The kind you’re born with, the kind you choose, the kind that teach Catholic school
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Photo courtesy of the author, whose grandmother is on the right.
When I went on a six-day meditation retreat in New Mexico last summer, the alpine geography evoked childhood vacations in the Tatra Mountains of Poland: the meadows, the sharp peaks, the flowers, the silence. Every summer my mother and I would spend a couple of days there, just she and I. Though I was often bored (photos of my tight, scowling face attest to this), I also cherished our time together. I saw so little of her at home, where she was busy with her medical residency and her boyfriends. In my child’s eyes she was beautiful and glamorous, and taking those trips with her was like going on vacation with a movie star, right down to the Brigitte Bardot sunglasses she wore. I wanted to be with her every minute, holding her hand, basking in her attention.
Later, after we left Poland when I was eight, she began to crack under the weight of being an immigrant in East Los Angeles, a single mother trying to make rent and learn English, kept awake at night by memories of the war, the Holocaust. By the time I reached fifteen, we barely spoke. It was nobody’s fault, I knew even then. Given what she’d been through, who could blame her for lying in bed all day with the lights out and the curtains drawn in that land of endless sun? And who could blame me for being awful, for running away, for rejecting her, for believing that, in doing so, I was choosing life?
But here in the alpine meadows around the retreat lodge, I wished that she could have been with me again so I could have shown her how the grass shimmered in the breeze, how the otter circled lazily in the pond. I wished she could have been with me not as the shattered and numb survivor but as her best self, the one who could still laugh at the absurd; who could, with a well-timed arch of her brow, have me laughing with her and sometimes even falling to my knees, begging her to stop.
If she’d been with me on the retreat, we would have sat together under the great pine and listened to the forest creaking, the warm wind high in the trees. She would have appreciated the stillness, the slow unfolding of the afternoon. We would have had a picnic next to the stream: fresh bread (generously buttered) and hot tea with sugar and lemon, the Polish way. A small reunion. Perhaps my mother’s mother, Halina, and her grandmother Sofie would join us. Halina, after whom I was named, looked so young and full of life in the grainy black-and-white photos I once found tucked away in a worn envelope labeled simply “mama.” There she was on the beach in Gdańsk in 1932, hamming it up with her friends in their black flapper swimsuits and heels, doing ballet poses and mugging for the camera — laughing, innocent to the coming devastation. In just a few years Halina would be selling everything, buying false papers, “passing” with her fluent German, using desperate cunning and ingenuity to hide her dark-eyed, dark-haired daughter — my mother, who couldn’t pass — in basements, orphanages, convents. And even though she would be able somehow to save her daughter, she herself would die at thirty-
four, exhausted and alone, head shaven, in a small country hospital in 1945, just days before liberation.
Yes, Halina would sit with us in that sunny patch of grass, and she’d dip her strong legs into the water, lie back on the smooth granite boulder, and soak up the heat of that still day. Sofie, her mother, would lie beside her. She was the one who snuggled with my mother every night, the storyteller who was too sick to run away with her daughter and granddaughter before the SS came in the morning, and who chose instead, after tucking my mother into bed the night before, to climb the stairs of the ghetto apartment building and step off the ledge, freeing them to leave, grief-stricken, without her. Yes, Sofie would join our reunion with a long embrace, and the four of us together would lie in the grass, inhaling with deep breaths the scent of vanilla seeping from the fields of wildflowers. We’d watch the hawks and ravens circling slowly overhead in the cloudless blue sky with all the time in the world.
In reality I sat alone on the edge of the meadow, and on the warm rock by the creek, and on a ledge overlooking the forest canyon, observing my breath, the light and shadow of the day, the sound of grasshoppers, the squirrels. Again and again, no matter my intent to be present, I would inevitably return to the realization that in this gorgeous world, where the sun sparkled on the water and the full moon rose over the mountain peaks — in this gorgeous, impossible world, a man in a uniform could hold a gun to the head of a scared nine-year-old girl, my mother. And that no matter how hard I tried to run away, no matter how many lives and experiences I had — jobs, children, relationships, retreats — everything would always circle back to that brutal piece of history, imprinted on my DNA. And on some level I didn’t want the story to be forgotten, because it brought me closer to her. Somehow the profound sadness invoked her presence and honored her life — their lives — and for me to let go of that pain would be to lose her all over again. Because even though that solider did not pull the trigger, the shadow of that bullet, packed tight with years of loss and fear and horror, seared its way into her head, leaving a scarred trail and lying dormant until it silently detonated one night forty-two years later without warning while she slept. Before I could say goodbye. Before I could tell her with all my heart that I loved her.
I cried during the silent walking meditations and the sitting meditations. I began to fear that I would never stop crying, that at the end of the retreat they would scrape me off the floor and take me away in a wagon, still shellshocked by a war I’d experienced only secondhand, through my mother’s stories.
On the fifth day of the retreat we met in small groups for discussions with the teacher. It turned out I was not the only one struggling. Illness, divorce, death — the room held many sad stories, and in the midst of them I managed to choke out mine. Later that evening a woman from the group found me sitting by the creek. We hadn’t spoken before, but I had noticed her from the first day because her spine was bent and she walked with a limp even though she was young and had a face like a model’s. She sat down next to me, her blue eyes clear and kind, and she leaned over and embraced me for a long time without a word.
The next day my husband and our youngest daughter, Allie, met me at the airport. At the age of nine Allie was still young enough to yelp when she saw me and squeeze me in a tight hug.
When I walked through the front door at home, my thirteen-year-old, Sofie, the one with my mother’s dark eyes, emerged from the refuge of her room and hugged me too. My son, Daniel, the wrestler and budding meditator, greeted me before attending to the more pressing demands of Facebook. Ah, the balm of normalcy.
I wanted to scoop them all up and transport them back to that alpine meadow in New Mexico, or perhaps to the Tatra Mountains in Poland, and introduce them to three women dozing in the sun by the creek. There would be shouts of delight and laughter. There would be wrestling demonstrations, ballet poses, and perfect back handsprings across the meadow, above which brightly colored hummingbirds would shoot their way into the deep blue sky.
I have been moved to tears many times by something I have read in The Sun. Not only did Halina Larman’s essay “Reunion” [September 2012] do this, it also moved me to immediately reread it, and then to write and thank her.