“Mom, am I what you were?” asks my ten year old child.
“What are you?” I reply.
“What were you?” he responds.
Fathers and daughters, husbands and wives, sons and mothers. We are defined by our relationships – a web of articulated bonds.
I learned about the “Maradona” from my soccer-crazed younger son. Named after a famous Argentinian soccer player, it’s a move that involves faking to your right while kicking the ball with your left foot. Or something like that. I pretended to understand as my son flicked the ball, seemingly dancing on the field of green grass.
What my sister and I grew up to fear most was failure. The inability to meet expectations. More specifically, the goals set by parents and family:
- We must be a high-minded and productive member of society, ergo, a doctor, lawyer, teacher or, lower on the status pole, a social worker.
- We must be philanthropical, which requires our being wealthy.
- We must be the best, code for the smartest in the room.
- We must be a mentsch, but also pleasing to the eye.
- We must conquer the world, but in a nice way.
- And, most important of all, we must be more successful than the children of their friends.
So what my sister and I came to dread, most of all, was being mediocre. When you are a child of Holocaust survivors, plain living is a denouement. Bleeding gums is not a tragedy. Although, my family heirloom, passed down to me from my mother – were my grandmother’s dentures, the only keepsake my mother could sneak into her pocket as her mother lay dying in Auschwitz. The specter of my mother weighing 80 pounds at the time of her liberation – what am I to do with that image knocking around in my head? Or seeing her agonize over her guilt at outliving her two sons, aged four and six, taken out to a field and shot as she, along with the remaining Jews in her town’s ghetto, were loaded onto trains during the final deportation to Treblinka.
My parents met after liberation, in a DP camp in Germany. Two lost souls, they found each other and, together, attempted to wend their way through a world of shadows and ghosts. They went on to have two children, my sister and me. The irony was in my recognition, early in life, that, but for Hitler, I would not have been born. My existence shaped by hearing my mother’s cries at night, wracked by the shame of having survived and, in so doing, wanting children again. Her ambivalence at having been given a second chance at being a mother.
My parents immigrated to the States, landed in New York City in 1950. They wound up running a restaurant in the basement of a magnificent Beaux-Art mansion on the corner of Madison Avenue and 78th street. They were handed this opportunity by the Jewish Labor Bund. The building was owned by the Atran Foundation and housed various Jewish charities and philanthropies. The idea was to have a cafeteria that would feed the inhabitants of the place. But, through the years, news of my mother’s succulent roast chicken and sumptuous mushroom barley soup spread among the gallery and boutique owners of the Upper East Side, so that, with time, well-dressed doyennes of Fifth Avenue mixed with staff from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Jewish artists and socialists, and hungry students from the art institute down the block (to whom my mother would serve a heaping bowl of soup and chunk of bread for fifty cents) all crowded into the cafeteria. Everyone, as equals, seated around small tables covered with red-and-white checked tablecloths, cigarette smoke hovering over conversations occurring in a babel of languages, from Yiddish to English to French to Italian to German.
My sister and I helped, in the kitchen, washing thousands of dishes by hand. There were three sinks – one to spray the dishes, the second to soak them in soapy water, the third to rinse them in boiling hot clean water. We would then stack the dishes on wooden tracks to dry, beads of perspiration forming on their surfaces.
“The dishes are crying,” my father would say. My father – a poet. Go figure. This was my world, one my own children will never know, could not fathom. The birth of my consciousness.
As for my mother- well, when we were little, she would tell us the tale of her seven years of enchanted living. Born into a family with too many daughters, in a small town in Poland, she was sent to live with her grandparents, to work in their tiny buttons-and notions store. Growing up, she was always hungry, lonely and cold. She could hear her friends playing in the courtyard outside the store, in the early evening. She was made to stay inside and retire early, to be ready for the next day of work. Her future was bleak, in this village with no escape.
In spite of these circumstances, she had grown into a beautiful eighteen-year-old. On a sultry summer day, a rare day off, swimming at a lake with her family, she caught the eye of the good doctor – a sought-after eligible bachelor twenty years her senior. He was a prominent member of the Jewish elite, a member of the Bund, had an apartment at the Jewish Hospital over which he presided. He started courting her. Her family incredulous, one of her aunts stating that a cactus would sooner grow from her hand than the good doctor would marry my mother. But propose he did – instead of a ring, he gave her a bicycle. And whisked her away.
There followed seven years of utter joy – working as a nurse beside this man she adored, safe in his arms, surrounded by friends, no longer hungry or cold. She was Cinderella, at home at last with her prince. And with time, two children were born, two boys. Hearing this story, how could my sister and I not grow up believing that a prince would appear in our own lives and carry us away to a castle of our own? Or, at the very least, to a spacious three-bedroom ranch in Westchester.
All was like a fairy tale – until Germany’s invasion of Poland in 1939. So while we envisioned joy in our future, we were also taught its flip side – that one must pay for one’s happiness. That life, in the end, is a Greek tragedy. And my mother paid, with the death of her husband and two sons.
Her strength to live on is something I can’t begin to comprehend. Her ability to love again – nothing short of miraculous. Her agonizing and self-demonizing guilt over her ability to do both – heart-breaking. I am humbled by my mother’s ferocious will. She was just a woman in love, who had it all and lost it, and then tried to rebuild the happiness she had once known. Nothing ever measured up in this recreation. How do we live with that?
Two days before my father died, he asked me to trim his hair. He was always very particular about personal hygiene. He claimed that the sole reason he survived the camps, from September, 1942 until April, 1945, when he was liberated, was because he kept himself clean, washing himself in the snow outside the barracks. My father was mostly a quiet man – he didn’t share much about his life in Poland before the war, his time in the camps, or the wife and daughter he lost. I cut his fine, gray hair in the companionable silence that was our way together. His love for me had been evident throughout our lives together – as my mother left early in the morning to prepare the food at the cafeteria, my father had taken care of getting my sister and me off to school. He braided my hair and filled my lunch box with overstuffed pastrami sandwiches (god forbid his children would ever feel the hunger he had). He paid for private college and law school. And he absolutely and unconditionally loved the two grandsons I gifted him, my boys. An unassuming man, who led a quietly exceptional life in the love and fortitude he exhibited to those around him. No man could ever live up to that.
They have long since passed, my parents and most of my family. Their stories are branded in my memory, their souls enfolded in mine. What will happen when I am gone?
Chicken soup (what else?) –
1 whole chicken
3 large carrots
3 celery stalks
2 yellow onions
1 large parsnip
¼ cup dill
1 T kosher salt
Freshly ground pepper
Place the chicken, carrots, celery, onions, parsnip and dill in a large soup pot and cover with cold water by one inch. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat to low and gently simmer, skimming off any foam that accumulates, until the chicken is tender and falling off the bone (about 2.0 hours).
Remove the chicken and vegetables from the pot and let cool. Strain the broth through a sieve and return to the pot. Remove the chicken meat from the bones and chop. Discard the dill. Slice the vegetables into bite size pieces and return the vegetables and chicken to the pot. Stir in salt and pepper, to taste. Serve hot.