She holds the leaf out for my approval—newly sprouted sorrel that grows wild on the hillsides. My mother is excited by the find, an excitement she hopes I’ll share. She treats me as though I’m much older than my 10 years because so much of the time I am. We stroll and chat while the tall grasses tickle my scabby legs. Summer in Canada is our favorite time of the entire year, quite possibly the happiest for the four of us. We’re in the Laurentian Mountains, a few hours north of Montreal by car. “The country,” is what my parents and their friends call the area. It’s become the warm-weather haven for Holocaust survivors, their unique version of summer camp. The Laurentian villages are replete with vestiges of old Europe. And here everything blossoms overnight. Here, there is so much day, so little night.
My mother’s petite hands are rough from too much sewing, chapped from cooking, and always too much cleaning. But with the glossy leaf cradled between her two finger-tips, the hands seem different. They assume a refreshed aura as though belonging to someone else, maybe to a woman who serves her friends tea in the parlor. Briefly, I see only the delicate bend of her wrist; sun glistens on the leaf reflects from her golden hair. My mother marvels at the leaf’s symmetry, aiming it slowly to admire such total perfection.
From our place on the ridge, I can see my father on the gravel driveway of our cottage. It’s a clapboard shack of a place that they rent each summer for the season. He and my brother scurry back and forth from car to porch steps repeatedly, carrying boxes filled with dry goods. An unpleasant exchange between them progresses. I can’t hear their voices over cricket chirps and loud crow calls but see the dust plumes my brother creates as he kicks at gravel with each step forward.
“Here, taste this!” My mother demands.
I had forgotten all about the sorrel, preoccupied with the scene unfolding in the driveway. My mother yanks me back to the moment, insisting in her way that I share her memory. She begins to tell me a splinter of her story.
“In Romania, when I was a young girl, my mother used to make soup out of something just like this. Sauerhlaten—that’s what she called it, sour leaves. But now I’m sure it was this, wild sorrel.” She smiles so slightly that only those closest to her could recognize it as a smile. There is a spontaneous movement of lips, one that raises her left cheek a tiny bit higher than the right one. This gesture is also her unique signal that long vaulted memories are about to be unlocked.
“Sometimes my mother would put little thin-skinned potatoes into the soup, you know, new potatoes—ones with barely a peel? She’d boil them just so, not too much or the skins would crack. Then, right before serving us, she’d drop big spoonfuls of sour cream into each bowl. How can I describe to you how really wonderful this tasted? Ah, what I would give to have this now, especially served by my mother.” She continues. Her voice softens, slowing down the way it does when she’s falling asleep. Watching her, my mother seems to be talking only to herself “Oh, you would love it. Oh, she would love you.”
But her eyes reflect too much sunlight and too much sky in tears she holds in check. Aware of my every swallow, I begin to feel anxious. There’s no way for me to comfort her, to try to make things less sad for her. From many times like this one 1 know that my mother is remembering her other life, one in which she too had a mother. Her face tells me her life was a good one. She had been a happy young woman. But that was before the war, before the words—concentration camp, evoked unspeakable sorrows.
“You know, if springtime could have a taste,” she says, “then I’m sure it would be wild sorrel soup. I know it because I’ve lived that taste of springtime in Romania, in mountains so much like these.”
My father ascends the grassy hill leading up from our driveway. Scrambling to the top, his eyes fixate on my lips as the shiny leaf disappears behind them. Watching him, I smile, but his face is in transformation. It’s is a succession of faces— shock, rage, and lonely distress.
“What’s the matter with you?” He snaps at my mother in Yiddish. This is a new breed of sound I’ve never before heard from him. It lays hidden deep within his chest, a voice that dwells between whispers and growls.
“Didn’t you eat enough grass in the camps? It’s disgraceful what you’re doing. How can you behave like this now, in this place?” He’s hissing as he admonishes her, cursing in Polish. My father spits onto the ground vigorously to display his disgust the way the old Jews in our ghetto neighborhood do.
I stop chewing. The masticated leaf wad sits inside my cheek, begging to be chewed some more. Instead, I will my mouth to freeze, to settle and to relax. The sorrel’s sweet-sour taste languishes on my tongue. I believe in my power to help end my father’s distress. Why is eating leaves so wrong if they taste like sorrel? I am not able to understand why my mother would have eaten grass but the dilemma makes me gasp for breath. It’s weighing down upon me like our fat cat sitting on my chest.
In eine augenblick—the blink of an eye—my pure childhood pleasure is distorted into a feeling I recognize as it emerges. It’s shame that warms my cheeks now, that’s turning my face red hot, stinging like dirty jokes and pictures of naked people.
“Meyer, it’s not what you think.” My mother speaks slowly, her voice barely audible. “We have to think back before that time. It’s for our children we must remember when sauerblaten meant springtime, family gatherings, and nothing more. Nothing more. Please, let’s not think about our other times. Please?”
There’s a special secret my parents share between them and among only their few closest friends. It’s a secret they whisper about to each other at night, in the dark as the house around them slumbers. Sometimes the whispers become cries and then fade away to whimpers. It’s this secret they talk about now.
They reach an accord—one of so many in the life they’ve made together. Their marriage, based entirely upon such accords, is also based upon a multitude of shared secrets. They surface in minute drips that leak out unexpectedly at times like this one.
Neither of them speaks. There’s nothing more to say. Their silence lacks awkwardness and if there had been any at all, nature’s surrounding hum creates the perfect foil. Instead, they each look off toward a different distance, scanning lush hilltops and aquamarine skies. They absorb it all but not together—each lost in secret, sad thoughts.
They look at me in unison as though they’d forgotten me entirely but then suddenly remembered. Their faces have regained composure. In unison, they begin to smile and together they take hold of my little hands, one on either side. My father kisses me on top of my head and, as a threesome, we begin to walk.
“Come,” says my father. “Jacob is waiting for us.” My brother watches us from the driveway. Carefully, slowly, we make our way down the grassy knoll. As we approach him, my mother resumes her story about sorrel soup, sour cream, and the taste of springtime in the mountains.
Marlene Samuels is an independent researcher, co-author and editor of The Seamstress: A Memoir of Survival, and author of an academic book about success. She lives in Chicago where she is writing a book about adopted children.