The room is dark, he’s drawn the blinds and closed the curtains, as if he’s aware an important question is coming and he’s not willing to answer it.
He plunks himself down in the chair across from me, scraping it’s metal legs across the kitchen’s scarred linoleum. He lights up his Kent 100. Blowing out the flame, he takes in a deep drag, then another, looking me straight in the eye.
I wonder, for a split second, how he never, ever coughs. I tried smoking once, when I was 14. My throat caught fire and I couldn’t stop myself from choking. Everyone laughed, the teasing lasted for weeks. My saving grace? Being able to hide embarrassed tears behind my hazel eyes, they were watering from the smoke anyway. It was a miserable minute in my adolescent life.
Anyway, back to the story. “Dad,” I start. “You do realize you’re the only one left who can help me find out about my roots, right?”
“Yup.” A complete sentence. I wait. For awhile. He takes another drag. Finally, he speaks. “And, I’m not going to.” He tells me. “Let’s talk about something else.”
Instead, I find myself rewinding old memories, turning old pages. I land in front of the black and white TV in one recollection, at the kitchen table in another, always with my mom. I think I’m about seven. She is talking to me about being German, a blue-blood she says.
Every day after that, I seem to learn more about my heritage. There’s royalty, a castle, coming over to America on a boat, eventually settling in Dorchester, Mass.
Charming stories. Until I learn that my people, the German in me, killed the Jews.
My mother was very adamant, strong in her belief that we should never forget what the Germans did to the millions of Jews and others, during WWII. We would sit together and watch documentaries, read novels, pore over horrific images in history books. I was overwhelmed with the atrocities committed during wartime.
I was so ashamed of my heritage, not understanding as a child, that there were also wonderful, amazing and brave German people in the world. Ones that had the courage to help others survive during those dark, hopeless days. Men and women who rose up against Hitler and his regime. People who died, while saving the Jews.
When I was older, and learned more about the good of Germany, I fell in love with the strength of regular folks who had helped shine light, and hope, through the darkness. Still, momma and I would sit over coffee and talk about the war. I could not get my hands on enough history books. I felt this need to learn everything I could about that era. And, she was still persistent, “Don’t forget, don’t you ever forget.”
And then, before we are ready, she’s dead. My best friend, my confidant, gone. Cancer took her. September 15th, 2004, banged on the door, held out a calling card, and claimed her.
I’m a mess. We all are actually. I am kissing her cheek, “Momma, Momma.” It’s my mantra. I can’t get any other words out.
In the middle of five daughters and a husband trying to manage our last goodbyes, dad blurts it out.
“It’s a fitting day for your mom to pass.” He’s wiping his snot with the back of his hand. We look at him with ugly, mascara-stained faces.
“What?” We say it in unison, as if we are one person. The word startles all of us.
“It’s fitting.” dad nods, looks away, as if he is talking to himself. “Today is Erev Rosh Hashana, one of the most important Jewish Holidays.”
Blank stares. And?
“Your mom was Jewish. Not just German,” he says, as if it’s not the most earth-shattering news. As if this statement won’t change everything, after it’s uttered.
I mean, we are in our late 40’s! Early-to- mid 50’s! Why are we hearing about this now?
I’m not really sure how my sisters felt that day. There was so much going on. But, roller coaster emotions after a bomb went off. That’s how it was for me.
Who on earth was my mom? And who did that make me? Why didn’t we know about this? We never heard a whisper. Not once in all these years. Why did she hide it? Why did dad hide it?
Who on earth was my family? Were they exterminated in the camps, brought there on those Holocaust trains, or marching in lines through bitter Winter snow? Is that why my mother was so fierce, constantly reminding us of WWII horrors?
Or, worse, were they members of the elite SS? Did they help carry out the slaughter of the innocent? Is that why she went on and on about Hitler? Why she stressed how important it was to honor the dead, to celebrate the life of those who miraculously survived his plans in genocide?
I struggle with my questions, there are so many. And now, here I am. Sitting uncomfortably, across from my father.
I’m confused. For so many years, my entire life, really, I was close to mom. But, I really knew nothing. I can’t wrap my head around it.
And I’m still close to my dad, but know nothing. Nada. Zilch. He will not budge. He is as strong now, in his silence, as she was, exposing that chapter in history.
“Talk about something else?” I say. “Are you kidding me, dad?” I glare at him. My hands are shaking. I am going to throw up.
“Who the hell am I? Who was momma? Who is my family? Pleeeeeze…” The words are raw. They leak out of me. I am begging him for the truth. I know this, but cannot stop.
I am no one, until I’m someone. “Who am I, dad?”
He stubs out his cigarette. My father walks over and gives me the biggest bear hug. Rubs my back. It’s going to be ok, I think.
He walks over to the window. Pulls back the curtains. Then opens the kitchen door. A whoosh of fresh air sweeps in to battle the stale.
“Looks like rain.”
~~~~~ ~~~~~ ~~~~~ ~~~~~ ~~~~~ ~~~~~ ~~~~~