MY MOTHER Chaichie (Ida) and my Aunt Bunchie (Bertha) came to the United States alone. Before they left Poland, my grandmother asked if they wouldn't at least sit down and eat an egg, but they were anxious to leave and had no time. When they got to New York they searched the streets for gold. Once, my mother said, they found a dime.
Aunt Bertha had been apprenticed to a tailor in Yanov, Poland. She knew how to earn money and how to be tough. My mother never knew how to earn money, but she could read. She loved literature and wrote poetry. Aunt Bertha found work in the sweatshops, and my mother tagged along. My aunt sewed for two, and my mother carried half the dresses to the supervisor pretending she had sewn them.
For a long time after they came here, they were very poor. They ate at Drake's Cafeteria downtown, where you could get unlimited rolls if you bought a nickel cup of coffee. My mother put ketchup in a cup of free hot water to make tomato soup. Once they went to borrow $25 from a distant millionaire relative, but he refused. As a child, when I heard the story, I imagined them looking at the floor as they asked. Aunt Bunchie was very big: big bosoms, big hips, big cheekbones. Her girdle was heavy with bones -- those enamel-covered metal struts that seemed to me like ancient Roman armor. My mother was very small: everything flat and petite, size 5 1/2 shoes. When they walked through the streets, my aunt walked ahead by half a block to break the waves.
Channele, I will tell you all their stories, and then you will have something to tell your own children. I will send them to you, for your birthday, your 25th. Years -- even generations -- seem to have run by like water. Now, at 56, I can see my grandmother's life, my mother's and Bertha's, mine and yours in one continuous rhythm. Now you are young, in the full swing of your life, and I am as old as they were when I thought we would all be the same forever.
Immigration and the Holocaust wiped out our history. Most of the story is unknown to me, a lost story about losses. Its absence makes me feel somehow insubstantial: as though the many apartments we lived in -- somehow always the same -- were more real than the people who lived in them; the new and different streets (Brooklyn, the Bronx, Manhattan) an opportunity to forget everything that went before. As though there was never any past, and for that reason, no present.
Don't you want to go back to Yanov? I used to ask.
It's not there anymore; there's nothing left, my mother used to say.
Not even to see? I clung to its presence, its colors. In my childhood everything seemed suspended in time like parallelograms of sunlight trembling on the wall; luminous, filled with hope and emptiness.
Of course I never saw Yanov. There, her Polish name was Bunia, and she was apprenticed to the tailor at age 9. She was too hard to manage, my grandmother Payie complained, although what Bertha did I don't know. She ran with boys, my mother said; they must have been Jewish boys, with yarmulkes and payes, hanging out in the town square in the few moments when they were not studying, bored and secretly looking for girls. Once they went up to the straw roof to make out. Bertha was there. It was a scandal.
At the tailor's she sewed wedding dresses; that's all I know. Somewhere in a drawer is an exquisite dress, still all in pieces, that she made for my mother in the Polish style: rows and rows of parallel stitches with strong black thread shaping the wool-like sculpture. Nobody sews like that anymore. In my dresser is a small pile of beige flowers cross-stitched into a long strip of netting -- borders for the pillowcases in her trousseau. But Bertha didn't marry until very late, and then there was no longer any question of hand-made pillowcases . . .
Perhaps she waited so long because she believed her job in life was to stand guard over my mother and me; perhaps it was the losses of poverty, her childhood in Poland or the war. After her death, I found postcards from Poland, first from Yanov, then from Birkenau written by a man named Yakob Silberberg in beautiful brown ink, the cardboard edges frail with age.
"I am here in a new place . . . a lager. My number is . . ."
Who he was, I don't know.
Fay Lande is a Baltimore writer.