My son will never know my grandmother because he can’t close his eyes and imagine standing in the New York winter, feeling her leather-glove grip as he crosses the street over to Lexington. The salty taste of Schaller and Weber on his tongue, the smell of hairspray on her coat.
Sometimes, I go back there, to the apartment. In those moments before I fall asleep, my eyes closed, the sounds of honking horns outside my bedroom window. Palms pressed against the smooth, gloss-coated windowsill overlooking the Dutch Girl Cleaners, I hear the rattling of the air conditioner and muffled conversation from the other room. Dove soap lingers everywhere.
Too often, I catch myself here, in this place where I was a different girl in a different time.
“Don’t go there,” I warn, because I’ll be pulled in the directions of then and now, and I won’t know where I should be.
“But don’t forget,” I remind, because this time is on the cusp of irrelevance.
You see, it’s not enough that he is her namesake. It’s not enough that we labeled all the black and white photographs. My son must know who she was, who they were, what they felt, did and said. These were his people. If he doesn’t know who they are, he won’t know a part of himself.
So, I am stretching my arms across the century holding on to what is ours. To what was my grandmother’s childhood spanning two continents; to the villa in Nuremberg, to the New York City apartment; connecting the points of hers and his, hoping to transmit the inexplicableness of what was.
How hard it is when so much is missing.
Why didn’t I ask her how she dealt with sadness? How she found joy during joyless times. Her greatest pain, her deepest regret? And why didn’t I ask her about motherhood? The truth is, I never thought to ask. And I never thought to ask because I hadn’t yet found these questions. Now I know that some questions only exist after you have a child.
As mother, I learned about these questions by gaining the ability to see time. With a child, time hangs in the air like fog; its increments and cells so stagnant, so defined. But strangely, it chugs and fleets simultaneously; a paradox that delivers the ultimate gift—the realization of life’s urgency. Did she know life was this urgent?
So, I now understand why I didn’t know to ask those questions: I didn’t know that the nectar of being lives in the cells of time, the in-between, seemingly insignificant moments; not in the photographs or highlighted anecdotes. It wouldn’t have been possible to ask about these moments because the child I was didn’t know of them. A parent relives and observes, but a child just lives. Rightfully so.
But I thought I was so prepared, so equipped to hold onto her world and not let it escape. Like a good student, I mastered the logistics: the address in Nuremberg, how she came to know Marlene Dietrich, the names of all the people in the photos. But these are just facts; and they can only frame the story—they can’t tell it.
The forgotten moments are the real story. The in-betweens. The non-highlights. I wish I had known to ask about them.
So, now I find myself grasping at pictures and searching their periphery, like the ones from Marienbad and summer camp; grasping at stories, like how her sister Margie made her jump over a rug to get to her side of the room. And ultimately, grasping at language, struggling to keep it alive, to speak the sounds of my ancestors to my son. Because maybe the language is the key to the immortality of the past? Since we’ll never return to that space, maybe we can meet in sounds instead?
But it’s more than the sounds—it’s the images of the soul that I want him to know. The country in which he or I could have been, and the feeling of kind of—but not quite—being one of them despite the fact that we are.
I often wonder if Germany will reveal to him what it did me; if his soul will stir from the purple haze of Berlin’s winter twilight; black branches against the muffled sky? Will he think of those who peered out the same vertical-hinged windows, and will he know he’s not alone because our people never truly leave us?
And the sounds again… not that German from the movies, but the other German: the soft sounds coming from the hallways or the kitchen. I whisper that German to my son, speaking its words with all the love of what was and is.
Like me, he is a born Midwesterner—raised in Buckeye Football, big-screen TV land. And it’s so much cleaner and brighter here. It’s so much safer. Why would he want to go there when he can be here? Why must he know that darkness that I do?
(Because, in darkness there is vibrancy, Elliot. There are answers to help explain who you might be.)
So, I keep reaching back because he has to know about then and before then. And I have to compensate for her absence, as he will never go there; to the apartment, to the space that connects us to the past. He’s too far removed to learn on his own that there was this time. That there were these people—so distant—but so present in the blood that runs through our veins and in the dreams that haunt us at night.
I hope he has those dreams. Not scary dreams, but ones about our ancestors. The ones where the streets of foreign towns unfold like maps before him; and where he knows his way even though he doesn’t.
Will he meet them too? The woman with the crisp blue eyes and the greying bun, who lives in the red house at the foot of the mountain. The other woman in the city, who serves cake and coffee, and plays Schubert on her gramophone.
And here in the clean and bright, after it rains and the sun presses through the black clouds, will he yearn for back there? For the mountains and the city, the cobblestones and the streetcars?
He may never have these dreams or visit this time. And when he speaks in English sounds, I will always respond because love is greater than any world (especially a lost world). When he decides to stay here, and only here in his present, I will understand, as the soul is everything but transmittable.
But I don’t want to let this world die in my arms. It’s the DNA in everything we are and know.
Elliot, I hope you take from me when you can; help keep them alive. And maybe more of the past will reveal itself to you, and you’ll learn the names of the places we visit in our dreams. And then maybe you and I can understand why we are who we are.
And then nothing will ever die.
And we won’t feel like we are stretching and always looking back.
Joanne Strasser Edwards is a blogger, novelist and mom living in Columbus, Ohio. She received her BA from Brandeis University and MA from the New School for Social Research. You can follow her @ShortNorthMom on Instagram and check out her blog @ www.shortnorthmom.com