of the great essays in our collection, we still
get mail about this one. Helen's essay is specific
and intimate, but also universal. It reminds us
of the power and volatility of memory.
family landed in a spanking-new stucco bungalow
in Holly Park Homes, in Gardena, California, after
the construction of the San Diego Freeway leveled
our first house. Our new house had been built
along with hundreds of close cousins, all promptly
sold off to a generation of young families striving
to inhabit the American Dream -- three bedrooms,
two baths, eat-in kitchen, two-car garage. Block
after block, laid out on a grid as predictable
and contained as the houses themselves. Controlling
the interior environment, the terrain of memory
and emotion, was the peculiar art my parents sought
to refine every day.
by the commercial avenues Van Ness and Rosecrans
and the abyss-like 135th Street drainage ditch
and sandy Rowley Park, the Holly Park kids biked,
skated and ran, stripping hydrangea bushes for
pretend-bride bouquets and cycling the endless
loop of Ardath, 141st Street, Daphne, 139th Street
as summer mornings stretched past noon into lazy,
hot, white-sky afternoons.
summer I turned eight my mother returned to full-time
work and my life took on an air of autonomy. Our
babysitter, Mrs. Mozell Rollins, an Ozark Baptist
quilter, was so besotted with my toddler sister
-- she of the long ringlets and liquid eyes, the
spider-web eyelashes and sweet baby scents --
that I had comparatively free rein. Her benevolent
indifference was my opportunity for adventure.
afternoons, I hopped on my bike and rode the three-quarter
miles to Purche Avenue School, where Mrs. Owens,
the school librarian, waited -- for me alone,
I knew it. Her first name was Charlotte. Charlotte,
my mother's name! Her newest name, that is, after
her birth name Tsirla and her nickname Cesia,
which became Czeslawa when she went underground
on Aryan papers, in Warsaw, in 1941. Now her friends
and my father called her Cesia again, but at work,
where my parents strove to keep the facts of their
lives a secret, she was Charlotte. That she shared
the librarian's name was an omen to me; Mrs. Owens
stood in for the grandmothers whose faces I had
weekday was the same: Ride to school, get a book.
Read the book overnight, go back. Biographies,
novels, mysteries, series -- I ate the Bobbsey
Twins and Nancy Drew for breakfast. Fridays were
the best, because I could keep the book until
Monday, and because Mrs. Owens often had something
special put aside for me. One Friday in July,
she gave me "A Cricket in Times Square,"
and my life changed forever.
York! Lively, loud, vibrating city! People from
all kinds of different places, with faraway names
and strange accents confusing their speech. California
was sameness to me, even then, and I did not fit
in. My friends were blonde and fair, I am dark.
They had patent-leather cases filled with blonde
Barbies and red-headed Midges; my Auntie Celia
gave me my brown-eyed, black-haired Barbie, a
mini-misfit among her 11-inch peers. All my girlfriends
had -ee names -- Vicky, Kathy, Debbie, Ruthie,
Randi -- and I was stuck in the old world, with
a name for aunties and old maids. My sister lucked
out: she was named Edith, but became Edie (that
--ee ending!) right away. Me, I am Helen, named
for my grandmother, named for a dark and foreign
place, for a time lost to fire and history.
neighbors bought their houses with GI loans. The
fathers had gone to college on GI bills. Mothers
stayed home, or worked as school aides or secretaries
while Grandmas baked cookies and marshmallow treats.
My parents were in the war, too, but not as soldiers.
Now, they were American. They were engineers.
Their work was rocketry and war planes; they knew
top secrets and wouldn't tell, even when I begged
to know just one tiny confidence. The friends
that they played poker with on Saturday nights
had numbers tattooed on their arms. Nobody, but
nobody, knew from marshmallow treats.
the land of the Beach Boys and eternal summer
was not for me, I decided, I was not for it either.
In New York, my book promised, you could be different
-- dark, foreign. I realized I had been born in
the wrong place, a tragic error in my parents'
epic saga of war, survival, immigration and resettlement.
The phoenix had risen from the ashes, yes, but
had wound up on the wrong coast altogether. I
was a New Yorker meant to be. I was eight, and
I was moving East, as soon as I could manage it.
snowed in New York, it said so in my book. Great
white blizzards of snow, banking up on the streets,
going gray with street grit, drifting into the
ravines of Central Park. It confettied down the
subway grates, and newsstand vendors had to bundle
against the cold, damp white. It said so in the
Monday, I rode to the library as usual, but didn't
check out a new book. Instead, I renewed "Cricket,"
and read it through again, looking for a secret
recipe for snow, a hint, any clue. At night, I
punched my pillow up to make a bolster while I
read. A tiny white down-feather pricked my cheek
through the cotton ticking. I pulled it out, puffed
it off my fingertip with an easy pah! of breath
and watched it drift and settle onto my lavender
bedspread. It lay there, balanced on a tuft of
chenille, and the thought exploded in my 8-year-old
brain. I had my plan.
next morning, as usual, my father rose before
the sunrise, with ample time for his habitual
meticulous toilette -- shaving three times with
a clean razor blade, twice against the grain of
his beard and once, with it. Cleanliness was how
he survived the camps, he said. He respected himself
more than the others, and it showed. A fine appearance
remained a principal talisman for success in his
new country, where he could once again afford
worsted wool suits and leather shoes with laces.
His rinsed-clean shaving brush stood on the porcelain
rim of the bathroom sink as my mother began her
own catechism, of cosmetics and perfumes, that
allowed her to present her professional self to
Factor pancake makeup and rosy creme blush, light-blue
powder eyeshadow, Maybelline pencil eyeliner,
then mascara. Bouffant beauty-parlor hair tamed
into a buoyant flip by a shower of Aqua Net hairspray.
A burst of Chanel No. 5 -- my mother's homage
to her idol, Marie Curie -- and Revlon's Love
That Red lipstick finished her face. She bent
across me, perched on the back of the toilet tank,
to tear off a single square of toilet tissue.
Carefully separating the paper along the perforations,
she folded it precisely in half and blotted her
lips. On school days, she often tucked that square
of tissue into my lunch sack, a loving kiss from
an absent mother. But now, in summer, she gave
it to me. I tried to match my lips to hers, on
the paper, and carry some of the vivid color to
my own small mouth.
father left for work in his sporty white Monza.
My mother, after her customary morning repast
of rye toast, smoked cod, coffee and unfiltered
Herbert Tareyton cigarettes, welcomed Mrs. Rollins,
then drove off in her big bronze Buick Skylark.
In my mother's absence, Mrs. Rollins' distaste
for me was unfettered by any concern for How It
Looked. She took care of me, saw to it that I
was fed and clean, but saved her love for Edie.
Today, that was good: I was aiming for late afternoon,
when my sister had her bath and when Mrs. Rollins,
the mother of two grown sons, fussed with Edie's
curly hair with the infinitely patient attention
that mothers of men lavish on little girls' coiffures.
Randi and I skated over to Thrifty Drugs for nickel
Creamsicles. After, we played jacks on the sidewalk
between the dichondra -- a peculiar, flowerless,
low- to no-maintenance clover, planted in lieu
of authentic grass -- on my front "lawn"
and the narrow green strip that divided the sidewalk
from the curb and gutter.
to the library?" Randi asked.
I said, collecting my jacks. "Not today."
I went up my front steps, through the living room
and past the bathroom, into my room.
you?" called Mrs. Rollins, from the bathroom.
"Don't be tracking your dirt in here, keep
outside! Not through the kitchen neither, the
floor's wet. Go through the garage." She
returned her attention to my slippery, splashing
sister. Stealthily, I took my pillow and slipped
fenced-in yard had three elements: patio, driveway,
and more dichondra, here a spongy, lima-bean-shaped
green expanse, punctuated by the sprinkler heads
that regularly kept it lush. I sat on the dichondra
with my pillow, then stripped the pillow of its
case. The tag tore off easily enough, but I couldn't
rip the ticking; the fabric was stronger than
me. I got my father's screwdriver from the garage
and shoved it into the ticking. Hand clenched
around its handle, I dragged the tool downward.
A six-inch gash in the fabric began oozing feathers.
put my hand in, wrist-deep. With a fist full of
feathers, scouting fast for the babysitter, I
spun around and threw the feathers up over my
head. Feather-snow fell all around me. I took
another fistful, then another, then two at a time,
flinging each upward, turning face-up to receive
the snow. Pretty soon, Randi and Vicky came by
-- they had seen the "snow" billow over
our backyard fence. They stuck their hands in
the pillow and started throwing snow, too, and
then all the kids came, all scooping up snow in
handfuls from where it settled on the dichondra,
throwing feather snowballs and wadding great piles
of down into soft, hand-packed snow bombs. The
aquamarine sky turned white with clouds of feathers,
and we raised a racket, screeching and shouting
and hollering in wild delight, because before
too long, Mrs. Rollins came to the sliding-glass
door in the den and stopped dead at the sight
of us. "I don't know what to do with you
wild ones," she scolded. To me, "Wait
til your mother gets home."
the big Buick lumbered into the driveway, we were
still playing in the dichondra, twirling in the
flurries. My immaculate mother emerged from her
car to see us, and her yard, covered in feathers,
and seemed to stumble on the air. She regained
her physical balance but went a little crazy,
there on the hot driveway. Muttering through gritted
teeth, half-Polish, half-English, she took me
by the shoulders, shook me hard, shamed me in
front of my friends.
could you do this?" she demanded. "Get
rid of them" -- my friends -- "and clean
this up." Then, she wept. My rock-solid,
impermeable mother cried, there on her driveway
in July 1963, ensconced in a perfect suburban
world of her own devise, and her shoulders shook
like mine had, only no one was shaking them.
this up," she said again, then lit a cigarette,
and went inside.
up the feathers was more of a challenge than making
the snow had been. Scooping them back into the
pillowcase was slow going. I tried the rake; all
it did was kick up little eddies of feathers,
which settled into the dichondra again. Meanwhile,
my father came home.
are you doing?" he asked.
Mom," I said, sullen, on my hands and knees
in the dichondra. He went into the house, then
came out again, and said, stiffly, "Clean
it up. All of it. You'll work until it's clean,
you understand me?" I had violated something
inviolable. What? And why didn't someone help
me? All I wanted was snow ...
found the garden hose and soaked the dichondra,
thinking it would make it easier to get all the
feathers out. I felt alone. And the wet feathers
just stuck worse. I had to crawl every inch of
that green mass, my soggy Capri pants bagging
at the knees and butt, raking my fingertips underneath
the dichondra's clover-tops down to the muddy
stems, where the wet down seemed to wrap itself,
intractable. It got dark. My father snapped on
the yard light for me; no one spoke. I finished
after 10 p.m.; my sister was asleep and my mother
had a headache. My father sent me to bed. No one
spoke of it ever again, until 18 Julys later,
when my parents returned to Poland, and to Warsaw,
where my mother was born and lived her youth.
After a lifetime of imagining, I went, too.
Umschlagplatz, where transports of Jews were shipped
East decades earlier, still received trains, including
mine. Disembarking into the early morning haze,
I realized I was stepping out of a station where
others only stepped in. Better to find a taxi
than dwell on that darkness, I thought, and headed
out to look for a cab.
settled into our rooms at the Hotel Warsawa and
began to tour the capital once known as Paris
of the East. The elegant "Cosmopolitan"
restaurant in the hotel lobby was open for business
but hadn't any meat; grocery stores were open,
too, but bare, with long shelves standing empty
or lined with limp cabbages and cauliflower.
horse-drawn droshky drew us through the serpentine
paths of Ogruzaski Park and the cobbled city streets
until we reached a low, broken brick wall, the
perimeter of what once was the Warsaw Ghetto,
where my mother's family were moved when the war
will walk now," announced my mother, aloud
and to no one. My father paid the driver a fistful
of zlotys as my mother strode off, down Mila Street,
past Pawiak, the prison building where underground
school was held, "only for boys." She
looked around as if she could see through the
Soviet-issue cinderblock apartments that stood
on the old streets. Abruptly, she back-tracked
to the block where she had left the burning Ghetto,
through the sewers. She thought she found the
manhole cover in the street, but couldn't be sure.
It had been the middle of the night, she reasoned,
and everything was up in flames. She couldn't
traced bullet-grooved bricks with our fingertips
as we wandered the alleys, looking for remnants
of buildings that had burned in the Uprising.
she said to me, grabbing my wrist in her hand,
pointing up to an empty slice of yellow-grey sky
between buildings. "Here was the bridge where
they shook the feathers."
I said, pulling my arm back, "let go."
they took people out from the Ghetto, see, it
was all very official, with the yellow papers
and the official stamps, you needed the Nazi permission
to go to the east. It will be for the best, they
said, we will give you food, two loaves of bread
and a kilo of margarine, and you will settle in
a new place. People believed them -- they wanted
to believe, and what did we know?"
the women did not want to leave everything behind;
they took pots and pans, beds, quilts, pillows.
This took too much room. You could always get
goose feathers on a farm -- they thought that's
where they were going, see? -- so they shook out
all the feathers on the street, up from on top
of the little bridge, and packed everything else
away. So everything was under feathers the days
the transports left." She looked at me again.
A shudder rose through her, until she touched
the hollow of her throat and pushed back a wavy
lock of hair. Then, she stopped talking.
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