Missing our Matriarch, Poem on Grief

We can’t avoid the saddest part of our humanity and though we know we’ll have to deal with it, as my husband’s Aunt Pauline said, “It never gets easier.”

I haven’t posted in awhile because Cecile Gruer, my 86 year-old mother-in-law and matriarch of our family, passed away last week. There’s so much to say about her decline, measures that were taken to try to restore her health, and the month she spent under hospice care. The last time she celebrated a happy occasion with the family was her granddaughter’s wedding in September 2021. Even then, she wasn’t truly herself.

There’s much more to say about Cecile, who as a young girl in Poland, ran with her parents and siblings from the Nazi’s during WWII. She spent years in Siberia, freezing and starving. After the war ended, she was a teenager in an Austrian displaced persons camp. Her immediate family eventually moved to America, first to St. Louis and then to New York. She met Morris, another Holocaust survivor, in Brooklyn, NY and they married and built a home and family. So much to say…

The outpouring of sympathy from family and friends illustrates the importance of community. It may sound cliche, but it’s crucial to support each other when a life starts and when it ends.

Hubby and I are exhausted from the many months of Cecile’s decline, reeling from witnessing her personality change, saddened by her loss of communication, and grieving her passing. A tribute post will have to wait. Though Cecile didn’t die young, Jon Pineda’s poem on grief strikes a chord.

My Sister, Who Died Young, Takes Up the Task was published in The New York Times Magazine January 16, 2022 with commentary by Victoria Chang. She said, “I first read this poem on Twitter, and even though it’s a simple poem about grief, it stayed with me. I’m fascinated by the way that it discloses so much in its title, showing how a title can get important information out of the way so that the poem can breathe on its own. Yet the reader doesn’t know what the ‘task’ is until the third stanza. The poem is an example of how abundant emotions can be conveyed by stripping language down to the bone.”

My Sister, Who Died Young, Takes Up the Task

A basket of apples brown in our kitchen,

their warm scent is the scent of ripening,

and my sister, entering the room quietly,

takes a seat at the table, takes up the task

of peeling slowly away the blemished skins,

even half-rotten ones are salvaged carefully.

She makes sure to carve out the mealy flesh.

For this, I am grateful. I explain, this elegy

would love to save everything. She smiles at me,

and before long, the empty bowl she uses fills,

domed with thin slices she brushes into

the mouth of a steaming pot on the stove.

What can I do? I ask finally. Nothing,

she says, let me finish this one thing alone.

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Powerful Pandemic Perspective

Cecile, left, the matriarch of our family.
Grandma with her youngest granddaughter.

I was intensely moved by Toby Levy’s January 3, 2021 Op Ed article in The New York Times. Apparently, so were 621 people who commented on her piece. Coincidentally, me and my niece Talia left also comments. Ms. Levy’s article reminded us of our own family’s matriarch, Cecile. My husband’s mom survived the Holocaust, as did his dad, by being shipped to Siberia with their families. Hunted every step of their journeys across Europe, their childhoods were harrowing and horrific. According to Cecile, dealing with the pandemic is isolating, lonely, worrisome, and inconvenient. But terrifying? No. Cecile is in better spirits than a lot of my contemporaries. I listen to her for perspective and wisdom, just like Ms. Levy.

A Holocaust survivor reflects on what it means to survive the pandemic.

By Toby Levy, a retired accountant and a volunteer docent for the Museum of Jewish Heritage. Jan. 3, 2021

These days, I’m a little bored.

The boardwalk is my lifesaver. I’m two blocks from the boardwalk. I can walk to Coney Island if I want to. I go alone. I have some friends here. We used to play canasta once a week. But when Covid arrived, my daughter insisted, “You can’t sit in one room!” So I talk on the phone. I read. The grandkids call in by Zoom. I also do a little bit of Zoom lecturing for the Museum of Jewish Heritage.

I keep very busy, and it helps me a lot. I am trying not to give up. But what is getting me down is that I am losing a year. And this bothers me terribly. I’m 87 years old, and I lost almost a full year.

I’m doing everything I can to stay connected, to make an impact. So even now, amid Covid, I tell my story to schools and to audiences the museum organizes for me, by Zoom.

Here’s what I say: I was born in 1933 in a small town called Chodorow, now Khodoriv, about 30 minutes by car from Lvov, now Lviv, in what was then Poland and is now Ukraine. We lived in the center of town in my grandfather’s house. The Russians occupied the town from 1939 to 1941, then the Germans from 1941 to 1944. My father was well liked in town by Jews and non-Jews. One day in early 1942, one of the guys came to him and said, “Moshe, it’s going to be a big killing. Better find a hiding place.” So my father built a place to hide in the cellar. My grandfather didn’t want to go. He was shot in the kitchen; we heard it.

Not long after that, the Germans said they were going to relocate the remaining Jews to the ghetto in Lvov, so my father and my aunt searched for someone to hide them more permanently. They found Stephanie, who had a house on the main street with a garden and a barn. She had known my parents their whole life. My father built a wall inside the barn and a hiding place for nine people, where we slept like herrings. It was just four feet by five feet. Pigs and chickens were on one side, and we were on the other: my parents, my aunt and uncle, my maternal grandmother and four children, ages 4, 6, 8 and 12.

Eventually, with the help of Stephanie’s 16-year-old son, they expanded the space a bit and added a way for the kids to look out. That is where I spent the next two years. I always think of the son when I get down, because when Stephanie was scared to keep hiding us, he insisted we stay.

We had lice. We had rats. But every day in the barn was a miracle. I’m not a regular person. I’m a miracle child. Most of the Jews of Chodorow never returned.

So when the coronavirus came, I thought, “I’m a miracle. I will make it. I have to make it.”

During the war, we didn’t know if we would make a day. I didn’t have any freedom. I couldn’t speak loudly, I couldn’t laugh, I couldn’t cry.

But now, I can feel freedom. I stay by the window and look out. The first thing I do in the morning is look out and see the world. I am alive. I have food, I go out, I go for walks, I do some shopping. And I remember: No one wants to kill me. So, still, I read. I cook a little bit. I shop a little bit. I learned the computer. I do puzzles.

I still sometimes feel that I am missing out. A full year is gone. I lost my childhood, I never had my teenage years. And now, in my old age, this is shortening my life by a year. I don’t have that many years left. The way we have lived this year means I have lost many opportunities to lecture, to tell more people my story, to let them see me and know the Holocaust happened to a real person, who stands in front of them today. It’s important.

I am scared that I am not going to be in the shape I was a year ago. When this started in March, one of my grandchildren, who lives in New Jersey, went to Maine with his wife; they never came back. They have a baby boy now, and I have only seen him on Zoom. This child will never know me. That’s a loss.

Some of what I’m missing is so simple. I have a male friend I know from synagogue. We would take a trip, if we could, by car. To anyplace! I would go to Florida. Maybe even go to Israel for a couple of weeks. But not now. So, again, this has shortened my life. That is my biggest complaint.

I understand the fear people have, and I understand you have to take care.

But there is no comparison of anxiety, of the coronavirus, to the terror I felt when I was a child. That was a fear with no boundary. This is going to end, and I am already thinking, planning where I am going first, what I will do first, when this ends.

Toby Levy for The New York Times

The War I Finally Won, Book Review

I’m currently reading the insightful, researched, and devastating book Caste, The Origins of Our Discontent by Isabel Wilkerson, and realize how much caste and hierarchy is present in The War I Finally Won, the 2017 sequel to The War That Saved My Life. Author Kimberly Brubaker Bradley doesn’t sugarcoat how people were seen and treated in WWII England, whether they were poor or wealthy, children or adults, single or married, Jews or Nazis, and soldiers or spies. One of the most refreshing things about the stories is that the target audience of 8-12 year olds isn’t patronized. Cruelty, physical and emotional pain, disability, sickness, war, and death, and grief are faced head on. So are understanding, acceptance, loyalty, friendship and love.

What’s the story about?

Ada and her younger brother, Jamie, now have a permanent home with their loving legal guardian, Susan Smith. Although Jamie adapts more easily, Ada still struggles with the aftermath of her old life, and how to fit into her new life.

World War II continues, and forces the small community to come together and rely on one another. Ada has never been interested in getting to know her friend’s family—especially Maggie’s mother, the formidable Lady Thorton. However, circumstances bring them in close proximity along with other unexpected characters.

Ada comes face to face with another German! This time she isn’t sure what she should do. How can she help the ones she loves and keep them safe?

Ada’s first story, The War that Saved My Life, won a Newbery Honor, the Schneider Family Book Award, and the Josette Frank Award, in addition to appearing on multiple best-of-the-year lists. This second, marvelous volume continues Ada’s powerful, uplifting story.  Goodreads

Quotes from The War I Finally Won

“Love isn’t as rare as you think it is…You can love all sorts of people, in all sorts of ways. Nor is love in any way dangerous.”

“People used to draw dragons on the edges of old maps. When the world hadn’t been fully explored, mapmakers imagined dragons living at the far ends.”

“Fear and what you did with it were two separate things.”

“I don’t want to have to feel grateful,” I said. Susan smiled. “I understand,” she said. “Do it anyhow.”

“I stored this information in my head in the bulging file titled “Things I Wished I Didn’t Know.” It included what it felt like to walk on a clubfoot for ten years, and what it sounded like to have your mother say she never wanted to see you again.”

“That’s your map of the past. What’s in the map of your future?” I stared at her. “What do you want?” she persisted. I had no idea. When I’d first been evacuated I’d wanted to be like the girl riding the pony, racing the train. Now I was. Parts of me were still jumbled—but maybe that girl had been jumbled too. I’d only seen her from the outside.”       Goodreads

The War That Saved My Life, Book Review

My family talks about books. My friends talk about books. And my  SCBWI critique group writes, edits, dissects, revises, and recommends books. Shout out to Kathy who suggested the Newbery Honor and multi-award winning middle grade historical fiction by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley, The War That Saved My Life.

I found it interesting to read about efforts in England during WWII to Make Do and Mend while we were quarantining and making do and mending ourselves. At the same time I read about re-purposing fabric, my daughter and I were turning sheets into masks. While characters in the story found meat hard to come by, my butcher rationed his inventory. Fictional and real dinners were invented by using what was in the pantry.

War and quarantine efforts aside, it’s the main character’s struggle and strength in the face of cruelty and uncertainty that makes this story compelling and relatable on so many levels.

What the story about?

This #1 New York Times bestseller is an exceptionally moving story of triumph against all odds set during World War II. For fans of Counting by 7s and Sarah, Plain and Tall.

Ten-year-old Ada has never left her one-room apartment. Her mother is too humiliated by Ada’s twisted foot to let her outside. So when her little brother Jamie is shipped out of London to escape the war, Ada doesn’t waste a minute—she sneaks out to join him.

So begins a new adventure for Ada, and for Susan Smith, the woman who is forced to take the two kids in. As Ada teaches herself to ride a pony, learns to read, and watches for German spies, she begins to trust Susan—and Susan begins to love Ada and Jamie. But in the end, will their bond be enough to hold them together through wartime? Or will Ada and her brother fall back into the cruel hands of their mother?                Amazon

Quotes from The War That Saved My Life

 

“There,” she said, smiling, her eyes soft and warm. “It’s perfect. Ada. You’re beautiful.” She was lying. She was lying, and I couldn’t bear it. I heard Mam’s voice shrieking in my head. “You ugly piece of rubbish! Filth and trash! No one wants you, with that ugly foot!” My hands started to shake. Rubbish. Filth. Trash. I could wear Maggie’s discards, or plain clothes from the shops, but not this, not this beautiful dress.

“All the words in the world are made up of just twenty-six letters,” she said. “There’s a big and a little version of each.” She wrote the letters out on the paper, and named them all. Then she went through them again. Then she told me to copy them onto another piece of paper, and then she went back to her chair. I stared at the paper. I said, “This isn’t reading. This is drawing.” “Writing,” she corrected. “It’s like buttons and hems. You’ve got to learn those before you can sew on the machine. You’ve got to know your letters before you can read.”

I knew ponies from the lane but had only seen them pull carts. I hadn’t known you could ride them. I hadn’t known they could go so fast. The girl leaned forward against the pony’s flying mane. I saw a stone wall ahead of them. I gasped. They were going to hit it. They were going to be hurt. Why didn’t she stop the pony? They jumped it. They jumped the stone wall, and kept running, while the train tracks turned away from their field. Suddenly I could feel it, the running, the jump. The smoothness, the flying—I recognized it with my whole body, as though it was something I’d done a hundred times before. Something I loved to do. I tapped the window. “I’m going to do that,” I said.”

“It had been awful, but I hadn’t quit. I had persisted. In battle I had won.”

Sequel:  The War I Finally Won

Spies and Intrigue, Red Joan, Movie Review

You know when a story sits with you? I saw the movie Red Joan, starring Judi Dench and Sophie Cookson, and can’t stop thinking about the central dilemma, which revolves around allies and enemies, intelligence and ignorance, and war and peace. “Red Joan is based on a novel of the same name written by Jennie Rooney, which was itself inspired by the life of Melita Norwood.”

Guess what, hon? Now I want to read the book! 

Excerpts of the movie’s review on Roger Ebert.com:

A based-on-a-true-story spy thriller, Trevor Nunn’s conventional yet sneakily absorbing “Red Joan” toggles between two separate eras. Nunn’s period piece frames its story by introducing us to the 80-something Joan Stanley (Judi Dench) first. She lives a quiet life in a British suburb and tends to the cookie-cutter demands of her uneventful days in the early 2000s. Except, this simple old woman (whose story is based on the real-life case of Southeast London’s Melita Norwood) doesn’t seem to be all that ordinary—soon enough, the British Secret Service pulls her out of her quiet retirement and arrests her on the grounds of treason. But did she really commit those crimes and give away Britain’s secrets to the Russians as a KGB spy in the 1930s?

As the old Joan settles into an interrogation session in a drab room (and repeatedly denies every accusation), the film’s lengthy flashbacks chart Joan’s opinionated past in thoughtful increments. Nunn swiftly takes us back in time to 1938, when Joan (Sophie Cookson) was a green but genius physics student at Cambridge, grabbing onto new inspirations and expanding her political horizon while growing into her sexuality.

Allured by friends’ Sonia and Leo’s world of ideas around societal justice—and equally swept away by the noisemaker Leo—Joan joins in their meetings and rallies against Hitler. The advancing timeline gently pushes Leo out of the picture and introduces a new partner-in-crime/love-interest for Joan, the gentlemanly professor Max Davis. Working out of a government laboratory and eventually becoming lovers during a perilous cross-Atlantic trip, the duo shares a joint view of the world but differs in their respective implementations. 

We halfway understand the basis of Joan’s unlawful actions when she finally admits them to both her son and the stone-faced interrogators. Turns out, Joan didn’t just pass on her country’s nuclear secrets in the innocent name of devotion—in reality, she took up an ideological agenda entirely of her own after seeing the catastrophic atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. She had thought it was only with access to equal information could the superpowers be on balance with each other, and stopped from such disastrous actions in the future. While this reasoning doesn’t seem to hold much historical accuracy, it makes sense within the context of a film that leaves a lasting impression mostly with its flashback scenes and emanates a memorable essence.  Tomris Laffly for Roger Ebert.com

Have you seen Red Joan? What did you think?