Updated: Sep 11, 2019
(I wrote this short story many years ago... a bit of G's background, one of the main characters from my YA book "If Only...")
I watched her as she took on another world. Her façade maintained its same elegant beauty. Her face poised, with no make up. She used to wear makeup, just a little, for color. Her hair never dyed, remained black with natural streaks of gray. Those streaks once glistened. Now they were dull. Her long fingers, which my father so admired, laid gracefully on each side. She always carried herself well and always had an air about her, which I attributed to her sophistication and European origin. Now I stood by while her insides were uncontrollably disintegrating. Her body that once functioned normally, now took on a rhythm all its own. Her interior design was becoming unrecognizable – a conglomerate of pain, bleeding, incisions, sores… one medical procedure after another performed, all with the hope of recovery.
My mother even looked stately lying in that hospital bed, in the intensive care unit for six months – no reprieve. There was only a moment here and there of relief, if one can call it that. She was attached to various apparatus surrounding her bed, dependent on nurses and doctors for every need… My father and I spent endless hours at her bedside, trying to make her comfortable in the simplest way. Putting a damp washcloth on her forehead or putting a few ice chips in her mouth gave my mother a few moments of pleasure. I truly believe it was pleasurable for her. Everything is relative.
My father and I took breaks. Never really hungry enough to sit down and eat an entire meal, we frequented the main floor hospital coffee shop. My father religiously had his decaf and I, my almond flavored coffee, both accompanied by scones. Whenever I smell almond coffee to this day, it reminds me of that coffee shop on the main floor of the hospital. It could be a whiff from afar, but my body still cringes. Scones at that time, were a great substitute for a quick bite, but now, just the thought of one clutters up my throat.
After one of those sessions in the hospital coffee shop, I walked into my mother's hospital room, capturing a moment of "relief." She had been maneuvered off the bed into a sitting position on a chair, wearing her reading glasses with a Newsweek in her hand. There was a moment of hope in that picture, in that memory.
It was inconceivable that only six months ago, my mother and I were planning my father's eightieth birthday party. My mother and I weren't sticklers for details, but an elegant dinner still needed a bit of attention and preparation. Snapping fingers only works in the movies. Oh how often I wished Mary Poppin's magical fingers would find their way into mine.
We discovered an Italian restaurant, "Don Giovanni" located on Second Avenue between 74th and 75h St, on the East Side of the street, located between a boutique flower shop and funky shoe store. The restaurant was perfect for the occasion. It had a separate room, allowing for privacy. We were inviting only dearest friends and family – no extras. We always believed minimal is quality. My mother and I always agreed on such affairs. Actually, we rarely disagreed. Ours was a copacetic relationship. I guess being an only child had much to do with that. She was not only my mother, she was my friend.
The room was just right for thirty endearing guests. In fact we would all sit at one long table covered by an embroidered white table cloth with two magnificent Baroque chandeliers aligned just above. The yellow light would create a warm, cozy atmosphere, just as we had planned. There would be three vases on the table and set inside each one of them would be carefully positioned beautiful purple Irises. I love Irises, standing erect, alone in a vase without any elaborate arrangements – without additional greens. I never cared for those elaborate concoctions. They take away from the beauty of the flower. I like each flower for its simplicity, unimposed by others.
And so it was. My mother and I selected the menu without much deliberation. We entrusted the wine selection to my connoisseur husband. Within a few days we were all set for the grand event. There is one more point that attracted me to the room in "Don Giovanni." There was an attached intimate area with a bar, where our guests could have a drink, schmooz with one another, and lounge about on a creamy beige Italian sofa and mauve upholstered armchairs, all finished with an ornate wooden frame, until dinner was served.
My father is a man of fine character. He isn't one for fuss and attention, but attention was due to him (and my mother and I intended to make this birthday a very special one). As we sat around the dinner table, each of us sitting on a unique chair of its own character, so we began each and every one of us in our own unique way to say a little something, unprepared, about my father. My husband made this suggestion as we all sat down to share our meal. He knows I'm not one for showing video clips or writing funny speeches and so his suggestion was welcomed with open arms. It was an intimate evening amongst closest friends and family. Everyone made a toast with a story or two. I played the piano performing my father's favorite Yiddish song and of course his favorite Chopin Mazurkas. The piano is my source of strength. That's my way of making impressive speeches and sharp witted toasts.
There was an aura of overwhelming nostalgia at the dinner party. The compliments my father received were all of the highest caliber. The stories told from a world unknown. My father was embarrassed and as any modest man would do, he attempted unsuccessfully to change the subject away from himself with an anecdote here and there. Of course my father's stories always had a message, a moral to relay. My father is a scholarly man and also sociably adept. He honors education, knowledge and decency from deep within his soul. To be educated, knowledgeable and a "mensch" (of decent character) means the world to him.
Nostalgia embraced the room along with laughter and tears. Except for my husband and I and our three children, all that came so lovingly to my father's party were all Holocaust survivors. They survived with a positive energy of the infinite kind. I have tried many a time to put myself in their position, but thinking and actually experiencing are worlds apart. They survived, they look back, they grieve, but they do not consume themselves with anguish and depression. They learned to balance the past and the present, so that their children, so that I could live a healthy life. But the past always hovers over us, the survivors and their next generation.
As I sat at the table, at the dinner party, I felt the world of long ago creep into the room, in "Don Giovnanni" on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. This family, these friends all had a history, a pre-holocaust and holocaust history that forever remains with them – even, and especially at a present day eightieth birthday party in New York City.
It was only six months ago, that my mother and I engaged in party planning. It was a brisk autumn day, our favorite. Together we breathed in the autumn air and together we admired the autumn leaves that had just fallen to the ground. We walked side by side and arm in arm, to the restaurant on Second Avenue between 74th and 75th Streets to make arrangements for my father's eightieth birthday. Today, my mother is no longer with us. And so, there is one less person from my father's dinner party to pass on her experience from a world unknown.