For as long into the past as I remember, there hung on the wall above my grandparents’ bed a glass-framed black and white photograph, which I could almost reach when I stood on top of the bed. In a large chest of drawers, more photo albums were kept in the bottom drawer where the past could be paraded in disjointed events before my eyes.
The photo above the bed featured the head of a younger version of my mother next to the head of an unfamiliar man, but who closely resembled my uncle. Boobe’s eyes welled up whenever she looked at the picture and then at me. Everybody cried around me: an uncle who came from America to visit every two years, my uncle and aunt who lived in Binyamina, Boobe’s sister who lived in Haifa, and my cousins. What was this sadness about? I waited for some sign to explain the offenses they believed I had committed against them.
I was a walking question mark.
Was it a weekend or a summer holiday? Who could remember now? But I do recall my older cousin’s question, uttered so suddenly that I was struck by the oddity of it. We had been sitting in the kitchen, illuminated by a single light bulb hanging from the ceiling by an electric wire. The air in the room was warm and fragrant with my aunt’s rhubarb pie. Outside heavy drops of rain fell against the kitchen window and struck the ground. My cousin’s deft fingers were braiding my long curly hair.
Do you want to go to the cemetery? she asked.
Later — a week, or two, or a month — my cousin and I walked to the cemetery. After a short walk through thorny weeds, we stood in front of a grave upon which stood a headstone skewed by time and weather. I knelt down to place on the grave the wildflowers we had gathered along the way. Then I saw it: the inscription on the stone read my grandparents’ last name.
I looked up at my cousin with questioning eyes.
“Ask Boobe’,” she said. “She’ll tell you.”
One late July evening, my grandparents and I were sitting on the porch. The air was warm. Insects buzzed in the darkening day. My grandfather held a Yiddish-language newspaper. The pages flapped gently in the warm breeze.
“Zaide’,” I said, “Why is the newspaper listing names of people? Is someone looking for them?”
He peered at me, rimless glasses perched on the tip of his nose. His blue eyes sharp, clear: eyes that looked. An army of furrows had settled deep in uneven lines across his forehead.
“Many people lost their family members during the war,” Zaide’ replied in Yiddish. “Survivors have no other means by which they can discover if their families are alive.”
My grandmother nodded.
“Truth is often painful, but I hope that it alone will save us,” my grandfather continued. “It is important for you to know the truth.”
At that moment, I had thought that by asking about the mysterious grave, I might be able to understand something about my history.
I never dared ask.
Many years later I was able to acknowledge the persistent guilt I felt toward my family — the family I would need to leave in order to discover myself. And what compounded the guilt was the suspicion that in leaving them behind I would be leaving my identity as well, in a perpetual state of imposed exile.
In those earlier days at my grandparents’ house, I wandered among the ruins of my family’s past as my eyes relentlessly traveled to the wall with the picture of my mother and a dark-haired stranger.
I knew my parents were lying when they said the missing head in the picture albums was a dear friend who had died. Then why cut out his existence? If he was dead already, why annihilate his memory further?
Indeed, the albums contained vanished family members, but the missing head, which was mostly next to my mother’s smiling face — their bodies tilted into each other toward the center of their gravity, remained their deepest secret.
Information came in bits and pieces; I greeted each with increasing disbelief; each a separate blow. Their words furthered feelings of pity for unknown ancestors whose Litvak tribulations had been foreign to me. Yet my connection to them was deeply entrenched. There were hushed and unfinished stories about atrocities in concentration camps and missing family members. Many vanished; few survived. My grandparents lost a daughter and her six grandchildren. My mother lost her parents; my father’s mother and younger brother were murdered, a slew of cousins and friends.
The missing head with the rest of the body intact, remained a mystery until I turned thirteen.
Always there will be that certain incident that will remain more prominently than anything else during my childhood. If it had only happened a few years later, or even, a few years earlier.
The two of us, Boobe’ and I, were sitting on a stoop. Insects lurched wildly against us. A gray cat gazed at me warily from the edge of the garden. ‘You are old enough to know the truth,’ Boobe’ said, enunciating each separate syllable slowly with voice unsteady, remote.
I leaned forward.
Her words had a persistent stubbornness that kept entrenching me deeper and deeper. I was bathed in sweat and dazed by the heat; my clothes hung limp against my skin. No longer was I secure in my commonplace aspect, secure in my lackluster nonentity.
These words offered the knowledge I craved for myself, but now unsure I wanted to know. Except that there could be no going back. Nothing to go back to. I had become what the world outside made me; I had to live in this world, as it existed.
I was thirteen years old, for heaven’s sake! What was I to do with this information? ‘He’s been killed,’ she said. ‘And he was only twenty-four years old. He had just arrived in Palestine with a young bride and seven-month-old daughter. He’d survived the hardship of war, somehow succeeded in securing a passage to the promised land, had been drafted to dig fox holes shortly upon arrival, and had been killed doing so. He’d lived in Palestine for two weeks,’ she said. ‘And your mother was left alone with you.’
I shouted out, ‘No! No! That is not true!’
I was wiped clean as a slate, emptied of history. My grandmother had taken it upon herself, against my parents’ wishes, to reveal the family’s secret. My father was not my real father.
Up until that moment, I could not understand why Boobe’ was my grandma. She was not my mother’s mother; neither was she my father’s. My father had his own stepmother. His mother had disappeared in some concentration camp.
For years to come, I found myself imagining my real father, constantly comparing everybody’s features with the features of the man in the one saved photo. What was he like? He, of course, was kind; his eyes filled with the light of kindness. My birth father became a being of huge dimensions, a creature moving among the stars. He, of course, was generous: he loved to share, to guide; he would have taken great pleasure in initiating his daughter into entire domains of which she knew almost nothing. I had made myself according to the limitations I understood.
So it was that once, long ago, the death of my father, Boobe’s son, my mother’s husband and her first cousin, had imposed the verdict of silence.
The father whom I never knew was my mother’s husband and first cousin. That made Boobe’ and Zaide’ my mother’s aunt and uncle, and my uncle and aunt once removed, and my grandparents.
And there is an irony here, as well. My parents’ attempt to obliterate my father’s existence had not succeeded since the father I never knew resides in my own son’s face — my son who is now twenty-two years older than my father.