Dana Kobernick lives in Montreal, Canada, and is a writer and communications specialist working at Lower Canada College. She has had several creative non-fiction pieces published in the Montreal Gazette and recently completed her first novel, The Prague Crystal, for which she is currently seeking representation. She enjoys musical theatre, Sunday morning yoga and kicking around with her nieces and nephews.
Take a look at Dana’s video about the gesture that inspired her book. And read her blog posts about the joys and challenges of the writing process.
The Sweetness of Pears
Inspired by a true story
It was the last birthday I would celebrate for many years. But it was also the most memorable. My mother had asked me what I wanted and, while ashamed of my greed, I told her I wished for a pear. She gave me three and I was embarrassed by her extravagance. I savoured those succulent juices, allowing them to drip slowly down my chin and neck and onto my cotton dress. I didn’t mind, because even long after the pears were gone, I could still smell the sweet syrup and feel the stickiness on my skin. For me, food of any kind was a great luxury, scarce as it was for us in 1953 Israel. I suppose my gift was from my father as well, but he was too preoccupied with the preparations for his journey to Canada to be bothered with the trivial yearnings of a six-year-old.
My name is Lucija, but everyone calls me Lucy. Except my grandfather. He called me by my Hebrew name, Chaya. “Chayale”, he would say, digging deep into his pants pocket, a mischievous glint in his eye as if offering me a forbidden pleasure, “have a lemon drop.” I adored my grandfather and the faint scents of lemon and tobacco that permeated his clothes. My father, on the other hand, remained a great mystery to me, one which would never be revealed, because as I stood clinging to my mother’s hand that day at the port in Tel Aviv, I did not know that it would be the last time that I would ever see him. When he limply embraced me and patted me on the head with no more affection than a mere acquaintance, I recoiled instinctively seeking refuge behind my mother’s skirt.
My mother. At six years old, I was not yet appreciative of her enormity. Not in physical stature, mind you. She was a small woman who appeared weak when, in reality, she had withstood ineffable tragedy and fought back. With a vengeance. And she was not yet thirty. To me, she was simply my mother, the one immutable factor in a life that, for many years, would be fraught with uncertainty and turmoil. So as we stood together on that day waving to my father as he left to make a new life for us in Canada, I looked to my mother for cues on how to behave. She appeared vacant, devoid of the emotion you might expect from a young woman saying goodbye to her husband. Perhaps there was a hint of sadness in her eyes, but I can’t be sure. I mimicked her expression but what I was truly feeling was indifference.
My mother’s stories are sad stories, but not all are known to me. She was born in Shedlitz, Poland, in 1925, and was the third to youngest child in an ultra-orthodox Jewish family of eleven children, two of whom died in infancy. As a family they knew happiness and love as intimately as they knew poverty. My grandparents were united in love, rejecting the arranged marriages of convenience where a man and woman were joined through a shiduch, perhaps meeting for the first time on their wedding day. But my grandmother, Sarah, paid dearly for her love story.
At the age of sixteen, my grandmother would gaze at the young and awkward scholar, Alexander, who arrived daily at her house to teach her brother the Talmud. My great-grandfather, one of the few Jewish landowners, owned a large dairy farm, and those days were filled with abundance. But my grandmother was forced to nourish her love for Alexander wordlessly, for any spoken communication between them would have been improper. It was a mutual love, but my grandfather would acknowledge my grandmother only with an impertinent nod when arriving or departing. Still, there was an irrefutable, unrelenting passion to which they would ultimately give in.
Asking my great-grandfather for Sarah’s hand in marriage was a convention that Alexander respected, but was intimidated by his wealth and stature. Diffident as he approached him, he said, “If I may have a moment of your time—” My great-grandfather was sitting alone in the front room and although not engaged in any particular activity, he was annoyed by the intrusion.
“What is it? Have I forgotten to pay you for this week’s session?”
“Sir? No, of course not.” He sat down on the edge of the settee, though he had not been invited. “Your daughter, Sarah, sir. I am very fond of her and I was hoping that you would allow me, that you would grant me, well, I would like to ask for your blessing. I would like to marry your daughter.” In fact, my great-grandfather had already sensed the burgeoning romance between Sarah and Alexander, seen the silent exchanges, and he did not approve.
My great-grandfather scoffed. “Alexander, you are a poor scholar. You will not be able to provide my daughter with all that she is accustomed to, all that she deserves.” And that was that. He turned his head toward the window, done with the discussion, and did not watch as my grandfather rose, dejected, and walked from the room. Nor did he see my grandmother trail behind him and out of the door, for good.
After they were married my grandmother tried to reconcile with her parents but her father remained steadfast and unforgiving. My grandmother sobbed every day for months after that, feeling the loss of her family as a chronic ache, a grief that coursed through her veins. She was inconsolable and my grandfather regretted their impulsiveness, though he did not share this with her. She was, after all, just a child. He was several years her senior and should have known better. Her feelings of despair waned, eventually, coinciding with her announcement that they would be having their first child. And so, she turned her attention to her husband and to her own expanding family.
On occasion, packages of food or envelopes of money were delivered to my grandparents’ home. When they did, my grandmother would cling to them, smell them, brush her hand over the hand-written address and, finally, open them. But the contents were insignificant, even if it meant that the family would have bread for the week. These small gestures came from her sister whom she had not seen since marrying Alexander. She missed her. And she missed her parents.
“I must go see my sister,” she announced to my grandfather one morning.
“All because of a dream? Sarah, you’re mad. Please, the children need you here. I need you here. Don’t be foolish.” My grandfather was adamant. But so was my grandmother.
“It was so real. My sister came to me in my sleep, pinched me and said, ‘Sarah, you know that I’m dying. You must come see me.’ And look,” she said, raising the sleeve of her nightgown, “a bruise on my arm from where she pinched me!”
“Nonsense,” he grunted.
My grandmother ignored his derision, but her resolve would go unrewarded. She arrived at her sister’s home just one day after she succumbed to a lung infection. The reunion with her father was quiet, unceremonious. His embrace was stiff, at first, but slowly, she could feel his arms melt around her. He buried his face in her neck, muffling his sobs, as he gave in to the sorrow of one daughter lost and the joy of another found.
When my grandparents moved from Shedlitz to Warsaw, they had nine children in tow, ranging in age from newborn to 22 years, and they made their home in a one-room, poorly insulated apartment. For my mother, the ice that coated the inside of the windows during winter was not a sign of abject living conditions, it was a blank canvas on which she would etch her drawings. For her, the one room that was their home was not crowded or cramped, it was a place replete with love, affection and warmth.
The paltry income my grandfather received for teaching the Talmud would have left the family completely destitute. It was his additional earnings as a house painter, which boosted the family to its level of impoverishment. But as the Jew house painter, he was often at the mercy of his customers who may or may not be inclined to pay him for his services. There were no laws to protect him, no recourse to pursue.
That he was a devout Zionist, drawn to what was then Palestine, was the reason my grandfather gave to his wife and nine children as to why they would be leaving their home to emigrate. This was not untrue, but there was more to his wanting to make aliyah. His planned pilgrimage was also based on an ever-growing fear that the plight of the Jews in Poland, up until then, was merely foreshadowing an insidious campaign that would be conducted against them. At the time, Poland had a larger Jewish population than any other European country, but as the anti-Semitic undercurrents began to surface my grandfather sensed that catastrophe was on its way.
“Sarah,” he said. “We will go to Palestine, but we cannot afford to bring all the children. We will go first, with the eldest two because they can work and help us to save money. And of course we will take the baby. We will send for the others later.” To my grandmother, this was unfathomable, incomprehensible, irrational.
“You can’t be serious,” she protested. “I cannot, I will not leave my children! They need their mother.”
“We will go.”
A brutal fate, the details of which remain sketchy, awaited four of the six children who remained in Poland. Here is what we know. My mother’s sister, Leah, at 21 years old and on a train bound for certain death, leapt from the rail car in desperation and was shot. Her 20-year-old sister, Dina, met her death in the gas chamber of a concentration camp. Thirteen-year-old, Sonny, my mother’s favourite, was taken in by a Christian family who had known my grandfather very well. They promised to care for him and he spent five years safely hidden in their basement. Her brother, Isaak, had joined the Partisans, fighters in a military group. When he returned for Sonny, they were both discovered by the Germans and, along with the head of the family who had been caring for Sonny, were executed.
Good fortune, meager as it was, was with my mother and my aunt, and by consequence, with me as well. Why my mother and her sister were the ones to receive their Visas just two weeks before the Germans marched into Poland is a question that I don’t contemplate. I am simply grateful that they did, because clearly I would otherwise not be here, and the story I am recounting to you would not have been.
At 11 years old, when my mother, Judith, arrived in Palestine, she longed for the familiarity of her home. She did not yet know what had become of her siblings and she was a stranger, even among her parents and her other sisters and brother, whom she had not seen for five years. She did not know them, and they did not know her. She could appreciate the beauty of the sea from afar, but she was intimidated by its vastness and afraid that somehow it would sweep her out into the dark nothingness that lay beyond its shores. My mother could not identify the fruit on the trees, the language spoken around her, or the food on her dinner plate. She could only recognize Esther, the sister who had journeyed with her, and who, like my mother, felt constant discomfort and unease.
“Don’t play with your food, Judith,” my grandmother would say to my mother, unable to tolerate any type of disrespect for the little food that they had. My mother would exchange glances with Esther who was also inspecting what was before her. “It’s eggplant. It’s delicious.” My mother hated to be scolded and would quickly redirect the conversation.
“When will we be going to school?” she asked. It was odd that my grandfather had not mentioned anything of school to my mother and her sister.
“I am sorry, Judith, you cannot go to school. You will have to work. We need the money to bring over the other four who remain in Poland. You understand, don’t you?” he asked, though it was more of a statement than a question. That this would be a futile effort, was not yet known to them. And so off she went, to the drudgery of an assembly line that made chain links.
On my mother’s first day of work, her co-worker, Anna, greeted her, but my mother understood nothing of what she said.
“I don’t speak Hebrew,” my mother said.
“You speak Yiddish!” Anna said, shifting from Hebrew to Yiddish. My mother’s eyes widened. The only companionship she had enjoyed since arriving in Palestine was with her sister, and so she immediately became enamored with her new friend.
Like Judith, Anna had to work. Her parents needed her measly wages to help support the family.
Sunday, she told my mother one day as they were working side by side, was her favourite day.
“What happens on Sunday?” my mother asked.
“Sunday is when I meet my friends from the Haganah. That’s how I learned how to speak Hebrew. From them. And sometimes one of them comes to my apartment to teach me how to read. Or write. I’m still not very good, you know. But I’m getting better.”
“What’s the Haganah?”
“You have to come to a meeting.”
The Haganah, my mother would soon find out, was the underground military organization whose members numbered in the tens of thousands. During the War, the highly trained members guarded the Jewish settlements, and the most daring would parachute into Nazi Europe to organize Jewish resistance and rescue.
“You do that?” my mother asked, incredulous.
“Well, no. I’m more involved in publicity.”
“Publicity,” my mother laughed. “What are you publicizing?”
“It’s not fair that Jews aren’t being allowed in. There are quotas. Only a certain number each year. So we have to expose the injustice.” Anna’s response was banal when compared with the reality. In fact, a deadly chaos had overtaken Europe and refuge was not easily found. Compassion from the British for Jewish victims of Nazism was in short supply and they made it a priority to thwart illegals from trying to gain entry to Palestine. A convoy of destroyers and squadrons of planes maintained a constant posture of readiness along the shores of Palestine prepared to intercept any illegal ships should they dare to approach.
My mother felt an affinity toward Anna. She joined her at some of her Haganah meetings and, for the first time, felt a true sense of belonging and purpose. Anna had been a part of the Haganah for over a year and, at their meetings, she would single-handedly declare war on the British occupation. My mother was not really sure at that point how she, or anyone for that matter, could take on the Brits, but Anna had an aura about her and anyone in her presence would feel empowered, as if anything was possible.
Anna’s infectious fervor extended far beyond the missions of the militant teenagers with whom she conspired. “She was a fiery one,” my mother once told me, a hint of sadness in her voice, “ready to challenge any wrongdoing. She and I used to hang out on the street in front of our house all the time, and our neighbour’s dog would whimper and scratch at the front door all day long. Poor thing was practically starving to death. No one thought to feed him, except for a table scrap here and there. ‘What’s the matter with people?’ she would ask, without expecting an answer. Anna started to bring the dog something from her dinner every night, and each time that she put the tiny offering in front of him, it was devoured within seconds, and she would grumble something about how we’d all be much better off if dogs ruled the world. I laughed when Anna said that, but she was never more serious.”
While her oldest sister cavorted with anyone male, my mother took up the cause of the desperate Jew trying frantically to find sanctuary. Lying in bed one night, my mother stared at the ceiling waiting until a palpable quiet came over the house. She tossed off the covers and sat up, fully dressed, the bedsprings squeaking. She and her sisters shared one of the two bedrooms, but no one stirred, and my mother crept from the house.
Anna was waiting for her outside and the two fell into a purposeful gait. On that night, neither one paid any mind to the risks. Peril was inherent in all of the assignments but so was excitement. To be on a mission, late at night, all in the pursuit of a noble cause, was thrilling. The task that night, compared with other Haganah ventures, was simple: plaster the posters denouncing the British blockades on every lamppost, street sign and storefront, so that the next morning Jaffa residents would awaken to a sea of British denigration.
“Hi,” my mother whispered. Both she and Anna became instantly focused, as always, on what it was they had to do. Anna unzipped her jacket and produced a stack of paper. She held up a poster proudly so that my mother could read the text. My mother silently signaled her approval but had no idea what the poster said. Although she had Anna to thank for helping her to learn the language, she still could not read or write.
“That’s going to be our undoing,” Anna said, pointing to the luminous moon. It did appear as if someone had flipped on the light switch, but Anna wasn’t rattled in the least. Not by the moon and not by the faint sound of footsteps behind them which became increasingly louder and hurried. Anna and my mother did not look back and felt no need to pick up the pace. The two boys now fell in step with Anna and my mother. David and Gil. As they continued toward the centre of town, no words passed between the four teens.
Anna distributed the posters amongst the four of them and they fanned out. While my mother adhered her posters to the street lamps, Anna tackled the front doors of stores. David and Gil moved up the street about a block or so to do the same. And then, again footsteps were heard, footsteps which were not those of David or Gil. Anna frowned, scanning the area for the source.
“Hey!” Anna and my mother could see the distant silhouettes of two figures approaching, slowly at first, but then picking up their pace. “Hey, you girls! Come here!” Up ahead, David and Gil took off. Anna and my mother looked at each other and then dashed, sprinting at a distance behind the boys. Gaining speed, my mother looked back to see if their pursuers were on their heels, and as she did, her shoulder caught the side of a lamppost and she dropped the posters scattering them in all directions. She stopped. Anna stopped too and barked, “Leave them, Judith! Soldiers! They’re soldiers!” But as they turned to begin to run, the soldiers were suddenly there, grabbing, pushing, shoving. One of them had my mother by the tail of her shirt, the other yanked Anna by the arm.
“Let go of me,” Anna yelled, writhing to break free.
“Hang on there, you little—,” one of them said, looking down at the strewn posters. “You think you’re so smart? Well, we’ll see how smart you are. Smart girls shouldn’t break the law.” The condescension oozed with his every word.
My mother glanced at Anna. There was no fear on her face. If anything, she seemed inconvenienced by their foiled efforts. She continued to struggle in the grasp of the burly man who held her, but she was no match for his strength. The soldier who had claimed Anna as his quarry was at least a foot taller than her, but not much older. He was in uniform, as they always were, but to look at him you might mistake him for a friend of your older brother. The soldier squeezing both of my mother’s wrists in his bulky hand was not quite as tall but just as strong. Even if she had resisted, she would not have stood a chance. Like a baited fish, Anna eventually stopped thrashing about, and cursed their captors in Hebrew.
My mother had no idea where they were going. Her thoughts were mostly of her parents at home, asleep, who would soon awaken to discover that she was gone. That she might cause her parents a moment’s grief pained her infinitely more than the soldier’s clutch, which was now starting to cut off the circulation in her arms. She squirmed and he eased his hold ever so slightly.
“So, who would ask two young girls to come out in the middle of the night all by themselves?” one of the soldiers mocked. My mother’s thoughts went to David and Gil. She remembered seeing them running up ahead, but then the lamppost, the posters, Anna, the soldiers, the struggle, the submission. They had surely gotten to safety and she was relieved for them.
When they arrived at their destination, my mother was exhausted. Exhausted from the pursuit, the struggle, and the capture. The reprimands, the threats, the menacing warnings. Her wrists were red and sore. She and Anna were herded into a windowless room, bleak, dark and oppressively hot. My mother felt her chest constricting and gasped for each breath. She would have collapsed had it not been for the soldier who was now bolstering her from behind, and shoving her into one of the three chairs in the room. Anna was thrust into a second chair, while the soldier who had gotten hold of my mother, and who had yet to utter a word, sat in the third. The three of them watched as the other soldier began to pace. A choreography of four steps to the left, four steps to the right, four steps left, four steps right. And then, he marched to the table that stood in the centre of the room, and hoisted his long body onto its surface letting his legs dangle and sway.
My mother glanced at the clock, hanging crooked on the wall above the soldier’s head. It was after midnight. If her parents had realized that she was not sleeping in her bed as she should have been, they would be sick with worry.
Nobody spoke for many minutes. She awaited the anticipated tirade about the Jews and their good fortune to have the British as their protectors. But neither soldier seemed to be in any particular rush. Anna and my mother watched the soldier seated on the table as he took a pack of cigarettes from his shirt pocket, slipped a cigarette into his mouth and began searching his other pockets for a match.
“Go get me some matches,” he snapped. His partner leapt to his feet and was out the door. And as quickly as he left, he was back placing a matchbook on the table and taking his seat once again. The soldier picked it up, tore out a match, crossed one leg over the other and struck the match on the sole of his boot. Pfffft. He lit the tip and inhaled, long and deep, and as he did, he jumped off the table and walked over to his captors. He bent down so that he was at the eye level of Anna and my mother and as he spoke, smoke wafted from his mouth and into my mother’s face. She began to cough.
“What are your names?”
“Judith Ravinsky,” my mother said.
“None of your business,” Anna retorted. My mother looked at Anna and tried to communicate with her with her eyes. Please, please cooperate, but Anna didn’t hear her silent pleas.
“What? You insolent little—. I’ll ask you again. What is your name?” Anna cast her eyes downward and for a second my mother thought she would acquiesce. My mother heard her take a deep breath and then watched as she hurled a wad of spit right onto the tips of his shoes. Stunned, he stood up, pulled back his arm and swung, his open palm making direct contact with Anna’s face. She winced and my mother gasped.
“What is your name?” My mother’s mind raced. If only they had run faster. If only she hadn’t dropped the posters. If only she hadn’t stopped when she did. If only Anna wasn’t so defiant, then maybe what was to follow might never have happened.
“I told you, it’s none of your business,” she said, punctuating each word. My mother was afraid that he was going to hit her again. But he didn’t. She wished that he had, because maybe, just maybe, one more slap would have shocked her into compliance. From that moment, the soldier who had idly swung his legs on the side of table and nonchalantly lit up a smoke, was now enraged having been drawn into a battle of wills that he would surely win. He raced from the room and returned with a small plastic container.
“Maybe you’ll change your mind,” he said as he pried open her mouth and poured part of the contents into her mouth. She retched and gagged. Anna was choking on kerosene.
“You’re going to kill her! You’ll poison her!” My mother was on her feet shrieking. “I’ll tell you what her name is! It’s Anna. Anna Solomon.” The soldier grabbed the matches off the table and again dragged one on the bottom of his boot. Pfffft. “Please. Please, no!” My mother began to sob and as she did, the match sparked. In one swift movement, he brushed the lit match against Anna’s lips and my mother watched as her friend, her best friend, was swallowed up by searing flames. My mother saw only reds and oranges in front of her and had to look away, not because she couldn’t bear to watch Anna collapse to the floor in agony, but because the heat was scorching her face.
My mother’s screams were drowned out by the reverberations of Anna’s howls. A stench began to permeate the room and she thought she might vomit. The water that came splashing down on the jerking mass extinguished the flames. My mother dropped to her knees beside her friend, wailing, helpless.
What happened next always remained something of a blur to my mother. A frenzy. A flurry of activity. And finally, the appearance of my panic-stricken grandfather at the door. My mother ran to him and buried her face in his chest, enveloped by the familiar smell of tobacco. With her eyes closed, the gruesome images of her friend played like a horror movie. She ached as she listened to my grandfather plead for her release. She was just a child, he told them, and didn’t understand what she was doing. My mother remained silent throughout, ashamed that she had caused her father such distress.
They walked home. They strode side by side, in silence, until he stopped, turned toward my mother and bent down to her height so that he was just inches from her face. His eyes glistened with tears and were dark with fear. He clutched her arms and squeezed, his grip so tight that his knuckles paled. “You are a brave young woman, Judith. I am proud of you. But there is danger in what you are doing. You must be careful.”
My mother was driven by an unyielding desire to right the wrongs to which she bore witness. That and the memory of Anna and her gruesome end. She would venture down to the beach, scanning the black ocean for any glimmer on the water that might signal the arrival of boats loaded with refugees. Defying her fear of the water, she would wade out into the darkness and swim back, weighted down by the person desperately hanging onto her, as she brought them to safety. When I asked my mother what fueled her courage, she would look at me, as if perplexed by the question.
“We had no choice,” she said. “There was no time for courage.”
Never was she dissuaded from forging ahead, fighting for a cause she thought so noble. Not once did she waver, when she and her friend Aaron were selected to go to Bari, Italy, to help the refugees at the end of the war. Living in a displaced persons camp, cramped and with chronic shortages of food, my mother would sit around a fire at night and listen to the countless stories of loss. Most people were young, the stronger ones having been able to survive. And, amid the chaos, and yearning for a personal connection, many married while they were there. That two people came from the same town, or because one may have witnessed the execution of someone’s brother, bound them together and were reasons enough to wed.
My mother’s stories of distracting border guards with cigarettes and flirtations as Aaron smuggled refugees to safety in Switzerland, were like something taken directly out of a suspense novel. And then there were the failed efforts. The attempts to reunite 38 children with their families, 38 children who had been baptized and raised as Catholic, now living in a convent, their lives saved by nuns. This was, for my mother, an opportunity to help restore their identities, an opportunity not realized when they returned one day to find the convent deserted, the nuns and all the children having disappeared. The first time my mother told me this story, I did not—could not—understand, why the nuns would deny these children their parents just to ensure that they lived a Catholic life. I cried for each and every one of them.
I don’t really know if they loved each other, my mother and Aaron. Perhaps it was the intensity of the losses, or the rush of their successes, that ignited a passion and compelled them to turn to one another. When she discovered that she was pregnant, there was but one solution, impossible as it was to have a child amid such turmoil. That she was unmarried seemed to be the lesser of the obstacles for my liberal and free-thinking mother.
“Have there not been enough children murdered?” the Jewish doctor had asked her. And so, I entered this life into a chaotic world at a time that was characterized by hatred, violence and unspeakable inhumanity. Perhaps it was because she had witnessed the horrors of war, perhaps it was because she had been haunted by the disappearance of the children in the convent, whatever the reason, my mother’s devotion to me was instantaneous and absolute. And so it would be, through the challenges that we were to face, together and apart, in the years and decades that lay ahead.
My mother and Aaron married in Italy and returned to Palestine. My conservative grandfather, I was told, greeted me with both warmth and skepticism in equal measure. He struggled with my mother’s ostensible recklessness and impetuous decisions. But still, to him I represented a renewal of life and, from that, a mutual adoration grew in the few years during which we lived with them. On the other hand, I never really got to know my father, the enigmatic Aaron, who seemed always to be working. And so, when I learned that we would be joining him in Montreal several years after he had left Israel, the prospect of seeing him once again was no consolation to a little girl whose connection to her grandfather, her saba, her light, was being irreversibly severed.
On the day that my mother and I boarded the Ziona, my grandfather placed his hand on my head and, with eyes closed and a slight sway, muttered words that I did not understand. And then, bending toward me, he whispered, “Chayale, I will never see you again.”
“Saba,” I said, smiling, “I am coming to see you next year.” And I believed I would. He laughed, but as he turned to leave I saw his eyes well with tears.
The sadness that I felt on that day, the day that I said goodbye to my grandfather, was a precursor to what lay ahead. Aaron would not greet us when we arrived. Not then. In fact, never would I be reunited with my father. Clad in a flimsy coat and boots that were too small, I had arrived in a foreign world, where people spoke an unintelligible language, where the notion of cold became unbearably real and where the warmth of my saba, his arms wound tightly around me, was relegated to a memory which I tried to call upon so many times.
It was with the help of Henry, a distant cousin, that we were able to stay despite my derelict father. And it was Henry who found my mother a job in a factory where she would spin wool all day long. I rarely saw her. I sat at the back of the class in school where the teachers paid little attention to me. No one spoke to me in the schoolyard except, perhaps, to wield the words “dirty Jew” in my direction.
And yet. There was the Jewish library, where I would spend hours crouched in between the stacks, ingesting book after book in my own language, thrilled by the fantastical stories. There was serenity at the library. And there was Mrs. Dempsey, the landlord of our boarding house, who told me that she would buy me a kitten if I were a good girl. She would play records and I would dance. She gave me a small corner of her shed where I displayed my artwork and bought me brown rubbers to wear over my ratty shoes. And there was Claire, the foster child who lived next door to us and invited me over to watch the Ed Sullivan Show every Sunday night. On weekends, my mother and I would visit Henry and his family for tea and cookies or we would go over to the neighbours’ house to indulge in a spread of food that was unlike anything that I was used to. And, at night, my mother and I would get into the same bed and I would draw her arms around me, feeling the warmth of her body and the safety of her presence.
There was hardship. There was loneliness. But there was—and would be—opportunity for both my mother and me. Through the turbulent days and years that followed, I was buoyed by my mother’s unflagging optimism and her promise to me that our life, one day, would get easier. There were possibilities. There was hope. And there was, always, the sweetness of pears.
Dana’s story, “The Sweetness of Pears,” appeared in Evening Street Review #16