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Tests of Faith



Winter 1995: Cafe Avanti on Southport

Seth, almost eight, falls off his chair. Again. His father warns him: "Twenty minutes." Meaning: 20 minutes time-out when they get home.

Jesse, his twin, sits across from Seth, next to me. Their mother is at a brunch. One boy orders a square of cold pizza, the other, hot. The father and I, old friends, eat the discards: mushrooms, broccoli.

"Dad, are your eyes blue?" asks Jesse.

His father, Barry, widens his very brown eyes behind his wire rims. All of us have brown eyes, as does their mother. Seth is reading Maus, Art Spiegelman's nonfiction comic book about the Holocaust. The Jews are portrayed as mice, Poles are pigs, and Germans are cats.

"Do they know what it's about?" I ask Barry.

"Yes," he says. "I let them read any literature as long as it's good."

They know they are Jewish, though at home they have a small lighted tree on a front windowsill. Every December their mother, my friend Sharon, makes latkes; every Passover she grinds her own whitefish for gefilte fish for her seder. Today, on this Sunday in January, Jesse, absorbing the content of his brother's book so matter-of-factly, asks us if Hitler had blond hair.

"Dark," I say.

"Do you know what he looked like?" he asks.

"He had brown hair and a little mustache," I say.

"Did Hitler kill all the English?" asks Seth.

"He bombed England," I say. "It was called the blitz. I know someone who remembers it."

"Are we in the east or west?" asks Seth.

Jesse falls off his chair. They are pliable Saint Bernard puppies in down coats, playing too roughly with the sweetener packets at the center of the table. Jesse is writing in his journal about Teddy, who is either a bear or a boy. These boys are not quiet. They would be hard to hide in time of war. They are creatures made to roll in the snow, to bounce down stairs, to smear Sweet-n-Low on the tables of coffeehouses in their neighborhood. Their parents make them write in their journals daily. The boys complain about this. Seth chews off his eraser, looks up from Maus to put pencil shavings in his mouth.

How are the pigs of Maus different from Power Rangers, or last year's Ninja Turtles? Next Halloween, will the boys dress up as small white mice in striped rags, begging candy at the doors of neighbors, indifferent to the presence or absence of mezuzahs, the rectangles that Jews nail to their doorposts? I imagine that during the war, in eastern Europe, where her ancestors are from, Sharon would have been able to pass. She's redheaded, fair, able to flirt, a nervous woman but possessing sangfroid. I could see Sharon smuggling pistols through occupied Poland, running to board trains to deliver false ID and ration cards, shaking, vowing never to do it again, and making the return trip, and the next, the story more harrowing in each retelling. I admire the fierce way she plays tennis.

Barry is a short Allen Ginsberg; there would be no hope for him, though many of the obvious-looking Jews survived, even the darkest, the frailest. That is the riddle that goes beyond history, beyond DNA. He grew up among the Scandinavians of Minnesota, does not naturally seek his own kind. He's indifferent to the holidays of his tribe. Got his poetry published in an anthology of Polish writing because of the land his ancestors once lived in, were confined to. Yiddish speakers who for a time lived among Poles. Presumably without full citizenship, without portfolio.

We are writers hungry for publication. The boys are hungry for adventure. Barry reminisces about his life before they were born, but says now, "They're so cute it's worth it."

Jesse wants a special clock for his birthday for games of speed chess. Barry hopes they'll be yuppies--"Be a stockbroker," he says--so they won't be impoverished writers. I have known them for seven years and still cannot tell them apart. That is my secret. I wait until they are named, addressed in conversation. Seth slips again from his chair.

Surprising myself with patience, I say: "Let's get the chair out of the way so people can pass through." One boy cries over his drink. I ask again and again, "Which juice drink did you want if not this one?"

Barry exchanges Breakfast Surprise for Juice Squeeze.

"Mango in it," says Seth in despair.

How could we confine these boys to an attic, a coal shed, a compartment in a hayloft? To bits of bread for years on end as we await the end of the war? Would I die for these boys? Would I protect them with my body? Why are we the lucky ones who aren't given these choices?

The newspapers report on eight-year-olds who care for their younger siblings, who are lookouts for dealers, who die in crossfire, or when government protective agencies do not separate them fast enough from their parents. Their death is a public matter. The cameras pan on the grieving family, the newspapers print the class pictures of the boy who didn't have a chance to join Little League, the girl who was so helpful to her mother. Somehow it's important to learn their names. The Tribune once did a yearlong series on children who died. Every day: body count, photos, Johnny we hardly knew ye. After a year, the Trib stopped counting.

Continued Winter 1995: Wrigleyville and Lincoln Park

I've always said I didn't want children. The responsibility, the time, the way they take over your life.

Now I have just met a man who wants them.

I walk the three blocks from my apartment to Barry and Sharon's 100-year-old house. In their dining room--shiny wood table, air-conditioning unit covered with embroidered cloth from Israel, nearby big jars of beans and grains--I tell them about this man I'll call Ted. A man who wants it all--wife, family, house.

A friend of a friend.

He lives in a glassy condo with long pale hallways and black-and-white rooms. There is little warmth there, no nod to an earlier century, to homespun materials. In Barry and Sharon's three-story wooden house, I run free with my critique. I have met the marketing-industrial complex and it is Ted. But there are sparks. Sharon takes it as a good sign that we spar.

At dinner I tell Ted about the twins and sugar packets and Maus. Will he take this as a sign I do want children after all? Probably not. I imagine that he sees me as I see myself: childlike, childish, not a potential parent. He speaks of a couple he knows who seem blessed: three lovely children. He says his friend's child will hug him, and that he says to this child, "Give me a kiss," and he does.

I am proud that I have said to Barry and Sharon, "If the boys don't want to kiss me good-bye, it's fine." I believe in giving choices. I remember what it is like to be a child, to have to reach for the light switch, to know the painful limits of the body, the choices it keeps you from having. "Children having children," you always read in the headlines and commentaries, but the writers mean the poor, the dark, at 12 and 14, the ones who do not read or send faxes or poetry out into the world. They do not mean childish women like me, who thrill themselves to sleep with tales of evil in our century.

Cold Spring 1995: Wrigleyville

Spring weather and winter weather, back and forth, each day different. The sun is shining warmly and the radiators still clang. One day it's 40, the next day 58 going down to 32. Misty and terrible wind. Today: bright, everyone on the street. Daffodils and red-and-yellow tulips, pink flowerings on magnolia trees, crocuses, pink and blue and white hyacinths in the little front yards in my neighborhood, even some feathery pink azaleas behind an iron fence.

My friend Mitch calls. He's the one who introduced me to Ted. Turns out Ted and I, together, were a flash in the pan. Mitch tells me that Ted's father has cancer. It's especially hard because Ted is an only child. "It's not so bad when you've got your own family," Mitch says. Which is what Mitch wants to have, too. "Friends are not the same," he says. "Are your friends the same? Have you tested them?" he asks.

Knock wood, thank God--there has been no test. My friends and I substitute for each other's classes, borrow and lend cars (not often), baby-sit (not often), bring food to each other when we're sick, accompany one another to the hospital (the surgery is always minor), calm each other down when agitated about jobs or lovers or family (often).

This is not the cancer, the blood on your door, the call from headquarters, the sacrifice, the night watch, taking children as your own. Not the world of passwords, underground cells, nights where you unquestioning, gladly, would give your last--drop of water, cyanide capsule, pistol, bullet-- to your friend. We don't wonder, Would I give her away under torture?

No one knocks on the door asking to be hidden. Where did I hear this story? That in occupied Holland a stranger knocked on the door. He was Jewish, wanting to be hidden. He chose the house, he told the woman who answered the door, because of the rosebushes. They were well tended. He assumed that people who took such care of their roses would take care with a human.

He was right.

Yesterday I went to Sharon's to borrow an egg. She asked if I wanted to take back my big dictionary, on permanent loan since 1990.

I was afraid I'd have trouble balancing both the egg and dictionary. "Another time," I said. She walked me down the stairs, got on her bike. The daffodils in her yard were in a row, nodding, her tomatoes and broccoli not yet planted for the summer. She moved a big branch that had somehow been struck down.

I told her about a high school program I'd heard about, where each kid is given a raw egg to take care of for a week. It's supposed to teach them how much trouble it is to take care of a baby.

She said it sounded like a good idea. Then she rode away on her bike, the one still holding a child seat.

This is our life, each minute of it tying to the next. The phone rings. We get it or wait for voice mail to claim it. We talk. We tell the truth or not. We live inside of history, but make the choice to grab and wrestle with it or leave our hands slack, open. We see the big-eyed children in magazines asking for monthly stipends. We turn the page or not. We smile noncommitally at a neighbor on a porch step. We look for lovers.

Is it just time, is it just the time we spend that builds these small filaments, from one person to the next?

"Do you want to come for dinner in three weeks?" asks Sharon. "And tonight? And can my friend Lew stay at your house while you're gone?"

"Will you come and pick up your fax that's been lying on my floor for three days?"

"Will your boys eat Indian food if I don't make it too spicy?"

"Will you tell me what you thought of my story?"

"Would you like the mushrooms on my salad?"

How easy it is to offer food I'm not planning to eat. Let's not think of want, let's stay in the world of bounty, where we leave generous tips at neighborhood cafes.

A few minutes after Sharon leaves, I stay behind, not bothering to watch her disappear down the sidewalk on her bicycle. I take it for granted that I'll see her again.

More Winter, More Spring 1995: Skokie, Wrigleyville

Mitch lived overseas but moved back to Chicago. His mother is losing her mind, minute by minute. He reads to her and she understands but doesn't remember from one day to the next. The book he reads to his mother every day in Skokie is Mila 18, about the Warsaw-ghetto resistance. His father was in Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen. His mother drifted through Poland on her own, 12 years old, and then surrendered herself at a work camp. The camp didn't have a name, he says, or else he never heard it. Late at night, on the phone, I ask Mitch questions, write down his answers: "We always knew. At first I think it was just a mystery. I knew that the Germans were bad and that there was some like dark place that my parents came from which was Europe. And I don't remember hearing particular stories. Except my grandparents were all dead. My friends had grandparents. I had many uncles and aunts. I didn't realize my parents had accents until eighth grade and friends started making fun of them. They used to speak Yiddish all the time. To hide what they were saying from us. I found that obnoxious even when I was a little kid. I made my mother promise for my fifth birthday that she would translate. I thought you could buy a translating box because I saw one on television."

One night--snowy, winter, Chicago--I walked to Barry and Sharon's for dinner. It was dark and their house was nestled in such a cozy way, cheery and perfect as New England, that I felt comforted--cosseted, even--by the sight. I stood before their front steps and said to myself, I will look back at this moment, this warmth, and feel nostalgic. And pine for it. And then I felt sad, as if I'd already absorbed the loss. I went up the steps and inside I said to them: I was feeling so sad for this moment in retrospect, when it will be gone and I'll miss it. I was grasping, grasping to keep things as they were, to keep the balance from shifting. But grateful I could tell them about my anticipatory fear.

And then we talked and drank and had dinner and talked more and probably laughed, I don't remember exactly, and I left when it got late and walked home, past the dark and shuttered baseball stadium, the boxy little neighborhood fire station, the corner bars, and other three-story red-brick apartment houses with wooden floors and molding, filled with couches, chairs, rugs, paintings, posters, beds, dishes, plants, books, computers, cabinets, tablecloths, futons, nightstands, and other things we collect in order to anchor us in the world we want to believe is permanent.

Wrigleyville: January 31, 2001

Mitch's mother has died and his father has remarried. Mitch reports that Ted is married. In the summer of 1995 I met my true love. Two years ago I moved from my apartment to a condo, two blocks closer to Barry and Sharon. Two friends have survived breast cancer. Two others have died of it. Barry has multiple sclerosis and walks with a cane. Sometimes the little rubber tip falls off. Sharon no longer has the little tree in the front window at Christmastime. The first night in my new place, a Friday, my lover and I went for takeout Thai. We invited Barry and Sharon and the boys over and, in an unusual move for us, celebrated the Sabbath: lit candles, blessed the wine and challah. Then we all sat on the floor to eat our (decidedly nonkosher) pad thai and shrimp curry. Then they left because the boys were singing that night in the temple choir. They joined the synagogue a couple of years ago so the boys could be bar mitzvahed. The b'nai mitzvah was in June 2000. They postponed the date once, because in October 1999 Jesse was diagnosed with cancer. It hasn't been difficult to help out, for any of us.

He was in remission from around April until early November 2000. When his hair grew back in the fall, he dyed it blue and said it was from the chemo. Seth had dyed his hair, then grown it out and cultivated a two-tone Mohawk. Jesse suffered the side effects of chemo in December and January, and the cancer itself. He grew thin and wasn't able to eat. Doctors tried to manage the pain. I got to know him better over the past year and a half. He asked me how I could be atheist but still celebrate Jewish holidays. He began to lean toward Orthodox Judaism after being befriended by volunteers from a Jewish cancer support network named Chai Lifeline. I heard him tell a nurse that the Nazis would have killed him because they experimented on twins. Three days ago on the couch at his house we watched Mary Poppins on TV and he noted that the mother was for women's rights but was a housewife. We agreed that Julie Andrews was nothing like the austere character in the book. Yesterday he and his father watched A Clockwork Orange on DVD, and when his public school tutor came over they discussed reform and rehabilitation.

When he was in the hospital in November he asked medical personnel whom they had voted for and challenged the Republicans. He enjoyed reading the Onion and the New York Times, and appreciated George Carlin and Chris Rock. He won the school spelling bee last year but couldn't compete further because he was in the hospital.

His favorite Winnie-the-Pooh character was Tigger, and his favorite doctor in the hospital gave him a stuffed Tigger. Jesse liked to have his back and hands and feet rubbed with vanilla-scented lotion, and he liked incense, which he couldn't have in his room at the hospital.

Jesse suffered but did not like to be called brave. He thought it more apt to say that he had "put up with" a lot.

Last night the favorite doctor and nurse-practitioner came by the house and both Jesse and Seth delighted in the doctor's card tricks. We all got on the nurse's case because she's a Republican. Later that night Jesse made his way unsteadily upstairs to bed. At 5:30 AM, holding his mother's hand, he died.

For Jesse A. Silesky, February 10, 1987-January 31, 2001

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