Phyllis Schieber Author

Women's Fiction by Phyllis Schieber

The One Who Got Away

I ran down to the grocery store last week to pick up a few things and was confronted by the past.  The voice of Judy Collins singing Both Sides Now was playing over the sound system, and I immediately wondered if the song conjured up strong memories for anyone else in the store. It was the summer of 1968. I was fifteen and working as a waitress at Camp Ramah in the Berkshires. The summer program was allegedly “work-study,” which basically meant that when we were not waiting on tables or cleaning and setting up our stations, we were expected to attend classes taught by a rabbi who was actually a terrific fellow and teacher. The waitresses and waiters earned about $100 for the summer and tipping wasn’t allowed.  I’m not exactly sure why I wanted to spend my summer that way, but I suspect I saw it as an opportunity to be with two of my best friends for the whole summer. Since I was entering my senior year of high school in the fall, I was too old to be a camper at sleep away camp and too young to have a position as a counselor.  And I wanted the freedom that was only possible when I was away from home. My parents were on-board because the waitress position promised a supervised situation in a camp that was committed to Jewish traditions, something that was especially important to my Holocaust family.  So, off I went, ready to work hard, study Jewish history and religion, and hopeful that I would still find adventure.

Adventure found me the first week of camp.  In the midst of the first week of grueling training in a hot kitchen and equally hot dining room, someone whistled at me. I was carrying a heavy tray loaded with dirty dishes, but I managed to turn and look at my admirer—an impossibly handsome (and clearly non-Jewish) boy who was on top of a ladder in the kitchen.  He boldly winked at me, and I blushed before throwing him a look that was intended to deter his advances. In retrospect, I am chagrined by my own biased audaciousness. He was so evidently not one of my tribe (I knew this because he wasn’t wearing Bermuda shorts and a polo shirt), so I rejected him on those grounds alone although I still managed to take a quick inventory of his looks. He was lean and muscular, dark-skinned, jet black hair crafted into a style that James Dean would find enviable, and green eyes so striking that I stared. I also stared at the “wife-beater” tee shirt (that no Jewish boy I ever knew would or could wear so well) beneath the open short-sleeved shirt that had a pack of Kools tucked into a rolled up sleeve. A cigarette dangled from his full lips, and he smiled at me in spite of my indignant look. My heart raced as I hurried away. Later, I told my girlfriends about him, saying, “Can you believe his nerve?” They shook their heads in unison, equally shocked. I kept a vigilant eye out for him the rest of the day. Wherever I turned, he was there, watching me, patiently waiting me out.

It turned out that the boy (and two other boys from him hometown of Bayonne, New Jersey) had been hired to work in the kitchen.  My admirer was the kitchen steward and had taken the job for the pay, thrusting himself into a world that must have been even more unfamiliar to him than he was to me. And he did it all with good cheer, donning a yarmulke during prayers before meals and respectfully keeping quiet when appropriate. But he was never quiet in my presence. He slowly inched his way closer and closer to me until one evening at a staff party, he appeared in skin tight jeans and insinuated himself close enough to me so that I was almost dizzy with desire. My friends, still apprehensive about his “type,” amazingly found themselves immersed in conversation with the two other boys from Bayonne.  It was a night that turned everything around for me.  I stepped over my initial first impressions and into a place where nothing matters more than what your heart tells you. By the week’s end, he was walking me back to my dormitory and chastely kissing me goodnight though I was long past that, arching my body toward his whenever he came close. And when he kissed me, really kissed me, the first time, I was already head over heels in love.

Once it became clear that we shared the same feelings, our days were defined by when we could finally be alone. All day long, we passed each other in the kitchen, our hands grazed, our eyes locked, but we went about our jobs, fueled by the knowledge that in a few hours we could be together, stretched out alongside each other in his room under the kitchen, where we talked and laughed, and kissed and touched, seemingly endlessly and passionately. I was far less experienced than he, but I held onto my virginity with determination in spite of cues from my body that begged to be indulged. But that is not the story I want to tell. The story I want to tell is not even about a boy and a girl from worlds so different that they never would have met if they had not wound up in this remote corner of the world during the summer of 1968 and discovered how very much they same they really were.  The story is about people who come into our lives and leave an indelible impression.

Our romance continued into the year ahead. We met in the city, staking Washington Square Park as our spot.  The weather never deterred us, and we walked the streets, ducking in here and there for a coffee. In good weather, we headed up to Central Park, looking for privacy behind a tree or anywhere where we could be together. The next summer I went to Israel, and he prepared to start college. We wrote each other often and met in the city a few more times even after he became engaged, and I began to date the boy I would eventually marry.

I’m not sure how it came to pass that we lost contact. I couldn’t say for sure what was in the last letter either of us wrote, but years turned into more years. From time to time, I thought about him, wondering what had become of that boy I had so loved and hoping that life had rewarded him. I also lost touch with the two girls who had been among my closest friends. That estrangement took longer to evolve, but by the time I was in my twenties, one of those girls had completely disappeared from my life, making a cameo appearance to pay a shiva visit when my father unexpectedly died. Years after my son was born, the other friend took offense to something I said, and I nothing I could say or do seemed to change her mind. She told me she no longer felt the same way about me, and that was that. In retrospect, I think she simply needed to leave everyone behind and start fresh somewhere else. She did just that, and I glean from the Internet that she has a fine position in a different state. Both women had married (I was at  both weddings) and divorced many years ago, and I don’t think either ever remarried or had children. I wonder if that is a source of sadness in their lives. I hope they have found enough happiness to sustain them. I knew those girls from the time I was ten. I still wonder why they chose to separate themselves so dramatically from the people who cared for them so much. It remains a mystery.

I wonder now about the long-term impact on our lives of people who are a strong and consistent presence before they disappear forever. The Internet has made it possible to know the whereabouts of most everyone, and it can be up to us to decide whether or not to bring the past into the present. It’s a challenging decision and one that is probably always acted on impulsively. I contacted one of my old girlfriends when my last novel came out. I sent her the postcard, announcing its release, but I never heard back from her.  I decided that was answer enough, and I let it be.  But that boy, well, he moved in and out of consciousness over the years, coming to the forefront whenever I saw Dirty Dancing or watched a repeat of Happy Days and fell in love with the Fonz all over again. I thought of him whenever I passed the sign to Bayonne or realized that the “remote corner of the world” we had claimed as ours was really very close to where I now live. He has remained a strong and positive presence in my life because he was so precious to me. I loved him the way you can only love someone when you are fifteen and the days are marked by when you can finally be alone. In my quiet moments, I sometimes remember the way his hands memorized the lines of my body, the way he whispered his love for me, and how I thought I would die if he left me.

I know we have moved on to different lives. I can tell from his address that he is still married, as I am. I know he has children. I am also a mother. And I feel fairly certain the he has his memories as I have mine.  I know that if we saw each other, forty-some-odd years later, it would be as if time had not passed.  I would want to tell him that he was the sweetest boyfriend I ever had. He made me feel cared for and loved and protected in a way that has yet to be replicated. How could it be?  I would never again let anyone own me the way I allowed him to own me because secretly it felt so good, so right, to relinquish that control. It was our secret, his and mine. And I feel fairly certain it still is.

October 2, 2010 Posted by | Uncategorized | 3 Comments

When Feeling Is First

My mother used to sing a song intended to lull me to sleep, but it almost always gave me nightmares. It wasn’t until years later that I learned the verses were from My Yiddishe Mamma, a song that was ultimately immortalized by everyone from Yosef Rosenblatt to Tom Jones.  But when I first heard the song, I was a terrified toddler who understood Yiddish (and German) and was certain the song was about her own fragile mother:  “In vasser und fayer (Into water and fire)/Vollt sie geloffnfahr ihr kind (She would have leapt for her children). As my mother sang, I pressed my face into my pillow, willing the song to end.  I never told my mother how much the song frightened me.  Instead, I envisioned my mother riding ominous waves (I knew she couldn’t swim) and braving raging flames to bring me to safety.  The images were horrifying because even at such a young age, I instinctively knew that it was my responsibility to ensure that my mother never suffered again, and certainly not because of me. Even the slightest objection to the song might make her question my love for her and, after all, as the song warned, “Nisht halt’n ihr tayer (Not loving her dearly)/Dos iz geviss der greste Zind” (This is the greatest sin). I seemed to always know what was expected of me. We all did, all the children of Holocaust survivors who had been born to make up for what their parents had endured, shouldering our responsibilities with quiet fortitude. We understood that our lives were the only justification our parents had to explain why they had lived when others had died.  We were born to prove Hitler wrong, and we took our legacy seriously.

In spite of all this, I had a happy childhood. I always felt loved. My friends were always welcomed in our home; my parents were gracious and warm hosts to everyone. My father supported the family as a waiter though his trade was a furrier. And my mother did all sorts of jobs, sewing scarves by the piece, inserting stamps in glassine envelopes for a local business, anything and everything that would make “a few extra dollars.” When it was financially possible, my wishes were met. Nevertheless, I worked after school all through high school, first as a cashier in a grocery store and later as a representative for Bell Telephone. On some level, I always knew my mother thought it was a miracle that she could feed, clothe and keep her children safe. For a woman who had survived what she had, the Transnistria Death March, it must have seemed an extraordinary accomplishment. I knew my parents were proud of me. I was a good student. I never gave them cause for worry even as I embraced the Sixties, trolling the clubs in Greenwich Village with my friends and experimenting with drugs. I was a proficient and convincing liar. I learned how to keep everything to myself.  I never showed any outward signs of sadness or anxiety because I knew it would unleash my mother’s disbelief. “What do you have to be unhappy about?” she would ask. I had a roof over my head, food on the table, and there were no Nazis in pursuit. Indeed, what was there to complain about? I learned to be invariably stoic, always meting out my feelings with moderation, always careful to keep myself in check. I had a survivor’s instincts, and I heeded them, apprehensive of the alternative if I veered off course.

Many years later, some time after my father died prematurely and unexpectedly, my mother discovered Dr. Leo Buscaglia, the “Love Doctor,” an inspirational writer and speaker, and she learned that it was important to verbally express love to those you cherished. “I’m sorry,” she said. “I didn’t know.” From then on, every conversation ended with “I love you.” It is true that I was initially uncomfortable with her newly discovered determination to express her love. At first, I mumbled some halfhearted response, ever dutiful and eager to assuage any pain or doubt she might feel, but I struggled with this reinvention of my mother who had taught me to put one foot in front of the other and carry on regardless of whatever obstacle might present itself.  It’s likely that I did not fully embrace the Love Doctor’s theories until I became a mother and understood I had never truly understood the depth of love. Motherhood softened me, gave me the ease to express love more openly. Nevertheless, there was always that voice that warned me of the potential consequences if I allowed myself too much emotional freedom. An open heart was risky business.

The only time I came undone was during the Cuban Missile Crisis.  Although we lived across the street from my elementary school, I was terrified that I would not make it home in time if Russia dropped a bomb. I wasn’t afraid of dying. I was afraid that I would be separated from my family and never see them again. I had heard too many stories about parents and children brutally torn apart, never to set eyes on each other again. During the Cuban Missile, I ran home from school, breathless with fear. I kept all my most prized possessions—my gold charm bracelet, my Barbie doll, my library books, my diary, and a pack of Necco candies that, admittedly, I had to replace quite often–in a pillowcase, ready for a hasty departure at a moment’s notice. My father suspected my fears though I don’t believe he really understood the depth of my terror. Still, he saw me freeze whenever a plane flew overhead. From time to time, he would wink at me, trying to lessen my panic, reassuring me with a quick hug. But I never openly admitted that my life was framed out by what I perceived as a series of fortunate events that had kept me from the same fate as my parents and the countless family members who had died during the Nazi siege of Europe. I was invariably stoic, always meting out my feelings with moderation, always careful to keep myself in check. I had a survivor’s instincts, and I heeded them, apprehensive of the alternative if I veered off course.

My turning point came in December 2009, just days before my mother passed after years of physical and mental decline, and a protracted period during which, bedridden and silent, she gazed at the television, refusing to even acknowledge anyone’s presence. Ever the survivor, she opened her mouth for food when the spoon was brought to her lips. Throughout these years, women to whom I am forever indebted cared her for her with loving and gentle hands. I could not bear the thought of my mother knowing additional harshness or indignity. It was, perhaps, the darkest time I had ever experienced. I had watched my mother’s decline with a combination of sadness, rage, and frustration when it suddenly occurred to me that this woman who had been shaped by an experience so devastating that I often wondered how she managed to still love, did not know how to die. Oddly, I thought of how when I so wanted a pocketbook that was in vogue at the time—some dreadful plastic square thing—she didn’t have the money for it. Some months later, I was walking home from junior high school, and I saw her, racing down Nagle Avenue toward me, waving her hand. “Come,” she said. “Let’s go buy that pocketbook you wanted.” I had no idea that she had just received her first Restitution check from Germany. The woman in the bed bore almost no likeness to that once beautiful, vivacious woman who had allowed me to fall asleep in the living room that also served as my parents’ bedroom, knowing I would sleep fitfully until I heard my father’s key in the door. This was the woman who nightly heated up food for my father when he came home at three-thirty in the morning from the restaurant where he worked  (a task she never seemed to think was odd). Now, after years of orchestrating her care and tending to all her needs, she needed me to help her die. I stared at this woman who barely resembled my mother, and I began to sob, openly and uncontrollably. I was unleashed by pain and sadness. I implored her to let go and die. “It’s time, Mommy,” I said. “You have to go.” I reassured her that, “Daddy is waiting for you. Your parents and sister and brother will be there. You can go. I’ll be fine. We’ll all be fine.” None of that seemed to move her. And then, I said, “I’m begging you, Mommy. Let go. I can’t do this anymore. Do it for me.” For the first time in months, my mother turned to face me. I saw recognition in her eyes, and I saw pain. Tears streamed down her cheeks, and the depth of her love stunned me. I held her close and stroked her still smooth and soft skin. She died three days later, in her own bed, and in my arms, taking her last peaceful breath against my chest.

I have had time since my mother’s death to contemplate how love and the way we express it changes the way we move through the world. I continue to wonder what it is that compels us to use restraint when part of me believes we should always run toward love with reckless disregard for the consequences. I know the answer, of course. Life is complicated by the choices we have made, the responsibilities we have assumed and continue to shoulder. And people are inherently afraid, as I continue to be, of what might happen if we simply let go. Sometimes, however, I find myself caught up in a flurry of emotion so expansive that I am unable to contain the feelings. I am still uncomfortable with showing vulnerability, expressing too much love, too much longing, too much of anything. Lately, however, when that happens, I remember my mother’s expression that last time when she was the most alive she had been in months, and I am reminded of the power of true love.

My mother used to sing a song intended to lull me to sleep, but it almost always gave me nightmares. It wasn’t until years later that I learned the verses were from My Yiddishe Mamma, a song that was ultimately immortalized by everyone from Yosef Rosenblatt to Tom Jones.  But when I first heard the song, I was a terrified toddler who understood Yiddish (and German) and was certain the song was about her own fragile mother:  “In vasser und fayer (Into water and fire)/Vollt sie geloffnfahr ihr kind (She would have leapt for her children). As my mother sang, I pressed my face into my pillow, willing the song to end.  I never told my mother how much the song frightened me.  Instead, I envisioned my mother riding ominous waves (I knew she couldn’t swim) and braving raging flames to bring me to safety.  The images were horrifying because even at such a young age, I instinctively knew that it was my responsibility to ensure that my mother never suffered again, and certainly not because of me. Even the slightest objection to the song might make her question my love for her and, after all, as the song warned, “Nisht halt’n ihr tayer (Not loving her dearly)/Dos iz geviss der greste Zind” (This is the greatest sin). I seemed to always know what was expected of me. We all did, all the children of Holocaust survivors who had been born to make up for what their parents had endured, shouldering our responsibilities with quiet fortitude. We understood that our lives were the only justification our parents had to explain why they had lived when others had died.  We were born to prove Hitler wrong, and we took our legacy seriously.

In spite of all this, I had a happy childhood. I always felt loved. My friends were always welcomed in our home; my parents were gracious and warm hosts to everyone. My father supported the family as a waiter though his trade was a furrier. And my mother did all sorts of jobs, sewing scarves by the piece, inserting stamps in glassine envelopes for a local business, anything and everything that would make “a few extra dollars.” When it was financially possible, my wishes were met. Nevertheless, I worked after school all through high school, first as a cashier in a grocery store and later as a representative for Bell Telephone. On some level, I always knew my mother thought it was a miracle that she could feed, clothe and keep her children safe. For a woman who had survived what she had, the Transnistria Death March, it must have seemed an extraordinary accomplishment. I knew my parents were proud of me. I was a good student. I never gave them cause for worry even as I embraced the Sixties, trolling the clubs in Greenwich Village with my friends and experimenting with drugs. I was a proficient and convincing liar. I learned how to keep everything to myself.  I never showed any outward signs of sadness or anxiety because I knew it would unleash my mother’s disbelief. “What do you have to be unhappy about?” she would ask. I had a roof over my head, food on the table, and there were no Nazis in pursuit. Indeed, what was there to complain about? I learned to be invariably stoic, always meting out my feelings with moderation, always careful to keep myself in check. I had a survivor’s instincts, and I heeded them, apprehensive of the alternative if I veered off course.

Many years later, some time after my father died prematurely and unexpectedly, my mother discovered Dr. Leo Buscaglia, the “Love Doctor,” an inspirational writer and speaker, and she learned that it was important to verbally express love to those you cherished. “I’m sorry,” she said. “I didn’t know.” From then on, every conversation ended with “I love you.” It is true that I was initially uncomfortable with her newly discovered determination to express her love. At first, I mumbled some halfhearted response, ever dutiful and eager to assuage any pain or doubt she might feel, but I struggled with this reinvention of my mother who had taught me to put one foot in front of the other and carry on regardless of whatever obstacle might present itself.  It’s likely that I did not fully embrace the Love Doctor’s theories until I became a mother and understood I had never truly understood the depth of love. Motherhood softened me, gave me the ease to express love more openly. Nevertheless, there was always that voice that warned me of the potential consequences if I allowed myself too much emotional freedom. An open heart was risky business.

The only time I came undone was during the Cuban Missile Crisis.  Although we lived across the street from my elementary school, I was terrified that I would not make it home in time if Russia dropped a bomb. I wasn’t afraid of dying. I was afraid that I would be separated from my family and never see them again. I had heard too many stories about parents and children brutally torn apart, never to set eyes on each other again. During the Cuban Missile, I ran home from school, breathless with fear. I kept all my most prized possessions—my gold charm bracelet, my Barbie doll, my library books, my diary, and a pack of Necco candies that, admittedly, I had to replace quite often–in a pillowcase, ready for a hasty departure at a moment’s notice. My father suspected my fears though I don’t believe he really understood the depth of my terror. Still, he saw me freeze whenever a plane flew overhead. From time to time, he would wink at me, trying to lessen my panic, reassuring me with a quick hug. But I never openly admitted that my life was framed out by what I perceived as a series of fortunate events that had kept me from the same fate as my parents and the countless family members who had died during the Nazi siege of Europe. I was invariably stoic, always meting out my feelings with moderation, always careful to keep myself in check. I had a survivor’s instincts, and I heeded them, apprehensive of the alternative if I veered off course.

My turning point came in December 2009, just days before my mother passed after years of physical and mental decline, and a protracted period during which, bedridden and silent, she gazed at the television, refusing to even acknowledge anyone’s presence. Ever the survivor, she opened her mouth for food when the spoon was brought to her lips. Throughout these years, women to whom I am forever indebted cared her for her with loving and gentle hands. I could not bear the thought of my mother knowing additional harshness or indignity. It was, perhaps, the darkest time I had ever experienced. I had watched my mother’s decline with a combination of sadness, rage, and frustration when it suddenly occurred to me that this woman who had been shaped by an experience so devastating that I often wondered how she managed to still love, did not know how to die. Oddly, I thought of how when I so wanted a pocketbook that was in vogue at the time—some dreadful plastic square thing—she didn’t have the money for it. Some months later, I was walking home from junior high school, and I saw her, racing down Nagle Avenue toward me, waving her hand. “Come,” she said. “Let’s go buy that pocketbook you wanted.” I had no idea that she had just received her first Restitution check from Germany. The woman in the bed bore almost no likeness to that once beautiful, vivacious woman who had allowed me to fall asleep in the living room that also served as my parents’ bedroom, knowing I would sleep fitfully until I heard my father’s key in the door. This was the woman who nightly heated up food for my father when he came home at three-thirty in the morning from the restaurant where he worked  (a task she never seemed to think was odd). Now, after years of orchestrating her care and tending to all her needs, she needed me to help her die. I stared at this woman who barely resembled my mother, and I began to sob, openly and uncontrollably. I was unleashed by pain and sadness. I implored her to let go and die. “It’s time, Mommy,” I said. “You have to go.” I reassured her that, “Daddy is waiting for you. Your parents and sister and brother will be there. You can go. I’ll be fine. We’ll all be fine.” None of that seemed to move her. And then, I said, “I’m begging you, Mommy. Let go. I can’t do this anymore. Do it for me.” For the first time in months, my mother turned to face me. I saw recognition in her eyes, and I saw pain. Tears streamed down her cheeks, and the depth of her love stunned me. I held her close and stroked her still smooth and soft skin. She died three days later, in her own bed, and in my arms, taking her last peaceful breath against my chest.

I have had time since my mother’s death to contemplate how love and the way we express it changes the way we move through the world. I continue to wonder what it is that compels us to use restraint when part of me believes we should always run toward love with reckless disregard for the consequences. I know the answer, of course. Life is complicated by the choices we have made, the responsibilities we have assumed and continue to shoulder. And people are inherently afraid, as I continue to be, of what might happen if we simply let go. Sometimes, however, I find myself caught up in a flurry of emotion so expansive that I am unable to contain the feelings. I am still uncomfortable with showing vulnerability, expressing too much love, too much longing, too much of anything. Lately, however, when that happens, I remember my mother’s expression that last time when she was the most alive she had been in months, and I am reminded of the power of true love.

October 2, 2010 Posted by | Uncategorized | Leave a comment