Collecting bottles, tossing leftovers, taking out the garbage
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“Sally’s grandmother knitted her a scarf,” I informed my parents at Sabbath dinner, the week after I started kindergarten. My mother passed me the roast chicken. My father was already eating. “Why don’t I have a grandmother?”
My mother got up and walked into the kitchen. I followed and watched her open the refrigerator door. Her lips moved as she counted the cartons of eggs, the gallons of milk, the sticks of butter. She wiped her hands on her apron and went down the basement stairs. I walked behind, shuffling my feet so she wouldn’t think I was sneaking up on her.
She opened the meat freezer and looked at the chickens, the roasts, the fish neatly stacked inside. I loved the sound of the rubber seals separating, and the bitter rush of cold air. I stood close as she opened the other freezer, full of cherries, strawberries, vegetables, and aluminum foil packages labeled “spinach” that contained my mother’s secret money.
“Very well, Anna, I will get you a grandmother,” my mother said, closing the second freezer.
“Where will you get her?” I asked. She didn’t answer.
Three days later, I came home from school and saw a strange old lady sitting in my father’s favorite chair.
“This is Lena, your new grandmother,” my mother said. The old lady trembled when she stood. She braced herself on the chair, then took a step toward me. Her chins jiggled when she walked, and her yellow fingernails curved under like claws. I backed up and stood near my mother.
“I brought you something, sweetheart,” Lena said, holding out a tinfoil package. I clutched my mother’s apron, but she shoved me forward. Lena pulled apart the foil, and I saw Hershey’s Kisses. My mother nodded that I could eat one, even though it was before supper.
“Thank you,” I said. I offered Lena and my mother a chocolate. They each took two.
“What’s your favorite color?” Lena asked. Smudges of candy darkened her lips.
“Purple,” I said.
Lena picked up her black coat from the back of the chair. “I make you a purple scarf. A nice, warm winter scarf.”
My mother smiled and helped Lena into her coat. She tied a pink chiffon scarf over Lena’s hair.
“See you next week,” Lena said.
“Goodbye,” I said. I wrapped the foil carefully over the chocolates and told myself not to eat any more. I wanted to take them to school tomorrow, to prove to everyone that I, too, had a grandmother.
My mother used to tell me this bedtime story: “When I was a girl, just a little older than you, Anna, the Nazis broke into our home and took us away to the camps. One day I had clothes, food, and a family. The next, I was a beggar. That’s how it happens. They storm in, snatch you away, and suddenly you are on your own.” She would tuck me in and absently pat my thigh as she stared out the window. Then she’d pull aside the white lace curtains and press her face to the glass.
“You never know who could be outside,” she’d say, before turning out my light.
I slept in the corner of my bed, away from the windows, my stuffed animals lumped beside me. If Nazis suddenly marched into my room, they wouldn’t know which lump was the girl. They wouldn’t be able to kill me with just one blow.
When my son Micah was born, I began collecting children’s books. I collected books with fanciful families, with grandparents who knew just what to say. I read these books aloud to myself after my husband fell asleep. I vowed that my child would grow up the American way, with brightly colored pictures and stories that taught uplifting lessons. My son’s dreams would not be smashed by the sounds of Nazi boots.
Micah plays Robo-Cop with his friend Taylor. He uses his index finger for a machine gun. He spits bullets from his mouth in spicy rat-tat-tats. He runs through the yard fearlessly.
“I can’t believe you let your son play like a gun,” my mother says. She has added salt to the vegetable soup I’m making and is searching the cabinets for other spices.
“It’s just play,” I tell her. But my stomach clenches when I see Micah fall down dead in the wet grass.
“I was remembering my mama today,” she says.
I pour coffee and sit across from her at the table. We hold our cups the same way, cradled in one hand, supported by the other. I have tried holding my cup differently, using the handle like my husband Eric does, but my hands are too well trained.
“I was thinking about when the Nazis dragged Mama away.” She looks at me to see if I remember the story. I nod. I grew up fearing that soldiers would kidnap my mother. I held her hand whenever possible. I locked the car doors as soon as we got in. In restaurants, I sat on the same side of the booth. Still, I knew huge, brutal men might storm in and drag her away. I’d try to hold on, to save her, but the soldiers would beat my hands with their sticks.
I wad my napkin and wipe up the coffee I have spilled.
“What happened when the Nazis took her away?” I ask, knowing I must.
“They dragged her across the ground. Even though her legs were torn and bleeding, she didn’t cry. She called out to me, ‘Keep your head.’ I wanted her to shout, ‘I love you,’ but later I understood. Everything that makes a difference is in here.” My mother taps a finger against her thick gray hair. She smiles, and I am filled with admiration for her, for her boldness, for all she has pulled herself through. I reach out and touch her wrist.
“You really shouldn’t bite your nails,” she says. “And you should get some housecleaning help. With you gone at work all the time, the dust is too much.”
Suddenly, she is everything I want to escape.
Because of my mother, my husband leaves home this summer. He packs his suitcase methodically, with precision and patience. “I love you,” Eric says. He speaks like someone erasing an answer from a blackboard. “But your mother walks into the room and the air disappears. I feel a hand squeezing my throat. I mean, I’m amazed you’ve lived as long as you have.”
Eric grew up with a well-behaved, part-time family that measured its syllables and counted out its money.
“She can’t help how she is,” I tell him. “Look what she’s lived through.”
“Anna,” Eric says, taking my arm and looking at me, “the war is over.”
I shrug. I say the same thing to my mother at least once a week, scolding her for buying yet another chicken on sale and cramming it into her already-full freezer, chiding her when I discover two hundred dollars tucked between the bathroom towels, ignoring her when she screams at me for walking with Micah after dark.
“If you leave, Micah won’t understand,” I tell Eric. Already our bedroom feels empty without his clothes draped over the chair. “I’ll miss you. Everyone will think we’re getting a divorce.”
I wring my hands as I recite the arguments. Yet to tell Eric that I will move away from my mother is unthinkable.
“This project is only for the summer. You’ll survive,” Eric says. His suitcase is neatly packed. He looks as crisp and competent as when I first met him ten years ago. I’d taken my second-grade class on a tour of his architectural firm, and he’d shown them a delicate model of a skyscraper he had painstakingly created from balsa. Not one child tried to fiddle with it. I had never seen the children so well behaved, and I told him so in my thank-you letter.
When he called and suggested we have coffee, I was delighted and relieved. Finally, I was breaking free of my mother’s world.
“You worry too much,” my friend Dorothy tells me. “Give Micah a chance to make mistakes. Let him go to the fairgrounds with the other boys. There’s a group of them. Nothing will happen.”
I take a breath before I answer. If she had a mother like mine, she’d understand how everything bad happens to groups. But Dorothy’s family tree stems from colonial Virginia. She’s calm and clearheaded, the way I want to be.
I let Micah go to the fairgrounds. With Eric away, the evening stretches before me like a sullen desert. I take a long walk. When I get home, the phone is ringing. In a panic, I rush to answer it, knowing Micah’s been kidnapped or run over.
“I baked.” My mother’s voice is so loud I have to hold the receiver away from my ear. “Macaroon, your favorite. I’ll bring them right over. Put on some coffee.”
I want to say, No, leave me alone. No, I don’t want you near me. But I make the coffee, open the door, and keep an eye out for her, a stocky woman, walking quickly, glancing behind her with every other step.
Eric’s return makes the house seem lopsided. Micah stares at Eric during supper and doesn’t close his mouth when he chews. He drops his plate on the way to the sink and nearly cries.
“You can go outside and play,” I tell him. He looks small and sad standing by the back door.
Eric leans against the kitchen counter while I put away the last piece of bread and wrap up the leftover broccoli.
“It’s getting stale,” Eric says. “We need to get rid of it.”
“What?” I touch my neck, smooth the collar of my dress, press the foil over the broccoli before I look at Eric.
He points to the lone piece of bread sealed in a zip-lock bag.
“Micah will eat it for his morning toast,” I say. I want to bite my lips together so my mother’s voice can’t seep through. My mother has a drawer full of rubber bands and a box of used aluminum foil. Not me.
It feels strange to have Eric in bed next to me after dreaming about him so many nights. The man I dreamed about loved me deeply. The old Eric sighed and murmured as we touched. This Eric says, “Huh?” when I trace his cheekbone and say, “I missed you.” We are already making love when I realize that he is going to leave me. I wish his head were not on my pillow.
“It was winter when the commandant ordered us girls loaded into the truck,” my mother says. “We were naked, all young girls, maybe twelve, thirteen years old. You —” she points at me, “you would die with embarrassment at being naked in front of so many people.” She pauses to stab another piece of chicken into her mouth. “But we lived through so much, clothes didn’t matter. They drove us and stopped, right before the crematorium. I could see the smoke from the ovens.”
“Were you scared, Grandma?” Micah asks. Eric motions to me to pass the carrots.
“I was too worn out to be scared. The soldiers stopped the truck to take a drink or two and play a game of cards before they finished up their dirty work. We heard them laughing, spitting, cursing. I whispered to my friend Sonya, ‘I’m going to jump.’ ‘You’ll break a leg,’ she said. ‘You’ll die,’ I said, and I jumped. Ooh, let me tell you, the ground was cold and hard. Even after the truck drove away, I hid in a ditch for hours, so long I almost froze. Later, I found out all of those girls, even my Sonya, they died.”
My mother wipes her mouth and looks around the table at us. I’ve lit the Sabbath candles in her honor. Micah’s hair is brushed, and he wears a white shirt and navy slacks. Eric and I are still wearing our work clothes. We look like a picture of something holy, something that should be cherished through generations.
“I have the bravest grandma in the world,” Micah says, getting up to hug my mother. She scoots her chair out and makes room for him on her lap. Just then, holding my son, she looks pretty.
Eric helps me clear the table and follows me into the kitchen. “Why does she have to tell those stories in front of Micah?” he says.
“It won’t hurt him.” I want Micah to know how strong the women in his family are.
Eric rummages in the freezer while I get out clean bowls.
“Do we have anything besides chocolate?” he asks.
“I think so.”
“What’s this?” Eric holds up a small aluminum foil packet with hundred-dollar bills inside. “I thought you had stopped this sort of thing.”
“Put it back,” I say.
He dishes out the ice cream, and we carry it to the table. My mother is telling Micah about the family who helped her escape.
“I wish she wouldn’t keep telling those gruesome stories,” Eric whispers as we return to the kitchen for fudge sauce and cookies.
I shrug, aware of how many times I’ve told her the same thing, how many times I’ve wanted to stop up my ears and deaden her words. But now I want my son to hear them. I carry a plate of cookies into the dining room and pull my chair closer to my mother’s. She pats my knee and stares ahead, as if looking through a dark window.