiquing our little bodies’ imitations of the shapes: we perched on drawer-corners, arching our backs and tossing our hair; we lay upside down from Cindy’s bed, but couldn’t figure out how August’s beautiful girl could both reach the floor with her hands and stay on the bed without falling. One too many thumps brought Grandma Florence into the room, where she discovered the two of us, in our panties, and Marvin’s calendar on the floor, wide open to August.
“Girls!” Her pale cheeks got whiter than usual. “Put your clothes back on!”
She lifted up the calendar by its spiral-wire binding and laid the pages and the cover back in place.
“You know you shouldn’t go into your father’s things, young lady,” she said to Cindy, her gray eyes unblinking. “You know better.” As she stood there, she seemed to thaw, and with her free hand, pushed a strand of Cindy’s hair back behind her ear: Her pigtails had come loose in our exertions. “Why don’t you girls come into the TV room and I’ll do your hair?” she said. She patted Cindy’s bangs flat and quickly looked at me, and left the room, her slippers soft against the floor.
That was it. There was no anger, no punishment. As far as I knew, and know today, she never spoke to my parents of her discovery (although I never spoke of it to them, either). She gave us raisin cookies and cold milk in tall glasses, and fixed Cindy’s pigtails, and brushed my ponytail back into its elastic. She was a Grandma, and she knew what to do to make something bad into something better.
Her hands were different than my mother’s. Her touch was different, too – less strong, less everything. Her hands in my hair were like a breeze, the vaguest draft, and the cookies she’d baked were sweet. Life was simple, and we weren’t in trouble. This was what it was to have a grandmother.
But that was one afternoon, one hour. In my life, real grandparents were simply not. Not mentioned, not remembered, not evoked, often not named: I didn’t know my father’s father’s name until my second daughter was born; I asked because I wanted to name her in his honor. Still, I don’t know their birthdays; when I became older and braver and started to ask, I learned my parents did not know the dates, either, saying “we didn’t celebrate such things,” brushing me off. I don’t know when they died. (I do know where: Treblinka, for the most part.) Years later, when my sister, an artist, drew a “likeness” of our grandparents and aunts, the image she crafted was a likeness of nothing, a figment of her life’s mental fabrication: Who were they, after all? As we grew up, we heard a few vignettes, but like strands of a phantom melody, they were impossible to place and incomplete.
When my first daughter was born, my mother flew across the country on the red-eye and appeared, dressed to kill, in the hospital before 6 am. Visiting hours started at 9, but doubt her at your peril: she had gotten past the guards and the nurses and she was there. She might have flown all night, from Los Angeles to New York, to meet her first grandchild, and by God, she looked fantastic: Houndstooth jacket in cream and black, sharp-creased black slacks, a ruby and pearl necklace, a fresh manicure. She had barely slept on the plane, but when she got out of that taxicab, pow! She was a bombshell, sizzling in anticipation: Where was the baby?
Six hours old, my tiny, perfect baby met her grandmother, who immediately said, “She has my mother’s nose.” With the knee-jerk insolence of new motherhood, I flatly denied it: “She has her own nose,” I said. I felt wronged, outraged: Why does she want part of this baby for her own? This is my baby, I made her, I bore her, I don’t want to share her. I felt threatened, by the absent boundaries, the lack of respect for me and my husband (couldn’t it be his family’s nose?), the sheer nerve of her outsize sense of ownership. Then, I would’ve denied it, but now I know, I also felt jealous: Why should my daughter have some part of my grandmother when I have nothing of her but our name? Why does my baby get the birthright, and not me?
I am still jealous of my children, if far less rabidly so, because they know exactly who and where they came from: One hums rambling melodies, happy and oblivious, like her grandmother. One looks so much like her aunt that she’s confused by baby pictures, thirty years apart. My son has my father’s eyes, just where the outside corners meet the cheekbone. My children know they belong to generations – a shorter thread on my side, with many beads missing, and a strand laden full of family on my husband’s, with objects that tell their stories: Silver cups and etched crystal glasses, the Belgian great-grandmother’s trousseau linens, embroidered for her by needle-wielding nuns. I make the butter cookies that same great-grandmother ate as a girl, and that she baked for my husband, as a grandmother.
And still, I look in the mirror. Some mornings, my face is rumpled as a bedsheet and I try to catch a glimpse of them in me as I brush my teeth and wash: Of my grandfather the leather-merchant, Gitman Meyer, who should often have been harder on his many accounts and could play chess from memory, away from the board, and beat every comer. Of his savvy, street-smart, stubborn wife Esther, who raised four children and built their leather business into a source of prewar wealth and stability. Of Stefan, my tall, patient Warsaw grandfather, who in my mind is a Polish-accented blend of Carson Drew (girl detective Nancy’s father) and David Niven, who stood by the plateglass window with my mother, coaxing her to drink a spoonful of milk whenever the streetcar passed. But I don’t see them; they are barely storybook folk, to me; barely fables, not flesh and blood. And my aunts Nadzia, Bronia and Renia, three sad ciphers, and my mother’s mother, my namesake Helenka: ungraspable, not even smoke.
I am their age now, or beyond, the age at which they met their ends. I owe my life to their deaths; this is my truth, and even so, I can’t deal with it directly every day. The only response is to live – not the lives they didn’t finish, which is of course impossible. But to live my own. To honor who I think they might have been – whoever gave me the straight hair my parents never had, or the love for words and music, or the wild streak that was as foreign to my parents as street Turkish. Who they were, I will never know. But I am their product, and my own, and a link, past to present and into the future, with my children carrying that same shtetl DNA forward, its mysteries entirely locked.