Thursday, January 8, 2009
I can still see you saying it, Mama, hurrying to get it over with, hoping they didn’t hear too clearly. They never did. You knew they wouldn’t; you made sure they wouldn’t. Sometimes it came out different, your ear searching for the right sound: “Zimmerman,” you would say, or “Sellman,” or “Simmon.” I liked that one best. It made me smell hot cinnamon toast and taste the sweet persimmons from our yard.
I can still hear your eyes, Mama. Looking outward, seeing inward, they were the frightened eyes of a doe fleeing the hunter. But you were quick, you’d glance down, and they never saw. You always made sure they never saw.
But I did.
I saw and I heard, and I wondered why you were afraid, why you were so reluctant to reveal your maiden name. It seemed a fine name to me, a perfectly fine Jewish name. I liked the sound it made inside my head: Silberman. Bells chimed when I thought of that name. On our solitary visit to Pennsylvania when I was fourteen, when the telephone rang in your brother’s house and Uncle Jack who was really Jacob answered it with a cheery “Dr. Silberman,” I could hear in his voice a torrent of bells.
You told me never to say it to anyone, and you gave me other orders, too. “If someone wants to know what you are, say German,” you told me. “And never say Uncle Sol, call him Uncle Paul,” you said. Though I didn’t understand, the look in your eyes told me not to question, and I obeyed. Later, when I had heard of Auschwitz and Buchenwald and Dachau, I realized that you had private horrors and unspoken fears of your own. What happened, Mama? Did you plan to tell me someday? Was I too young? If you were waiting, you waited too long.
The cancers entered your body, crowding your life away, and as they advanced you receded. From a hundred and eight pounds at peak health, you were less than seventy at the end. I was sixteen years old when you died all those Octobers ago, all those eons ago.
Three eons after you were gone, I heard a pianist play something by Debussy at a recital at the university, a piece called La Cathedrale Engloutie, and in the swelling chords, the rising waters, I recognized the choking cancers growing also until, like the cathedral in the legend, you too were engulfed.
In the months and years before, in the dust and heat of the dry Texas sun, far from your early Philadelphia years, you were afraid. You were Jewish and afraid. But not me. I was a Methodist. Every week you sent me with the neighbors into town to attend Sunday School, and no one ever knew that you were Jewish, that I was half Jewish. It was our secret. Yours and mine and his.
I was twelve when I overheard the two of you arguing in whispers about a picture in a locket, a picture I never saw because he tore it to pieces that day. I knew then that he wasn’t my father at all. But you never knew I knew. It was our secret from each other. “Leave him alone,” you would cry whenever he hit me, “he never asked to be born.” All three of us had understood the message of your cry. When he began to try to tell me, after you were buried, all the color drained from his face when I said calmly that I had known for four years. He never touched me again. Eight months later he married a widow with four teenage children and life, as some people say, went on.
You had me, Mama, you loved me, and you kept me. And I know now that you were only trying to protect me, to spare me some of the hate in the world. You shouldn’t have been so afraid, Mama. Jesus said that we would know the truth and the truth would make us free. I read in a book that Louis XVI once asked Blaise Pascal to name one proof of the existence of God and Pascal answered, “The Jew, Your Majesty, the Jew.” You didn’t have to be afraid, Mama. Oh, they try to destroy us. The pharaohs tried, the Romans tried, the Inquisitors tried, Hitler tried, the Arabs are still trying today, but no one will ever destroy the Jew.
Once I came home from Sunday School, Mama, and asked you whether the Jews crucified Christ. Turning slowly toward me, your eyes widening, you said, “We were taught it was the Roman soldiers.” I know now it was neither Jew nor Roman soldier. It was all of us, Mama. All mankind in every century nailed Him to the cross, and He died for the sins of the whole world. You tried to take away my Jewishness, Mama, but my Messiah has come. Don’t you see, Mama? I wasn’t converted. Only Gentiles, goyim, are converted. I was completed. “Christ, our Passover, is sacrificed for us,” wrote Saul of Tarsus, a Jew. The exodus from fear can finally begin.
After the second funeral, I wrote to Aunt Miriam in Pennsylvania to learn more about my real father. “Ruth met him in New York,” she wrote. “He was a musician, a French-Canadian. He joined the Army and disappeared. We think he went to Panama when the war came. “What’s important, Billy, is not what he was, but what you are.”
You had two secrets, Mama--at least two. Awful secrets, as cancerous to your soul as the disease that wracked your flesh. How many more secrets there were I’ll never know.
Persimmons and eons, Mama. Cinnamon, persimmons, and eons. I love you, Mama, across the eons. “Dust thou art,” says the Bible, the Torah, “and unto dust shalt thou return.” Not you, Mama, not you. You’ll never be dust. You’re a Madonna in a cathedral. An emaciated Madonna in an engulfed, eternal cathedral. Even now, I can hear the bells chiming.