Monday, March 13, 2017

March 13, 2017--Ladies of Forest Trace: Not Resting

The Ladies are in a place of tranquility but they are not in repose.

I know this from my mother, who deserves to be at rest after more than 107 years of life. I discovered her state of agitation during a recent visit to Mt Lebanon Cemetery in Queens.

When I was a child we visited Mt. Lebanon regularly so that she could be with her parents and bring them news of the family and the world. We would sit together on the bench beside where her mother and father were and I would listen while she told them about Bertha's recovery from a stroke, Nina's trip to Israel, Eli's struggles with his creditors, Fanny's plans to move to Florida, news about Stalin, and how things were with my father.

About that, the state of her own marriage, she would whisper so I needed to lean close and strain to hear what she was reporting. Though I could not catch most of the words, I could tell from their tone and her trembling that things were not going well.

"He never . . . He always . . . ," she said and then tearfully would switch to Yiddish to protect me from being swept into her unhappiness. But from this and how she placed her arm around me and drew me close into the protective nest of her body, I knew her pain was real. And that to her I represented a sense of purpose. She was happy I was there with her, with the family.

More than sixty years later I again needed to be close to her and so, though I sat alone on that now crumbling bench, listening to the wind, I tried to pick up her emanations, the comfort she provided, and, on that chilly pre-spring afternoon, her still flickering warmth.

"The girls are so upset," she began. I could hear the pain in her voice.

"Tell me Mom."

"About him."


"Thump, Donald Thump."

I didn't correct her wonderful malaprops, which frequently revealed more than literal truth.

"You've been hearing about him?" I wasn't sure how information was acquired and shared by the Ladies now that they were no longer . . .

"All the terrible things he's doing. With immigrants--wasn't his own father an immigrant?--with minorities, with women, with health. And we are so afraid about Korea and Russia. Especially Russia. We know Russia. Two of the Ladies are from there and I was born in Poland, near the border. Russian Cossacks raided our village, Tulowice, when I was a little girl. My mother hid me and my sisters and brother in the root cellar below the floor of our log cabin. The evil things they did which I cannot tell you about."

"You can tell me, Mom. You can tell me anything."

"You're still young and I don't want to upset you. You should be enjoying life."

Only someone who lived to 107 would consider me to be young. It was this kind of affirmation that I loved and which I greedily still needed.

"You should have your rest," I said, reversing her lifelong admonition to me.

"As your father said, 'There's plenty of time for rest. Later, there's time for rest.'"

"Yes he always did say that. As I grow older I understand it more and more."

"Ruth, who marched so we could vote, the women, is so upset that a majority voted for him--I can't say his name--so many women that I am sure Wolf on TV is saying that if it wasn't for the women voting for him we would have Hillary. Not that she's such a bargain. But almost anything would be better. Even Mike Expense, the Vice President, who we all are hoping will become president. This person, Expense, who doesn't believe in women's health and is too religious for any of our tastes we are wishing for."

"I am hoping for the same thing. Maybe if there's an impeachment or . . ."

"We're both dreaming. The Republicans in Congress, who we know did not support him will keep him in office because he will sign anything they approve--health care, taxes, regulations, pollution and who knows what else."

"It's a long list."

"But, one of the girls, Rose reminds us things have been worse."

"How? He's been in office only two months, though it feels like years, so how can things already be worse?"

"She means in the past. When we and Negroes couldn't vote. They couldn't drink water here in Florida. They had their own colored fountains. We didn't have the Pill but we had world wars. We had Depression but didn't have Xanax for that." She paused to let me know she meant that to be funny. So I wouldn't worry more than I do about her mental capacities.

"And you are old enough to remember the gas chambers. We had family who survived Auschwitz. Cousin Malkie and her family who lived with Aunt Tanna and Uncle Eli when they escaped and came to Brooklyn. You heard those stories when you were seven years old. I tried to protect you from them but you insisted you wanted to know about the world. Even at its most evil. So I let you sit with us at the kitchen table while Malkie and her son, whose name I forgot but whose haunted look I will always remember, told us about the nightmare."

"I remember that. I also wanted to see the tattoos on their arms. I didn't want to be shielded from the worst that life could bring. But I know you felt otherwise and wanted me to have nothing but a happy childhood. One time you told me that was in part because of all the children who were forced to suffer. You wanted me to live for myself but also when I was old enough to try to do things that would make less fortunate children's lives better."

Recalling that I began softly to cry.

"I bring this up," she said, "because I want to remind you that Rose is right. Too many things were worse in the past. Not quite as much so for those who were blessed to be born here or came to America as hopeful immigrants and refugees. We survived and over time many things did get to be better."

"You always say this," I said, knowing I had come to Mt. Lebanon in large part to have her remind and reassure me about that.

"Of course, things here could get worse but worse than Pearl Harbor? Worse than the Cold War? The Depression? The lynchings? I could say more but I know you have to rush away."

"I have a little more time," I said, feeling a bit better, though not yet assured or optimistic, "So tell me whatever else is on your mind and making you and the Ladies so restless."

"This isn't enough?"

"But I thought you brought up the War and women to remind me not to get too overwrought with what is happening?"

"That's my attention. But, yes, there is something else that is very disturbing to us."

"Please tell me."

"You know your history better than we do so I'm sure you have examples."

"Of what?"

"About what I am going to tell you."


"And it's not all his fault. Though he is the beneficiary of it."

"You're starting to lose me."

"The hate." I waited but she didn't continue.

"The hate?"

"I'll give you a for-instance. When they talk about health there is so much resentment, so much hate for poor and elderly people who will have it taken away from them. They talk as if it's about how much it costs the government but what we really hear is how much the Republicans--and it is them--feel it is people's fault that they are poor and need help. They say they are making the wrong choices about how they spend their money--as if they had so much. Did we hear this correctly--sometimes communications to where we are are not so good--that someone in Congress, Jascha Heifetz, said that if people had enough money to have a telephone . . ."

"Jason Chaffetz, from Utah."

"I don't have my hearing aids with me. But that's him. He said if they have money for those phones they could give them up and use the money to buy health insurance."

"I did hear that. He really did say that."

"In the meantime if so many millions lose insurance how many will die from that? Who was it who talked about death panels? This is like that. Worse."

"Congresswoman Michele Bachmann."

"Who was also running for president. But all this meanness and resentment about struggling people--about children and old people--is very sad and tells us what these Washington people really think. They are so full of anger and resentment and this makes it acceptable for him to say the ugly things he has for years been saying. About Obama, about women, about Negroes, about Mexicans. And what's really worse when he talks this way is that many of the people who support him, who are filled with fear and hate, want to hear this. They give him encouragement and permission to say the ugliest things. They cheer loudest when he does."

"There has been hate and fear at other times in our history, that's true. About the Irish and Italian and Jewish immigrants. And obviously black people. You experienced that when you were a young girl and woman. People are this way when there are hard economic times. And when . . ."

"I'm sorry to interrupt but whatever was or has been is no excuse."

"I agree."

"About that, by now, we should know better."

To that I had nothing to say.

"We're all gone now," my mother whispered, "There is no room left here for anyone else. All the places are filled. Everyone from the family is here. And the Ladies are scattered like leaves. Ruth to her daughter in New Jersey. It's so cold there. Ruth was always shivering. And Rose next to her beloved father also in Queens. In Mt. Hebron. Adele, poor thing, is by herself. She lost all her family in Russia and never married. Never had children or grandchildren. I love her so much. How she made such a good life for herself. The first woman to become a school principal in Brooklyn."

"She was remarkable," I said.

"I could talk all day, but I know it must be getting dark and they close the gates soon. And you don't like to drive after the sun is down. You were such a good driver," I noted the past tense, "When you would take me to the doctor or out for Chinese, I felt so secure. And now . . ." Her words trailed off. Her breathing slowed. I didn't want her to strain herself.

It was time for me to go. I was feeling better. If not about the state of the world about her and how loved and safe she still made me feel.

"And remember, as I always say, be sure to wear your sweater."

It was as if I could see her smiling.

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