Estimated reading time: 12 minutes
Informed by war, heritage and her own family life, a mother reflects on her good fortune while respecting the lives that paved the way for her
When my kids were young, I was always reminding them that they needed to put their “problems” in the proper perspective. What was I really telling them? I was saying that they needed to be more appreciative of their lives—and what they had—spiritually and materialistically. I usually said this when they were acting like spoiled children—for example, when my fourteen-year-old said that she needed new clothes after we’d just gone clothes shopping for her a month earlier.
When I was young, my dad was an expert at putting my life in the proper perspective for me. He shared stories of growing up during World War II in Germany and surviving the Holocaust. He spoke about how in his early teens he was sent to a concentration camp. He ate only food scraps and at nightfall collapsed on the only things there were to sleep on—wooden barracks with hundreds of other prisoners. He was grateful for his job in the kitchen peeling potatoes, because he always had food. Once he showed me the scar on his forehead inflicted upon him by Nazi soldiers when they found out he’d taken too much peel off the potatoes so he could toss it to his hungry friends in the barracks.
After the war he couldn’t stand the sight of red meat because it reminded him of all the dead bodies he’d seen. The mere sight of blood turned his stomach.
He shared how he watched his younger brother and mother being taken away on the death-camp trains and how he never got to say goodbye.
It dulled the grief when we named our son after his dead brother, but being separated from one’s parents at the age of fifteen results in a degree of pain that lasts a lifetime.
My mother-in-law had her own share of hair-raising stories to tell when she lived with a Swiss family while trying to hide from the Nazis so they wouldn’t kill her and her sister. While hiding in the family’s basement, they shared food and lived in constant fear for their lives. They didn’t see their parents for five years.
I’m now sixty-five, only six years younger than my father was when he died. My children left the nest a long time ago, and I’m now blessed to have four amazing grandchildren. During this last chapter of my life, I see how the mirror reveals my advancing years. In my younger days, it didn’t matter if I applied facial cream each morning. These days, if I skip just one day, my wrinkles appear like a vulture near a dead carcass. I remember the days when I ate all the Valentine’s Day and Halloween chocolate I desired, the scale never revealing my secret addiction. Today, there are no secrets, as my body’s metabolism has slowed down to a crawl.
The older I get, the more I look to the past for clarity and perspective.
One day in particular stands out. It was a rainy day, the perfect time for some spring-cleaning. I was going through our “catch all” closet and making piles of what I wanted to keep and what I wanted to discard. My first nurse’s uniform from forty years ago was put into a pile called “questionable: to be reviewed later.” Then I added Dad’s old figure skates, which he’d used to teach Paul Neuman to skate at Rockefeller Center in New York decades earlier.
The “giveaway” pile included such things as old party and wedding invitations, the kids’ first Halloween costumes, birth announcements, expired coupons, New Year’s Eve hats, and incomplete decks of playing cards. The “must-keep pile” was the most fascinating. It included baby pictures, school notebooks, kindergarten photos, Dad’s favorite clothes, stamp and coin collections, framed photographs with broken glass, awards won in tennis tournaments, autographed paraphernalia, and old posters.
This task certainly took me down memory lane. Occasionally I would stop and gaze at what I’d found, and an entire era would be illuminated by a piece of memorabilia. But there was a special treasure that I stumbled upon which, as a writer, made me stop and stare. Before my eyes were some cartons of papers that time had yellowed. They included old report cards, letters I wrote from camp, and important documents, many of which I’d thought were lost.
As I approached the bottom of the carton, there was a stack of about fifteen papers held together in a plastic sheath. I felt my eyes momentarily bulge as I realized the true value of the treasure I was about to reveal.
It was the journal I’d heard so much about, written by my grandmother after the turn of the century. I knew I had my day cut out for me as I read about a life that was so foreign yet so familiar, a life that threw the shadow of perspective immediately upon mine.
I’m sure the journal was typed on one of those manual, black, clunky-sounding Remington typewriters. The single-spaced document typed on loose-leaf paper had since turned light brown. White-out correction fluid was not yet on the market, so the pages were full of “strikeovers.” Grandma obviously didn’t care much about writing in paragraphs, as the twelve pages were written in one unbroken stream of consciousness.
Over the years I gathered bits and pieces of information about Grandma’s life and concluded that she’d had her share of misery, but I had no idea that reading her journal could make me so appreciative for my own life. The tears poured down my face as I realized the origin of my love for writing and how Grandma’s words flowed as smoothly as the tears from my eyes, eyes that have seen little misery in her lifetime. I continued to read, and after just a few lines, I ran to the bathroom adjacent to my study and grabbed a newly opened box of tissues.
Grandma had been born in Poland in the early 1900s. Her journal was a reflective piece about her earlier years. She began with her dad discussing one night during dinner how war had just been declared—Austria-Hungry against Russia.
The following morning she watched “swarms of soldiers marching” among the schoolchildren on the street in front of her house.
She wrote: “Just when we thought the soldiers were leaving, they walked in reverse [turned around and went back] and got aggressive. Horses were running without riders on their backs. Those [many] who had riders had no arms nor legs and blood pours out of their bodies. Their clothes were torn. They were hungry and ate anything in sight. They raided our refrigerators and on the streets we held out jars with water and they drank eagerly at times reaching out to get a drink that they had no time to swallow. My mother was frantic. She wanted to run with the army, but dad refused to leave.”
One day grandma roamed the streets and saw menacing-looking Cossacks dressed in long black coats and fur caps, with ammunition slung across their chests and swords in their hands. “I ran when I saw a young boy on the deserted street and the Cossacks were hacking him into small pieces. His mother ran to pick up the bloody pieces on her apron. My father finally decided it was time to leave and go to Poland as the fighting continued relentlessly.”
As they were preparing to leave, a severe cholera epidemic hit the small Polish town. “First only a whispering with single cases here and there and then we all went into a state of horrified stupor. The stores closed. There was no school. There was no visiting, no handshakes and no taking money from others. Some people had a little bag of camphor around their necks, which was thought to offer little protection against the disease.”
Grandma’s parents developed cholera. Finally, her mother died a slow and inevitable death. My grandmother witnessed her burial in a mass grave of thirty or more people. Some of the deceased had family and some did not. Mom’s entire family was quarantined. It was not long after that her father died, also of cholera and apparently with no warning. Grandma was left alone in the world with her eight-year-old sister. “I was only eleven years old and very scared,” she wrote. “My oldest brother left town to take a job in Vienna, and soon after my youngest brother followed him. The once full and lively house became empty and more than half the town’s population died.”
Grandma found solace in the daily ritual of going to school, as she said it was the only time she could be a child.
But although she received a lot of assistance and food from caring neighbors and the school, she never felt it was enough, nor could it compensate for the loss of her parents. With her sister, she decided to hitch a ride on the slow-moving train to Vienna to find her older brothers. Visiting their homes brought more horrible revelations to the girls’ young hearts. The brothers’ wives practically slammed the doors in their faces! They said they had enough trouble feeding the mouths of their own children. Finally, the two sisters were placed in a small orphanage. There, the heartache of wearing rags for clothes and not having enough food to support their growing bodies continued to haunt them. Grandma’s writing ended with her high school graduation and her struggle to get a job as a bank teller.
I was unable to process Grandma’s story in one sitting. She had so many feelings of loneliness, anger, and resentment. Her life was filled with turmoil and grief, and as I look around today, I’m amazed that outside of raising three amazing humans, my life is calm and predictable. There are no scary-looking soldiers marching down my street and no deadly epidemics to fend off. In fact, most of us are so lucky to have the lives we do, so we need to be more aware of the dire situations that others have gone through in order to place our lives in the proper perspective.
After reading Grandma’s story, I had a visceral sense that life was just utterly unfair.
I wondered why Grandma had endured so many hardships and why I had been so lucky my whole life, always surrounded by good people and experiences. I felt that so much injustice had occurred, and I was feeling sorry for a woman I hardly knew.
While reading, I took a break to make my family’s favorite dinner, pasta. After we sat down and had been eating for a few minutes, my daughter, who was fourteen at the time, looked up from her plate and asked, “Mom, why are you so quiet tonight?”
“Actually, I’ve been reading my grandmother Regina’s journal, and I’m still in shock. I really must share the stories with you guys.”
As usual, we gobbled down dinner, and the kids, in their nightly robotic fashion, cleared the table. The girls loaded the dishwasher, and my son went back to his favorite pastime—curling up on the blue corduroy sofa and watching television. Later, the girls joined him. I returned to the lush sofa chair in my study and continued reading Grandma’s story.
I must have had the concept of “perspective” on my mind because the following day there was another incident that triggered some powerful emotions.
My then–eight-year-old son, Joshua, joined the ranks. He finally decided that collecting beanie babies was the thing to do. Family trips were then geared around which stores sold these stuffed toys. My husband remarked in his usual wry tone, “You’re encouraging my son to collect these things while he should be collecting worms or stamps.”
Joshua’s collection grew, and anyone who visited our home, whether they wanted to or not, received a guided tour of his favorite friends. He was very conscientious about checking off his in his book which ones he owned and their apparent value. At one point, I realized the true value of those adorable, furry creatures. I served one of my gourmet casserole dinners when Joshua asked to be excused for a few seconds. He dashed out of the kitchen, across the dining room and living room, and headed for his bedroom. He returned to the kitchen with a huge shopping bag filled with beanies. He sat on the floor and looked up at all four of us sitting at the table just finishing dinner. “Wait, wait, don’t go anywhere,” he said, holding his hand out straight in our direction as if he were a traffic cop.
“I want to introduce you to my beanies, and then I will tell you their names. You betta pay attention because I will test you afterward,” he said. His two teenage sisters looked at him quizzically and then glanced back at me while rolling their eyes, obviously tired of his beanie-baby enthusiasm.
“May we be excused?” they asked simultaneously.
“No,” my husband and I responded without the slightest hesitation.
“Hurry up,” Rachel said. “I have homework.”
“C’mon,” said Regine. “What’s taking you so long?”
Joshua proceeded to dump all his babies on the floor, and one by one he began reciting their names and then putting them back in the shopping bag.
“Slow down,” my husband requested, remembering that he would be “tested” and didn’t want to make a fool out of himself.
“OK, I’ll start over,” Joshua said.
In frustration, his older sister said, “No way. I can’t take this, Mom.” Joshua continued to plow through the names of his forty-odd beanie babies. He spared us all the little sayings on the red heart-shaped tags. We were lucky because he really loved talking, and especially loved making up stories. He methodically named each and every beanie baby, moving them from one pile to another. For the first time he was in control of his two older sisters. I never thought beanie babies could bridge the gap between siblings who bickered about everything. But, for however much money and time I spent supporting my son’s addiction, it was well worth the ten minutes of watching all three of my children giggling together for the first time in a long while. It was simply a case of “looking through this window” and “now looking through that one.”
Perspective is important to me. Knowing about my past gives me insight into the present and ideas about the future.
My grandfather once told me with conviction, “You watch, my dear, history will repeat itself. Mark my words.” Although he mentioned this in the context of the fashion industry (he was a style nut), we could see how it could apply to other aspects of our lives. Now that I’m the age he was when he spoke those words, I realize the truth in what he said.
You may also enjoy reading Feminism for the Ages: How My Great Grandmother Became a Character in my Novel, by Violet Snow.