For eight days each December they call out to me as the flame of the candles flickers out, “Remember me” they say in unison, “remember me”, in the voice of the child, an old woman, in Yiddish, in Polish, German, Czech, Latt. I want to remember but I cannot see a face reduced to ash, blended into the earth of a farm field outside Treblinka, the winter wheat remembers. I want to remember but I cannot stroke the head of a young man whose bones mingle with his brother’s, countless others sharing a mass grave, his skull and brains painting the trunks of a nearby stand of trees. I want to remember but cannot hear the sweet tenor of the cantor whose tongue was torn from his mouth for refusing to speak of the tunnels beneath his once beloved Warsaw. I want to remember the lavender scent of the young woman, fresh from the showers but there is only the stench of putrid flesh and Zyklon, of bodies crammed into the converted boxcar. I want to remember the taste of a warm challah on Shabbat eve that she lovingly shaped into a braid and pulled from the oven, but her arms were neatly removed by the surgeon before she was cast naked into the Polish winter. I want to remember them all, their names in a memorial but they are only numbers tattooed onto endless arms. The candles die and their voices fall silent for yet another year.
First Appeared in Rattle, Issue 7, Summer 1997. Reprinted in Legal Studies Forum, Vol. 29, No. 1, 2005.
Today in odd places, at the most unexpected moments, a child will smile without reason, a young girl will laugh, the young boy will stroke the neck of a wandering cat, and in that place at that moment there will be a simple peace. Only the children will notice this, though it gives lie to those who deem peace impossible. A child knows that it is only preconceptions and attachments that blind adults to the peace that surrounds them.
The most important lessons he taught were in those moments when he was absolutely silent, the smile across his face shouting across the background din of everyday life, his eyes wide with a sort of childish awe that I had long since given up as adolescent.
The child sees everything for the first time regardless how many times she has gazed at what we adults are certain is the same scene, a pure iteration, hears each call of the cardinal as a never-before-heard song, not the now boring chorus of a too long repeated lyric, its melody now painful.
His lessons too easily slipped away, as he did a few years later, mourning a poor substitute for memories that eased into the damp ground with him, but the smile of my granddaughter at seemingly everything and nothing, her laughter at the squirrel inverted from the crook arm of the bird feeder defying the shield below to stop his constant thefts, the giggles at the clouds filling the sky with characters I could not hope to see, brought him back, and with him the joys of my childhood long suppressed.
I’ve always imagined that one of these nights I’d see my mother’s ghost. I would welcome the sight welcome she that bore me, not she that stepped in in a way,absolving my birth mother of her sin, while assuming adopting me would make her complete.
She hasn’t visited yet, neither has done so, but I hold out hope, it is after all the last to go, and I do hear her voice, faint and all too distant, sounding very much like my own one instant and then no more than a faint whisper in retreat.
I don’t need a long conversation, a few words would more than suffice, but some at least, a child should in advancing age hear the sound of a mother’s voice, if only to find solace in the fact that her choice to yield the child was made from love not defeat.
I approach it slowly, overcome by fear and desire, warned to step carefully over the uneven earth that on this hillside haven set behind the rusting wrought iron fence , its master lock dangling askew, peers out through the trees to the Kanawha river flowing unknowingly through the valley.
The stone is set in line with the others, neatly incised, a name, English and Hebrew, two petunias, cornered, in perpetual bloom, a beloved sister and aunt, and unstated, unknown perhaps, a mother whose son, gently touching the stone, washes her with my tears, and we speak of love in silence, and I, a child of sixty-seven, embrace my mother for the first time, and I am finally and for the first time, complete
It was a Thursday in August when he first noticed it. It was an unusually cool day, not the sort you’d expect in the middle of summer, but he knew the weather was ever more unpredictable. He was certain it hadn’t been there the day before, but he was surprised it was still there the day after, albeit ever so slightly larger. When he asked the elders about it, they merely laughed. “It is what you get for suddenly giving him a bedtime after dark,” his father said, “wait until he discovers the stars.”
As a child, I could never understand why, when I knew that it ws time to go, my parents were never ready, always needed one or two more things; and why en route, we were never quite there even though I had waited the ten minutes more they said it would take.
But I had nothing on my beloved dog Mindy, who would stand by the back door, leash in moth and growl, wondering, no doubt why I always need more time, it wasn’t, she was certain, because shoes were necessary, or a rain jacket, she got by just fine without them, and why my last bathroom stop had to take precedence over hers would always be beyond comprehension.
What I want, no, need actually, is to remember the smells of youth. The images I can recall, but they are aged pictures, run repeatedly through the Photoshop of memory, and cannot be trusted only desired.
The old, half ready to fall oak, in the Salt Lake City park had a faint pungency that lingered even as I departed my body as the acid kicked in, and drew me back from the abyss hours later,
and my then wife, cradling our first born in the hospital bed, the scent of innocence and sterility that neither of us dared recognize as a foretelling of our denouement.
Those moments are lost in the sea of time, washed away from memory’s shore, but the smell of a summer oak still promises a gentle return to self.