Sometimes a piece of advice stays with you even when it’s given to you by your mother.
It was the winter after the terrorist slaughter at the Summer Olympics in Munich and the Watergate break-in. It was a month before the U.S. signed the agreement to end the Vietnam War. It was also the year I became a first-time, full-time mother after almost five years of teaching and graduate school.
I married at twenty-one, a month after I graduated from NYU, and moved that August to Oxford with my husband, who was studying there on a fellowship. I taught at the nearby American Air Force base in Upper Heyford. No place could be far enough from my parents’ suffocating love in New Jersey. I had begun an independent life, forging my own identity. I loved my parents, but felt controlled by their hopes and fears—and my need to please them. The ongoing reverberation of their time in Auschwitz, and the children they lost there, was too much.
Five years later, my husband and I were living in D.C., where I didn’t know a soul. We moved there during one of the city’s famously oppressive, smog-infested summers in the seventh month of my pregnancy. After my son was born, the characters in day-time soaps became my friends. I understood their appeal to the sick and lonely as I nursed him throughout the day in seclusion—never getting the hang of breastfeeding in public without fully exposing my breasts. Surprisingly, I packed my bags with enthusiasm, looking forward to visiting my parents’ new condo in Miami Beach.
That winter, I flew solo with my two-month-old son from D.C. to Florida—when you could still meet arriving passengers at the gate. And was I ever relieved to see my father’s familiar, crooked smile as I deplaned, weighted down by my winter coat, juggling a baby in one of those first-generation precariously shallow seats, and a huge fully-loaded diaper bag. With his expert mechanic’s precision, my father scooped up his first grandchild and gently hugged him to his chest.
My parents readied for my visit with the purchase of a crib and a ridiculously extravagant baby carriage, the kind with enormous white-wall tires supporting a blue felt-enclosed stagecoach structure with enough room for triplets. According to my father, the buggy was not only “the Rolls Royce model” but it was outfitted with “the finest” mattress, pillow and sheet, which my mother had washed and ironed. As is customary in my family and many Ashkenazi Jews, I gave my son an English name as well as a Hebrew one, Kalman, for my father’s beloved brother who was twenty-five when he died in my father’s arms a week before being liberated from Buchenwald by American soldiers.
The day after we arrived, I could hardly wait to get some fresh air. It was one of those cloudless, brilliant mornings, crisp with a light breeze and no humidity that brought the crowds to Miami winters, decades before the city became hip and gay.
“I’m going for a walk on the deck,” I announced right after the morning feeding.
Suddenly, my mother stopped busying herself with her never-ending household chores to accompany me and my son, comfortable in his blue Rolls, to their condo’s third-floor, football field-like sun deck overlooking the Atlantic. My spirit felt light and calm by the sea. Watching the endless ocean and hearing the rhythm of the waves lowered my heart rate and let my body unwind. I was no longer isolated in my dark, charmless townhouse in Southwest D.C. but comforted and relieved to just be in the company of my über-competent mother.
We walked the length of the deck, and, as we turned to make the second pass, my mother started to tell me a story about her childhood—one that I had never heard before, nor would I ever hear again. I was familiar with the first part. The wracking cough that had caused her to vomit and forced her to quit the prestigious Sokol gymnastic program she so loved. I knew that she had been sent to a sanatorium, a special clinic, in the Tatra Mountains of Czechoslovakia to cure her lungs when she was twelve. She believed it was chronic bronchitis or recalcitrant pneumonia. The diagnosis was not important, as long as it was not tuberculosis.
My mother was a no-nonsense, no-bullshit person. Her stories about surviving Auschwitz and underground slave labor camps, even as told in her matter-of-fact, black-humored way, made her heroic to me.
On our walk that morning, she adjusted the new blanket she had bought for my sleeping son, her eyes focused on a distant past. Her voice let me know I needed to listen, and listen carefully, as she told me about coming home from the sanatorium. It was different from the times when she spoke of the children, my brother and sister, whom I never knew because they were killed by the Nazis before I was born.
“Can you imagine?” she confided in her unique English, peppered with Hungarian, our first language. “I still feel the feeling. I was sent alone by train for two months to this strange place, with stranger doctors and nurses, forced to obey a strict schedule of healthful activities. All this time with no visitors.”
I looked at my son, sleeping peacefully, and thought, No I couldn’t imagine.
My mother was the youngest of eleven children. She was six when her father died. By the time she was growing up, her once-privileged mother was struggling to keep a small portion of a previously thriving grain business from falling apart. Her stern, religious, generation- older brother-in-law would be the only father figure my mother knew, and he had three children of his own to care for.
“So,” my mother continued, “I was more than happy when I was released to go home. America doesn’t have sanatoriums like we had back then. They sent me home on a train by myself. I got off the train with my small suitcase, very excited. I was only twelve, you know. I was sure someone from the family would meet me. I looked around for my old mother. I didn’t see her. Or my eldest sister or my brother-in-law. Then I saw Mitu Bachi with the horse and carriage smiling at me.”
“An uncle picked you up with a horse and carriage?” I asked, not able to picture my mother in the era of the Wild West.
“No, no. That’s what we called him, Uncle Mitu because he knew my family well. We had a few cars already in Sevlus but mostly still horses and buggies were our taxis and trucks. So I said to him, ‘So my mother sent you to pick me up?’ He just smiled and said ‘sure’ and took me home, right away. When I got to my house, no one was outside…waiting. I called out for my mother. No answer. I went from room to room. Then I went to the backyard and there she was. She was surprised. I ran to her. She said, ‘Devoyralè. Oh my God. I forgot about you.’ She was so absent-minded after my father died.”
Blinding sunshine washed out my mother’s sharp, gray eyes as I watched her pull out a tissue from her pants pocket and blow her nose. I didn’t know what to say.
For the first time, I realized that her memory and personality had been branded by this childhood episode. Yet, she loved my pre-occupied, neglectful grandmother. I bear her Jewish name.
Silently, we kept slowly strolling, both pushing the carriage. Then, Dorothy, my mother to Americans, stopped short. She looked at me with an intensity that made me not want to return her gaze, “Helgalè,” she admonished, adding the lè to my name, the same loving, diminutive form her mother used with her, “Just please, please, don’t have more children than you can love.”
Dorothy wasn’t big on kisses and saying I love you. It was always her actions that made me feel valued. That day, I met Devoyralè, the hurt little girl my mother still carried. Four years later, I had one more child, another son. When he entered kindergarten, I started business school. My mother understood. And so did I.