Family habits are hard to quit. Cycles move through us and are passed down; we all carry our own portion of psychological damage, the inherited limitations that shape our existence. Our individual share of what Buddhists call samsara: the realm of perpetual illusions, our parents’ terrors, your dream of freedom.
I’m transcribing my grandmother’s memoirs. Every couple weeks, I put in a block of time, painstakingly deciphering her looping, rhythmic hand. My brother has sent me a scanned copy, and I study the document closely, like a yeshiva boy studies Talmud. It appears to have been written on a legal pad, perhaps from her secretarial job – I can see her slipping one into her purse on the way out of the office, telling herself tonight she’ll begin, pouring a glass of white wine, maybe a spritzer, stocking feet up, pad on her lap, lamplight spilling over her hand as it moves through the twilight. She’d write and sip her wine and travel back in time to the happy little girl who played and danced and laughed, almost a century ago, in a long-abandoned land across the great big ocean.
At least, I think she works as a secretary. She’s still alive, but I know so little about this woman, born in 1915 in Czechoslovakia – or was it then Austria-Hungary? I remember my father telling me she had been a secretary for the International Ladies Garment Worker’s Union – what a job, in the Bronx, in the 1940’s, every tenement teeming with Eastern European Jews, every father a garment worker, every boy in the communist folkshule davening through his prayers. Today, she’s somewhere in Florida, hot sun and palm trees and strip malls; the last time we visited was when I was 14, when my father drove us all down in a rented van. We stayed a few days, swam in the hotel pool, then drove back up to Canada. And I haven’t seen her since.
Is it shameful to admit I don’t want to? Our legacy feels like a shattered vase, jagged fragments; a broken chain of maternal influence. All I know are her weaknesses. How she endangered my father, mortally wounded him. The stories are sickening, almost unspeakable. I haven’t bothered to find out if there’s anything more to them than what he told me, many years ago, one night before I fell asleep.
The memoir my grandmother writes is not professional. A dedicated novelist, I’m passionate about my work, crafting draft after draft until the seams are flawless and the effort undetectable. But hers is a personal memoir, free from artistic aspirations. It’s relaxing to read. She meanders, she jumps back and forth, she digresses from the story to draw maps of the village she grew up in, the floor plan of the house her parents built. They were prosperous farmers, rich enough to hire itinerant workers to bring in the harvest. She recalls chickens and geese, fickle milk cows, plum trees with gigantic fruit, a kitchen garden, golden wheat fields – a bucolic past, a fairytale world, a childhood innocent of the Holocaust, nuclear warfare, climate change, Facebook. She rides on hay bales, roasts corn by the river, swoons at Gypsy weddings – and slowly, the stories become more and more outlandish, the picturesque tilts into the absurd, tales too fantastic to be invented. The great-grandmother who birthed 15 children in a house with no running water. The cousin who danced himself to death a week before he was to move to America – pneumonia! The grandfather who worked steel in Scranton, before the Statue of Liberty was built, and returned to the Carpathian Mountains a rich man, able to buy a wealthy bride. The Gypsies who stole chickens, hiding them in their voluminous blouses, and sold them back to her mother (understood as a form of charity). I feel like I’ve stumbled upon an old country fabulist, Sholem Aleichem meets Italo Calvino. Can history genuinely be this ridiculous, this inventive? I’m amazed it happened on the same planet as this one, the witness a woman who is related to me, our parts resembling: the mirror revealing the curve of nose, the stubborn, haughty forehead.
Yet lately I’ve been suffering nightly from this resemblance. Sleeplessly tossing and turning, I sweat away the old family wound. Where did it begin, I want to know. Will I ever find my way out? And then there is always: Why. An ancient cry, from the lower depths, the lonely, primeval self.
My father had a powerful, unrelenting hold on my psyche. I suffocated in his embrace. I know he was hurt in turn; I know he too had his child-wound, his helpless place of grief. I look for clues in my grandmother’s text, hoping to find what made her into the monster he described, but she’s not forthcoming. She’s well masked and social. She says nothing about her feelings, or anybody else’s – her inner life is markedly absent. Her childhood was wonderful, there was plenty to eat, her father loved her best. I sense some anxiety in her eagerness to claim special status within the family, assert their collective wealth and position amongst their neighbors – but the cracks in the façade are well concealed, and her memoir remains an enchanting tale of rural harmony.
Is this the same village where in May of 1944, the Jews were ordered to assemble in the nearby town of Užhgorod, packed into cattle cars, and shipped like animals to Auschwitz?
It was total annihilation for the rural Czech Jews; so the history books tell me. Like the Hungarian Jews, they lasted almost to the end of the war – allowed to remain in their homes, relatively free of brutality, until suddenly one summer day.
When my grandmother came over in 1927, she and her sisters and her parents were one small node of huge, sprawling family tree, boldly leaping into the experiment of America. All the other relatives stayed behind, content to prosper in the warm bosom of their birthplace. Fifteen years later, they’d all be killed.
The memoir is full of names – cousins and uncles and aunts – Moritzes and Irenes and Elsies and Kalmans. I don’t know what I’m expecting my grandmother to write about them, but I can’t stop thinking about what she leaves unsaid. Maybe her silence is a strategy to dominate the pain, to triumph over loss by insisting on pleasant memories only. It’s one way to manage the chaos of life: excise the parts that make you feel awful, concentrate on the good stuff.
So maybe there’s another question I should be asking: why do I probe so deeply into the darkness?
But I think I know the answer to that one – it’s a habit. A habit I learned young, at my father’s side; and one I practice daily, sitting down every morning to write, delving into what remains unspoken – my words like Ariadne’s thread, leading me into and out of the labyrinth.
Maybe what’s absurd is to hope my grandmother will seem in any way familiar. Why do I expect to share in her emotions – is that what I do? Do I tell the world what my father did to me; do I reveal the ugliness at the heart of our love? In all hours I’ve poured into my writing, I’ve never once committed the words to paper. I’ve hidden it from unknown eyes, from strangers who might judge me; from my own descendants, who will be like strangers to me, but to whom I will pass this secret, the inner material of the self, the mystery that shapes and forms. Can one wrestle the struggling mass of samsara onto the page and study it?
Maybe there are clues in my own past, clues that might illuminate my grandmother’s looping, incessant scrawl. My father’s hunger to move back to the land, to retreat from the terrors of the modern world. And his counterculture legacy, still striving: myself, born in the deep countryside, childhood memories full of golden wheat fields, chicken, and cows. These seem to have a kind of resonance, an echo across generations. But what do I know of horror?
Throughout my teenage years, a threat hung over me. It lay between my father and I like a heavy, purple bruise. The meetings were late at night at my bedside. His heavy weight, half-naked and strange, his T-shirt tucked between his hairy legs. He’d talk. Only of himself. His fears, his rage, his grief. His co-workers were sabotaging him, my step-mother wasn’t sleeping with him (and neither was his mistress), his mother let her gay best friend massage him, molest him, and did nothing to stop it, the boy scout leader also molested him, maybe he should never have left the United States but the government was probably after him, his boss, that fucker, didn’t respect him, my mother, that cunt, was squeezing him for more child support, and on and on and on. I listened, terrified, hypnotized, hoping that the closer attention I paid, the sooner it would end. In my clumsy child’s logic, I thought that if I could only fix his problems, he’d calm down and leave me alone and maybe, maybe, he’d become happy. He’d become a happy father. He played along, breaking into a grin and tousling my hair when I came up with a particularly ingenious (or ridiculous) solution to his grown-up problems. I recall that I frequently reassured him he was a good person, lovable and smart and strong. I didn’t really have any life experience to offer. But I meant what I said. I loved him.
There I was, 12 years old, marshaling all my psychological resources to soothe my broken father. Every night, for an hour or so, he commandeered my psyche, filling it with obsessive, circular thoughts, insane thoughts, the thoughts of a middle-aged man falling to pieces. Occasionally he seemed to remember something, and would ask me how I was doing in school – but it was a rushed, hollow gesture, and a weird, uncomfortable smile played about his lips. I would answer as quickly as possible, feeling the ickiness of his love for me, like a screeching train clanging into station. He would return once again, relieved, to the unending surging mantra of his anxieties.
Eventually, I grew to anticipate our sessions. I believed I mattered to him. I liked being a spiritual confessor, a pure, gifted child able to heal a wounded adult. Comfort him, my instincts ordered, and it seemed to work. It was the only time he gave me the full beam of his attention. Otherwise I felt half-visible, as if he saw me through a fog. The rest of the time he was either reading, or yelling at us kids for interrupting him.
Eight years before, my parents’ marriage had imploded. All I remember was their constant shouting. They continued to shout, through the phone, after they had separated; crazed threats and insults and recriminations of all kinds jumbled up together in grown-up language and strewn about the room.
Now my father had a new wife. She had been his student at the university; soon she was my step-mother. More like a reluctant big sister, I never recall her touching or holding me affectionately; yet I’ve come to understand her ambivalence. She had an affair with her married professor, and now here she was living in his house, taking care of his kids. I must have been a slap in the face.
Narcissistic Personality Disorder, suggests my therapist. Clues to explain the gaping holes in my father’s character. He frequently spoke of his sexual needs to me, as if I was his drinking buddy, as if I was another hard-up guy who would understand. There was no topic too taboo for his teenage daughter, drowsily drifting away as he rambled on. He’d wake me up again to make sure I heard him. Money troubles, sex problems, deep insecurities and self-loathing, fears, rage, grief. He dumped his grown-up struggles on my shoulders, leaving me with a burden far beyond what I was capable of carrying. I felt trapped, then mute, and ultimately, invisible.
Emotional Incest, suggests my therapist, a finger pointing at the moon. I look it up on Wikipedia, with a shock of recognition.
Every day I transcribe more and more; the remaining pages of my grandma’s memoirs are slowly shrinking. A picture is beginning to emerge. She’s mischievous, an adventurous and wily child, prone to fits of naughtiness – she calls herself “a rover”. In one story, she steals a skirtful of plums, and delights in eating them, lying hidden in the tall grasses behind the house. She writes that as she remembers it, she’s mystified by her behavior – she knows she could have had the plums just by asking, yet she preferred to steal them….
Suddenly, I recognize something of myself. Not in the stealing, but the desire to devour something secretly; surrounded by tall grasses, the wind gently stirring, the birds swooping above. A flash, and I’m walking to the center of a field and lying down among the tall shafts of wheat, to gaze up at the sky, high and brilliant above me – no one can find me here – utterly present, almost out of my skin with the thrill of nature, its mysterious patterns and my strange, odd presence within it, my thrumming consciousness swept into the symphony of existence. The feeling leaps out of the page and into my heart and we are the same, my grandmother and I, in the most beautiful way; we both know the magic of the tall grasses.
Her story rambles on, charming and strange, and I begin to feel really good about the work I’m doing, transcribing these pages for posterity. I’m hoping my family will find the document useful, perhaps even see something of themselves in it; and I can imagine my future children reading it, my daughter laughing with delight. At the same time I can’t stop sniffing out clues of the horror to come. I want to know, even a little bit, what happened to my grandmother’s relatives, all these characters who she’s brought to life before me, who disappeared into the dark void of history we call the Holocaust.
Then, on the very last page of the memoir, I find it: the story of Uncle Albert.
Uncle Albert had defied his father and married for love, outside of an arranged marriage. They were the first couple in the region to do this, and it was a radical, modern act. My grandmother recalled the beautiful wedding. It was held in the picturesque Carpathian Mountain town of Stavna, with dancing and gypsy music that lasted till morning. During the long sleigh ride home, my grandmother writes, the music was still in her head.
However – we came to USA – things did not improve in Stavna and by now they had 2 babies and a little girl and boy – And because Albert only wanted the best for his wife and there was no way for him to earn a living – The Store was not doing well, my mother brought him to NYC. He had absolutely no skill, he was raised as a rich man’s son, just mind the store which Grand Pa Berish really did – my mother and father got him a job in a Cleaning Factory – he saved every cent, sent some home and he rented a room near the factory worked all hours – I was married and had both of my children, he would visit me, and always talked about his wife – her looks, her cooking were the best – In the meantime Hitler was getting into Poland, his wife begged him to bring her to the USA. He refused because he was going to go back with a lot of money where she was a lady – not like my mother who cleaned her own apartment and etc. – Well Hitler, got to Czechoslovakia and my aunt and children disappeared –
The Red Cross could not find any clue as to what happened to them – this of course made Albert slowly lose his mind – He started to see people following him, people persecuting him, my mother and all other relatives became his enemies, he was still coming to me, I think because of you children, he would come for Sunday dinner then one Sunday he came and after he left, he called me and accused me of joining people against him – He died by himself of a heart attack, half way before that I should have mentioned the war was over – through an Ad in a Jewish paper asking for any info about his family – a Woman answered – she was from that area – As I mentioned there were very small town in the Karpathian Mts – and very few Jewish families, I think Stavna has the most perhaps 6 or 7 families – Well it seems even before Hitler came into Slovakia, the peasants took the few Jewish families into the forest and shot them – the Woman escaped because her mother hid her under her dress and when they shot her mother, she was under her alive and she escaped till she found refuge – of course she was in a concentration camp but Survived –
This of course was proof for Albert of what happened to his family – It truly was a tragedy.
A testimonial to the missing, like a scrap of black cloth fluttering on a wire fence. Something to explain the absence that hangs over my grandmother’s story, that inchoate negative space that contains the end of everything: her childhood, her traditions, the disappearance of Elsie, Moritz, Kalman, Irene. Finally, on the very last page: a sign.
Yet shortly after reading it, my hunger returns. Why doesn’t she say what happened to all of them? Why doesn’t she say the word: holocaust? Why wouldn’t she want to know, why is my heart so soaked in loss, like a string that vibrates only to the sounds of gypsy music?
There’s something about the middle of the night that brings up all the old stuff. Our senses grow sharper, our hearing more acute, our bodies alert to the slightest disturbance. I can imagine our ancient mothers guarding the dark, vigilantly watching over the sleeping infants, wary of the hour when the predators begin to hunt.
I lie in bed, unable to stop my mind. My therapist has informed me about intrusive thoughts, how they’re a symptom of trauma. I know the whole story, and yet it still won’t release me. Memory and shame collide in sudden fugues, then go silent again. I think I hear my next-door neighbor turning over, creaking in his bed. I wonder if I’ll be struggling like this for the rest of my life. Even the pigeons that hide out in the air conditioner are asleep. Footsteps far below on Cypress Avenue – a solitary soul shuffling up the hill, perhaps a junkie.
My mind fills in the blanks. Deprived of stimulus, the dark unburies my imagination. There’s a scrap metal yard nearby, and I sometimes see ragged people turning in supermarket carts full of metal for a few dollars, desperate for a fix. Oh the sorrow that the world contains. And all of our memories.
One night, my father woke me up. We lived on the 24th floor of an apartment tower, the sound of the city far below. He rented an apartment there during the week because it was close to the university, and then he’d drive up to the country to join my step-mother and the kids for weekends. At this point, my life was growing more stable: I lived most of the time at my mom’s house, with only five days every other week at my dad’s apartment. It was an arrangement I was beginning to like. I was 17 years old and I didn’t want to spend evenings in a big house in the country, babysitting my half-sisters and watching TV, surrounded by empty fields.
Also, it was kind of cool living downtown with my dad, just the two of us. He’d make tuna sandwiches for dinner, and we’d read together while we ate, his eyes flicking back and forth across the page, sandwich in one hand, devouring it as quickly as he devoured his book. I had a room of my own, while he slept out in the living room, books piled around him.
It was a few hours after I’d fallen asleep. He sat on the edge of my bed, sagging the mattress. I remember waking to a feeling of confusion, my body knowing I hadn’t slept enough, my mind fumbling for readiness.
He’d said he had been at my stepmother’s sister’s house. My first thought was that he was going to tell me they’d been having an affair. But he continued: she knew, he said. She knew, he couldn’t hide it. And the EMT, they knew too.
I didn’t understand. They knew it wasn’t an accident, he said. What wasn’t an accident? The car, when I hit the tree.
A few months earlier my father had been an accident. On one of his long trips up to the country to join my step-mother and the kids, he’d lost control of the car and was hospitalized for a few days. I didn’t know much of the details, and he didn’t tell me, his voice weak on the hospital room phone line, saying he was holding up okay. I was busy down in the city, starting a new school, thinking about which boys I wanted to fall in love with and where I wanted to go backpacking that summer.
But now he was saying that the accident wasn’t an accident. What could it be then? It was on purpose, he wept. And they knew.
And now I knew. My father had tried to kill himself.
I was just so unhappy, because of your step-mother’s affair, he wept. His big body shook in his white undershirt, the tears shining on his face like grey metallic slick.
I was out at sea, my spirit crashing. I was repulsed by his weakness. I was brokenhearted for his grief. I felt rage against my step-mother. I felt rage against my father. I went into nothingness. Nothing I could do would help my father. Nothing would ever make him happier. Nothing I could do would make him love me. He would leave me again and again. I was nothing, and our relationship was nothing.
I went into school the next day and told a friend. He was a bright, energetic kid, a boy I’d only recently met, but who’d become as close as a brother. He understood, even though he was silent. I felt removed as I told it, as if it was just another strange thing I’d discovered, another strange thing in an adolescent filled with strange new unbelievable things.
My friend listened to me; that was the best he could do. And that was all I could do, simply tell someone. Then we went on about being teenagers as if nothing had happened. But I wonder – did my telling scar him? It took years for me to fully understand the nature of my trauma. He was just a sweet, curly-headed boy. Does he go through life, always remembering the day that girl he had a crush on came into school and said, matter-of-factly and without much emotion, my father tried to kill himself?
What is the damage we pass on to others by telling?
It is known, in our long, collective human history, that there have been some events so horrific we cannot share them. We fear that to tell is to wound the listener. And so some of the survivors of the camps said nothing to their children, nothing of the terror they had endured. And it remains written on their spirits, a glowing script inscribed on the darkness, and none of us can know what the middle of the night means to them.
Yet there is power in the telling. My grandmother’s memoir speaks to me across the years, across the span of time that separates her from that little girl in the countryside, across the distance and loss that divides our family. Only a sick person would terrify a child with unwanted nightmares; but healthy adults can find strength in sharing stories. We discover resemblances, we overcome isolation. So I wake in the middle of the night, my fiancé sleeping gently beside me, and slip out to the computer to write.
Who would listen to this, I ask myself. Who will love this ugly story? To throw my little tragedy against the horrors of the past – how dare I?
For years, every week throughout my twenties, I took the journey on the long rattling A train to my therapist’s office on the Upper West Side. She was kind and calm, and she listened to me. And there I learned to tell. I told every detail, every memory, so I could sleep at night, so I could look into a man’s face and not see my father staring back at me. I learned to resist the demands he made on me, to disengage from my family’s toxic patterns. Together, my therapist and I built a self I could love, a self that could love others. And we built a self that could write.
All those nights at my father’s side, I could not speak. I could not say to him, I hate what you’re doing. Some invisible hand would come and squeeze my throat shut. Speaking was a privilege he had reserved for himself. And I didn’t want to hurt him; I felt an unbearable sense of pity for him. He turned my love into pity. It was clear to me, even then, that he was suffering the wounds of some much larger cycle. But in the dark, at my bed, when it was just me and him, he made his choice.
Now I write. I write to anyone who’ll listen. I write to create new worlds; to fashion silly, delightful things; to explain what is frightening and painful; or sometimes just to reassure myself that I exist. In writing, I know the reader and I are united, even for a brief moment. For example, I know there are people reading this who recognize my experience, and who have also survived.
My fiancé and I discuss my work over breakfast. I want him to know that writing this essay has changed me. It’s helped me to describe clearly what my psyche was content to leave amorphous, volatile. And because we intuitively want stories to have a beginning, middle and end, the very structure of narrative fashions a kind of unbroken container.
My fiancé is a painter, and we usually share our creative process over meals. But this time I’m cautious; some part of me is terrified he’ll reject me for being crazy, traumatized, obsessed with the past; or that he’ll be repulsed by me, as I was once repulsed by my father and his pain. He listens carefully. And then he quotes:
That corpse you planted last year in your garden,
Has it begun to sprout? Will it bloom this year?
Or has the sudden frost disturbed its bed?
Oh keep the Dog far hence, that’s friend to men,
Or with his nails he’ll dig it up again!
What is that from, I ask, astonished. “It’s from Eliot’s The Wasteland,” he says. “I think it’s about how trauma returns, again and again… how it’s part of the cycle of nature.”
I feel a wave of gratitude for this insight, profoundly blessed by our simple, unambiguous love. The rains were furious last night, and the plants on the windowsill are thriving. We sing to each other as we clean up, a goofy song we invented about being best friends.
I am beginning to see my self come through, a single spirit distinct from the vast, unwieldy volumes of history, the carbon-black heaviness of genocide, and the innumerable little stories, entangled within, of family trauma and cyclical neuroses. I’m learning that the psyche is a living thing, emerging from the fertile ground of the dead past. Like seasonal cycles, it comes bearing messages – of loss and rebirth, death and resurrection.
I know I may never be free of the pain I inherited. My grandmother’s cheerful memoir stands as a stark testament to what was lost, both for her obliterated community, and within her. This legacy has spun its way into my being and will never be forgotten. But in the center of my meditating eye, in the calm of the writing storm, I know I can face my anguish – and maintain my equilibrium.
Shame thrives in silence. It festers there, in the absence of conscious grace. We, each of us, every one, must engage our personal horror, look it in the face, and speak its name into the darkness.
This morning when I woke there was a mantra in front of me, floating in the space between waking and sleep. Written in a few, spare lines, like Zen poetry, it said simply:
Everything is ok
The world is beautiful and magical
The world is safe and special
Everything is ok
I understood it to be a mantra, and I thought: I don’t have to nurture nighttime tyrants. I can make my own changes, and I will love my children well. As the morning came clear to me, I knew this particular battle had come to an end. I would sleep easily that night. I could see the day was sunny with spring, and my lover and future husband lay next to me, his heart light and his body warm as he drew me into his arms.