When I set out to write a piece about my parents in commemoration of their wedding anniversary, I approached it thinking that it would invariably be dark and sentimental. After all, they were Holocaust survivors, and they both experienced things that no human being should ever have to see or remember. Let’s face it, they carried a lot of baggage with them when they got off the boat in Boston in 1948...and I’m not referring to the valises they were lugging.
They were married on Columbus Day (although in Germany, they didn’t know it was Columbus Day), October 12, 1947. Theirs were stories of miracles--it was a miracle that they survived, but I felt that the true miracle was that they stayed married to one another for over 50 years. They fought like cats and dogs all throughout my childhood, and on into my adulthood, but I don’t think either one of them would have been happy with anyone else.
They were from different countries, different walks of life, and sometimes I thought, different planets. My mom was short, fair, and platinum blond. Dad was tall, dark, and muscular. Not exactly two peas in a pod--but my mom would always blame their getting together on the war...”It did strange things to people.”
There are many stories from my childhood that are not happy: screams of terrors past in the middle of the night, tears, rants, harsh words. But, when I went out to dinner with my sister and brother-in-law last week, and the topic turned to Mom and Dad...all the stories we recounted made us laugh! So, I wonder, is it OK to talk about Holocaust survivors and not mention the sad stuff? Because in my parents’ cases, in between the horror and the sad old-age “stuff” was lots of good stuff. There was us--my sister and myself--and our lives. Some semblance of normalcy had to be established because of us, and try as mightily to fight it as they did, my parents had to give in.
She liked to primp--he didn’t. He liked to dance--she didn’t. But he always wore the clothes she bought for him, and he always dragged her out to the dance floor. It is rather amazing that after the horrors they had been through, they could still dress up and go out on the town...and have fun. There’s a particular pink pouffy dress that I remember my mom wore to lots of Bar Mitzvahs. It was not light pink, no...Mom liked to make a statement when she entered a room...it was hot pink...definitely hot pink. Strapless, and did I say “pouffy?” With her platinum blond hair done up, and her pink dress, she looked like a beautiful Barbie doll. Dad was not exactly Ken, more like Dean Martin. I have an actual photo of them taken one such night, but it’s somewhere with thousands of other photos of mine that are in a storage facility. No matter, I have that picture indelibly fixed in my mind. I don’t need a photo to prove it was true.
And speaking of truth, Mom liked to stretch it...a lot. She never looked at it as though it were telling a lie--just decorating the truth. She was a huge decorator. We never asked her why her own life seemed so less than perfect that she had to “decorate” it, but it was understood that she did. She wasn’t as cunning and creative as was the character in Catch Me If You Can, but it is a shame she never picked up poker. Her bluffing skills were unmatchable. “You know,” she chastised a nurse in the hospital once, “I was a surgical nurse, and if I had ever treated a patient like your handling me, I would have been fired!” A surgical nurse, a medical student, a singer. She was quite accomplished. In fact, we like to joke that my son’s musical ability comes from his grandma...since at one time she was a “musical prodigy.”
Her stories were a big bone of contention between she and my dad. He understood she wasn’t happy with her lot in life, and he knew he was a big reason why. So, they argued about it...more times than I like to remember. And the more stories she would make up, the smaller she would make him feel. But my dad was no shrinking violet, and very often my sister and I were caught in between these two battering (figuratively) rams.
It’s probably very hard to believe, but in spite of the Holocaust stories and the battles about money and ambition and their stature on life’s totem pole, there was lots of laughter in my house. My mom had a very dry wit--she was the queen of sarcasm. And my dad liked to play tricks on her. They had a large group of friends--all of them also survivors--with names like Yussel, and Moully, and Velvel, and Bruncha, and Manya. We could never tell whether those were their first or last names--that’s just what we called them. They would all get together and eat (always) and chatter away. They often spoke in Yiddish, which we girls understood, so there were very few secrets bantered about. But every once in a while some Polish would be spoken, and then we’d be in the dark, as would my mom, since she was Hungarian. And then there would be more drinking, and the voices would get lower.
Neither of my parents was very political. But there was one thing that got them going, and it was often most evident around the dinner table. The scene around that table was the epitome of Americana: it was my mom and dad, my sister and I...and the TV--always on. We could be talking about anything--even something really important--until my dad would get a glimpse of something on the screen and then shout, “SHHH! Israel!!” And then it was all over. Israel trumped any dinner talk, no matter how earth shattering it might have been.
In addition to Israel, their world also revolved around us. It was obvious that we were their world, their entire world. Our existence proved to them that the world would go on...could go on. And if we ever did anything, as most children sometimes do, to disappoint them, they were crushed. And they let us know. Guilt trips were taken frequently in our home.
As my parents aged, their idiosyncrasies become more pronounced. My mom’s fancy dresses gave way to more flamboyant, quirkier wardrobe additions (there was the gold lame’ bib she would pull out at restaurants, but that’s another story), and my dad became more sullen. He no longer added to his dictionary of crazy, made-up words like, “chupaydina” (bizarre) or “matzapanna” (imaginary food). Their lives revolved more around themselves and their illnesses than around us. And their grandchildren were now looked upon as a whole new set of miracles.
One of the last best memories I have of my parents took place just after my husband and I moved to Los Angeles. My father had not yet begun to show the effects of Alzheimer’s and my mom was still healthy and spry. This was their first time on the West Coast and they loved it. They looked up old friends they hadn’t seen in decades and sat around tables eating babka and strudel, drinking schnapps and slivovitz, and reminiscing about the old days--both good and bad.
One night, we discovered a Hungarian restaurant in Hollywood, and as a surprise, we took them there for dinner. I don’t remember the entree, but I do remember the rigo jancsi, a luscious, chocolate cream cake...and the band with live music. It was Hungarian music. And that night, when my dad asked my mom to dance there were no protestations. It was Dirty Dancing, old-country style.The two of them whirled around the dance floor--they were happy and smiling, and for once, that happiness had nothing to do with children or grandchildren--it was just them. All the years, and all the burdens seemed to slough off, and they literally floated.
So, on October 12, while everyone else is thinking of Columbus Day, I will be thinking of that one of a kind couple who gave me life, and sending them a silent anniversary wish. I just know they’re together out there, somewhere. And if you should hear thunder or lightning on that day, just ignore it...it’s probably them...celebrating.