Nowhere to Hide
Like her grandmother, Caren relies not only on words but both hands to talk. They move about in windmill fashion to tamp the air. And isn’t that enough of a legacy? To celebrate her grandmother’s passion for talking—rather than the time she was rendered mute?
Why be attracted to the muteness?
Yet the bare arm comes up, making numbers not words the chief argument between us—A-17388.
“I know you’re having trouble with this, Mom, but please try to see where I’m coming from. I had this tattooed in Nana Tonia’s honor,” Caren explains. “It’s a brilliant rejoinder to what the Nazis tried to do, wipe her out. Decades later, I can recast those horrific numbers as a tribute. So that anyone who sees me, loves me, is bound to ask, ‘What’s this?’ and hear Nana’s story.”
Honor. When has that word ever been knit up along the seams of a Jew’s skin before? No but in her honor, Caren has gone out with friends and perhaps fortifying herself with a blast of whiskey beforehand, had her left arm tattooed with the same numbers branded onto her grandmother in the camps.
Technology helped her, I believe. She must have found a way to blow up old Kodak prints of birthdays, Thanksgivings, her own bat mitzvah, on a computer screen. Otherwise, how could Caren have obtained such an accurate accounting? Each of these numbers embedded in my brain since childhood, but my mother always took care to shield her one grandchild from close and terrifying glimpses. She donned long-sleeved jackets even in the heat of Milwaukee summers, when she lived in an apartment with no air conditioning but only breezes and the occasional stink of dying alewives off the Lake. She wore those ugly flowered nightgowns to bed. All those efforts she made to hide heartbreaking truths from someone so young.
Nonetheless it’s done. The arm lies before me on the wood tabletop much as the occasional dead mouse our cat will dig up and present in the same smug fashion; a sagging bit of pink-toned flesh, mangled where teeth dug in.
“You were never one for following fads. This one—is especially distasteful,” I say, licking my lips in a careful rejection.
“I thought you’d be glad,” my child pouts. “I’m not running from my Judaism, but carrying it along. Literally. There are others doing the same. We’re tattooing the numbers of survivors on our arms so that the world won’t forget for another sixty, seventy, years guaranteed. We’re a kind of movement these days. I sat in on a presentation at UWM with Eva and Shira; afterwards all of us, we decided we’re in. And so we went down to Brady Street, found ourselves a tattoo parlor that would pass any safety inspection. You don’t have to worry…I won’t get hepatitis or anything.”
I sniff, unimpressed. She wants me to buy into this lie? That hate drilled onto our ancestors can somehow be refashioned as love, art, a movement? That black ink once laid deep into fleshy ridges should now gush forth as someone’s fuel for worldwide unity, Never Forget?
Such pretensions have more to do with the prattle of adolescents than young adults, and I’m disappointed my 21-year-old is hiding behind these 21st century debates. Something more: I thought I’d convinced my precious daughter nice Jewish girls don’t get tattoos. I never expected rebellion. This, however, is even worse than a heart on a hip or a butterfly rolled onto the side of an ankle—some image hinting of fun or desire. This tattoo speaks of a time when Jews faced the black hole of extinction and here my daughter is laying down the compass points —to put that hole in our sights once more.
I close my eyes, because all I can focus on is the centipede crawling up her arm. Caren’s wriggling insect makes me flinch in the same way I did whenever I confronted my mother’s tattoo years before. When she would also sit at a kitchen table, peeling potatoes; let the curled skins fall like any hairdresser with shears.
I remember when so young, how old, I ran to the linen closets to retrieve a hand towel and a can of Lemon Pledge, “Here Mama. Maybe if you rub hard, that stain on your arm will disappear. The woman on the t.v. said, ‘Every scratch will be gone in no time!’” How my mother sadly smiled then shook her head, no. “I will live with this until I die. It can never fade.”
It was a tragedy, how right she was.
She would have hated her obituary. “Holocaust Survivor Dies at 87.” A reporter from the Chronicle called to ask my father, “How did she stay sane living through the camps?” and we tried, all of us, to deflect the question, “Through her family! She stayed sane being the best mother, wife, Nana, the best. That’s how she’d want to be remembered.”
Yet best Mamas and Nanas are a dime a dozen. Holocaust survivors, we’re losing them too fast. She never had a choice but to revisit those grotesque memories. Whenever strangers noticed those numbers on her arm, they peppered her with questions. Why should we have expected anything to be different once she died? Tonia Lendel would be grieved as a Holocaust survivor, Tonia Lendel would be celebrated as a Holocaust survivor. The world had no plans to respect wishes that she be remembered in any other way.
So what is my daughter doing, really? What game is she playing? She thinks she can imagine herself into the closed jar of an Auschwitz? Where a million centipedes climb over one another to get as close as they can to pokes of air?
The teapot whistles. Steam comes off the lidded rim like breaths on an icy day. I always hearken back to a memory when the boiling starts; remember Caren sipping hot chocolate from her mug after chilly mornings at the skating rink?
I rise from my chair and head to the cabinets to make her the same hot drink now; she likes a cinnamon stick added in, to stir.
“This is not how Jews remember our loved ones,” I say as calmly as I can, afraid to go further (because if I speak with bluntness but she is condemned to live with this tattoo for the rest of her life, will I lose her in the trade?)
Yet there is some truth, strength, in my words. Jews traditionally tick off memories of loved ones with letters, not numbers. The names, or at least the initials of our dead, we pass onto our newborns along with the verbs—“He will be…” “You see? He is becoming the exact miniature of…” Also the adjectives. “So smart. Just like his uncle.” “Talented too, I think he might be as great as his namesake.” Names, our names are meant to be rolled up as nouns and verbs and adjectives all in one sweet-smelling exhalation at a baby naming or bris, to honor the best of our ancestors through their descendants.
While numbers? Numbers can only be laid down as someone’s code for launching atomic blasts, for listing people as they are herded into train cars. Numbers do no more than count up the inventory.
I open one cabinet, another. There’s no cinnamon in sight. I’m confused but can only blame Caren’s tattoo for this too. She hasn’t lived in my house since before college, years now. Still, I know not to leave cinnamon off the grocery lists; that jars stuffed with tissue-thin sticks must always be on hand for her visits home.
“By the way, you didn’t have to do this,” I murmur from the cave of an open cabinet, my gaze skimming shelves. “You were already carrying the initials of someone who lived and died in the Holocaust.”
“Really? You never told me that.”
“Didn’t I?” Suddenly I am not sure. She is telling me this is my fault? That I never told her she was already imprinted with the Holocaust and no other gestures required?
Back to the cabinets. There’s the sugar, pepper, garlic. Even cumin. How long has it been since I needed cumin?
“I did. Maybe you were too young to remember the details. Or maybe--,” I hesitate. “I held back a little to not scare you. But yes, we did pass on the initials of my relative. I think she was my second, third, cousin?”
My daughter is intrigued. She lowers her hand to her lap. Hides one story from view, makes room for another.
“CK for Clara. Clara Kolling. She lived in Germany. Your Nana, you know, came from Poland so she never knew too much of her story. Only that they took Clara’s family to the camps before anyone was even looking their way. Then that was it. She was gone.”
Caren’s glance goes small. “If you didn’t know much about her, why did you pick out her name?”
Why is my daughter questioning me as if I have done something wrong?
“Well,” I falter. “All she went through, she deserved to be remembered. You know, she was probably just a child when she died. And also we liked both of those initials. Her name gave us a few choices. To spell Caren with a C or a K. Either would work and we weren’t ready to commit until I was farther along…”
Yet even I can hear it is not a great story. I am only proving myself an unworthy caretaker of Clara Kolling’s legacy. That decades-old child had a name, yes, but no face or body, no one’s prayers. She’s stuck in time and I cannot make her come to life in the same way as Nana who my daughter knew so intimately and with all her senses—Nana’s lavender-scented soaps shaved into floral shapes in the guest bathroom; her loving words spoken in a Polish accent that hammered the air.
Poor Clara Kolling. It seems I’m hardly committed to passing on Clara’s story, merely going through the motions. Yet haven’t I lived in such ways with my Judaism all along? Adopting certain rituals with no more thought than how they could best work for me?
And maybe I am feeling some guilt as I study my daughter’s new marks. After all, I was the one who wrote the check to send her to Germany on that Youth Group Federation tour. A tour of the camps so that she might never forget.
Yet where was I as my daughter took in these terrors? I was nowhere. I preferred to send her into the Nazi death camps with pimply-faced youth group leaders who put what in her mind? Here Caren. See this, take it in. Then one day make yourself a barbed wire sentence trailing a row of blackened digits along a pole of an arm.
“Where is your father on this tattoo?” I manage, perhaps looking for my ex-husband to step up and speak in my defense.
“He’s for it. He says I’m an adult and can do what I want—if I’m going to tattoo, let it be with a message at least.”
A message? What message?
Sighing, I abandon the search for the cinnamon. Instead, I rummage through more cabinets for the hot cocoa mix, the mug upon which scribbles of PEACEHOPELOVE run into each other as if they are one word.
I pour, stir, cradle both palms around a steaming cup. Warm the hands that have bathed this girl, fed this girl, comforted her after so many vaccinations where she couldn’t bear the sight of any needle and cried out for rescue…
“I’m sorry,” I say, shaking myself out of such memories. I grab the mug’s handle and head to the table. “I couldn’t find any cinnamon to top it off.”
I move my chair forward a bit as Caren takes her first sip.
“It’s good,” she assures. “Everything’s good.”
“You shouldn’t let me off the hook that easy,” I reply but maybe I am not talking about hot drinks anymore. As Caren rests her mug on the kitchen table, it leaves a ring.
“Come. Let me see,” I say.
I lean over to touch her tattoo. Drawing close, I circle her left wrist with my thumb and index finger. Now the familiar numbers are once again near. Yet they suggest no more than they always did.
They are the hateful brown bugs scurrying into the vents whenever they sense I’m around. At first I was confused by the name my father gave them, centipedes, because they always looked more like lashes to me as a child, eyelash bugs. Those bugs, they could survive scalding blasts of water by hiding under the sink strainer. They were always so clever and quick with their daredevil escapes.
“Was there pain?” I manage.
“There wasn’t much. Some swelling afterward,” Caren admits, then noticing my flinch at this small, blurted truth, “There’s nothing bad now.”
I nod and travel her fleshy slope with my fingers. No, Caren is not the one who needs to be consoled at this table but I do. For I am Tonia’s daughter—a survivor’s daughter. After decades of putting one ending to my mother’s story, I’m shocked to find myself stumbling up against this sequel.
Nonetheless my own daughter has composed a slightly different version of that narrative than anyone else, any stranger. Stamped her arm with a shadowy reminder so no one else would ever turn away from the brutal struggles of my mother, that part of her life I’d been so reluctant to inherit in mine.
I linger too long. Caren’s skin twitches under my thumb. I let go and say, “I really should get up and search for those cinnamon sticks.”
My daughter shakes her head. “Forget it. Don’t fuss.”
“No tell me. Can you taste the difference?”
When Caren hesitates I decide to find out for myself. So I do; I lean in. This time, I will capture the centipede so it can never again escape through any vent or drain. The long, brown bug swirls into a question mark shape on her arm as my lips close in, tries to dart away, but this time it won’t. And surprise.
What’s grotesque is also lovely—I can taste both where I kiss.
"Nowhere to Hide" was first published by Jewish Fiction.net, Issue 19, in September 2017.