We chase the sunset all the way home from my grandmother’s funeral. On the plane I close my eyes and can feel her bony fingers tighten around mine. Hers was a desperate love. When she kissed you she did it ten times, when she held your hand she wouldn’t let it go. Even as a child it was hard to mistake the fear behind her gaze. To me she was a true survivor. She endured the Holocaust. An unhappy marriage. The deaths of two of her children. Nearly blind, deaf and immobile at 101, she continued to deny that death was coming; it was the specter she had been running from her entire life.
Her hometown of Bender, in a region then called Bessarabia (now Moldova), had come under rule of the Romanian Kingdom before she was born. It was a harsh environment and many of the Jews - who made up 30% of the population - prayed for the arrival of the Soviets, who they expected would free them from the suspicion of leftist hating Romanians. When the Soviets did come in 1940, things became much worse. Now the Jews, many who considered Marx an ally, were viewed as elites and worse by the Bolsheviks, who took their homes, slaughtered or banished thousands to Siberia. My grandmother’s family was already scattered, some alive some dead, by the time the Germans arrived in 1942. She was marched to Poland and endured years in a work camp until she escaped. A vivacious, dark haired beauty with a gift for languages, the story supposes that she learned enough Polish to fool the soldiers on the train who paid her too much attention. She made it to Italy.
The photos from Italy do not show a woman consumed with survival. Tanned and smiling, strolling on a dirt lane through vineyards. Skiing in the Dolomites, flanked by two men. Staring beseechingly into the camera, best friend Graciosa by her side. Snapshots of a moment in time. No matter how beautiful her life seemed in that country, there was a nagging inside of her to leave. Get to America. Maybe her nightmares wouldn’t follow her there.
So much I don’t know. So many stories lost to the deep folds of her mind, clamped tightly shut by the time I showed up. But tonight with its orange sun forever setting outside my window, I see the matrilineal line connecting us as the lightly spun silk all of our lives are built upon. I was her daughter just as much as I was my mother’s. The egg that would someday become me was formed inside my mother’s body before she was born; it was my grandmother’s body who created it.
I wonder what truths that microscopic egg knew inside of that body. Did it know the depths of her fear? Did it allow particles of that fear to embed into my being, so that today they float freely in my bloodstream and cheer when my palms get sweaty and my heart races? Alongside the shudder of constantly looming death, could those cells have also implanted me with a deep knowledge of strength, an assurance that there is nothing to be scared of, that we won’t die on this plane or in that work camp, that in fact we will live to be 101 years old, surrounded by loved ones always. Those cells know the whole story, but they can’t help us in our choice between fear and freedom. My grandmother made her choice, and now it is my turn.