Every family has its stories, the ones that give meaning to their collective existence. Some have been embellished over the years, the plot altered with each retelling until they resemble tall tales, too far- fetched to be believable. I think I like those the best.
But the most impactful ones are those that are yours alone to tell, the ones that you have personally experienced, that have touched you in a profound way. You gather the lesson it brings into your very soul to remember over and over again, to share with those whom you feel a kinship, even if that may not be by blood.
And so it is with me and the single moment that changed my view of life and myself in it. I was seventeen at the time.
My paternal grandfather died before I was born, but I knew his story well. Leaving his family, including a twin sister, behind in Eastern Europe, he passed through Ellis Island like so many other hopefuls, determined to pursue a new life in America. He had married and raised children later in life, considering himself a confirmed bachelor until he met my grandma, a widow who ran the boarding house where he had rented a room. And together, they built the family business, a tiny store where he sold jewelry at retail and tested eyes, dispensing glasses in the back. But he had health issues, serious ones, so by the time I had taken up residence in my mother’s womb, he was an infirmed old man. My momma adored her father-in-law. And perhaps to keep his memory alive, she often spoke of him, her admiration and respect obvious. He was smart, kind and loving, she would say, which only compounded her regret that I had made my appearance exactly forty-five days after he went to live with the angels. I purposely don’t mention Jesus here because he was Jewish, a rarity in predominantly Catholic South Louisiana. That isn’t an aside. It is significant.
When I was a senior in high school, I came home one day to find Momma entertaining two older ladies. It wasn’t an unusual occurrence since Southern hospitality was alive and well in our house, and afternoon tea poured from a fine china pot was common place. I was invited to join them. I wanted no part of the visit, of course, considering myself to be much too cool to listen to the ramblings of the elderly. Ah, youth. But I got “the look,” the one that every mother masters as soon as her child is born, the one that lets you know that she means business. I took my place on the sofa.
Introductions were made. These were my grandfather’s cousins. And this visit was a pilgrimage of sorts, a chance to meet the subsequent generations of children who carried their blood, important because neither had ever had offspring of their own. They had saved for years to afford the trip from Europe, a journey that would take them to visit kinfolk in Patterson and Franklin. My dad and I were the last stop on the family tour. Suddenly, my interest had been piqued. Even as a teenager, I understood that kind of commitment.
We made small talk for over an hour until there was a lull in the conversation. The elder of the sisters turned to me and said in a barely audible voice, “We have come to share something with you.”
I nodded, mesmerized as each woman carefully unbuttoned the cuff of her blouse, slowly rolling up the long sleeves to reveal similar tattoos. Numbers…. slightly faded, but still legible. I stared, unable to speak.
“My dear child,” the spokeswoman continued in her thick accent, “We came to see you to share this history with you. To let you see with your own eyes the scars we bear. You may not know it, but much of your family endured the brutality of the Nazi regime. We survived. Many did not, including your grandfather's twin.”
I swallowed hard. Life had not yet given me the tools to know what to say at such a profound moment. I simply sat in silence. My mother reached for my hand.
She continued. “It is important for you to know that this is where you come from, that the blood of a strong people, a resilient family flows through you. Never forget. And never be afraid.”
For a brief moment, I could almost feel myself cross over that invisible line from innocence into adulthood. As they departed, I knew that my perception of who I was meant to be had been altered, a ten on the seismic scale of life. Tears flowed as I considered the sheer magnitude of the message, one I have carried with me all of my adult life, tucked close into my heart.
And so now, fifty years later, as I face the fight of my life, a battle with the cancer demon, I am reminded once again of her words. I stare at my image reflected in the bathroom mirror. My locks have been shorn, taken by an evil enemy. Has life come full circle? Perhaps. The irony is not lost on me. But I am strong. I am a warrior. And indeed, I, too, am a survivor.