Nowhere To Hide
By Michele Merens
Like her grandmother, Caren relies not only on words but both hands to talk. They move in windmill fashion to tamp the air. And isn’t that enough of a legacy? To celebrate her grandmother’s passion for talking—rather than the time she was rendered mute?
Why be attracted to the muteness?
Yet the bare arm comes up, making numbers not words the chief argument between us—A17388.
“Mom, try to see where I’m coming from. I had this tattooed in Nana Tonia’s honor,” Caren explains. “It’s my response to the Nazis trying to wipe us out. Decades later, this is my tribute. So anyone who sees this tattoo will ask what it’s about and I can tell Nana’s story.”
Tribute. When has that word ever been laid onto a Jew’s skin before? Never, but in my mother’s honor, Caren has tattooed her left arm with the same number branded onto her grandmother in the camps. I am Tonia’s daughter—a survivor’s daughter. After decades of trying to wrap my mind around atrocities my beloved mother had to endure, I’m shocked to stumble up against this particular sequel.
Nonetheless it’s done. The arm rests on the tabletop much as the occasional mouse our cat will present; a sagging bit of pink-toned flesh, mangled where teeth dug in.
“You were never one for following fads. This one—is especially distasteful,” I say, licking my lips in a careful rejection.
“I thought you’d be glad,” my child protests. “I’m not running from my Jewish ties, but carrying them along. Others are doing the same. We’re tattooing the numbers of survivors on our arms so that the world won’t forget for another sixty, seventy, years, guaranteed. I sat in on a presentation at UWM with Eva and Shira; afterwards, we decided we’re in. And so we went down to Brady Street, found a tattoo parlor that would pass any safety inspection. You don’t have to worry…I won’t get hepatitis or anything.”
Unimpressed, I sniff. She wants me to buy into such lies? That hate drilled onto our ancestors can somehow be refashioned as love, art, a movement? That black ink once laid deep into flesh should now gush forth as fuel for a unified worldwide cry, Never Forget?
Such acts have more to do with reckless, adolescent rants; I’m disappointed my 21-year-old is hiding behind such 21st century canards. Something more: I thought I’d convinced my daughter nice Jewish girls don’t get tattoos. I never expected rebellion. This, however, is so much worse than a heart or butterfly rolled onto the side of an ankle—some image hinting of fun or desire. This tattoo speaks of a time when Jews faced the black hole of extinction and yet here is my daughter laying down the compass points—to put that hole in our sights once more.
How did Caren even memorize the numbers? My mother always took care to shield her grandchild from the terrifying evidence of her branding. She donned long-sleeved shirts in an apartment with no air conditioning during unbearably hot Milwaukee summers. She wore ugly flowered nightgowns to bed whenever she stayed with us. She did all this and more to protect her only granddaughter from heartbreaking truths for as long as she could.
I close my eyes, for all I can focus on is that centipede crawling up her arm. Caren’s wriggling insect makes me flinch now just as I did decades ago, confronting my mother’s tattoo. So what is my daughter doing, really? She thinks she can imagine herself into the closed jar of Auschwitz? Where a million centipedes climbed over one another to get as close as they could to pokes of air?
The teapot whistles. I rise from my chair and turn off the burner. Then I head to the cabinets, knowing Caren likes a cinnamon stick added to her hot cocoa.
“Where is your father on this?” I manage, hoping my ex might have spoken up already and saved me the anguish.
“He’s for it. He says I’m an adult and can do what I want—if I’m going to have a tattoo, let it send everyone a message.”
Message? What message?
“You didn’t have to do this. In your name, you’re already carrying about the initials of someone who lived and died in the Holocaust,” I say as calmly as I can. There’s truth to my words. Jews traditionally pass onto newborns the names, or at least the initials, of our dead.
Names honor the best of our ancestors through their descendants. While numbers? Numbers did no more than help Nazis count up the inventory of loved ones packed onto train cars, headed for the camps.
“Really? You never told me that.”
“Didn’t I?” I murmur from the cave of an open cabinet, my gaze skimming shelves. “We passed on the initials of my cousin murdered in the war. I think she was twice removed?”
Intrigued, my daughter lowers her hand to her lap. Hides one story from view to make room for another.
“CK for Clara. Clara Kolling. She came from Germany, while you know, Nana’s family lived in Poland. I think Clara’s father was my mother’s cousin, actually. But we never knew the details of their capture. They took her family away early, earlier than Nana. Then that was it. She was gone.”
Caren’s glance goes small. “If you didn’t know much about her, why did you pick her initials for my name?”
Why is my daughter questioning me as if I have done something wrong?
“Well,” I falter. “All she went through, she deserved to be remembered. You know, she was probably just a child when she died. And also her name let us spell Caren with a C or a K. Either letter would work and we weren’t ready to commit to one until I was farther along…”
Even I can hear it is not a great story. Poor Clara. It seems I’m merely going through the motions. I can’t make Clara Kolling come to life alongside a woman my daughter knew intimately and loved–Nana, with her lavender-scented perfumes, her Polish accent that hammered the air.
Sighing, I abandon the search for the cinnamon. Instead, I rummage through more cabinets for the cocoa mix, then a mug where PEACEHOPELOVE run together as if they are one word.
“You know, everyone would always say to Nana, ‘Ah, God bless, you were a survivor.’ To my father and me, though, she was so much more. A survivor, yes, but everything else too—the best
“The best Nana, too.”
“Right. Yes, of course. Yet in the last years of her life, people would come round and ask, ‘Can you come tell us your story? Leave your memories of the war with school children, women’s groups, journalists, anyone who will listen?’ Only then, did your Nana start talking about such things.”
I find the mug I’m looking for, PEACEHOPELOVE. I pour in mix and water, stir.
“She didn’t speak easily. Every time she told her story, she couldn’t come home afterwards. Instead, no matter the season, she’d ask me to take her to Atwater Park and she’d sit for hours just watching the birds skim the lake for their meals. It was like she had to find comfort in a place where people didn’t lay down the rules.”
On a steaming cup, I warm hands that have bathed this daughter of mine, fed her with a spoon. Comforted her after so many vaccinations where she couldn’t bear the sight of any needle and cried out for rescue…
I pull away from such memories. We’re talking about my mother now, not my daughter. How these hands of mine never could do enough for my mother.
I hand Caren the mug and take a seat. As I drop one shaking hand to my lap so my daughter won’t see, I offer, “Your grandfather and me, we could do little for your Nana on those days. We felt so helpless. What she suffered reliving it all—how alone she must’ve felt—every time.”
“Mama,” Caren says softly and I’m startled. How many years has it been since she’s called me by this name?
“Can you—can you even understand what I’m saying?” I manage. “After her talks, I had to watch her struggle with those—same stories. She’d suffer for hours and I couldn’t do or say anything to help.”
“Why would you feel you—?”
“No one even bothered to ask us! But we worried about how much she could handle! We worried all the time!” I cry out, surprising myself with the noise. ”Sure, never again, but for who’s sake? For her, or everyone else? You tattooed yourself voluntarily, Caren. Nana never had that choice! Can’t you realize it hurts to see—?”
Now my daughter is crying. What have I said to make her cry?
“Mama, I’m sorry. I didn’t even think—I thought you would be glad.”
“Glad? How could—?”
”It’s just—I remember Nana dressing up for those talks, too.” She bites on her lip to punctuate. “How you brought her to our house so she could have her hair combed out. And she’d sit in your bedroom as the hairdresser worked, and show me the brooch she smuggled out of Germany after the war. Those three pearls set in a flower design? That pin was all she had left of her mother, she said. One day, the brooch would be mine so I should know how important it was.”
Caren takes a breath, gulps the air.
“I can remember you there too, Mom. You both seemed so happy chatting about the day ahead, when you’d drop her off and pick her up. So I thought this would be another way we could—I just assumed.”
As my daughter hands over yet another surprise, I admit, “Well, yes. I remember now.”
Still, it’s a shock to realize such memories fill my child’s heart. How her understanding of the Holocaust has been buffered by loving promises and dressing up, in such contrast to my dread.
“I haven’t—I haven’t thought of that brooch in how long. You’re right. It was your Nana’s most precious keepsake. All she went through to hide it after her mother died—”
“Do we still—?”
“Of course,” I assure her. “It’s in our safety deposit box at the bank. She wanted you to have it after I’m gone. So how could I risk it getting lost or damaged—?”
And yet since my mother’s death, haven’t I locked away this same brooch in the vault, in the dark? So no one can possibly see it and wonder about my mother’s incredible bravery?
Or hear any of the stories my daughter’s so eager to pass on with her tattoo?
I shift slightly in my chair.
“I guess there’s no right way with any of this,” I say.
I lean over and gently cradle her left hand in mine. Now the familiar numbers are once again near. Yet they suggest no more than they always did.
They are the hateful brown bugs scurrying into the vents whenever they sense I’m around. Those eyelash bugs that can survive scalding water by sliding down the drain. As a child, I was never fast enough to catch them.
“Was there pain?”
“Some swelling afterward,” Caren admits. Then, as she notices my flinch, “There’s nothing bad now.”
I nod and lean in. This time, I will surround the centipede so it can never again escape through any vent or drain. The long, brown bug on Caren’s arm swirls into the shape of a question mark as I come close. It tries to dart away, hide, but this time it won’t. And surprise.
What’s grotesque is also lovely—I can taste both where I kiss.