I have taken a rest now, in my task of clearing out the flat where my parents lived, since I left for university. It seems like a hundred years ago.
All morning I have been checking out cardboard boxes, filled with dust and photos of people I do not know, offering a photographic journey into a past I do not know, left alone small bits and pieces of facts from time to time, never the whole scenery, as if wandering through familiar pathways now polluted with smog.
Then I found the photo I have only seen once before, and which was the clue to the deconstruction of an entire healthy family, casting its cool gloom even on my own life. It was the moment I left them, the last time I spoke to my mother.
I came to realize that I was clutching it, almost destroying it, with my sweaty hand, and decided to take a cup of coffee in the kitchen. Part of me was surprised she still kept it, part of me was not. It was probably the only one existing from a period of my mother’s life I know too little about.
I recognize two of these three people. My grandfather, much younger then, of course, firmly holds hands with two children. The little girl is my mother at the age of four. The other child’s name, a boy at the age of, – I have to make a guess here; around six, – I have never known. Yet now I know he was my mother’s half brother.
The location is probably Frankfurt, Germany, and it must be pre-world- war-two, since my uncle is still there.
Childhood is supposedly strewn with happy memories. Or can it be that we remember the transparent skies on a summer morning, and forget all the rainy mornings, when we had to stay in?
In this perspective, one might say that I never knew my mother. Was she happy, once she was the only child, or was her missing brother always present, making even the sunny days of summer darken with the chill from his shadow? I do not know, and I never asked. It is funny how, – even as a child, you always know which paths you may follow, and which are restricted. My mother spoke cheerfully of the house she lived in, adding the small anecdotes of a family, consisting of mom and dad.
Even the abrupt moving overseas, all the way from Frankfurt, had flair of adventure over it, never dealing with the men in uniforms, the dark screams in the alleys, the real reasons why they left.
My grandmother was married twice. Although this fact might have been attached with some shame, it was not worse than it could be passed on to me, even as a child. But that grandmother’s first husband was Jewish, never came up. That is, not until the first time I sat with this picture, all grown up and with all the self confidence, safe and sturdy smiles and clever conversation, a middle class background can provide.
–“But who is the boy,” I had asked her twice, and at some awful silent seconds it seemed she would never tell me. Many things must have rushed through her mind before she decided to answer, to tell me a story I should have heard years ago. “It is your uncle”, she said. “Your grandmother’s first marriage was to a Jewish man. They divorced and she kept the boy. And you know, you know”, she insisted, relying on my education, the hours spent watching documentaries from World War ll, history classes at Senior High, relying on it, all she had to add, was ” how it was like. “
I sat there, stunned, unable to say anything, and she continued. “The Gestapo came for them. Him. She had to choose. It was not easy, you must understand! It was either leaving or to die for all of us.”
“And grandma chose life.” I said, speaking out sounds that somehow seemed unfamiliar, as if they were not my native language.
I remember my mother at this point, balancing barely on the edge of the couch, her shoulders sunk, her back bent in a semi-circle, like a limp banana, her eyes fixed in the grey carpet, her lips pressed together so hard, that a white brim was appearing at the edges. I knew I would not get any more from her. All she silently breathed out was, “Yes, we chose life.”
So I guess I should feel lucky, after all, being born. But many times I am not. Not the least.