These are the words of Lisa, one of the characters in my new novel, Growing With My Cousin, which should be released this winter. She says them at her dinner table to her husband in Israel after telling him that her grandmother had just died in America. I no longer have a living grandmother and no one has just died but I totally understand Lisa’s emotions.
Yesterday morning I awoke to the news that my ninety-nine-year-old cousin, Anne Marie, is in ICU in Stillwater, Oklahoma, ill with pneumonia. Her daughter Judy, my childhood playmate and teenage confidante, is undergoing rugged chemo therapy and barred from visiting her. Among those trying to fill the gap is Anna Maria, who grew up across the road from Anne Marie.
The youngest of six, Anna Maria’s parents weren’t sure what name to pick for their daughter when she was born. Legend has it that Theo, Anne Marie’s husband and my father’s first cousin, suggested they name their daughter after his wife and so they did. For me, that story sums up so much about Anne Marie and her life. Born in Nuremberg to an upper middle-class family the first fifteen years of her life were most likely carefree. And then Hitler came to power. Somehow Anne Marie was able to flee to London and became a governess to Boris Pasternak’s nephews and nieces. Her younger brother was sent out of Germany on the kinder transport. Her parents perished in the Shoah.
All of these details are sketchy in my mind because Anne Marie, usually a positive person, never wanted to talk about the war years. I have a strong memory from back when I was fifteen. I’d been learning German in high school for several months and sang a song for Anne Marie which we’d learned in class.
“That’s what they play when a boat leaves Germany,” she told me in her lilting voice with her strong accent.
“Did they play it when you left?” I’d asked with the chutzpah of the young.
There was a deafening silence following my question. Judy and her younger brother looked at their mother, waiting for her reaction. As she responded in the negative I knew I’d made a blunder.
Many years later, after I was an adult and already living in Israel, she did begin to speak of the darker memories of her past. Ten years ago Anna Maria’s friend, Edward L. Harris, interviewed Anne Marie and wrote a short novella, From Kristallnacht to Stillwater, about her life.
Although I don’t remember her ever speaking about the Nazi years she was full of interesting stories of her childhood, her time as a governess, and how she came to live in Oklahoma. She’d met Theo at a relative’s apartment in New York City. There was a six week courtship and then she took the train to Stillwater, Oklahoma to see where he lived. What a contrast to her previous life.
Theo lived with his mother in a two-story farmhouse out in the country. There was one bathroom and an outhouse. On the porch off the kitchen was a hand wringer washing machine. The number of Jews in the small college town were minimal and almost all were related to Theo. He spent his days running his dairy and working in the men’s department of his uncle’s store.
Perhaps the contrast to her former life intrigued her. Maybe Theo had swept her off her feet. Whatever the reason, Anne Marie decided to stay and she and Theo married in 1950, the same year as my parents. Three years later Judy and I were born and we grew up friends. By the time I was five or six I began spending a week or two every summer at Anne Marie’s farmhouse.
I never saw the hand wringer machine there. Judy told me her mother had gotten rid of it immediately after her wedding. Once a week she took their washing to a nearby laundry and picked it up a day or two later.
I always called her Annamie. I don’t know if that’s because I couldn’t pronounce her real name or if that’s what everyone called her when I was little. Now, though, I think I’m the only one to do so.
Every summer morning when I‘d come down the steep stairs of her farmhouse she’d invariably be in the sunny kitchen either fixing a good farm breakfast or boiling the milk that would be sold to the customers who would stop by in the course of the day. She’d introduce me to those customers as her niece and explain to me that was easier than telling them that I was her second (or third, depending on how one counted it) cousin. And I certainly felt as close to her as if she were my aunt.
Her English was excellent and she forged a warm relationship with Anna Maria’s mother. Annabelle, a multi-generation American and a religious Baptist, had a background totally different that Annamie’s but that didn’t keep them from finding things they had in common. I think Annamie was able to do that with almost everyone. As I grew older and understood life a bit more, it amazed me how she was willing to host even German exchange college students in her home.
Her ability to love other children besides her own extended far beyond me and Anna Maria and her siblings. The biggest recipients were probably her grandchildren who spent a good part of their childhood in her home. Now all grown up she delights in their children.
We saw her reach her ninetieth birthday with her health and memory intact. Sometime afterwards, though, her recall began going. She was given medication but it brought nightmares of her Nazi memories and she stopped taking the pills.
Living so far away I didn’t visit often but was pleased when she remembered me six years earlier. Three months ago I finally made a return visit. Annamie no longer remembered me or another cousin who’d come at the same time. It felt bad but I reminded my other cousin that we still remembered her and all her sweetness.
Now all that sweetness is in ICU and I pray she’s not suffering. If I was living in America I’d find a way to fly to Oklahoma and help out at the hospital. But I’m not in America. I’m in the Jewish homeland miles and miles from Stillwater.
In my novel Lisa’s husband, a native Israeli, tries to be understanding.
“I remember how I felt when I was in America.” He looked sympathetic. “Are you sorry we came here?”
She shook her head.
I have to agree with Lisa. I’m not sorry I came to live in Israel, not at all. And yet, sometimes it’s hard to be so far away.
|Anne Marie and Theo, summer 1977|