“While you were out last night, I saw a piece of paper, and it was very sad. And then it blew away,” my three-year-old reported the week before last. At first, I was not quite alarmed but certainly taken aback—how had G known that so much of my paper involves sadness (loss, grief, war)? My son is clairvoyant! No, this was not a precocious 5a.m. dream, not quite. Once dawn had arrived, my husband informed me that in fact our little one truly had seen a sheet of paper blowing about outside the evening before. And it doesn’t take much child psychology to figure out that the sadness must have been my son’s. School was underway and mommy was out too often in the evening. He missed me. And yet, I can’t help but be distracted by the attribution of sadness to the piece of paper, blowing so poetically at dusk.
A few evenings earlier my older son and I had conducted an interview of the boys’ grandfather, focusing on the years of World War II when he was a young boy, five-and-a-half at its start, as my firstborn is now, in Poland. G, the younger, listened in on some of this, though I doubt he took much in, except for the mood—let’s call it curious solemnity—which he is quite adept at extracting.
A week before this, I had been to an absorbing reading by Anna Solomon from her debut novel, The Little Bride, at The Tenement Museum on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, a neighborhood rich with immigrant history. Passages from the novel were accompanied by original compositions by musician Clare Burson on guitar and violin (one of G’s favorite instruments, which he hopes one day—rather soon!—to play). Music for a novel, this was a brilliant idea, and here beautifully executed. Anna Solomon, who I had heard read from a gripping short story a year earlier (at a Pen Parentis reading), in The Little Bride, tells the story of Minna Losk, a Jewish Russian mail order bride in the 1880s, sent not to New York or Chicago, but to South Dakota, only sixteen and set adrift in pioneer country, a Jewish emigrée with a much older husband-to-be. Solomon’s writing is assured and captivating; I look forward to consuming the whole book. Clare Burson composed original music for the story, the score haunting, the words of the novel, the lyrics of the songs and their music, enhanced each other, deepening both.
So, what about my sons? Of course they did not accompany me that evening. But the next day, eager to listen to an earlier CD of Clare Burson’s work, Silver and Ash, in which she narrates through song her family losses and the story of her eighteen-year-old grandmother’s departure from Germany in 1938 (in a strange coincidence, closely mirroring a character in my ‘on-hold’ novel, Down the Street a Building Burned), I explained to my boys in rough detail how I had spent the previous evening. Music telling a story. Here, with Silver and Ash, the music would tell a story too, a grandparent emigrating as World War II approached. They were willing to listen, and able to enjoy the music, the lyrics as yet impenetrable to their young minds and ears.
My sons are growing up with Jewish traditions, Jewish holidays, a sense of themselves as Jews. J, the older, feels this with particular force, that he is Jewish, though what that means for him is still forming. The word Holocaust is not in their vocabulary. Like suicide, I am leery of its entry. Once this kind of knowledge, of human darkness, of the incomprehensible, has been received, it cannot be taken back. Comprehension will accrue gradually. I want them to understand that certain things have gravitas; but I do not want them to feel the weight of that gravitas too soon. Truth is partial.
But here is World War II on our doorstep. I had put it there a few weeks earlier. Bombs. Bombs, bombs, bombs. Soon after J finally acquired the word gun, an item I had rather deliberately kept from him, with surprising success, until almost age four (undone by our shared love of stories, in the form of Little House on the Prairie—those pioneers again), some conception of a bomb arrived as well. How exciting it is to a young boy to alight upon something that can destroy and cause chaos—no great malevolency intended in preschool eyes—much like the havoc it is such fun to wreak after a block construction has gone up. What next? Bring it down! Tumbling cubes and rectangles, what amazing noise and commotion! What power. Of course, this is the power to destroy. A heady concept. For adults as well as children. Here comes the gravitas.
Visiting London this summer, bomb after bomb in J’s innocent speech, I grew weary of this casualness with something so serious. Tentatively, we began to speak of his grandfather, his dziadek (ja-dek), who he sees weekly except when dziadek is visiting Poland. Here we were in Europe, physically (viscerally) affected by the war in a way America was not (is not), and I began to speak of the bombing of Warsaw, when dziadek was five-and-a-half, just like J. No, J wasn’t traumatized, thank god. Still curious, his curiousity shifted, deepened slightly, with this new intake of information. Now and then we returned to the subject, especially when visiting Warsaw a week later, seeing the Old Town, speaking of its replacement after the war. It is not the same, cannot be exactly the same. But buildings can be rebuilt, even bricks of a Medieval wall replaced. And dziadek survived the war. Here was our point of entry, our main character alive.
And so, not quite a month later, inspired by my night-time foray to hear Anna Solomon and Clare Burson, J was suggesting we write a song about dziadek and the war. How did dziadek survive the bombs? How did he get to Łodz (Woodj)? The interviews I had been thinking about embarking upon with my father-in-law began the following weekend at J’s behest. I wrote the story down within a few days, the first urge I’ve had to pen anything for children. J’s voice seemed to tell it, and to tell me how to talk about things that touch on the unspeakable. J wants the interviews to continue. Are these adventures, are they history, are they stories? At age five it hardly matters. Stories are part of how we learn about the world. They teach us what is true, even when they are not. And even true stories change in the telling.
And here was three-year-old G seeing sadness in a sheet of paper lisping in the wind.
Of course this is metaphor, not truth. Truth—comprehension—comes gradually. I think I am learning as much as my children with these exchanges; each of us still unfurling what we have taken in.
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As I finished that last paragraph (composing in my office away from home, my local coffee shop), a friend handed me a novel she had recommended, and I read the first paragraph—about memory and slow-forming understanding, about boyhood, the terrors of history, about mysteries and childhood. What do we take in?
“In the twilight of my life, I began to question if my childhood was a time of almost absurd languor, or if the violence that we would learn of later had lurked there all along. I revisited certain of these memories, determined to find the hidden vein of savagery pulsing within them: the sticky hand, the scattered nuts, the gap-toothed girl grasping a firecracker, a cap floating on the Seine, flayed legs swinging between a pair of crutches, the tailor and his pins. Some of these thoughts were immediately ominous, while others only later revealed themselves as such. However, whether or not another boy living my life would agree, I cannot say.”
- Sara Houghteling, Pictures at an Exhibition
In memoir and in fiction, we find the intersections of history. History being something that continues, generation to generation—a grandfather, his grandson—strands intertwined, sometimes unraveling, then pieced together again, again, again.
~ ~ ~
~ Rachel Seiffert has a wonderful collection of stories, The Dark Room, about Germans (German blindness, civilian lives, the intersection of war with domesticity and children, and German guilt) set immediately before, during, and after World War II, the final selection concluding at century’s end. With great timing, a friend gave me the book shortly before I was in London and Warsaw. In London, I found myself too taken up with my own memories to read as avidly as I’d hoped and so I read most of the three inter-related stories (practically novellas) in Warsaw, an appropriate location for (re-)inhabiting the vicissitudes of the war and its enduring effects. ~
~ And then fifty years later, Europe saw war again in the collapsing Yugoslavia. After finishing The Dark Room, I turned to the latest memoir by journalist Janine di Giovanni, a war reporter who I gained familiarity with through her work in Bosnia and Kosovo (Madness Visible: A Memoir of War). In her newest work, Ghosts by Daylight: Love, War, and Redemption, she takes on the after-effects of war. The account is heartening in places, chilling in others, and a wonderful read throughout. In closing,
“There was a lump of bitterness in my chest that would not go away and, though I didn’t know it yet, would be with me for a long, long time. I had been brought up to believe that good prevails over evil, that the good men wipe out the bad men, that the strong would protect the weak. The war in Bosnia showed me, very quickly, how wrong I was.”
~ Check out Anna Solomon‘s website for upcoming events (including Brookline, MA, on 9/26 and NYC on 9/27 and more NYC appearances in October). ~