badgerlady: (Default)
Before Will was born, my seventeen-year-old sister came to live with us and finish her last year in high school in Waltham. The dominant note was struck when she came to the breakfast table her first morning.

“Good morning, Jan, did you sleep well?” Ned asked.

“I consider that question an invasion of my privacy.”

We chuckled.

“This is not a joke,” she said sternly. “I do not wish to be questioned about my personal wellbeing.” Oi.

One criticism Jan had of our ways resulted in a tradition that lasted the span of our marriage. Our first Christmas away from the parents, we spent our last $5 on a spavined, rickety tree, set it up, then realized we had no boxes of decorations in the attic—not that we had an attic, either.

I went into the kitchen. I baked gingerbread cookies and some poppyseed ones based on oil in honor of Hanukkah, polished apples, studded oranges with cloves, strung cranberries and popcorn; I think that first time I also gilded and threaded some walnuts, but that was time-consuming and difficult and was later abandoned. But we had our decorations.

As we stood proudly contemplating the result, Jan said scornfully, “Well, I can see using things you have around the house, but they should be nicer things, like antique gold coins.”

Of course, if we’d had antique gold coins lying around the house, we could’ve afforded decorations. But we took her observation to heart and thereafter hung the gold-foil-covered chocolate coins called Hanukkah gelt on our tree.

Years later, she mentioned in passing that her friends all howled at the “funny stories” she told about her year with us. I’ve never had the courage to ask her what they were.

There were other people in our lives, not as central as my sister or those friends who broke off with us so unaccountably, but part of the fabric of our days nonetheless: our neighbors. I don’t remember the exact chronologies of who lived in our four-flat building when, and I don’t remember the inhabitants of the apartment in the lower right corner (we were in the upper left) at all, but the ones I do remember influenced us in various ways that left their marks on us.

For some time, the women who lived downstairs and next door were both named Andrea, one called Drea and the other Andi. They had similar backgrounds to us financially and educationally, and they were both Jewish.

Andi and her husband, Randy Stern, had a tumultuous relationship. She was the child of Holocaust survivors who were pathologically enmeshed with their only offspring. For instance, they called her “Hitler child”—i.e., like a child who would inform on her parents to the Gestapo—because, when she became an adolescent, she wanted to close the bathroom door when she was using the john.

This kind of experience may explain why she was willing to put up with Randy for so long. He was the guy Ned lost that crucial $10 to and swore he never would lose at cards to again. He was true to his word, but Randy thought very highly of himself and was convinced Ned’s “winning streak” was a fluke, so kept stubbornly trying to break it.

He was also a philanderer of a particularly vicious kind. He encouraged his floozies to call him at home and taunt his wife with their existence. He had brought one into the apartment while Andi was in the hospital having their son, who was our Sarah’s age. She had returned to find not only that this woman was sleeping in their bed, but that Randy had deliberately contaminated her kosher kitchen with bacon. Then this charmer proceeded to harass her because she insisted on nursing their little boy, which he thought would diminish the attractiveness of her breasts and encroach on his private preserve. He’d threaten to call National Geographic to photograph her whenever she engaged in this “primitive” activity.

I don’t remember what he did for a living, but he must have been successful at it, because they presently moved into a beautiful, big new house. I visited there the day she’d finally decided to leave him, unbeknownst to him. As the movers loaded the furniture into the van, he called from work, checking up on her as he frequently did. “Yes,” she told him, “I’m having a good day. Mary’s here for lunch, and I’m working on the house. You’ll be surprised at how clean it is when you get home.”

The other Andrea, Drea Silverberg, was married to a lawyer named Kyle. They had a little boy the year before Will was born. We looked after him on a regular basis and he grew quite attached to Ned, who was always a genius with small children.

The three of us women, stay-at-home moms since I’d quit my job after Will was born, got along quite well. We also developed some strategies that opened my eyes to possibilities different from the standard model of nuclear families each in their separate but essentially identical houses.

First, Andi told me there was no reason Ned and I had to keep schlepping dirty clothes to the Laundromat when she had a perfectly good washing machine in the building’s basement. So I used hers, then she left it to me when they moved out; I in turn shared it with the next tenant of her apartment, and ceded it to her when we left.

Andi and Drea and I also began having lunch together every day, feeding each other our own leftovers—much more interesting and satisfying than eating in solitude the tired remnants of meals we’d already had once. At night, after the kids were in bed, we three couples would get together for dessert and coffee, turn and turn about.

Speaking of when the kids were in bed, we also practiced what Andi called “fire and disaster patrol”: if any of us went out for the evening, we’d notify the others and leave our apartment door standing open so they could respond if our kid woke up or anything untoward happened. The idea makes me shudder now, since in addition to the possibility of something going wrong that the neighbors wouldn’t be aware of, the door leading into the building was unsecured, so anyone could have gotten into our apartment. But we were innocently blithe about it at the time.

On our second anniversary, before Jan came to live with us, I read to Ned for an hour—the book at that time was Moby-Dick—then made us a rare treat, a steak dinner. I don’t remember what the dessert was, but it was something Ned decided needed whipped cream. The little supermarket was only a block away; I went ahead and put the steaks in the broiler while he made a quick run.

The steaks were done and congealing on the plates and he still wasn’t back. Baby Sarah was asleep, the clock was ticking, and the apartment stayed ominously quiet. After half an hour, I was starting to panic. I went downstairs, knocked on the Silverbergs’ door, explained what was going on, and asked them to keep an ear out for Sarah while I ran down the block to see what had happened to Ned. They agreed, with strangely solemn and serious faces.

“Don’t worry,” Drea said. “I’m sure it will work out.”

“These things happen to the best of us,” Kyle added. The slight hint of smug satisfaction in his tone made me realize what they were thinking.

The chapter I’d been reading Ned was full of dialogue between sailors shouting from the rigging. They’d heard my raised voice and thought we’d been quarrelling.

“Oh, no,” I said. “I was reading aloud.”

“Sure,” Kyle said condescendingly, patting my arm.

I didn’t have time to argue with them, so went on to check on Ned. The holdup was so typical of him I couldn’t even be mad about it. On coming out of the market, he’d seen a bird struggling to get airborne in the middle of the road in rush-hour traffic. He didn’t want to pick it up for fear he would injure it and/or his scent on it would cause the other birds to attack it (he had a vivid imagination). So for the past half hour, he’d been standing in the middle of the road directing cars around the little feathered bundle. Shortly after I got there, it had finally flopped its way to the vacant lot on the other side, whereupon I convinced him that his duty was done and he could come home to our once-festive dinner.

I never did convince the Silverbergs what had really happened, though. Who could believe it?

Another person who couldn’t believe the nature of our relationship was Kathy O’Toole from across the street. A lot of yelling came from their apartment, and I guarantee it wasn’t because anyone was reading aloud. I’d had a few encounters with her; she had four children—the eldest was five years old, and retarded—and one of them was Sarah’s age. When Sarah turned two, I’d invited this child and several others from the neighborhood to a birthday party. None of them showed up. Little Sarah sat at the end of the table I’d set up in the yard, surrounded by party paraphernalia, eating cake all by herself.

So I wasn’t feeling too kindly disposed when Kathy showed up at my door one afternoon. Still, her face looked bleak and she was clearly nervous as she asked to come in, so I sat her down and offered her tea. “I’ve just put up some bread dough,” I said, showing off. She didn’t react; I’m not sure she understood what I meant. She certainly didn’t care. After some chitchat, she launched into the reason she had come.

“I wanted to talk to you because I know you’re an educated Catholic,” she said. “I don’t know what to do. I thought I was pregnant again. The last time, Jim wouldn’t even drive me to the hospital; I had to call my mom. Then he promised me there wouldn’t be any more, but last month we went to a hockey game, and you know how that is, after.”

It was my turn not to understand. Then I did, and stared into the abyss. I pulled myself together enough to attend to her question, which was, “Do you think I’m going to hell if I use birth control? Father says I am.”

Now I knew where I was. Having two kids so close together myself had crystallized my thinking on the subject. “‘Father’ has never had kids,” I said firmly. “He doesn’t know a thing about it. For one thing, you can’t be a good mom with so many coming so close together; nobody could. It’s your duty to use birth control. God’s not going to be mad at you about that.”

“What should I say in Confession?”

“Don’t mention it. Your conscience should be clear; you’re not committing any sin. It’s none of his business.”

About then, Ned came in the back door, home from the university. She immediately started gathering up her things. Obviously, now the man was home, it was time for whatever the women were doing to end. “No, no, stay,” I said.

She sat back with a look of trepidation on her face, but also a determined expression that told me she thought she was doing me a reciprocal favor. I’d mentioned earlier that I’d driven over a speed bump too fast that morning and had had to have the car’s muffler repaired. It occurred to me that she was staying in solidarity, thinking she could be a buffer between me and an angry husband.

Without thinking it through, I casually said to Ned as he walked into the room, “I racked up the muffler today.”

“God, you’re clumsy,” he said cheerfully. “Hi, Kathy. Would you ladies like some more tea? I just put the water on.”

I turned to Kathy to see an expression that must have been similar to the one I wore after the hockey game remark: she was looking into another world, one she hadn’t known existed. I hope it was inspiring rather than discouraging. They moved shortly thereafter and I lost track of her.

Another couple that embodied a world of violence and unbridled emotion occupied the downstairs flat after the Silverbergs moved on. They were white-collar and college-educated, but that didn’t stop him from beating her on a regular basis. We called the police once, then listened at the door as she insisted to them, “No, no, we were just yelling around.”

The next time it happened, Jan, who was living with us by then, said loudly, “Do you hear that?”

Dead silence fell downstairs, then there was some furious whispering. We never heard any more hitting; I hope that means there wasn’t any. But they hated us for it, both of them.

The people who’d moved into Andi and Randy’s place next door liked us. Hal Gigante was a construction worker on some kind of away job when they first took the apartment, so we got to know his wife, Shirley, first. She was rough-edged and blunt-talking and sometimes drank too much, but she had a generous heart and a robust sense of humor and we enjoyed her company. Knowing she was over there alone, we revived the communal ten-o’clock coffee-and-dessert ritual (I soon discovered the lunch-swapping wouldn’t work with her; she thought my leftovers were weird).

When Hal came home, he was doubtful about joining us. He didn’t think he’d fit in with a “college guy.” After the first evening, though, she told us later, he’d said in amazement, “He’s just like a regular feller.”

Shirley’s son by her first marriage had been born when she was only sixteen. She was the youngest of eleven girls; after their parents died, she was passed around among them and had a spotty education in life as well as academics. She didn’t realize she was pregnant for months, then when she went into labor didn’t understand what the cramps meant. They brought her to the hospital, where she was given an enema and sat on a portable toilet wheeled to her bedside. Then they closed the lid and rolled it away. When the nurse came to check on the progress of her dilation, she said, “Oh, no, I already had the baby. They took it away in that thing.”

That boy was now in Vietnam. She frequently spoke of her longing for the day when, as she always put it, “He comes walking in that door.” She never admitted, aloud at least, to the possibility that such a day might never come.

Happily, it did come. I remember him sitting for hours on our shared back landing, shivering in the mild Boston spring and dry-firing his M-1 across the back yard toward the woods beyond.

Last I heard, though, he had settled into a life with kids and a wife Shirley enthusiastically tried to bully, unsuccessfully by her account.

So we had a potpourri of experiences and influences helping us construct a life pattern that suited us.
badgerlady: (Default)
I had never learned to drive. Early in my high school years, I’d repeated to my mother something I’d heard an upperclassman say: “That car is God in our house; whenever they want me to do something, they hold it over my head.” I’d mentioned it because I thought it was a stupid and unfair approach; I was horrified to realize what ammunition I’d handed Mom when a smug smile came over her face and she said, “That’s the way it’s going to be around here, too.”

Give her that weapon? Never. So those first days in Waltham, I’d sit in the motel with the baby while Ned ran errands and looked for a place for us to live. I don’t know what I was doing the day he registered at Brandeis, though, but I know I wasn’t watching Sarah—we have the pictures they obligingly shot of her as for a student ID.

He found one place I never set eyes on, but its image is clear in my mind as he described it: a white frame cottage on a wooded lot, with built-in bookcases around the window seats and bittersweet growing by the back door. It still sounds attractive. We didn’t manage to get it, though.

We ended up in an apartment in a ‘50s brick four-flat on a quiet back street. There were arabesque ogival arches between the rooms and swirled designs in the ceiling plaster. It was otherwise very plain and modest: an eat-in kitchen, living room with a picture window staring at the picture window of the equally undistinguished apartment across the street, microscopic entrance foyer and two bedrooms flanking a biggish bathroom.

But there was a big, shady fenced backyard, space for our car in the garage, and four whole rooms: incredibly spacious after the Chicago quarters. Of course, because of the robbery, we didn’t have much of anything to put in those rooms. We went out and bought a mattress and put it on the floor of the back bedroom. We slept on it under our coats. Sarah slept in her buggy in the front bedroom.

We put a cardboard box in the middle of the kitchen floor to serve as a table and covered it with one of the crib sheets that stranger in Chicago had given us. I bought two boxes of Dreft laundry detergent; they had cheap but serviceable dinner plates in them in those days, stuck right in with the soap. When my Bard friend Marcy, who was going to art school in Boston, came to visit, I bought another box of detergent so there’d be a plate for her. We sat on the floor around the box to eat.

It took several weeks for the insurance money to come through. Inadequate as it was, it looked like a fortune: $5,000 all in a lump. We went to Woolworth’s and drew a gaping crowd by spending more than $100 there—at that time you could feed a family of four for a week on $100. But we needed everything: potato peeler, tooth glass, salt and pepper shakers, pot holders, scissors, tape, knives, a bread board, a butter dish, aspirin, a broom and a mop and a pail, bath towels, sheets and blankets and pillows for us, muslin Priscilla curtains for the baby’s room.

We rented a crib for Sarah, which we eventually bought. We also bought an inexpensive living room suite, “Early American” maple with colonial-print upholstery, a Tole floor lamp and a maple desk and a maple kitchenette set—we still have those last two, though at this writing the kitchen table and chairs are on their last legs and probably won’t make another move.

We discovered second-hand and antique furniture stores, a revelation to me, a furniture merchant’s daughter. We went to one looking for a spice rack to replace the many-drawered pine one we’d loved and lost in the robbery, and came out with what we—but no one else I’ve ever encountered—call an étagère: an oak coat rack with a mirror and a seat. We also call it our spice rack. An oak and glass barrister’s bookcase completed our material furnishings.

We didn’t have much energy to spare for the furnishings of our mental state. Ned was immediately plunged into the challenges of graduate classes in the Near Eastern and Judaic Studies department. I went to Brandeis, too, to find a job.

We’d gotten a break on the rent when Ned took on some janitorial responsibilities; the only one I remember is that he had to haul the four apartments’ trashcans to the curb every week. And he had a grant from the university. But we needed more income. Neither of us expected I’d find it in the High Energy Physics department, working indirectly for the Atomic Energy Commission.

Luckily, the job didn’t require any actual science expertise. It involved sitting at a table with another grad student’s wife scanning film projected onto the table surface of reactions in a near-absolute-zero bubble chamber. As atoms collided, their subatomic particles made little trails in distinctive shapes (oddly enough, the patterns looked like Greek letters: alpha, sigma, delta). We were to record the positions and frequency of the particle trails.

So two virtual strangers sat in a darkened room for hours, staring at a slow-rolling, hypnotically repetitive filmstrip, doing an almost mechanical job that required little thought. Naturally, we talked. And talked. And talked.

It was like do-it-yourself therapy, I thought. After the initial get-acquainted period, we free-associated and ended up sharing all kinds of stuff about ourselves and our pasts. That resulted in an after-hours friendship, since her husband and Ned also liked each other. We got together several times a week and every weekend, for planned and unplanned jaunts; we shared meals and opinions and dreams.

And then one day, when after a year or so she and I had moved on to other jobs, he informed Ned that she never wanted to see me again and our friendship was over. Ned couldn’t get an actual reason out of him: he’d only say that she had “sick friends,” too, and was tired of hearing about mine. None of Ned’s protestations or pleas for a meeting made a dent. That was it.

My own theory is that it wasn’t my past but hers that haunted her. I think she’d told me too much, in those long hours in the dark room staring at the deaths of atoms in the cold, cold chamber. We hadn’t really known each other before we started free-associating; she didn’t really trust me to keep her confidences, or not to attack her vulnerabilities.

Aside from the pain of rejection, and the fury at the injustice, and the frustration that they wouldn’t give us a chance even to talk about the problem, the experience had a deep effect on Ned and me as a couple. We had other friends, good friends—some of them are still our friends, forty-five years later. And we would make more over the years, and we would love them.

But we would never completely trust anyone else again. We trusted each other and, on a profound level, we needed no one else.

I Googled that couple not long ago. From what I could see, I wouldn’t trade the lives they’ve led for mine for a million dollars and a pound of tea. I’ve had happiness and meaning and children and work that’s made a difference in people’s lives, in a partnership bound closer together by their betrayal.

So I suppose I should thank them. I don’t much feel like it, though.


Another major shift in our lives developed in those early years in Waltham, a much happier one.

As Ned became more and more involved in his graduate studies, it became clear to me that Judaism was not only an intellectual interest. His heart was increasingly engaged, and part of him was searching for a way to connect on a deeper level.

So one November Friday night, I took the brass candlesticks we’d found at the East India Trading Company on the wharfs in Boston, set Shabbat candles in them, and lit them in the window where Ned would see them when he came home from the university.

“What’s that about?” he asked when he came in.

“I thought it was time,” I answered.

How he loved to tell that story. He accounted it one of the greatest gifts I’d made him, to show him an avenue for his increasing love of his tradition. Over the years, our Sabbath observance would grow till it was one of the highlights of our lives. We would study the prayers and requirements and customs, and add richness and texture to our practice.

He learned to make challah, the ritual braided honey-and-egg bread, one week when I was too sick to do it. It was a revelation to him: he loved the creativity of judging the proportions of the ingredients, the sensuousness of the kneading, the triumph of bringing forth a steaming, wholesome pair of loaves to feed his family. He made it nearly every week for the next forty years.

In later years, he would talk about how it complemented his work with students. “You don’t know how they’re going to turn out for years, and sometimes not even then,” he’d say. “With bread, you know in a few hours whether you did it right.”

He taught our children to make it, and our grandchildren after them—they call it “Grandpa Ned bread.” Our oldest grandson makes it now… when we have it. We don’t do the full Shabbat observance every week any more. Without him, the heart’s gone out of it for us, as with so much.

Still, a lot of joy sprang from that pair of candlesticks in the window.
badgerlady: (Default)
Chapter 1. Saturday, February 21, 1953

"Today I am a man," The Boy said. "The Boy" is how he thought of himself. It was what the men in the concentration camp had called him, Der Yingl in Yiddish. He had been told that, at his circumcision on the eighth day of his life, Rabbi Metzger had lifted him up and proclaimed, "His name in Israel shall be Chaim." But Rabbi Metzger had also been The Boy's own Tati, and Tati and Mamme had called him Hymie.

The Boy looked over the edge of the pulpit to the synagogue's congregation, with his own American family sitting in the front row. Most Americans had a hard time pronouncing "Chaim," with its throat-scraping beginning that sounded like someone hawking up a gob of spit, so they called him Jamie.

He started the bar mitzvah speech he'd been preparing and practicing for months, but inside he was thinking, I’m thirteen years old; I’m a bar mitzvah, with the responsibilities of an adult Jew. I'm not a boy any more. I should be Hymie to myself again.

He put aside his speech notes. “My name is Chaim,” he said, looking down at the front row, his family filling the high-backed wooden pew. “In Hebrew, chaim means ‘life.’ And my family name was Metzger, ‘butcher.’ My old life was butchered by the Nazis, and now my name is Jamie McAlister. The name ‘James’ comes from the Hebrew name ‘Jacob,’ which means ‘supplanter,’ one who takes the place of another. The last name I have now means something like ‘child of the protector.’”

His brothers and sisters were glancing at each other uneasily; they knew this wasn’t the speech he had memorized. Mom caught his eye and nodded encouragingly, but Ruby Jones’s dark face beside hers looked worried. Elsewhere in the congregation, people were shuffling a little. I’m losing them.

“I’m trying to say,” he went on desperately, “that I was given a new life after the concentration camp, that after all that death and suffering, I’ve come to a safe place.” That made people settle back more comfortably. But they snapped into tension again when he said, “Too safe, it makes me feel too safe. Because we’re never safe, we never will be safe. Less than two weeks ago, our new president, Eisenhower, refused to grant clemency to Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, who’ve been condemned to death supposedly for spying. But does anyone here doubt that they would not be facing execution if they were not Jews? Does anyone think it’s safe to be a Jew, even in America?”

Now a low murmur arose in the congregation; some people were glancing at the rabbi as though hoping he would intervene. Mom was still looking supportive, but her hand was wound so tightly in her purse strap Jamie could see the reddening bands of her flesh from here.

Jamie sighed and went back to his prepared text. “I would like to thank my teachers…” The congregation relaxed, though Mom’s hand was still in its painful grip on the purse strap.


Afterwards, eating Ruby’s sponge cake and the special little tub of tapioca pudding she’d brought for him in the social hall beside the sanctuary, Jamie was still shaking in reaction. He hated to talk, even in ordinary ways; he liked to retreat into silence, to shield himself behind it. And he hated to be touched, to have all these people shaking his hand and patting his back and even pinching his cheek.

It was a little easier to bear when his adopted family congratulated him. His older brother, Laurence, put an arm around his shoulders, ignoring Jamie’s reflexive flinch. “Man,” Laurie said, “I’m glad I’m a Catholic, and didn’t have to give a Confirmation speech.” He leaned in to say softly into Jamie’s ear, “I know that was hard for you. You done good.” Laurie gave Jamie’s shoulder a playful squeeze and let go.

A couple of people Jamie didn’t recognize stared at the young Negro half hugging the bar mitzvah boy. The rabbi noticed and hurried over to speak to the strangers in low tones, shifting them aside from Laurie and Jamie.

From long practice, Jamie put them out of his mind and turned to his sisters. Celia and little Joy, both with Dad’s Scottish features and Mom’s dark Italian hair and eyes, grinned at him companionably. They were guiding blonde Beth in this unfamiliar place, and moved her toward the cake table just as her biological brother, Rob, came bounding in from the direction of the boys’ bathroom. He gave Jamie a friendly swat on the arm as he passed. “I’ll get yours, Bethie,” he said, heading for the table. “Punch and cookies, too, or just cake?”

Then the milling crowd stilled and fell silent as the rabbi invoked the blessings on wine and Sabbath challah bread in sonorous Hebrew. Jamie closed his eyes and let the sound sink into him. I know these prayers, I know them in my bones, he thought. Why don’t I ever say them?

He thought back to his conversation with Dad last night on the long-distance phone; Dad was down in Florida, at the Pensacola naval technical training school. “I’m so sorry I can’t be with you, son,” he’d said. “Now that this business in Korea is winding down, everything’s in flux. I hope to be with you all soon.”

Hearing Dad’s voice, even at a distance, always calmed Jamie. Dad had found him in the French orphanage where he’d been sent after World War Two ended and Jamie’s concentration camp was liberated, when he was only four. With that voice, and his quiet, steady strength, he’d coaxed Jamie out of the space under the orphanage porch where he hid when strangers visited, and out of the place inside his head he retreated to when anything unexpected happened.

When Dad’s leave was up, he’d asked Jamie—in the fractured mix of German, Yiddish, French, and a few words of English they’d cobbled together to communicate in—whether he wanted to come home with him and be part of his family. “I don’t belong there,” he’d said. “I don’t belong anywhere.”

“If you don’t belong anywhere, then it doesn’t matter where you are,” Dad had said with that patient rationality Jamie found more reassuring than the sometimes overbearingly emotional attempts at comfort from the orphanage nuns. “Come with me, and then that’s where you’ll belong.”

Last night Jamie had said on the phone, “I thought becoming bar mitzvah, all the studying I’ve done this year, learning the Torah portion in Hebrew—I thought being more Jewish would make me feel more like I belonged somewhere. But…” He fell silent, unable to say more.

Dad had let the silence stand for a while, then said, “You’re only thirteen, son. You’ve lived horrors most children couldn’t even imagine. Don’t be so hard on yourself. You’ll find who you’re meant to be, and we’ll all help you. I’m proud of you for doing this, and I love you.”


Now Jamie was sorry he’d eaten the sponge cake; it felt like clay in his stomach. There’s too much food, he thought, panicking a little. In the camp, when the American soldiers arrived to free them, they’d handed out chocolate bars, and fatty meat from cans, and cheese and hard crackers. Some of the others, frantic with hunger, had died from gobbling the food. Not Jamie: Jamie had been hiding, watching, waiting for it to be safe.

Now, seeing all the food piled on the buffet table made his stomach clench. The smell nauseated him; the lingering taste in his mouth revolted him. The din from fifty people chatting and laughing in the big room hurt his ears. The movement of all the bodies in their colorful clothing circulating around the room made his head spin.

He was terrified he might faint. If that happened, if he lost consciousness, if he fell on the floor, he’d be out of control of the situation. All these people would immediately gather around, staring at him, exclaiming over him. They wouldn’t step on him, of course they wouldn’t, but even so… He sank onto a folding chair but he still felt unbalanced, as though he might fall off it. His palms were sweaty and his temples pounded.

Then he heard Mom’s voice, low beside him. “Do you need to leave the room?”

He managed to nod. She put a hand on the inside of his arm, hidden but holding firmly as she helped him to his feet. They walked slowly toward the door. People spoke to Mom and she answered, her voice light and cheerful, but she never stopped moving toward the door.

Finally they got out into the synagogue lobby. Mom helped him to lie down on an upholstered bench along one wall. “Rest a minute, Hymele,” she said, using the nickname Mamme used to, that he’d told her about after one of his nightmares. “You did very, very well today. There’s no reason to force yourself to do any more.”

He closed his eyes and felt her shift back to sit by his feet. She put her hand on his shoe: touching but not touching. She knows what I need, he thought, letting himself relax. The noise from the nearby room full of people didn’t bother him any more; even if strangers came up to them, she would shield him.

Some immeasurable time went past, then she said, “Here’s Ruby with the car. Let’s go home, my darling.”
Crowded with the others in the station wagon, Jamie tried to calm himself. This is my family now, this is my reality. Buchenwald is gone; I’ll never see it again. That terrified child is gone; I’ll never be him again.

He wondered, if he repeated it often enough, whether it would start to feel true. Because he did see the concentration camp, every day of his life: looming ominously in his memory, realer and more present than the world around him.

Clear in his mind, as always, was the iron gates of the camp. They stood athwart his mind, blocking whatever lay behind them, what he couldn’t see—didn’t want to see. There were just the looming gates, with the motto across the top: Jedem das Seine. Quoting it, he said now, “You get what you deserve,” and turned his head to gaze at the Pennsylvania farmland sliding past the car windows.

Profile

badgerlady: (Default)
badgerlady

May 2018

S M T W T F S
  12345
6789101112
1314151617 1819
202122232425 26
2728293031  

Syndicate

RSS Atom

Most Popular Tags

Style Credit

Expand Cut Tags

No cut tags
Page generated Jan. 17th, 2019 02:09 am
Powered by Dreamwidth Studios