“You know what I’m thinking, Chavale?”
“What are you thinking, mom?”
“Our prophets warned us that if we don’t obey God, if we don’t do what He tells us to do, terrible things will happen. The rains won’t come, the crops will fail, our enemies will kill us. Even the earth will swallow us up. Who the hell needs that? People are people. People have the right to believe in whoever or whatever they want!”
“Yes, mom,” I say. And remember the religious persecution in my home when I grew up. I wasn’t burned at the stake for refusing to live an orthodox Jewish life, but I was beaten and threatened with permanent exile from home and family, so I did the job myself, left home, and put two oceans between them and me.
That was then, this is now.
“What are we doing?” my mother continues. “Let’s just eat together, say grace, sing songs, and go home to the family. What else do we need, right?”
“You were always the one who understood me.”
For a while I get lost in thought. There’s some irony in the fact that it took late-age dementia to bring out a more liberal, open, generous side of my mother. She has her memories, too, of a very harsh father and an impoverished upbringing—all before the Holocaust came along. I think of a conversation with my sister:
“Mom and I were talking,” she recounts, “and she mentioned how her favorite brother, Simcha, had groaned to her regularly about how hungry he was. So, I asked her: ‘And did you talk to anyone about how hungry you were, mom?’ And she said: ‘Who did I have to talk to about that?’”
In the end, I think, it all comes out in the wash. It doesn’t come out white and clean. Instead, it may come out a little faded and a little dreamy—and why not, given how long that laundry has been in the machine?
In 1969 my parents flew from New York to Ottawa to visit my cousin.
“I can’t tell you what a beautiful trip that was,” my mother said later, and then proceeded to tell me. “We were there for four days and we were treated so well. He took us on his boat in the day and we played backgammon in the evenings [my cousin was a champion backgammon player back then]. But you know what was the best thing of all?”
“We were just like everybody else. We had the roll-on luggage with wheels that everybody uses now, you know what I mean? Not the way we used to travel, with cheap suitcases that were always bursting apart in the seams. Whenever bags came down the belt that were torn open with the clothes hanging out of them, those were our bags. But not this time. This time we traveled like other American people, with American passports and nice luggage!”
If she had gotten a business class ticket she couldn’t have been happier. Finally, she was like everybody else here. She was middle class, no longer poor.
This came back to me when I was with Jimena last time, finishing up with food cards and more cash assistance for Hilaria (I won’t see her for two weeks). A young woman came by to talk to Jimena. She left soon, entered her car and began driving off. That’s when Jimena, who loves children, saw the little boy in the car. She took a few steps down and yelled: “Milton! Mi Milton!” And she waved her hands wildly and hallooed and jumped up and down to get the little boy’s attention.
The little boy waved from the car. He was nicely dressed and ensconced in his car seat, and the woman also waved as she drove away, and I wondered how many years it had taken her to finally get an old car and a real car seat for her child. I know the rules require it, but if you have a number of little children it doesn’t always work, so you drive hoping no one stops you. Assuming you drive. Assuming you have a car.
Yesterday I had a second appointment with the dentist. He finished off a root canal and set me up for a crown. I can’t complain, notwithstanding the hefty credit card bill that will arrive soon; my teeth required little dental work for many years. But now they need help; just think of how much chewing they’ve done!
And again, I thought of my mother. She also had good teeth, but age caught up with them, too. Every time she went to dentists and heard what was required she’d feign shock and then curse them for charging her so much. “They’re all cheats and liars, they want to make a fortune on me.”
“I don’t think they’ll make a fortune on your teeth, mom.”
“They’re crooks, every single one of them!”
She finally found a dentist who was still working at the age of 95. He did minimal work on her teeth for practically nothing; he respected her for being a Holocaust survivor. To put it somewhat venally, my mom has proudly cashed in on being a Holocaust survivor for many years.
Such small routine things we ordinarily never think about: roll-on luggage, an old car, a car seat, maybe a Red Sox cap on Milton’s head. Maybe, if we’re lucky, a dentist who’s not a crook.
Welcome to America.
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