Art & Fear: Week 1 “What We Say”
She didn’t want to talk about it, so we didn’t know. Later, I took down her story. By her account, she waited in the lines, clutching paperwork as proof. Her husband insisted on life and waited in the second concentration camp. She found sponsors in the US. She waved her finger at the Nazis as she approached the front of the lines: “Give me my husband.” Her one year old made it to his first birthday, his teeth had blackened. Her husband came back to her. They left Vienna. In London they separated again, another camp, more waiting. A long boat ride to the States nearly finished them. They didn’t eat. New York, where relatives offered to take them in. But they chose Atlanta, with her synagogues, and recovered in the quiet warm woods.
She smoked. The grandchildren – five of us – couldn’t bear it. We drew pictures of her holding long cigarettes to her mouth. We wrote bubbles over her head, reminding her that smoking killed. That’s what they told us in school. She said she only smoked when she had guests, but finally she stopped. We sighed.
When she died, her grandchildren each swore confidently to be her favorite. Me too. She sent me care packages, in college, and again, when I moved to Portland. She called frequently, more so when the senility crept in, she called insistently, forgetting she had just called. She told me to call her. I promised. I didn’t call enough. My mom sat in the hospital with her when she needed a feeding tube. She could hardly talk, so I talked and told her about my life, my new job, my first real job. She was proud, in the way that grandmothers are.
When the family celebrated her 90th birthday, I didn’t fly home. I picked my new job. The morning of the celebration I dreamt of my family, my cousins. I could see them in the big room where everyone gathered. I felt like I was flying.
She survived the Nazis. She survived moving to a strange country. She survived losing her husband early, after they had two more children in Atlanta. She survived her middle son killing himself the summer after his sophomore year in college. She survived finding him, and his gun. Then she survived multiple gunshots to her chest, when two men robbed her jewelry store in downtown Atlanta, her husband’s jewelry store, the one she ran after he died so she could put her children through college at Yale, Northwestern, Emory, and American University. She survived living in the house where everything happened.
She would never have told us these things. We pulled the stories from her for the camera and the transcripts. She hid her history, stayed silent until the end. Until she unleashed her anger and steadied herself on my arm as we walked through the Holocaust museum.
She drove me to music lessons, embarrassed me with her thick accent, gave me the gifts my parents wouldn’t. One afternoon after school she opened the trunk of her car and handed me a long cardboard box. My first electric keyboard. She met us after school when our parents divorced. When I passed my learners license exam, she let me drive every day. She mailed me letters. She set aside bracelets and earrings, my name handwritten on the small white tags.
This is the story my family tells now.