Live from the Lilith Blog 1 of 2
August 8, 2016 by Rachel Hall
My mother claims she didn’t know about my reoccurring nightmares. I can’t imagine that I didn’t tell her, as I told her everything then. Has she forgotten? Or did I keep these dreams to myself because she’d already lived through that particular fear? I don’t know if I was aware of protecting her, or the need to do so. It’s possible that the dreams dissipated into my Midwestern morning routine—unloading the dishwasher, breakfast at our round kitchen table, the hilly trek to school where I was always the only Jewish child in my class. That is, until the next time.
In the dreams, I’m being chased, though at first it’s not clear by whom. As I run, I’m scanning for a hiding place, somewhere I won’t be detected by the men and their barking dogs. Sometimes this dream takes place in the outdoors, in woods not unlike those in my backyard—with its old hickory trees and oaks, low brush and vines that bottom out at a thin, patchy tributary to Hinkson Creek. In my waking life, I like to walk along the creek, watching water bugs skim the surface and thinking up story ideas. But in the dreams, the trees I love are too thin to hide behind, the lowest branches too high for me to reach.
Other times, the dreams take place in an attic dormitory, and the only hiding place I can find is under an extra blanket folded at the foot of another girls’ bed. With dream logic, this is a feasible solution, and I’m able to flatten myself beneath the scratchy blanket, still my breathing until danger passes.
At eight, nine, ten, I know and don’t know what these dreams are about. I wake from them scared, mistrustful. The scratchy blanket, the sound of heavy boots behind me, the dogs and their snapping jaws, foamy with saliva, my fear and need to disappear—these are easy to call up, even now.
When my daughter is born, I trust my mother’s advice above all others, even our pediatrician who wants me to wake my slightly jaundiced baby daughter to nurse her at night. When I try to follow this prescription, my daughter howls and won’t latch on. “Crazy,” my mother says. “No one wakes a sleeping baby.” I do as she says in this—let Maude sleep and wake when she’s ready—and most everything else, too. I know, however, looking at my daughter, this tiny defenseless being, that I want to protect her from nightmares like mine and the way they seeped into my waking life, making me anxious, hyper-vigilant, alert to slights and prejudice. I know that I don’t want her to feel pursued and persecuted, fearful.
I will spend the next years—the years of my daughter’s childhood—shushing my mother when she tries to talk about this particular part of her past. “Later,” I’ll say, pointing to Maude playing nearby.
“She’ll have to learn some day,” my mother says, not unkindly, but with puzzlement; in the past, I’ve always encouraged her stories. I’d grown up hearing of abrupt departures, of the last time she saw the father she adored, of subsisting on barley that had been traded for her stroller.
When is the right time to tell a child about this history, particularly when it hits so close to home? When it is so entwined with her family history? In truth, I’m afraid of Maude’s questions: Why? How? Who? And unsure how to answer in a way that is honest but not distressing; in a way that an eight, nine, ten-year-old can absorb. She’s always been sensitive to others’ distress, prone to nightmares about fire, for example, after the fire department visited her nursery school in full uniform.
While my mother’s stories made me fearful, they shaped me in important and valuable ways, too. Her stories of persecution have caused me to question authority, made me wary of true believers and attentive to the underdog. They inform and inspire my writing. As Maude got older, I began to wonder if she would share these values and worldview if I continued to protect her from our history.
Eventually, it became impossible to do so. She attended readings I gave of my short stories, and read them when they were published in literary journals. As she got older, she grew able to understand the facts of this history and its ramifications. When I gave my mother the ok, she bought Maude Lois Lowry’s book about the Holocaust in Denmark, Number the Stars. As she read, I worried, but her reaction wasn’t extreme in any way. Later, she read Anne Frank’s diary, and still she slept fine.
It wasn’t just that my daughter got older. She had two things going for her that I hadn’t. First, we live in a historically Jewish suburb with a school district that cancels classes for the High Holy Days and serves matzoh in the cafeteria during Passover. To be a Jew, for my daughter, doesn’t mean being the only Jew. The other thing—and perhaps the more important—is that she is generationally removed from my mother’s past. Frightening things happened in her grandmother’s childhood, but her mother—me—lived for most of her childhood in the same ranch house on a tree-lined street, a few doors down from the author of the Dick and Jane readers. In our cupboards and refrigerator, there was always plenty of food to eat. I went to horseback riding camp and played flute in the marching band. Neither of my parents were imprisoned or executed. And this distance from the past makes it less fraught for her.
Earlier this week, Maude, now nineteen and attending college nearby, invited me to join her for a screening of Shindler’s List. Her history professor was showing it and offering extra credit to those who attended, so we went together, and sat amongst her classmates in a comfortable auditorium. I found myself watching my daughter watch the film, checking her reaction, her response. During the scene where the Jewish children at the work camp are marched singing into vans, the mothers know what is happening, though the children don’t yet understand their fate. The mothers wail and scream the names of their beloveds, grab for them despite the guards and their guns. It’s a wrenching scene. As she watched, my daughter’s face crumpled with anguish. She shook silently as she cried. I reached for her hand and held on tight, something I never take for granted.
Rachel Hall is the author of the forthcoming story collection, Heirlooms, (BkMk Press) which was selected by Marge Piercy for the G.S. Sharat Chandra book prize. She is also the winner of Lilith’s 2015 fiction contest for her short story, “La Poussette.” Read more of her fiction in Lilith here. Follow her @Rach_H_writer and at rachelhall.org