With fists, with words, with kindness
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I walked into my grandmother’s hospital room and knew that she would never leave it alive. She was unresponsive, on oxygen, each breath a struggle to fill her congested lungs with a morsel of air.
My mother didn’t seem to know. She sat by the bed showing my comatose grandmother brochures for Jewish nursing homes. The ward nurses shrugged at me; they weren’t sure what to do. I took my mother aside. “Grandma might die,” I told her.
My mother didn’t believe me. She shook her head. “She can’t die,” she said. “She died once already.”
I knew what she meant: that together they had passed through ghetto, boxcar, Auschwitz, Birkenau, Buchenwald. God would not be so cruel as to make them die again.
Three days later my grandmother was gone, and three days after that my sister Karen and I went to Forest Hills to help my mother clean out Grandma’s apartment. We packed boxes full of housedresses, slippers, dish towels, and cheap curios, wondering what to do with the blond mink stole, so irretrievably out of fashion. We arranged for the Salvation Army to pick up the unwanted furniture: sleeper sofa, kitchen table and chairs.
The day was warm, and my mother had the air conditioner on and the windows and front door wide open. A wind raked the apartment, and Grandma’s white, hand-embroidered curtains sailed out like signal flags. The stereo wailed, Bela Ziggy and His Famous Gypsy Orchestra, and my mother wailed along with it, singing about death and heartbreak in Hungarian, a language I can’t quite understand, though the sounds of it are so familiar to me, like the barking of the family dog: I can identify it, imitate it.
My father was not helping. He sat in a chair observing, as someone always does, how much crap a person accumulates in a lifetime — and how meaningless, really, because no one but you cares about a cheap trinket that reminds you of something not even significant enough to be forgotten by someone else. We all glared at my father. We wanted help, not a narrator.
“Look at all this shit,” he said, waving at the contents of my grandmother’s apartment. “Let’s not take it home,” he said to my mother, “or the kids will just have to clean it up again when we die.”
My mother and grandmother emerged at the end of the war liberated of everything: family, friends, home. They had nothing left but hate. They hated the Germans, obviously. Also the Poles, the Ukrainians, and the Lithuanians. They had once been proud to be Hungarians, conceited in the way Hungarian Jews are, as grand as the German Jews but with a better cuisine and more-beautiful women. But then their country betrayed them, and — rejected, impoverished, bereft — they began to hate Hungarians too. Their hatred spread out like nets; it could encompass and catch anyone, everyone. A tiny slight from a member of a small Caribbean nation would damn the entire island.
In the house where I grew up, the war never ended. All of us were infected with hatred. This was their real legacy. If my mother and grandmother had been pearl divers, I would be able to hold my breath for a very long time. But they were Holocaust survivors, so instead I have an infinite capacity for hatred.
My father sent us down to the corner to buy cigarettes, and when we came back, my mother was crying again. A new record was playing, the Barry Sisters, and my father tapped his foot to the Yiddish swing and murmured along with the song, “Abi Gezunt” (“If You’ve Got Your Health”). Karen had bought my mother a single yellow rose, her favorite flower, swaddled in a paper cone with a fern leaf and a bit of baby’s breath. My mother thanked us sadly. She did not currently remember that she had hated her mother.
Where their quarrel began was a matter of dispute. My grandmother said it began when my mother would not let her die in Auschwitz. My mother said it began when she had to survive for both of them. This was a topic frequently revisited at our house. My grandmother was adamant: she’d simply wanted to touch the electric fence and die. She had seen her other children murdered, and she wanted no more of this life. My mother accused her of trying to murder the both of them.
Sometimes the argument led to physical violence. I remember them squaring off with knives once. It wasn’t exactly West Side Story. The knives came from a “hospitality set” and were for the most part blunt, with painted ceramic handles molded in the shape of various fruits. My grandmother brandished the watermelon. My mother menaced her with the tangerine. But they had murderous intent.
“I will never forgive her,” my mother said.
“Oy, apology? NO,” my grandmother said.
If grudge holding were an Olympic sport, my family would win the gold. There is the Great Wrong — Auschwitz — like the Big Bang, and from it all other grudges emanate. I once called my mother with the news that a distant cousin had died, a much-despised relative who had cheated my father out of money. My mother, with the skill of a truly great grudge holder, managed to connect her death with the Great Wrong in one breathtaking statement: “May her soul rest in peace that cunt like Hitler she took everything from us.”
So we learned to hate, we, the children and grandchildren, and we became like them, giving in to fury like Dionysians to ecstasy. We battled each other ferociously until we were bloodied. And when our fights were over, we would pick our injured bodies up off the floor and walk away, no apologies.
Eventually I grew ashamed of this fearsome legacy. More troubling than my capacity for hatred was my incapacity for forgiveness. Once, in desperation, I did a search for books about forgiveness on Amazon.com and found 125,223 titles. I read the descriptions and reviews of Total Forgiveness and Radical Forgiveness. I bought a copy of Jacques Derrida’s On Cosmopolitanism and Forgiveness as an act of penance for really wanting to purchase Getting Even: Forgiveness and Its Limits, which cautions forgiveness consumers on the “costs of forgiveness and the dangers of cheap grace.”
I examined Judaism for any arcane mechanisms to facilitate forgiveness. On Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, Jewish tradition has it that God grants immediate forgiveness to those who ask. But, according to the Talmud, “Yom Kippur does not forgive transgressions between a man and his fellow — until (or unless) he seeks forgiveness from him.” Judaism offers no easy out for transgressors. You have to apologize. And, when someone apologizes to you, you are expected to extend forgiveness.
Even the deity has trouble forgiving. I was relieved to know this at first. In a midrash by the modern Hasid scholar Eliezer Shore, the author recalls that God was so angry at the Israelites, after they cast the golden calf and worshiped it while Moses was away on business, that He would not forgive them. God was preparing to blast the Israelites out of existence when Moses interceded, not begging for forgiveness but reminding God that forgiveness is more important than revenge: “If you do not forgive them, wipe me out from Your book.” By offering himself, Shore writes, Moses “awakens G-d’s innermost will — to forgive His people.” Eventually even God must learn to forgive.
There was a picture of the scholar attached to the article. He seemed familiar. I looked closer, and there, behind his beard and forelocks, behind his wise countenance, I recognized Les Shore, who sat behind me in Miss Jablonski’s eighth-grade algebra class — a kid so replete with geekiness that just my proximity to him could have tainted me forever, and so I was a horrible snot to him, never knowing that he was, for an entire year, right behind me, dreaming about the words of the Prophets.
My mother rejected Judaism. Perhaps she knew that neither she nor my grandmother could face each other on the Day of Atonement and ask for forgiveness: for hating one another, for what they had seen each other do to survive. My mother decided to look into Christianity, into absolution rather than forgiveness. Plus it would really piss my grandmother off.
My mother came out as a Christian to my grandmother the day we arrived for a visit, bearing supplies from a Manhattan Hungarian grocer: poppy seeds, sweet chestnuts, and salami.
“I love Jesus,” my mother said.
My grandmother answered in rapid Hungarian. The only words I caught were “Catholic” and “whore.” A fight ensued. My mother chased my grandmother around the apartment with a hard salami the size and density of a baseball bat. My sister and I tried to get between them, but my mother was swinging like Babe Ruth.
“Not the kitchen, Grandma!” I yelled as my grandmother shuffled toward it. “There’s no way out!”
“Jesus hates you!” my mother screamed, and she brought the salami down on a sugar bowl, shattering the delicate porcelain handle, fashioned like a flower and blushing with a rose glaze. It was my favorite piece of Grandma’s china, the one she had promised to me.
Back in my grandmother’s apartment, among the belongings she’d gathered to make a semblance of a home, I found in the linen closet a small black briefcase filled with papers. They were forms, petitions to immigrate to the United States from Israel, where Grandma had gone after the war. There was one for every year from 1948 to 1954, pages of questions to answer and boxes to check and a blank page for a handwritten personal plea, if the petitioner so desired. My grandmother had composed one every year, filling the page with her sad history. They all began with the same sentence, “I am stateless,” and ended with the same declaration, that she could not stay in Israel: “I can no more war.” And each was stamped with a large red “Petition Rejected,” as big as a boot heel.
I looked up from the papers when my mother screamed. She was holding aloft the stem of the yellow rose Karen had given her. The flower was gone. We got down on the floor and crawled around looking for it while my mother moved to the middle of the living room and addressed the ceiling of the Walden Terrace apartment. She seemed to think that while we’d been busy packing doilies and Hummel figurines, my grandmother had come and taken the flower. She demanded first to know why my grandmother had beheaded her nice yellow rose. “Are you trying to tell me something, Anyu?” she asked, addressing her mother in Hungarian.
The disappearance of the rose was truly mysterious. We looked everywhere, picked up stacks of linens, peered under the couch, checked the closet. The rose was gone. “I’m so sad,” my mother told Karen. “But it was nice that you brought me the flower.” A general round of sniffling and comforting pats, and then we were back to business. My mother interrupted the proceedings every now and then to address my grandmother. “Are you here, Anyu? Why did you take my flower?”
My mother was on the verge of interrogating my dead grandmother again when Karen found the rose. It had rolled a considerable distance away to lodge under the TV table. She held it up and was about to say something when my mother suddenly shouted, “I know what you want! You want me to forgive you. I forgive you, Anyu. I forgive you.” She stood in the living room in a kind of ecstasy, eyes closed. She did not see the flower in Karen’s hand.
My sister froze. Our father, watching from the dining-room table, was trying wordlessly to communicate to her. He kept jerking his head in the direction of the bathroom. Karen nodded, seeming to understand what he wanted her to do. She palmed the rose, excused herself, and slipped into the bathroom. There was a pause, and then the toilet flushed. Then it flushed again. And again. We waited in suspense. With every flush my mother seemed to slide a little more out of her trance. You could see sorrow and anger and annoyance draining back into her face each time the water ran. Finally it stopped.
Karen came out of the bathroom.
“What were you doing in there?” my mother demanded.
“Grandma came, and I forgave her,” my mother said, as if Karen had been gone for hours.
Karen nodded and hugged my mother. We went back to our packing, stacking, and sorting. Karen came over and knelt beside me on the floor. When she was sure my mother wasn’t looking, she slid a single yellow petal out of her back pocket and waggled it at me. I could see the outline of the whole blossom in my sister’s jeans, dampening the denim.
I imagined the rose cast into the waters of the toilet bowl, flitting into the siphon like a fiddler crab, only to reemerge a moment later.
“What happened?” I whispered. “Why didn’t you get rid of it?”
“I tried,” she hissed. “It kept coming back.”