My 10-year-old daughter, Aviva, has an, um, interesting personal style. She is currently wearing a pair of overall shorts (sans shirt) and pink striped, knee-high socks. A blue, temporary, glittery, dragon tattoo adorns her forearm—and a ponytail to one side and blissful self-assurance complete the look. I can smell her bubblegum flavored lip gloss from across the room, as she primps in front of a mirror.
I am on the couch sorting through my psychotropic medications, just picked up from the pharmacy. As I look over at Aviva, I am glad that her life seems much lighter than mine.
Above the mirror is Aviva’s latest drawing: a beautiful girl with flowing blonde hair, a bright sun, a flower, and the words, “I love Aviva.” She does a pirouette, lets out a quick fart, and proceeds to skip around the room—her faerie-clad little sister, Maya, in tow. They skip for a minute or two until Maya stops short in front of me.
“Why are you so big?” Maya asks. I suck in my stomach and turn head-on instead of profile.
“I mean,” she clarifies, “why did you grow so much faster than me?”
Bewildered, I tell her that I do not understand the question. She asks why grownups are so much bigger than her, why we grew so much faster than her to get so big. My wife has to explain it to me: To our daughter, there was no world before she was born. Everyone was born when she was, just some people, like grownups, grew faster than her. In her world, everything is about her and nothing has occurred without her or before her.
I remember being 7, and I was decidedly not that self-assured. Late one evening, I was supposed to be asleep, but I was at the top of the stairs pressing my head against the balusters, listening to strange voices, and watching the men below.
It was my father’s Holocaust survivor’s group. They were talking in various accents about camps—and about escaping. They described shootings, separations, cattle cars, starvation, horrors upon horrors, only some of which I understood. Grown men were crying. Crying.
Then it was my father’s turn. With a tremulous voice that seemed unfamiliar to me, he described the Nazis coming into his village and taking the synagogue Torah scrolls and dumping them in manure. I knew his parents and brother died, but I had never heard this story. His words, like the odor he described, were slow and penetrating. My father squinted like he could still smell the excrement smeared on the holy words of God. And I winced, smelling it too.
My house grew quiet and the air still. Then, for the first (and last) time in my life, I saw my father cry. From gentle tears to convulsing sobs, this larger than life man looked so small and vulnerable. I fell asleep to the sounds of his brokenness and had nightmares. For years.
A few months after that first survivors’ group meeting, my parents proposed that I go to camp for the summer. They didn’t think I knew about camps, but I had clearly heard about them at the top of the stairs. Camp? Camp?!? I refused and shivered at the mere thought.
All summer, my kids go to camps where they do arts and crafts, tie-dye, go to water parks, and perform in plays, etc. During the year, in between the obligations of school, homework, and chores, we have fun, too. We run to catch ice-cream trucks. We laugh. We comb the neighborhood looking for curbside leaf piles, and then take running, giggling jumps into said piles. The giggling balances out the many imperfect parenting moments.
Recently on a Saturday, however, I lay in bed, feeling unable to muster the strength to get up. This time, depression had come just as middle age had—gradually, so by the time I noticed, it was all the way here, all-encompassing, and unwanted.
This day, the world is feeling too dark and sad for me to join it. Little Maya plops herself next to me. She puts her teddy bear in the crook of my arm, picks up my other hand, and sets it on her belly. For a moment we lie in silence together as I feel her little tummy go up and down as she takes in the world with each breath.
Maya asks, “Did I dance when I was in your belly?” I smile despite myself.
We start tickling each other’s toes, even the one she claims has gone off to market. With newfound energy, I get up to make lunches for school the next day. Now that the girls are in elementary school, I occasionally sneak funny notes, little toys, and surprise candies in their lunches.
Assuredly, growing up, my school lunches were anything but sweet. I am not sure whose bright idea it was to have my father, a brooding, German, academician, pack my lunch. But there it was. He typically packed some version of an “immigrant special.”
In Germany, having rendered chicken fat (schmaltz) smeared on a slice of dense black pumpernickel bread (think doorstop) with a slice of tomato on top was a treat. The slathered fat was like Crisco’s ugly cousin, slimy and grainy, and the sandwich stayed in a heap in my stomach for the rest of the day, leaving remnants to be burped up in the middle of afternoon classes.
“Ewwwwwww, what is that?” the kids in my Baltimore City school cafeteria asked as I ate. I was teased relentlessly.
To add insult to injury, I came home to few toys. Laughter and smiles felt like an affront to the 6,000,000 that were lost.
My mom, herself the daughter of Holocaust survivors, did let us pick out anything we wanted to eat for our birthday dinner. For several years, I had the same request: the “Gentile Sandwich” that I had so longingly seen around me every day in the school cafeteria.
A Gentile Sandwich consisted of the lightest airiest whitest pieces of Wonder Bread with bologna and American cheese, and slathered mayo, with the crusts cut off. The sandwich was cut up into four perfect squares.
On a random Tuesday night after work, now, we pause homework, cello practice, bill-paying and laundry. We all grab an instrument (including pots & spoons for drums) and costumes, and soon the family is marching throughout the house in our own homemade band. The clamor is so loud that it temporarily drowns out my misfiring synapses. We pass around Aviva’s bubble gum lip gloss, and dance on our toes, dizzy with joy.