The Persistence of Memory
Whenever I see that picture of the clocks melting all over the place I think of my brother Izzie’s wife Gitla and what happened to her. Her memories came up and practically bit her right in the tuchas. But that’s what happens, isn’t it? Inside our heads time rolls around like a ball of string, getting tangled in everything, and the memories you thought you had packed away in the back of the hall closet come tumbling out all over the floor one day when someone opens the door the wrong way, so to speak. But it was just a shame, what happened to Gitla.
It started with my nephew Herbie, Gitla and Izzie’s boy. I knew first, but I didn’t tell anyone. I maybe hinted a little to Izzie. but he told me I was crazy, so alright, I know when to keep my mouth shut. But I saw them. There I was, splitting a corned beef on rye with Ruth Feinberg in that deli on 87th, which is pretty good, only they give you too much sandwich for one and not enough slaw for two, when I saw the two boys in the booth in the very back corner. They were whispering and holding hands. With each other. And the thing is, the blond one is my nephew Herbie. Right away I think, “Uh oh, Gitla, you’re not going to be a grandma any time soon.”
“Don’t look,” I said to Ruth, but of course she looked. Thank heaven they didn’t notice.
I tell Ruth, “Personally, I think live and let live. But Gitla is going to drop dead when she finds out. She’s so…”I am hunting for a word to describe Gitla. When my brother first brought her home to meet Momma and Poppa, I didn’t take to her at all. She was always in charge, making a big fuss over the dinner, making a big fuss over Izzie, making a big fuss over the wedding. And she always had to be right, no matter what. “Claire,” she said to me, “if you fluff your hair up a little in front it would be much more flattering.”
“I like my hair like this, it highlights my eyes.”
“That’s what I mean,” she peered at me intently, ” are you sure you want people to notice that your one eye is just a tiny bit smaller than the other?”
But Momma liked her. “She has a good heart,” Momma said. “And she’s strong, she’ll be good for Izzie, she’ll keep him in line.”
After a while I got to like her too, but she still made a big fuss about everything and had to be right all the time. When I broke my arm she made enough food to feed Coxey’s army and filled my kitchen. “You shouldn’t be working, you should be resting,” she told me. “And if you need anything else, you let me know, it’s no trouble. And when you’re back on your feet, I’ll give you the name of my cousin’s carpenter, he built the most beautiful cabinets for her kitchen, she had old ones just like yours.”
I cannot explain all this to Ruth. “She’s one of the strong ones,” I finally say, but Ruth gives me a look that means she doesn’t understand. Ruth was born in America, she didn’t go to the camps. In the camps, you got so you could pick out the weak ones and the strong ones right away, without thinking it through with your brain. You didn’t spend time with the weak ones, not unless they were family.
“They had homosexuals in the camps, too,” I told Ruth.” They were brought in for reeducation and right thinking.” I shuddered. In some ways, that had been worse.
I peeked over at Herbie and his friend in their corner, without really looking, so they wouldn’t see. Gitla was always kvelling about how handsome her Herbie was, with his blond hair and his great cheekbones.
“You should see all the girls who chase him,” Gitla said.
“I’ve fixed him up with Essie Miller, I think we’re going to hear an announcement soon,” Gitla said.
“He can choose any girl he wants, no wonder he can’t settle down. I should only have been so good-looking when I was a girl,” Gitla said.
“He’s studying to be a doctor,” I tell Ruth, “he’s studying with a cancer specialist at Sloan-Kettering.”
“He must be very smart,” Ruth says politely, since Herbie is my brother’s boy.
“By Gitla, he’s Albert Schweitzer,” I say, “but how smart can he be, holding hands with his boyfriend right here in Goldfarb’s where anybody can see?”
And sure enough, wasn’t I right? It was no more than two months later they did get caught. Of course I had to hear it from Charlotte Brodstein, who got it from her husband David, who got it from Izzie, who should have told his own sister first but he was so meshuggah from the whole thing he wasn’t thinking straight. According to Charlotte, Gitla and Izzie were supposed to meet Herbie at his apartment and bring him a dinner, only Herbie forgot, and when Gitla and Izzie get there the boyfriend answers the door in his bathrobe.
“Hello,” he says, “who are you?”
“We’re Herbie’s parents,” Gitla says, “who are you?”
And just then Herbie comes skittering to the door wearing only his bathrobe, so even a blind cow with a head cold could tell what had been going on.
Right away Gitla starts to scream, “How could you do this to me? I raised you right! I raised you to be a good boy, I gave you love and I took care of you, and this is how you repay me?” And she drops the bag of dinner, Charlotte says, and the jar of borscht breaks and spills on Izzie’s shoes and most of the hall floor.
Then Herbie starts screaming, “Don’t tell me how much you sacrificed for me. All you ever think about is yourself. No matter what happens to anyone else, no matter how hard something is for someone else, all that counts is how you feel, not how anyone else feels.”
Then the boyfriend starts crying, “Please stop, you two, please don’t fight about this. I can’t stand it when people who love each other fight.”
So she’s screaming and Herbie’s screaming and the boyfriend is crying and Izzie starts to feel his heart pounding, he has a weak heart, you know, he takes those little pills, and he leans against the wall to catch his breath and Gitla yells, “You see what you’ve done now, you’re killing your father, that’s what you’re doing, you’re ripping the heart right out of his body.” And she grabs Izzie and marches him down the stairs and drives him home.
“And then what happened?” I ask Charlotte.
“What should happen?” Charlotte says. She shrugs her shoulders up and down. “She’ll start talking to him again sooner or later. She has to, she only has one son.”
But I think to myself, she can be pretty stubborn, Gitla can. And Herbie, when it comes to stubborn, he’s no slouch either. From the time he was a little boy, when he wanted something he would cross his little arms over his chest and just stand there with his bottom lip sticking out. He was the cutest little bug, going nose to nose with Gitla over turnips. And more often than not he would win. She would have a great sigh and throw her arms around him and laugh, with the dimples just like his coming out in her cheeks. “Alright then, you little schmendrik, go play. But tomorrow you eat your vegetables, you hear?” And he would give her a big kiss back, and all would be fine until the next fight.
Somewhere along the way, the kisses got lost and the only thing they have left is the stubborn.
After a while things mostly settled down, but Gitla still refused to speak to Herbie. She tried to get him banned from the family holidays but that didn’t work. The first year she says to me, since Seder is always at my house, “If he’s going to be there, so help me I will turn around and go home, take your pick, him or me.” But Gitla’s mother, may she rest in peace, who was still alive that year, 84 and as mean as the day she was born, God bless her, announced that since she only had a few years left to live, she was going to spend them with Herbie since she’d already put up with Gitla for 63. So Herbie kept coming to the family dinners, and Gitla kept not speaking to him, and we all got used to looking the other way and not getting too close if it seemed the fireworks were about to start.
But people can get used to anything, can’t they, and after a while it starts to seem normal. Personally, I think this is what holds families together, they stop noticing how crazy things really are and start thinking it’s the way things should be. So the fireworks didn’t start on their own, they got pushed. Gitla’s mother died just before the new year but Herbie came to the Seder just like usual. Only this year, Herbie brings his boyfriend, the same one I saw in Goldfarb’s that day, mind you. Things were a little tense, what with Gitla talking to everyone but the two boys, and being very obvious about it, and making lots of snide comments about abominations before God, especially on a holy night, and Izzie trying not to take sides, and the boyfriend talking about how everyone ought to hold hands, and the rest of the family trying to act normal, and in this family that’s a tough job, even with a full wind behind and three horses pulling.
So we sit down to dinner, and after the service, which as usual runs a little too long, and what with all that wine, and the lamb and the turkey and the sweet potatoes with the kosher marshmallows on top, and the matzoh and the honey cakes, and the macaroons and the marzipan, maybe a couple people aren’t thinking so good. Nobody really notices at first that Gitla’s sister Sarah is drinking a little more than usual. So maybe she starts getting a little drunk, and Gitla apparently has to say something, so she says, “You gonna keep drinking until you fall over, or you gonna stop one of these years?”
Sarah looks up, and she looks Gitla straight in the eye, and she says, “Getting drunk is the only way I can put up with your shit. This is my family too, you know.”
Gitla pulls herself up very straight at the table and looks at Sarah from her little eyes with just the eyelashes poking out. “i don’t know what you’re talking about,” she says very slowly.
“Yes you do, Gitla.” Sarah is shaking now. “You know what I’m talking about.”
“No, Sarah, I have no idea what you’re talking about.”
“Yes, you do.” Her hands are squeezing the napkin like she’s going to tear it in half. “You’ve been treating Herbie like garbage for years now, and while Momma was alive I was going to keep my mouth shut, but you’re getting worse, not better, and I’m going to put a stop to it right now.”
Gitla has this frozen look like even her skin has been turned into stone, and she’s sitting there, all the plates still on the table in front of her, and she doesn’t say a word.
“You want to know how come your mother is so upset about you being a queer?” Sarah says to Herbie.
Herbie, who is no dope, even if he is Izzie’s son, stare sat his plate and doesn’t say a word. The boyfriend is completely white, and he’s for sure not looking at anyone.
Sarah looks around the table, her face stretched tight over her bones, and there isn’t anyone I who says a word to stop her.
Sarah starts to speak at last, her voice low and fast. “I’ve let Gitla get away with this for too long already. You know why she hates you being queer? Because she thinks you got it from her.”
In the heavy silence that follows this, I heard a moth beating its wings against the glass of the dining room window. “Who’s ready for coffee?” I call out.
Gitla’s shoulders and jaw were as stiff and as square as I had ever seen them. Dark, blood-stained patches we regrowing on her cheeks. “You are a fool, Sarah. You are a stupid fool.” Her voice was high and tight.
“I was there. Git. She gave you that locket she managed to hide from the guards all those years.”
“That’s not true.”
Sarah relaxed and got this sneaky-mean look on her face. She’d spilled her dirt, now she was driving the wagon. “What was her name? Miriam? Marta? Ah yes, Maya.” She took a sip of her wine and leaned back in her chair. “She was really beautiful, wasn’t she, with her dark, gypsy eyes and her red, red lips. And the way she used to laugh, I can still hear her. It frightened me when she laughed, that someone might hear.” In the silence around the table Sarah’s small chuckle rang loud. “You still have that locket in your jewelry box. I saw it there when I put back the pearl earrings I borrowed that time.”
“That’s not true.” Gitla’s voice was still and calm enough to freeze cream, but her face was flushed dark and blotchy under the thick skin. Sarah turned to Herbie and leaned forward across the table. “You know what happened to Maya? After the war, Maya went off to marry a man, and your mother stayed in bed and cried for three days.”
A low sound started. It didn’t sound like it was coming from Gitla, not at first. It sounded like it was coming from the room in back of her, or the closet, it was so low and hollow. It was a sound that ran right through your bones, and only when it got louder did I realize it was Gitla, screaming, screaming so deep down inside that it echoed like a train in a tunnel. And it got louder, and louder, and louder, a train rushing closer from a long, long distance away, until the children put their hands over their ears, and even the silverware began to jiggle a little. She didn’t seem to need air to breathe, she was just screaming without moving a muscle. Then she leaped out of her chair, knocking it over backward with a crash and smashing her hands down on the plate full of gravy and potatoes.
“THAT’S NOT TRUE!” she screamed in that same train rushing, thundering voice. Then the sound stopped with a suddenness like a bang, and she ran from the table, out the door to the street, slamming it behind her.
Izzie looked around at us all, his face blank and lost. “Go after her,” I said quietly, “she needs you now.” And he, too, disappeared out the door. I wondered what Momma would have thought.
After the door shut behind him, we all just sat there, not looking at each other, not saying a word. I tried to think of something to say, but I couldn’t. It didn’t seem to be the right time to pour coffee.
Finally Herbie coughed. His boyfriend sat slumped in his chair, ashen grey. He looked old and tired. I suppose we all did, a little. “Why did you do that, Aunt Sarah?” Herbie asked.
She turned to him slowly with tears running down her sunken cheeks. “At the end of three days, the sister I had loved with all my heart, who dragged me, barely alive, through four years of hell, my sister was gone and that stranger came to take her place.” With a single, fierce movement she picked up her wineglass and flung it at the wall where it shattered into little pieces, leaving a broad arc of wine behind. “I wanted to hurt her, Goddamn it!” Then she too ran out the door into the night. Thin lines of purple trickled down through the blue flowers on the wallpaper.
After that everyone else left, saying quiet goodbyes.
Misha and I cleared away the dishes and cleaned up the mess. “Gitla will start talking to Herbie again now,” Misha said. “To save face.”
“I know. But it won’t be the same.” I scrubbed at the big blotch on the dining room wall.
“That stain won’t come out,” he said, watching me scrub. “We’ll have to put up new wallpaper.”
“It was time for new paper,” I said, putting the sponge away. “Ruth Feinberg has almost the same pattern in her dining room, and I was getting tired of it anyway.” I sat down in one of the empty dining room chairs and the waves of tired rolled over and over me, like they had in Buchenwald. I just wanted to lie down, shut my eyes, and sleep.
Elissa Matthews lives in New Jersey with her husband and son. She is currently working on a novel about racism and prejudice, seen through the eyes of a teenage boy whose mother is passing as white.