My sister has Molly, an Anatolian shepherd who beseeches me to throw her the red satellite-shaped dog toy on the floor so that she could retrieve it, chew it up and bring back, then repeat, and repeat. I love playing with Molly; Molly loves to play with her toys.
Meantime, it’s back to stories of the past with my mother, who has told me lots of stories about her childhood from the time I was born practically. This one is new.
“I’m not buying a new dress for the wedding next week,” she says, referring to my brother’s wedding a week from now. “I have enough to wear.”
She always loved to buy clothes for holidays and simchas (joyful occasions), never anything expensive, proud to get compliments on something that was very reasonably priced (“You’ll never believe how little I paid for it!”), as if to say: I never sacrifice frugality for taste. My sister and I take out a black skirt from the closet and talk about combining it with one of many long-sleeve tops (“The wedding’s outdoors at night, you’ll be cold!”). I suggest a white skirt instead of black, but she immediately shakes her head. “Only the bride wears white,” she says, “what will people think?” The bride is 52 and my mother is 92; it would be hard to get the two confused.
I have learned to appreciate when elderly people try hard to look good day by day. It’s not easy to get up, feel the stiffness and pain in your joints, bend down and roll on panty-hose or knee-hi’s over hurting ankles or knees, reach around with both arms to the back to pin together the two ends of your brassiere, stretch creaky arms through sleeves and button the shirt with arthritic fingers. It’s not easy to look at the mirror and put make-up on a face ravaged by time.
Many women make this effort day after day. I used to think it was out of vanity, but no longer. It’s an act of honoring the life force, the feeling that life must go on even in the face of tiredness from age and discouragement from coronavirus, the remains of willpower. In the face of white hair, protruding belly, skinny legs and arms, and wrinkles on my face, I am still a human being.
This is what my mother told me:
“School closed because of Nazi decrees when I was 14. My mother decided that there was no way her daughter was going to stay home so she sent me to learn how to sew. Th head seamstress sewed dresses for Bratislava’s most important people, following the latest designs from Paris. She had senior seamstresses, who did the extra embroideries and ruffles and were always there when the client—the mayor’s wife, the wife of rich nonJews—tried things on so that they could do last-minute alterations. There were the junior seamstresses, doing the basic sewing,, and there were interns like me.
But the head seamstress was the most interesting of them all. I can’t remember her name, but she was very proud of her designs. On Shabbat she and her husband would go to shul (synagogue), like everyone else, and there was always a big stir when they walked back home. He would have his glasses on, which was a sign of learning, and she would be wearing her most chic dress to show it off, show off what she could do.
They would walk together right in the middle of the street; it was as if the street parted to make room for them, and every window in every house opened up so that the rest of us could check out how she looked and what she was wearing because we were so jealous. We were skinny and poor; she was a beautiful woman and no one wore anything like her dresses.”
We both laugh at these memories and the delusions of the past, the things that once impressed and moved us, wiser now in some way but still missing the enthusiasm and the exclamations of admiration, how impressionable life was then, so unrestrained and open to surprise.
I don’t ask her about what happened to the beautiful seamstress and her learned husband, I’m quite sure that if I did my mother would shrug her shoulders and say one word: “Auschwitz.” I’ve heard this often enough.
Instead I think of what my brother put to her the other day: “Imagine you’re the last Holocaust survivor living, what would you tell the world?”
Maybe she would tell the world about the seamstress who walked straight down the center of Judenstrasse in Bratislava, proud of her creative abilities, proud of the beauty she was and wore, proud of all she had in her life. Maybe she would remind us of how we walk straight down the boulevards of our own life, proud of who we are and our achievements, proud of our stories about ourselves that are nothing, in Uchiyama Roshi’s words, but clothing that we put on and that life takes off.
Around us the windows of social media might open with exclamations of wonder, people will Friend us and ooh and aah on Facebook or Twitter, will admire the make and design of our thoughts and ideas, will check us out to see what they could learn and adapt to their own shapes and lives—oh, the beautiful small things of life! All our exquisite Parisian dresses!