Poetica Magazine    

 

 Contemporary Jewish Writing

Frances Samuels

 

The Heirloom

 

     She was not looking forward to their meeting. It was always the same with them: awkward, at best; at worst, World War III. Not the most tasteful joke, even if it was only to herself. It wasn't their fault. She knew that. She shouldn’t be so intolerant. Besides, she thought, what if they could read her mind? As a child, she was always afraid they could. As an adult, she believed so almost more deeply.

     From the onset, everything about the impending visit was disconcerting. Even his initial attempt to contact her was odd. Nervous messages in foreign languages, though hardly an everyday occurrence, were not unfamiliar. It was what the survivors did. It was how they networked. They called, decades after the war, in search of others who shared their haunted history: "You remember Manya? Such a firecracker she was. And a beauty—such striking red hair and green eyes. She didn’t look Jewish. We all thought she could pass. But they found her. The neighbor reported her.…Do you know anything from Herschel? I heard he was alive, that he also came to America. He gave me once a cigarette. For that, I gave him my potato peels. A big transaction! It was such a funny thing, to exchange a cigarette for potato peels. But Herschel had no sense of humor…." At one time, she thought she might save the voicemails, publish them in some kind of Yiddish newsletter or turn them over to an agency. She would do it as a service to them. The survivors, her mother had told her, were still looking for others. They would never stop.

     Often, the callers spoke in Polish, which she had never picked up. Her parents hadn’t wanted her to; they only used Polish when they didn’t want her to know what was going on, much the same way she and her husband had relied on their high school French to keep things from the kids. But when the voicemail was in Yiddish, she could understand perfectly, no matter how excitedly they spoke: "Your mother was with me together—zusammen—in Auschwitz….I was there with your father when they took away his sister and her son—die schvester mit ir zin. It was her only son—ir benyochedle…." She was gentle with the survivors, attentive and patient, though in reality she had tired of them, exhausted by their unrelenting need. She knew the exact moment her resentment was born. It came with the birth of her first child—zusammen, together. She had had only a few hours of his sweet baby breath against her breast, only a few hours of that intoxicating, neo-natal, baby-powder scent, before they started. It came the way it always did—in whispers that grew louder, became audible, aggressive, destructive. Like locusts. Like a plague. Staring at him in the hospital nursery, examining his blond fuzz and deep blue eyes, they assured…who? Was it her? Was it themselves? God? They spoke to the air: "He could pass." That was what they had to say. That was all they had to say. "He could pass." Her baby, her beautiful son, her benyochedle—his birth irrevocably tarnished by their bitterness and angst. She had never forgiven them. It was unforgivable. Still, when a survivor called, she would smile sympathetically into the receiver as though she could transmit what little empathy she had left. Then she would take the name and phone number, and promise to have one of her parents call back. Now that her mother was too frail for such conversations, it fell to her to preserve the old relationships, regardless of how tenuous they were.

     But this message was peculiar. Disturbing. She could not make out the language at all. When the machine cut his voice off, she was momentarily startled, as though it was she, and not the message, that had been severed from the connection. A second call followed, this time in near-perfect English: "I knew your father in Treblinka. Please, if you would be so kind, I would appreciate to hear from you." Then the hotel name and number.

     The language, he told her when she returned his call, was Romanian—his native tongue. His English was better than his Yiddish because he lived in Prague now, no longer among Jews. Well really, she thought, with some irritation, while he rambled on about his business in New York, if he's fluent in English, why the message in Romanian? He knew she wouldn't understand it. Already she knew what he was like. It was calculated, a survivor ploy to make her pay attention. So many of them had that habit of scheming, plotting—a necessary skill to endure another day in concentration camp. They were manipulative and conniving. They had to be; she understood that. Her father, she reminded the caller, was from Poland, not Romania. She was careful to say "from Poland," not "Polish." Survivors were not Polish. They were from Poland. They were born there and raised there; they were ghettoed there, and incarcerated there; they were victimized, brutalized, dehumanized there. Their families—all their relatives—were obliterated there. There were, however, no tombstones there. There was nothing to go back to, nothing to go back for. Her parents had told her over and over that they were from Poland, not Polish. It was her earliest history lesson. In school, History was her least favorite subject.

     Yes, he knew her father had died more than forty years ago—that she was just a child then, six years old. She had no genuine memory of him, she explained; she only remembered the stories that had been recounted so often she could claim them as her own. Of course, he acknowledged, another man had raised her. Her stepfather was also a survivor, a man who had lost a wife and little girl, a man she bonded with instantly and insistently, making him her father, making herself his daughter. No, he did not want to speak with her mother; he had heard that she was sick. Besides, it was her father, her natural father, that he knew—not her mother. Her father had helped him, "took care" of him in the camps. (Why was it always plural, she used to wonder: in the camps, not the camp? Some quirk of translation, she assumed. Then she understood: they moved from work camp to work camp to death camp. The lucky ones got to use the plural.) He wanted to meet her, "Abram’s tochter"—Arthur’s daughter. He would like to visit her at her home. He would take the train to Westchester. He would have a cup of tea. Just tea. Nothing to eat. He was very careful about his diet. She assumed that meant he kept kosher, and offered to pick something up for him from the bakery in the Orthodox neighborhood she drove through on her way home from work. It was no trouble, she fibbed. No, he informed her; he didn’t observe, not since the war. "Diabetic," he said. "Easier," she thought.

     He would be arriving soon. She used the stepladder to get to the top cabinet and reached for the treasured tea set. She had only used it a very few times: when she got engaged, at the bris of each of her sons, when her husband became a partner, at her parents’ last anniversary. It was far too precious to squander on everyday use.

     It was glorious outside, the kind of late spring day that had made her fall in love with this house, and made her gasp a little every time she looked out at the property. She could see the river from her yard. It was like living in a Jasper Cropsey painting—so beautiful she could put aside the feeling that she didn’t belong, even though she could never get rid of it completely. The survivors were xenophobes; everyone who wasn’t like them was suspect. Her family had teasingly dubbed her, "the Yankee." She could never quite reconcile the dichotomy between the accident of her birth (in Paterson, New Jersey, just like Lou Costello) and how she really felt—an outsider, sometimes trying to belong, sometimes not wanting to at all. Raised with suspicion and distrust, she had worried about moving in. She combatted her sense of estrangement by making everything perfect. A Singaporean student of hers had once remarked, "Americans are so house-proud." (So someone else thought she was a Yankee. Someone else who wasn’t an American.) It was true. Outside, every plant and shrub was perfectly cultivated and pruned. Inside, every piece of art—every little knick-knack—had its designated, honored place. Her home, which filled her with such pleasure and satisfaction, still left her feeling the imposter. Here she was, with acreage surrounding her, the only Florence among the Courtneys and the Trishas and the Blairs, the only short, round brunette among the tall, slender blondes. She didn’t jog with the dog in the morning or garden in the late afternoon. She was the only Jew among the gentiles, and not just any Jew, but the child of Holocaust survivors. She had read somewhere that most people, if asked to describe themselves as a youngster, replied with a specific character trait: "I was a tomboy" or "I was a quiet kid" or "I loved to ride my bike." Not her kind. They all responded exactly the same way: "I am the child of Holocaust survivors."

     She washed the tea set with care, with reverence, with pride of ownership. Her parents had brought it with them when they came to this country, just a month before she was born—the tea set and a few other antiques that they sold immediately to have some ready cash. Her mother’s cousins had bought it, had fallen in love with its translucence and delicacy, the lovely shape of the cups, the fine line of gold ornamentation. They never used it. Instead, when she was born, they put it away, lovingly plotting what a perfect gift it would be for her when she got married. But the wife died young, and the husband, concerned that something might happen to it in a house with three teenage boys, gave her the tea set early, when she graduated from college, before she even met her husband. In her mind, she had inherited it. She had never been envious of other people’s wealth or luxuries, but how she begrudged them their heirlooms. She cherished the tea set. It was not a story, not a memory—not a burden. It was real. It was a legacy. She valued it not just for its worth, but for what it was worth to her. A fine china tea set—delicate, yet strong. Like a diamond, it was intricate and elegant, but hard and durable. Like a Jew. Like a survivor.

     She placed the tea set out on a tray and went to pick him up at the train. She knew him immediately. How could she not? The brown woven shoes, the white shirt and solid tie—everything about him said foreigner, stranger. Did he register the quick smile—a nearly imperceptible smirk that passed across her face? Probably. Most probably. How could he not? It was a reflex; she couldn’t control it. She told herself it was simply recognition, not disdain. Her visitor looked even more out of place in this Norman Rockwell setting than she did. He was sizing her up too. She looked exactly like her father. Her guest seemed momentarily taken aback—maybe disappointed. Her visage did not have the beauty of the tea set, though it was the truer heirloom.

     The house was only a mile from the station. They were there in a minute, pulling up the long driveway toward the picture-perfect colonial. Immediately, she could see that he was judging her. It irritated her. They had been together less than five minutes and already he had diminished her, already he had made her feel the second-generation stereotype—guilty, apologetic, always trying to appease her parents, always trying to please the survivors. Always trying to make them happy. Always trying to make up for their loss. She had a flash of memory. She had argued with her mother: "What do you want from me? I’m sorry I don’t have a number on my arm. I’m sorry I didn’t suffer like you did. I’m sorry I was born after the war. I should have been a prisoner in the camps. It would have been better than being a prisoner here." It was the only time her mother slapped her in the face. It had the force of 6,000,000 souls. And now, with this stranger, this intruder, she could feel the sting of it again—even before they got out of the car.

     They passed through the house, stopping in the kitchen just long enough for her to put up the tea. From the sun porch, he slowly took in the idyllic scene. He asked if they might move two chairs and a small table to the back of the yard. Of course, she responded, wondering if, like her parents and so many others, he preferred not to have a roof overhead or walls—even if they were only screens—around him. Her best friend’s mother, she remembered, had always refused to let her children play in a fenced playground. After so many years, they still felt trapped; they still thought, first and foremost, about escape. It was a beautiful piece of property, he remarked. He had grown up on a farm—a poor farm, to be sure—but this was like a forest. He had been in forests. He had hidden in forests, had dug holes in the earth and buried himself alive, surfacing only in the night to forage for food. She tried to lighten the conversation; it was good for parties and entertaining, she told him. In his world, he reminded her, forests were not for parties.

     There was no way to avoid the tension, no way to break it. She went to fetch the tea. When she returned, he was smoking a cigarette. He didn’t offer her one—not that she would have taken it, but it did seem odd to her that an eastern European man of his generation wouldn’t even offer. He was a farmer, not from the city, her mother would have said. Not sophisticated, not refined, not a gentleman. Her parents’ friends were all survivors, but her mother, who had grown up in Lodz, who had run a business in the hope of paying for pharmaceutical school one day, would always make distinctions between them. We wouldn’t have been friends if not for the war, she used to say about her close group in America: this one was from a different class; that one was from a different background; ach, he wasn’t educated. But survival made strange bedfellows, she learned. When she was little, all of her friends were also children of survivors. They were clannish. When her stepdad first came through Ellis Island, he moved to an apartment building on the Upper West Side where nearly all the other tenants were survivors. When they bought a house in the suburbs, they didn’t mingle with the neighbors. What was the PTA or Chamber of Commerce to them? Her parents and their friends had met in Sweden, where the Red Cross trucks had taken them after. That was how they said it, "after." Not "after the war," not "after we were liberated"—just "after." Displaced persons who barely knew each other pretended to be family. Years later, they continued the ruse. Her "cousins" were not relatives at all, but they had much more in common than most blood kin. Especially the girls. They were the guardians of the past, the keepers of sorrow and secrets. Not the boys; they had much more freedom. But the girls were like little ballerina jewel boxes, dancing and dancing as their mothers filled them with stories, filled them with memories that were to be saved and savored and worn like adornments. While the boys played American games like Cowboys and Indians, she and her two best friends played Concentration Camp. They took the same role each time. One was a collaborator, one was weak and threw herself on the imaginary electric fence, and she was the survivor. They grew apart as they grew up, but when they were all sweet 16 and had begun to hate each other, they played one last time, "for old times’ sake," they said, as if they were war-weary survivors themselves. This time, she was the one who was weak and took her own life.

     She and the visitor sat without drinking tea, without eating any of the fruit and cheese she had put out—without making small talk. He stared at her as he inhaled, then picked the tobacco from his tongue. He was accustomed to silence, she knew—accustomed to speaking little and observing much. For her, it was unbearable. Restraint deserted her. "The tea set," she blurted out, "is an heirloom. It is the only heirloom I have." He said nothing. She went on with the rest of the story—how her parents had acquired it in Sweden, had brought it here and sold it to the cousins, and how it had finally come to her. It was real—not just a story. It was a legacy. Her voice went up two octaves; the words poured out of her. It was true, she tried to explain. It was a legacy. It was an heirloom. It was true. But he only stared at her more piercingly. When she stopped, he picked up his cake plate and examined the mark on the bottom. "Do you think your father would be proud of you for this? A tea set from Germany? This is your prize?" He put his cigarette out in the saucer.

     The anger rose up so ferociously, she could hardly breathe. "I hear the phone," she lied. Her back already to him, she fled toward the house. She looked at the train schedule and saw that if they hurried, she could get him to the express train in the next town. Marching back, she quickly said she had a meeting and they had to leave immediately. She whipped around again, listening to hear if he was following. A twig snapped underfoot. She was relieved; he was behind her. The silence in the car was more deadening than deafening. No cliché could describe it. She wanted him out; she wanted him gone. She pulled up to the station and pointed to where he should wait. He got out of the car with a curt thank you. She wanted to shower. She wanted to get the stink of his cigarette off her, even though it wasn’t really there. They had been outside, after all, not in some smoke-filled room. The smell was in her nostrils, in her mind—not on her clothes or her body. She couldn’t make the distinction. She wanted him gone. Not just his presence, but the memory of him.

     Driving home, the agitation of the encounter lingered. She tried to calm herself. Never again, she vowed, reddening at the irony. She would clean everything up and then take a good long soak. Afterwards, like the other women in her neighborhood, she would pour a glass of wine and sit out on the patio, waiting for the day to end. Tray in hand, she walked toward the back of the yard. She paused for a moment. The birds were making a racket; there was a fox slinking by at the end of the property. They both stopped. The fox looked at her for just a second or two, then continued toward the river. She continued toward the furniture. When she got to the table, she stooped to collect the tea set, the "prize," as he had called it. Only then did she notice the chip on the rim of her cup.