“Hurry and rinse the shampoo out of your hair, sweetie,” I urge — she’s been in there a long time and the steam from the hot water fills the bathroom like a cloud. “There’s nothing worse than a cold shower!”
“Yes, there IS!” my kindergartner emphatically corrects me. “Having your mom die is.”
Well, yeah, she’s got me there. Where is this coming from, I wonder. We don’t watch Disney movies; she doesn’t know anyone who’s lost a mother. It is truly just the worst thing she can imagine, losing me, the one who takes care of her.
Mother loss is still on my daughter’s mind as I wrap her wet warm body in a fluffy lilac towel, and gently squeeze the water from her hair.
“Do you miss your grandmother?” she asks, and she’s talking about the one who is only a photograph to me, the one who died when my mother was only 14. “Did you know her? ”
“No, I never did.”
And then, I know it’s coming, the question I’m not ready to answer. Curiosity in her singsong voice: “How did she die?”
I don’t want to explain the Holocaust to a six-year-old; I’m not ready for her to know that jarring history yet. I’ve always thought this was my mother’s job anyway. She’ll tell her the way she told me, the way I always knew, the way it didn’t hurt so much but made me feel distinct, like my family had a page in the history book, like those descendents of the Gold Rush, wagon trains, the ones who built the railroads. But my mother is not here at this moment and my daughter really really wants to know. So I explain in the simplest of terms that my grandmother died. From soldiers. Because she was Jewish.
And it’s surprisingly not the word ‘died’ or the word ‘Jewish’ that stumbles on my tongue, but the word ‘grandmother.’ I never much referred to her as my grandmother. She was always My Mom’s Mother Who Died In The Holocaust, as if that was her full title, whose descriptive multi-name denotes an historical figure. Like Mary Queen Of Scots. Grandmother was the name for the one I did have — my father’s mother, the one who lived to over 100 — and perhaps because I had one who filled the spot so nicely, I never had the need to imagine the one I never knew.
This grandmother, the one my daughter wants to know about, is the one I was named after; my eyes look just like hers, all my aunts told me. When I was a child and asked about my grandparents, my mother said they died in Europe during the war. And my child brain pictured them, in old age (even though they were not) dying in their sleep while a war battled on in the outskirts of their town. I didn’t question this vision until I was 12 and read Anne Frank’s diary, her account of hiding from the Nazis and her capture at the end. Years later, after being horrified by the nightmare world of concentration camps in Eli Weisel’s Night, I did ask for the grisly facts of my own relatives’ stories. My mother left Germany on the Kindertransport, the journey made famous by the academy award-winning movie Into the Arms of Strangers, the rescue mission that saved nearly 10,000 children from Nazis, by relocation to foster homes in Great Britain. Her parents were not so lucky. From my mother’s research we can determine only these gruesome outcomes: either my grandparents were put in a cattle car and shot by soldiers en route to Poland and buried in a mass grave, or they were sent to Belzec extermination camp, where most victims were gassed on arrival. There is also the possibility that they perished within the Polish ghetto of Lublin. No death record, nor list of their names has been found. I have no facts, no eyewitness account, no book or movie footage of their demise, and because I have no definitive death scenario, I have never allowed myself to imagine one.
And sadly, I have also not imagined her life. I have no sense of how she felt or smelled, if her curls were coarse or silky, if her voice was melodic or deep. I’ve never tried to conjure her up, until now, when my own daughter asks for details I’ve never even tried to imagine. “What happened with the soldiers? Why did she die because she was Jewish?” which I field by telling her that Oma (my mother, her grandmother) will tell her, that I don’t know everything about it, which is both a delaying tactic and the truth.
“I know how you can feel close to her,” my daughter exclaims.
“How?” I’m curious. She’s seen, in the clouds, the spirit of our dog that died. She’s felt the presence of her own grandmother, my mother-in-law who passed away just over a year ago. I’m open to whatever my spiritual child has to suggest.
She runs across the room and comes back with her hand clenched. In it is a silver thimble, well worn and beautiful with hearts etched around the rim. My aunt, in preparation for a move, gave it to me earlier in the week; it once belonged to her mother, this grandmother my daughter is now hoping perhaps to channel. My daughter has recently discovered a love of sewing, so this thimble, which she loves, is extra special as a family heirloom and a dazzling, useful tool. “Here,” she says, as she puts it in my hand, “If you wear it . . . well, she wore it . . . it was hers, and you can feel her. Right?”
I want to, and for the first time, I allow myself to imagine. I wonder aloud if she used this silver thimble when she hemmed dresses for her four daughters. “I think she wore it when she sewed a stuffed animal with Oma,” my daughter envisions, as she twirls it on her small thumb, so obviously remembering how we had sewn a teddy bear together just the week before.
I wonder if my mother did indeed sew with her mother, if they tickled each other in fits of affection and tossed their heads back when they laughed. Was their mother-daughter relationship anything like my daughter’s and mine?
It’s not the thimble — there have been other items of My Mom’s Mother Who Died In the Holocaust: the eiderdown comforter I slept with as a child, the tablecloth she embroidered, the kiddush cup I drank from at my wedding — but it’s my daughter’s questions, her eager desire to know about her ancestors, that bring up feelings I’ve long pushed aside. Anger and resentment hover near the surface. I set the table with more force than usual, almost banging the plates down on the counter. Later, I protest through tears in the shower as intense sadness spills out: I should have known them. It didn’t have to be this way. I cry for my mother’s loss, and I cry for my own, wanting a connection to this lost past, but not knowing where to reach for it.
When it’s quiet in the house and I’m alone the next morning, I go to the glass cabinet in the dining room and pull out the bronze-framed wedding photo of my grandparents. It’s sepia toned, a perfect circle inside an ivory mat. They are younger than I am now, their heads tilt towards each other, curls touching, their intelligent eyes gazing intently at the photographer and out beyond, now at me. What would they say to me if they could? What stories and horror would they tell? What exactly do I want to know?
I’ll hand this picture to my daughter. She can trace her finger over the curls and the lacey fabric of the wedding dress, over the handlebar moustache of her great great grandfather. She can ask her own questions and I’ll pose mine, and we’ll ask my mother, her grandmother, together. Hopefully, we’ll discover more than a thimble can hold.