Many of the places Alfred took Charlotte and us children were grossly unacceptable. We lived in a miniscule trailer, a single space with an awning-ed ledge for cooking designed to be used from the outside, and a sleeping loft designed for a single short person or a pair of slight dwarfs, that they kept in a claustrophobic dustbin of a park outside Albuquerque, NM. The sounds of coyotes yipping at the moon terrified the young mother left alone with a toddler while her husband traveled for business. Our apartment in Flushing, where my first brother was born, was a basement flat where water puddled every morning beneath pipes leaking from the owner’s home above us. Our walk-up in Springfield, MA, was infested with rodents so thickly we had them in the bathtub every morning; I had a special abhorrence for that old Farmer Gray cartoon where he turns on the faucet, and out tumbles a band of skinny mice. In Deerfield, our 17th Century farmhouse had a hand pump for water and a wood stove for cooking and heat; we were surrounded by acres open fields with the Berkshires behind them, but we had a landlady who chased my two-year-old brother down a hill with her jeep.
Mom was miserable, though she never said so. I knew because wherever we were I was her companion during those lonely wee-hour watches, but she never talked about it.
She talked about very little; we often just read in tandem or she read to me or I slept while she read. We didn’t have a television until I was nearly through high school.
In my head, our story was fragmented because everything I knew came from tidbits dropped when she thought I wasn’t paying attention. I read Exodus when I was 12, and suddenly — I’m not sure how — it became clear to me where my family had been and some of the pain they’d endured. Mom wouldn’t confirm my suspicions until I had picked a terrible fight with her, and only then would she give me shreds of information about the death of Aunt Sala, her father’s sister, a doctor in Warsaw whom she adored, shot at her clinic when the Nazis seized her clinic and took her patients to Auschwitz; I didn’t learn only about her beloved uncles the hunchback and the opera singer or about Thea Matzner’s family or the other relatives’ fate until the ’70’s, long after I’d grown up. Specific details of her siblings’ deaths, her nephew’s horrific demise, the loss of her home and music and the many other tragedies she had endured she kept to herself, bottled up, behind the nearly impenetrable wall she’d built around herself.
When I was 8, I had the mumps that led to an earache, the worst pain I can remember before or since. I awoke screaming out of nightmare images of knives piercing my head, of flying monkeys shooting poison arrows into my ears. Mama brought me a hot water bottle and drew me into her arms. I don’t know if the heat helped or not, but I do know that it was so unusual for her to hold me at all that I hoped the pain would last a week at least. She was not one to dispense her love openly; that, too, she guarded against the many fatal forces that lurked about her.