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"Shoes”
by
Alison Parham

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Vito Victor

Born Under a Bad Sign

(Chapter 1 of Outgrowing Myself)

       1.
       I was born with one undescended testicle - not a rare condition. The errant gland can be nudged surgically if it does not drift into its sac a few weeks after birth.
       If it remains undescended, though, complications may ensue.
       My parents, pursued by Nazis, did not have easy access to medical care and may not even have been aware of the problem. I was almost three when the testicle caused a minor hernia in my abdominal wall. “The child started screaming on a street in Paris,” I once overheard mother say. On the road to Marseille in 1940 I must have already been wearing those plastic braces to prevent further damage. They had the cupped shape of telephone receivers; a black belt around my middle clamped them into place. I recall pulling down my pants for the benefit of a circle of curious children, pleased that I was special. There was something wrong with me, something to show off that would get attention.
        The surgery was done in the United States, perhaps as late as my fifth year; I have memory traces of sweating in a bored bed, probing my repaired genital area with an obsessive finger. Later the stitches were pulled out without anesthesia by a nurse. There were several sessions of slow torment. After each one, mother treated me to a strawberry tart at a bake shop. Pain, followed by mouth-melting sweetness.
        Mother giggled when she told me, years later, that my father had fretted about damage to my masculinity. Petty male worries! The surgeon had reassured him. In any event, there were no adverse physical effects, and today I can barely verify the episode, collecting every scrap of recalled hearsay. When I began to write of my first three years, I found myself momentarily skeptical: had any of this really occurred? It could all be a misunderstood tale from a dusty family mythology.
        But wouldn’t a surgery have left some track in my groin, even after seventy years?
        At my desk, one day in 2014, the PC’s camera eye might have seen the user dropping his shorts, bending over in his seat to scrutinize the equipment in his own lap. I just about never examine myself there, neither in the shower, nor in sex. It may have been decades since I last identified the faint horizontal line across the lower edge of my belly. Yet I immediately found it, a tiny dike of scar tissue, wan, numb, archeological.
        It had happened! History is true! The Nazis really happened, the exodus from Paris, the flight … eager to excavate more, I pulled my balls out of my shorts, and the sac on the right revealed its tiny, cheesy scar. It seemed to expand for my benefit, as if it had just come out of its bandages. You have spent your whole life not looking at me!
        I touched it hesitantly with one finger, and I touched all the things of which one does not speak in a proper German family: sex, of course, and excretion, but also the fatherland’s shameful history, the horrible man with the moustache, the way I had been hauled from one country to another long before I was able to store memory by means of language. We barely made it out of the death trap that Europe had become late in 1940. Like many refugees, my parents did not like to talk about that political debacle. Once in America, they wanted to lop off the past like a gangrenous limb, and then to cauterize the wound. To start over.
        As I grew up, I colluded with them. I did not want to hear about it either. I was afraid of the pain in my mother’s anxious gaze. It felt like an accusation. What had I done this time? The vertical groove digging into her brow between her haunted eyes made me squirm. I hated it when she alluded to “what she had been through” and patronized me for “not having any idea what it is to suffer.” Nor did I like grandmother telling me that I should be grateful for her bland potato stew, that I did not know what hunger was. I did not want to know. Whatever had happened to the grownups was not my fault. I warded off the old trauma that they kept feeding and yet hid as though it might infect me: an unclean household pet.
        So they never told me their stories; the speck of scar tissue on my testicle is a relic from my ancient muddle of beginnings, which I here reconstruct from documents and flesh out with guesswork, fiction, and dream.

       2
       A rented flat in Paris, June 1940.
        A woman is alone with her toddler. His “Nona,” or grandmother, who had always taken care of him, has been herded into an “internment camp.” His father too: removed by the French authorities. The woman has no experience in managing the boy, who is about three and far too vigorous.
        He is trying to be “good,” but can’t help campaigning for his Mutti’s attention. Scampering about in a soiled one-piece jump suit, he is a delicious morsel, diminutive save for a tummy fattened not only by a diaper but by a tight belt to anchor his wayward testicle into place. The toddler suit locks it all up and frustrates him, and he fusses at his itchy middle from time to time while at work rearranging mother’s toiletries, which should not be touched.        She is ignoring him. She’s nailed herself by sheer will power to the kitchenette’s table and is punishing the Remington. Her clamped jaw quivers with anger. Sweat pastes her thin dress to her pale skin while her fingers rhythmically hammer out language. Her thighs, tightening and loosening, rattle the metal folding chair to keep the beat. At every pause her belligerent gaze challenges the disgustingly weak words of supplication addressed to one more government agency.
        Then she swivels to question the milk she is heating for her child on the gas stovetop. Its surface bulges already with a circle of tiny bubbles.
        The boy watches, complacently anticipating sugared warmth. His eyes sparkle. Happily alert, still confident of being lovable, he appears untouched by his mother’s worries. He runs to a window now, excited by a rumble of houses collapsing on a nearby street. That sound has become more common recently.
        His world is about to change.
        A sharp impact shudders the frame of the building. Little rivers of dust trickle down its walls. Cold fingers grab the boy’s bowels. The fear has come again, and he wants his grandmother.
        “They hit us,” the woman shouts as she jumps to her feet. “The Wehrmacht is here.” Grasping her son by the arm, she pulls him to her slender body. “Oh, Vito! Vito!” The high pitch of her voice scares him. She is holding him now, squeezing too hard, and he tries to wriggle out of her shaking hands.
        “Nona!” he cries, invoking a safer presence.

       There is no telephone in this rental for transients. Newspaper delivery has been discontinued, days ago, to prevent panic and possible rioting. The only rumors that have reached the woman since the German breakthrough have been shouted through her closed door after a rattle of a socialist’s boots up the stairwell. Does she know that the government has already fled the city, all the while assuring the citizens that Paris would be defended? Whatever she knows or believes, whether the time is right or wrong, she has already decided. Once again, she is abandoning what is so sacred to her: the world of print. We dismantled another apartment, left all the books and manuscripts behind, and just ran.
        She does not take a moment to zipper the suitcase; it swings in her left hand and will begin to spill. Hoisting her son wrapped in a towel she runs with arms full down flight after flight of stairs. She has left his milk charring over the insistently hissing gas. The waste of the costly nutrition, the risk of an explosion will obsess her for days. With too much to handle, she finds a worry of manageable size. I wasted the milk. I left the gas on. I am to blame.
        This mother and son will never cling to each other as hard again. They are now part of the so-called Exodus from Paris, the largest mass movement of European refugees since the Middle Ages.

       3
        The woman was my mother: a wordsmith, frail and elegant in sepia photographs, who suffered through world wars that are recorded, for me, in textbooks only, and in melodramas typed into cheap thin paper by her imperious though trembling fingers. Her myth of a German childhood, published in 1935 for properly gullible younger readers, celebrated her own mother and father as working class saints, living only for each other and for their lucky daughter. The idyllic picture is ominous only in hindsight, evoking a stifling small-town propriety that curtailed every natural human desire.        Burdened with such standards, Maria had to resolve, early on, to be perfect. Her grades would always be the best in the class; that she would always be the prettiest girl, as well as the most virtuous, was not open to question. Yet as a sweet sixteen she would already dismay her parents by writing for a newspaper edited by a seductive married man twice her age. My biological father, a charming, chubby Jew, would move her into his household and eventually run off with her to Berlin, abandoning his wife and two young sons. A homewrecker, this perfect mother of mine, whom I in turn worshipped, in my childish innocence, as a holy figure, but whose self-accusations – “I am a terrible person” – confused me deeply for years.
        In Berlin Hertha Maria Gleitsmann turned into the popular novelist Maria Gleit. As a secretary for a major socialist paper she was one of the new population of unmarried girls working in city offices. The 1920’s revolution in gender roles was just beginning, and my mother invented young heroines to inspire thousands of her sisters who had to assert themselves, as she did, in a patriarchal workplace. Her fictional feminists are resolute, sexually alluring and professionally dynamic. They use their femininity as well as their fierce diligence to strike new kinds of deals with the men they still entirely depend upon.
       Reading these stirring and antiquated texts today, I am struck by the inadequate males available to mother’s working girls, who seem to encounter only two types: the aggressive sexual predator and the warm-hearted but timid soul. The man who could take care of a woman was unreliable, cold and vain; the man upon whose loyalty she could rely typically needed to be mothered himself. An alpha male or a wimp, that was the choice, and it has always given me pain that my own mother classed me as one of the latter.
        She would be 106 today, and here I am, still fretting uselessly about her anger toward men. Walther Victor, her seducer, eluded her fictional stereotypes as life always does; in him an attractive sensual warmth coexisted with an insatiable need for validation. Behind this charismatic but philandering male, her father Albert Gleitsmann floats in the Freudian haze of memory, for he died very young. Gleitsmann was a factory worker and union organizer. He was my mother’s mentor and guide; she idolized him as surpassingly gentle and wise.
        I will never know just what this grandfather of mine did to finally disappoint his daughter. Her view of men seems to have been sullied beyond repair by some unforgivable transgression that toppled him from his pedestal. She was already menopausal when she shredded an old photograph of that fallen saint in front of her psychiatrist in a sudden rage. It must have been smoldering for decades.
        The mystique she did cling to became her holy of holies. After Albert’s sudden and early death, my grandmother’s “nerves” declined rapidly, and Maria resolved never to leave her. My father had to comply, and when life became unhealthy for Social Democrats in Berlin, Walther took my mother and grandmother with him and fled to Switzerland, where I was born. The two women never cut the cord, ennobling what we call “codependence” today by preaching Motherhood as the pinnacle of self-sacrifice. My elders would be a tight trio from 1928 to 1947, my grandmother keeping house for her daughter and grumbling about my father. She was my Nona: a simple old woman who became my one indispensable parent.

       4
        The building next door had been hit; the Nazi plane was no longer in sight. Frau Victor and her bundled and squalling child were the first ones on the street; behind them other tenants came tumbling out, including Monsieur Jacques, the manager, who had wanted to get rid of her, not because she was German, but because she and her supposed husband were “artists.” But now he was waving her away from his walls, red-faced and yelling about a house collapse. Some neighbors had been injured just yesterday! Allez, allez loin d’ici! Run, like everyone else! But she hadn’t closed the suitcase properly and it was beginning to drop underwear and socks, and now a bottle of scent had fallen out and oh god, broken, oh god damnit to hell, on the pavement.
        Run! Above her momentary paralysis five of Goering’s stukas swept low across the arondissement in a perfect V-formation. We are here. We see. Gone, they left a loud silence. She knelt on the pavement and tried closing her eyes.
        The vapor for ballroom and boudoir stung through her nose and into her brain, and she heard that mirthless laughter ricochet within the walls of her skull, since she hadn’t turned the flame off under the boy’s milk, so if the house didn’t collapse it would probably burn down, and now the expensive perfume wasted too, why had she splurged on it? Idiot! Without even a decent outfit to wear to hook some man who knew what was what in this world … in which she was totally and completely alone! She was laughing wildly now, and she knew it was the terror, the nerves again, and she had to bear down so that she would not go mad. She put little Vito down, there, stand up straight, don’t move, and wrestled with the wretched zipper, and then took the suitcase in one arm and the child in the other and they staggered toward the corner.
        Her sight wavered through heat ripples. Instead of the boulevard, an ocean liner looked to be floating from right to left across her field of vision. Its deck was a conveyer, dragging vehicles, goods and people like a felled forest to some inevitable fate. As she approached, struggling to keep the boy aloft, she could hear its hum becoming louder, and saw that the “ship” was merely the avenue itself, slowed to a crawl by its own traffic. The garble of sound separated itself into cries, piteous soliloquies and shouted complaints, punctuated by bells, honked horns and wailing sirens. She could pick out German, Polish, Romanian, even Russian, but to her surprise, most of the language was French.
        At the corner a long shudder of understanding traveled down her body. Not only the political émigrés were in flight; the Parisians were abandoning their own city! It had come to this! For a decade now, this bulwark of liberty had swollen with immigrants from eastern and central Europe, a refuge for Jews, Socialists, Democrats, humanists, “decadent” artists, disrespectful writers, gypsies, homosexuals, the eccentrics, the handicapped, the abnormally gifted, all who could not be fit into a cleansed Third Reich. “Once we get to Paris, we will be safe,” my father had repeated, and my mother had believed. “No Nazi will ever be allowed to get here. Unthinkable.”
        The unthinkable was in front of her. Hitler had accomplished in one month what the Kaiser failed to do in four years of the Great War. The City of Light was cramping in a fear that would leave it as dry as a squeezed orange. Paris would welcome the Fuehrer as Moscow had welcomed Napoleon in 1812: with empty streets.
        Husbands pushed bicycles on which piles of packing cases had been tied. Mothers pushed prams holding two or even three children. Pedestrians were being shoved about like debris by horses and motorized vehicles. To salvage some precious items from their wrecked lives they had grabbed anything that could roll: a wheelchair held a tea service, a bookcase was balanced on a tricycle, a gardening cart was piled with tuxedos. An old man wheezed along pushing his crippled father in a wheelbarrow: a sight Maria never forgot. She would also remember the luxurious limousines, complete with liveried chauffeur, stalled behind the horse-drawn carts of peasants packed with furniture and trailed by emaciated cows and goats.
        Most disturbing were the family sedans with groaning springs and sagging tires, bursting with children and luggage and most often with mattresses strapped on top. Lorries belched in their constipation, their drivers either apoplectic or morbidly resigned. Some were crammed with fugitives and continued to open their doors – impossible! - to pack in more. Others, RESERVED FOR GOVERNMENT OFFICERS, were empty and locked, provoking the indignant howls of families straggling along on foot, overloaded by burdens as bizarre and touching as those cages of warbling canaries or, in front of her now, a girl crying softly, hobbling underneath a cello twice her size.
        I want to visualize a slender mother, tragic and beautiful, though her sharp nose and chin were surely eroded by malnutrition, her dark eyes haunted and cavernous. Her feet are planted firmly around the suitcase that holds cosmetics, notebooks, foreign language dictionaries rather than groceries and drinking water. She is standing at that apocalyptic corner watching Western Civilization unravel when the child nags her, for the seventeenth time, with the same question.
        “Where are we going?”
        She rolls her eyes and turns her face to the heavens.
        “Wohin gehen wir denn, Mutti?”
        “Wohin gehen wir denn?”
        Her mind slams shut. The child is a dead weight, whining in open rebellion, pushing against her sweaty side, and lest he ask her one more time she clamps her hand across his mouth. He wriggles, gagged, helpless. Suddenly, inspired by the Satan within, he makes a fist…
        “Vito! YOU HIT YOUR MOTHER! Let me tell you, you must never, I mean never…”
        Angrily she sets him on his feet, grabs her suitcase and joins the parade at the side of another woman to whom she vents loudly enough for the perpetrator to hear.
        “I am having such problems with the child, he has hit me, he actually finds it possible to hit his mother.”
        His thumb is in his mouth, prepared to sulk, but as she walks away he loses her in the mob and no thumb is enough, and he panics and catches sight of her and holds up his moist hand despairingly.
        She looks severely at the offering and does not accept it.
        It is not the first time that he has been cast into the darkness. He is never safe. There is something terrible inside him. He cannot see it or control it. It will repeatedly trick him into breaking his mother, leaving him dangerously, wretchedly alone.
        Weeping now, he strains to bring grandmother back, at least to remember the comfortable odor of her flesh. Nona! Nona!

       5
        Maria Gleit may not have had any real taste for mothering; I never noticed that she particularly liked the company of children. She was uncertain around them, too afraid of them to be an authority. But in the realm of ideals maternity had a strong charge for her, though she had no desire for a male heir. My father writes that his Maria wanted a girl and knew for sure that she would have one. She planned to name the blessed arrival “Vita,” for “life.” A daughter would give her a reason to keep on going, to survive, to escape this murderous continent. Mother and father – two authors, after all –both had the dramatist’s flair.
        Maria tended to use motherhood as heavy literary artillery. She published Du Hast Kein Bett, Mein Kind, her only political novel, in Switzerland in the year of my birth. In the very first scene a pregnant woman is watching her sleeping husband twist and moan, trapped in the jaws of his fatherland’s agony. In spite of the power that is trying to gag him, the man opens his mouth wider and wider. Then he breaks through, bawling forth his rage and his terror.
        The book ends by flashing back to that scream. Now, however, in the temporary safety of neutral Switzerland, the woman has given birth. In the face of violence and desecration, motherhood has triumphed over the rampages of death. The climax boils up an ecstasy of purple prose. In the last scene the husband, no longer a warrior, is hammering and sawing, making a bed for the newborn.
        You Have No Bed, My Child was written in the teeth of violent fear. My mother did not dare mention Germany at all, instead inventing a generic European nation controlled by unspecified sadists. Students of “exile studies” today find the book self-indulgent, with its icy villains, saintly heroes and overheated mysticism. But in its day it had a small, cult following; no doubt the gloom of some literate fugitives was dispelled by its fire. Young women did not often go public against this regime, and no leftist told my mother that her shouts on behalf of the world’s victimized children were melodramatic and overdone.

       Maria, Walther and Klara had indeed taken refuge in Italian Switzerland in 1935, after Hitler had poisoned Berlin for them. My parents scraped a living out of their “exile” by writing furiously for socialist newspapers all over Europe. In May of 1937, when I appeared, their Swiss visas were expiring again, each time more difficult to extend; all the neighboring countries had denied their applications for asylum; the horizons were closing in, darkening with the expected war.
        A hell of a time to have a baby!
        Was I an accident, then? Were safe abortions unobtainable? Had she kept Walther from recognizing her condition until it was too late? An insecure child questions his gods: why did you have me? Why then? In the past, I suspected that I had been Maria’s last-ditch attempt to keep her husband, who was an inveterate womanizer.
        Today I doubt that. She could have had no illusions about my father’s loyalty: he had abandoned a wife and his two sons to run off with her. And that was eight years ago; the honeymoon was over. She must have known that she had already lost him.
        “Just let me have a child with you, Walther. Let me have YOUR child. Then you can go. If any of us get out of Europe alive. If we get to America.”         She could have said it like that.
        But why am I so sure that my father did not want me? Some heady mixture of vanity and libido and political defiance may have urged him to such a gesture, no?
        Love?
        All right. Even love.
        I know nothing but what I was told, and what I have always needed to believe: that I was a wanted child, and, in my early years, a much cherished child.

        I was not a girl, however. My mother was disappointed upon seeing a penis, and testicle sacs. She may have noticed that one of them was oddly flaccid, as though it were empty. “Vita” was downgraded to “Vito.” And why did they not have me circumcised? I asked her that later, in the Bronx, when a Jewish boy criticized my “funny-looking wee-wee marker” and I noted his own stripped down model.
        The question disconcerted my mother, and she blushed.
        “If we got separated,” she began, and fumbled for a moment. “It would prove, you see, that you could not be Jewish.”
        It was much later that I read about the disgusting details: the Nazis were known to take Jewish infants by the feet and swing them headfirst into the nearest wall. My parents had believed that a foreskin might save my life. There were bad days coming for the Jews; everyone knew that when I was born.
        I don’t think I was overly concerned myself. For my first year, in Switzerland’s Italian province, I had an Aryan grandmother always at my service. I was a properly pampered baby in the sunny lakeside village of Minusio.

       I was a year old when mother was summoned to the German Consulate in Lugano. The consul had been informed by the Gestapo that she was living with a socialist, a notorious Jew whose writings had been banned. Her own work was being investigated; if she did not separate herself from this man, she could never again return to Germany, and all her relatives there would be under suspicion as well. The consul seemed genuinely concerned for her welfare, but Maria refused to compromise. Her moral certainty rings out in the affidavit describing their interview, and I recognize the mother I admired as a small boy. I am sorry, but I cannot discuss that with you.
        She was so shy that she tended to be stiffly correct; but she was always capable of terminating a conversation with the cold snap of a moral absolute. There were certain things she did not allow anyone to question.
        She would pay for her intransigence within a few weeks. The German consulate put pressure on the Swiss, who used the pretext that newspaper work by refugees competed unfairly with their own native writers. If our family did not leave the country immediately, we would be taken into custody and delivered to Nazi officials at the border. That would be a death sentence; the Germans had already burned Walther’s books, and my parents were on a list of the regime’s enemies.
        I have one letter, written years later, in which my mother describes what followed.

       Never in my life will I forget this one day, the last in Switzerland. We had been warned repeatedly; they finally gave us 24 hours. We had cabled again to all the other countries in Europe, begging, this time. All to no avail. In the last hour we received a telegram from an official in Luxembourg, who could only grant us a visa for a three day stay. So once again we abandoned an apartment and all of our newly acquired books and walked out, practically without baggage except for the two-year-old boy. Out of those three days in Luxembourg we wangled 300; we stayed until anonymous letters from our dear countrymen, the resident Nazi spies, began showing up under our front door. We still, of course, considered Paris a safe haven, and my husband succeeded in getting in touch with Georges Mandel, a Jew who was then minister in charge of France’s colonial affairs. Mandel could not promise to let us stay in Paris, but he thought it might be possible to ship us to asylum in Martinique. It sounded like paradise. So we walked out of another apartment, shutting the door on all the newly collected books, it hardly mattered any more. But by the time we arrived in Paris German armored battalions were heading for France. What followed was the typical refugee destiny, a tired old story, downright antique already, except for those of us who lived it.

       6
        For most of my life I have not bothered myself with the details of that “tired old story,” in which my mother and I joined the masses oozing out of Paris and fleeing toward the south. “Exodus” may be a misnomer: Jews were a minority among the more than eight million confused and fearful humans clogging the roads and railway lines during the summer of 1940. My parents got separated in the process, and it was a single sentence, which I had always overlooked in my mother’s letter, that finally sent me to the history books. My mother was dragged to Gurs, my husband to another internment camp.
        Camps? In France, the home of Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité?
        As I learned so late: it was not a proud hour for the country to which hundreds of thousands of refugees from Eastern Europe had already fled. It would have been difficult to find a more vehemently anti-Nazi population; yet to the French government, now at war with Hitler, they were enemy aliens. With the military paralyzed by defeatism, the one firm decision was to incarcerate all able-bodied Germans found in the country.
        There were no facilities ready for tens of thousands of new prisoners, but the policy was executed enthusiastically, perhaps to convince French voters that their dithering government was doing something. The United States, in its internment of Japanese residents, would make a similar shameful decision after Pearl Harbor. Old photographs of Gurs look as drab and deadly as those of Manzanar: a warren of wooden barracks erected hastily on a dusty plain.
        It was this French policy, rather than German military advances, that led to the breakup of families like ours, whose members had to straggle separately toward some possible asylum across a landscape already ravaged by combat. My mother had been spared only because she claimed to be “nursing a baby.” In the weeks before her own flight, there were proclamations by radio and by poster. Enemy residents were ordered to check in at the Velodrome d’Hiver to be processed for internment. There were serious penalties for not showing up at the stadium at the designated time. My parents, though ardent socialists, were never outlaws. Their innate tendency was to obey the rules. So I imagine that Maria escorted first her husband, then her mother to the collection point after debating the alternatives, round and round, for days.
        We simply must do it.
        But when will we see each other again?

       Grandmother’s sudden removal must have been my first serious loss. She had, after all, taken care of me full-time during the first three years of my life, while her frantic daughter hammered at her typewriter. Now the stadium had swallowed her and then disgorged her on one of its “transports,” as it had swallowed my father.
        Soon after our arrival in Paris, then, Maria was a single parent. She would not even know the whereabouts of her husband and mother during that hectic summer of 1940 in which Belgium and Holland were overrun, the French army collapsed, and Hitler strutted into Paris. She had no way of knowing whether she would ever see them again, whether they were alive, whether she herself would be alive tomorrow. She had no idea what would happen to her child, who, when he was not whining and tugging at the annoying black belt around his tummy, seemed to reject her and toddle off at a tangent as soon as released from her anxious clasp.
        As they started their Exodus, however, it was she who had walked away – to teach him a lesson – and as he plodded miserably at her side, trying to glue himself to her without being allowed physical contact, she felt the canyon inside herself, the fear of what she might do. In this convulsive emptying out of Paris, parents were herding their offspring along, terrified of losing a child; there was a yelling of names, frantic signaling, and compulsory linking of hands as mothers behaved as true mothers do, even those just roused from a sickbed, or drunk, or feeble minded. What if SHE had managed to lose her one boy only because he had gotten on her nerves? How could she survive the shame?
        The poor weak creature, with his mop-head of wild blonde hair! He did annoy her at times, constantly soiled, and following her around like a sick puppy, with that silly little belt around his middle. A hundred times she had wanted to scream. But now she picked him up again and hugged him close, and even the smell of warm urine was a bliss. This was the greatest love, after all. A mother’s love.
        And although he was now straining to make some space in her overly tight grip, she would not let go; for the next ten years she would try to keep him unreasonably close to her, unreasonably safe, tugging the leash on my every independent move with the cry that curtailed me throughout my childhood: “don’t go too far away, Vito.”

       7
        Three quarters of a century ago the Reaper, grimacing among the witless masses oozing out of Paris, must have waved his scythe gaily at the two of us, Maria and Vito, a disastrously odd couple. Look at her: Miss Perfect from the provinces, who had always been backed by a benevolent mother and the guidance of a patriarch. Suddenly she is a worn haggard orphan with huge accusing eyes. The poor woman is encumbered with a boy she had neither fed nor weaned herself, who’d adored his inaccessible mother but was already suspicious of her changing weathers, and sometimes hostile.
        Consumed with what she’d decided was her sacred mission, she clamped my hand inexorably in her own, tugged and cajoled, pushed me in a pram she had “liberated,” socialist style, from a bourgeois porch, dragged me impatiently and, when all else failed, carried me in her thin arms which became iron until they shook and failed.
        We headed, with everyone else, toward the Unoccupied Territory. To locate Walther and Nona; to reunite with them; to obtain a visa to a neutral country; to get on the mythical ship that would take us there: every unlikelihood multiplied the odds. Did the two of us have any chance at all? What were the facts?
        The most common goal for those hoping to leave the continent, the port of Marseille, was 775 km from Paris. It took many of the travelers' months to get there. Traffic on the main roads moved only for minutes at a time that summer, with stoppages for hours and sometimes for days; refugees often had to backtrack long distances, and few of them managed to advance more than 5KM per day.
        Overcrowding was not the only reason for the snail’s pace. Many civilian fugitives started out on motor vehicles or horse-driven carriages; but axles broke by the thousands due to overloading, the horses collapsed from overwork and starvation, and gasoline quickly became unavailable except to military personnel. Soon the roadsides were clogged with wrecked or abandoned vehicles and dying horses. Bicycles fared better, but most political refugees ended up as pedestrians, often walking only at night for safety, and dreaming of some angelic rescue.
        The final touch was provided by Goering’s air force, which distinguished itself by bombing and machine-gunning the gridlocked highways and whatever railroad lines were still operational. In the long run Hitler intended to treat the French leniently; they were Aryans, after all, and he wanted to soften the West by demonstrating German veneration for “culture.” But as long as a French surrender was not certain, the proper tactic was to paralyze their transport facilities; and the bored Nazi pilots deserved some amusement as well. The roads, bloated with wrecks and litter, became soaked with blood and tears.
        I have found no statistics as to the number of civilians killed or injured in these air raids upon the Exodus. The exuberant gunners were usually content to scare the crowds and see them scatter; the “final solution” had not yet been devised, and there are no reports of systematic massacres. It’s likely that broken minds were more numerous than bullet wounds. The typical “displaced person” was undernourished, long sleepless, and mentally disoriented by the time the Luftwaffe struck; additional terror sometimes triggered catatonic stupor, sometimes episodes of manic raving. There are no reliable figures on suicide, either, but well-known intellects, like Walter Benjamin, did choose that final asylum. Arthur Koestler attempted it also, Stefan Zweig succumbed. News of their demise infected other socialists.
        It’s possible that I saved Maria from such a temptation during our flight. I was, after all, the symbolic mission entrusted to her. But my presence may also have had a practical use. A forlorn young woman, however romantic in her desolation, might have elicited little more than a tired shrug from a truck driver or from the commander of military convoy. Add a three-year-old boy, perhaps held up to view, and human decency, or an ancient respect for maternity, might have taken hold. The most disciplined driver might have found himself skidding to a halt before even thinking the words we cannot let her walk, look, the little one, she can hardly…

       8
        Scarcity showed the failed nation its bizarre new faces: a grocery store emptied by the troops of everything except the costliest cans of caviar; a hundred cars lined up at a gas pump that could dispense only two liters to each; no vacancies at any hotel, and the floors of every lobby paved with bodies groaning in ten languages. Money was always an advantage, and though my mother had very little, she often got handouts from those who recognized her as an author sympathetic to “the movement.”
        But most paralyzing was the scarcity of accurate information, the commodity that no money could buy. The radio, that era’s oracle, was the mouthpiece of politicians and could not be believed; Maria could not find out how the war was really going, nor where her husband and mother were, nor whether the Spaniards were letting refugees across the border, nor whether ships were still crossing the Atlantic. The crowds were rife with every rumor – a main road blocked by a Gestapo checkpoint, a town bombed by the Luftwaffe, an empty passenger train headed for Marseille which would take everyone for free, but which never moved from its siding. Was it true that the trains were already under Nazi control?
        Which way to turn? Every fork in the road was a new, fateful decision. Each of the fleeing millions was apt to babble of “facts” heard elsewhere and believed; yet besides the usual fools there were knowledgeable, vigorous minds; the underground had its own intelligence. But whom to believe? Whom to follow? To make one’s way in the buzzing net one had to ask, listen, assess the informant’s competence, vigorously inquire, quickly act. For a person like my mother, to take such constant initiatives meant overcoming her own timidity … a hundred times a day. It was a stunning feat.
        She did not weaken.

       I can still hear her murmur to me, confessing, confiding, almost beseeching. I still hear that querulous voice rise and fall, muffled by years in my own flesh, for later, safe in America, she would sit at my bedside when I was four or five and complain gently and incessantly, perhaps of the misdeeds of my father, or of the indignities of poverty, using me as a receptacle for her thoughts, as any of us can use a domestic animal as an ear. Not expecting the creature to respond, we feel, or imagine, its sympathy.
        Too early, in those years, she began spinning the myth that would be fatal later on: that our bond was unique, that we were “the same kind of being,” that I was the only one who could truly understand her, and, consequently: that I was responsible.
        It must have begun in the Exodus. Stuck as she was with me, in our immense and perpetual emergency, whom else could she relax with?

       “Oh, yes, Vito, I am glad that you are going to sleep. You ARE sleepy, aren’t you? No? Oh no, you cannot run around now, I do not have the strength, no, don’t go over there, you can’t get wet again, you will get sick. No. You must sleep. I am sorry that I have to say “no” all the time. I just never know whether people will understand, they may think we are the wrong kind of German, I tried to explain that to you today and you had no idea what I was talking about.
        “Oh Vitolein, I am sorry that there is no food you like, I am hungry too, I am trying not to feel it at all, not one tiny little bit. I DO NOT FEEL IT. Gandhi fasted for a month. I am so weak-willed. That tin of paté and that slice of bread they gave me at that village, was it Ganson ? That was only yesterday. Vitolein, I am so tired. My nerves, my nerves, I am like Nona now, always talking about her nerves.
        “Do you remember the nice lady who had the big kettle of hot milk for the children? I am glad you drank some of that, at least. It made up for the milk I left in Paris, oh I hope I didn’t burn the house down. She was a nice old thing despite her two hundred pound rear end, wasn’t she, the woman with the milk? You see, Vitolein, there are good people in this world, she didn’t ask whether we were French or German or Jewish or anything, she didn’t care, she felt for the little children, so many on this road, some of them so sick, oh much, much sicker than you are. I can hardly look at them sometimes. The misery. This is hell, that must be what it is. But you can’t just run up to someone we don’t know, there are terrible people in this world. You can’t pick things up from the street either, Vito, there may be bombs, there was fighting here.
        “Listen, help me, don’t chatter. We have to decide what to do tomorrow. Sit on my lap, come…Yes, you are my big man. There is a town to the west, it is called Cahors, and they say there is a church and on the walls travelers have posted hundreds of little notes, so the whole wall is a big list of all OUR people and where they are stationed and how their families can reach them. So perhaps Nona and Walther are on that list and then we can write to them or telegraph them. And finally we would know where they are.
        “But that church is out of our way and we would lose a lot of time. And the Nazis are getting closer every day and people are beginning to say that the war is lost and the enemy may come south and lock up the whole country and not let any of us out. That’s what they want. Vito, keep your hands off that belt. My poor boy.
        “No, the war CANNOT be lost. But we simply MUST get further south as soon as we can. But it is also absolutely necessary to find Nona, I know, I am a bad mother, I do so many things wrong. Yes, Nona. I shouldn’t have said that. Nona. But stop saying her name now. Please! I know, I know. Nona, Nona, Nona. And no, do not put that into your mouth. Please.
        Vito, if you do that you will make your mother very unhappy.

       9
        The fate of the interned “enemy aliens” was indeed questionable. France’s collapse on the battlefield left the administrators of the camps in a quandary. The prison guards, many of them disabled veterans or retired policemen, tended to throw away their uniforms and run rather than face the dreaded Boche. The camp commandants often felt a moral obligation to protect prisoners whose only crime had been to beg France for asylum. But in the economic disaster of a lost war, these foreigners were not a priority. Most of the camps simply dissolved in the chaos of the unexpected defeat. The French officers became refugees themselves… and left the gates open.
        The most vigorous inmates, like my father in La Braconne, just walked away. Others, too weak or too law-abiding to move, hung on in the disease-ridden facilities, sometimes without food or water, until they died or were hauled out by squads of rescuers, often communist cadres. I do not know how my grandmother was able to leave the huge and dismal camp for females at Gurs. I know that I hurt my mother’s feelings by whining incessantly for my old companion, Nona, Nona…

       “Stop it. PLEASE STOP IT. What should we do? Tell me what to do. Everyone tells me a different story. That skinny scarecrow from the Alsace told me that the socialists are meeting in Montauban, that we should all go there. The woman from Bremen says that the Quakers are giving out food in Marseille and that the Americans are giving everyone a visa. But her husband said that it was all lies and that he’s heard definitely and absolutely that the French police are now arresting every Jew who arrives at the Marseille train station and that the whole town is a trap. He also claims that the Americans have a quota and that they are not letting anyone in. The French are now rounding up people to lock up. I just don’t know how the war is going and I won’t have any strength left in a day or two unless I get some food. Oh Vito, I wish you were a man already, I wish you could do this for me.
        “Vito, when you look at me so seriously I could swear you understand. You understand more than anyone else in the whole world. We will come through this, I will bring you through this. We will beg, if we have to. I am proud, but I can beg, if it concerns YOU. I will stand out on the highway and hold you up and some great and good man will stop and take us to a fine city far in the south. A great and good man. No, keep your hands off that belt. Oh, the poor, poor boy.
        “I will do it. I can do this. If only someone would take us in for a few days so that we could regain our strength and I could wash our bodies and these filthy clothes. I have never been so filthy in my life. How could I appeal to a man while I look like a rag doll who’s been rolled in dirt? Although I can appeal to a man, Vito, I know how to do it. That police chief in Beziers who was so nice, I would have slept with him if I had to, to get you out of there. But he was an honorable man. He was strong and decent. He obeyed his conscience, not his orders. Not like most of them, weak puppies. Some of these Frenchmen are more like women. Oh what am I saying to the child. Oh if he knew who his mother was. Poor child, he thinks I am an angel.
       “Vito. I know that I am holding you too hard. No, don’t do that! I am sorry, I am an awful mother. I must be gentle. I am scaring you. Some day you will be a man, you will be the man of the house. You will be strong for me and for your grandmother. Yes, hug me, you are my baby. Oh, no, Vitolein, DO NOT HIT YOUR MOTHER. NO. I know, I was scaring you again. I’m sorry. I’m sorry.
       “Things are beginning to blur. I need to close my eyes. Vito, please sleep, be a good boy, do not run off when I am not looking. I hope those people over there have the sense to stop you from going very far. Oh Lord, it has been one week of walking, walking, walking.

       “ARE THEY COMING? ARE THEY COMING? Oh, no. I must have … a dream. Did I scream again? Did I wake you? “Sorry, sorry, baby, sorry, sorry, sorry. “Oh Jesus Christ, oh God in Heaven, I know, you are on strike, you want nothing to do with this cursed race, you probably do not exist at all. Oh Lord God who does not exist, help me, I will get through this. I have to sleep for at least an hour. “Vito, I can’t sleep. I can’t sleep. I have forgotten how to sleep.”

       Once safe in the United States, my mother wrote successful potboilers for young adults, but never had the heart to write a descriptive account of her travails on the road out of Europe. If I can imagine what she might have said to the three-year-old, can I not channel what she would say to me now, this woman of 106 who has been dead for some 33 years? What stories would she tell to an old man that she never told to her living son?

       “Now you are older, so very much older! And now I can remember them all clearly, the days that were gone, the time I had cut from my mind. I remember the provincial town you just wrote about.
        “I still had money but the stores were all empty, the retreating soldiers had cleaned everything out, I had nothing to eat. All the hotels and hostels were full, refugees sleeping in chairs, on the floor, on the street, you couldn’t get a safe place to lie down. There was a grand hotel there. All the guests and staff had fled because of a rumor that the Germans were at the gates. In the garden restaurant the guests had left their dinners unfinished and rushed off, in a hurry to save their expensive lives. Soon we were all pushing each other out of the way to get there first. Even your mother, who always thought she was so fine. You must have seen her running from plate to plate, scooping up half-eaten food with her hands.
        “We camped on the lawn of a chateau whose inhabitants had abandoned it. Of course the rooms were all stuffed with immigrants, and it stank in there. But outside the rains had soaked the grass so it was not too crowded. I found some dry straw to make a bed. I begged some milk for you from a mother from the Alsace. She gave us some rolls, too. Their last rolls, I think. I just could not refuse.
        “But you simply would not sleep and give me a moment’s rest. You jumped up and down when you saw the French tanks. You loved the infernal rattling and booming, hour after hour all day long, as the army retreated along that highway, always retreating, always another excuse not to fight.
        “Vito, the whole world was on the road, and everyone so full of trouble, trying to go the other way, south, and pushed to the sides and onto the fields by the military. Some of us full of manic energy, and others sullen and beaten down and ready to drop. There were people, good people, Vito, strong men, who committed suicide rather than fall into Nazi hands, they couldn’t go on, they just didn’t see a way out.
        But you didn’t understand a thing. It was a grand picnic for you. For a few days, until it was too much. And then you got sick on me, and from then on you were always sickly. Until we got to America.
        “You were already wearing that little belt that the doctor in Paris had fitted to keep your testicle in place, and I had to keep you clean, I don’t know how I did it. You poor boy! Here you are, 78 years old, and I am still calling you “poor boy,” isn’t that something? All mothers ought to be shot, I have always known that.
        “But I was thinking of the belt because, you won’t believe it, I had run into that very same Jewish doctor the day before, in Granville. There he was, Dr. Rothman! He too hadn’t dared to stay in Paris, he knew that the French would turn against their Jews, he had no illusions. He was a photographer, and he took a picture of me in Granville and gave us some money. And later, in New York, he gave me the photo. He was very fond of me. I don’t mind telling you this. He was such a nice man, a good man, almost impotent, the poor dear, but very learned. In Paris he hadn’t charged us a penny except for the x-rays. Oh, Vito, I was still young, you know? Forgive your poor old mother!
        “Oh, that photograph! I was thin as a pole, very pale, with huge staring eyes. But there was a light in those eyes, a wild light I have never had again. Now I can say these things to you. Men would turn around and look at me. I kept that photo in a secret place and stole a look at it now and then. After your father left I threw it away. I threw it away, I threw it away, I threw myself away. “I’m sorry, Vito. I was getting dramatic again. You always hated it when I did that, didn’t you? I know, my “episodes.” You won’t believe this, Vito, but in a funny way that exodus was the best time in my life. How can you understand any of this? You have lived all the rest of your years in your comfortable America, where you can trust the doctor, and the policeman is your friend, and education is given to you without your having to work for it. You have been safe all your life, and what have you done with it?
        “I’m sorry, so sorry, that slipped out. You see, I still say awful things to cut you down. Death changes nothing. I am a terrible person.
        “It happened three days after Granville. I was finished. I had not eaten for days, everything hurt from carrying you, and the worst thing was, I had not found a place to wash. I just wanted to die, just lie down on that muddy pavement in my filthy rags and die. So I lay there in the dirt while you sat by me singsonging in what you thought was French. Singing, dear boy, while your mother was becoming part of the pavement. I thought of you, about to be orphaned, and my tears bit me like acid because I could do nothing to save you.
        “There were some sheep in the field, their undersides grey from the wet, as dirty and hungry as the rest of us. They made pitiable little retching sounds. You started whining about Nona, and I had given up, like the poor gutless French, like everyone else.
        “And then, inside me, I felt the fire start.
        “I was burning, Vito. Ice cold, and burning. No one could withstand me, certainly no man. And no, Vito, I did not only want to save you.
        I wanted to save myself.
        “Up on my feet I went! I pushed that oversized pram that I stole in Meziers, depriving some bourgeois mother. When you have to act, you act. This time I put the carton and the backpack in it, and you trotted along by my side and when you just refused to walk any more I tied you to my back with my soiled nightgown.
        “The road was finally silenced by a big wet empty dawn. There had been news that the Nazis would definitely arrive that day. That’s why hardly anyone was walking. I smelled cows and their manure. There were hardly any trucks, the French army had exhausted itself in its panic and by that time no one else could get any gasoline.
        “And now we were washed by a glare of bright headlights. I sucked my breath in and recited our father who art in heaven. Then I turned and saw them. Mein Gott: two black and red motorcycles flagged with the swastika. Driven by two incredibly healthy specimens of German manhood.
        “Black leather jackets. Big pink muscles. The rulers of Europe. Compared to the defeated leftovers of socialism, an entirely different species. The vitality! Real meat on their bones.
        “It was all over, of course. Our lives were over.
        “And then I took him in: the Nazi who had braked and was getting off his clean machine. And, oh Vito, I saw the reverse of everything I had expected. I saw health and discipline, and yes, beauty. The young officer was saluting me with a respectful Heil Hitler. He was concerned about you. The man actually wanted to help.
        “At that moment I said to myself our lives are not over, these guys are going to take us to Montauban, if I have anything to do with it. To Montauban, where the socialists are gathering. They are going there and they are taking us, whether they want to go there or not.
        “I gave up all shame and gave him a Heil Hitler in return. Vito, I swear to you, it was the one and only time in my life I managed that stiff-armed obscenity. As soon as my arm reached the proper height the hand clenched. It wanted to punch me in the face. I stopped it just in time. Because I needed to get us to Montauban. One thing at a time. Now, just that.
        “But how to bring it off? The man was from my country. He was speaking to me, now, in perfect schoolboy French. I hardly spoke a word of it. Quick: play deaf mute? I took one more look at him and put my cards on the table. Our common language just spilled out of me. In German, I told him the truth. Some of the truth. We have been living in Paris. We are trying to get to Montauban, where we might be safe from war.
        “It was a sudden relief to be speaking German, to BE German, again. Let him kill us, I thought, if he wants. I thought of saying that my husband is undercover for the Gestapo, a lie which might have brought deep trouble.
        “But my fire was burning, and neither of the men even asked me for papers. Would you believe it, they were cultured and kindly. Reconnaissance scouts, bored with an empty mission. I had them in my hand.
        “Vito, they must have known that we were not on their side. They weren’t asking questions, because they simply did not care.

       “The officer’s machine was equipped with a large, flat baggage carrier. His sidekick laid out a blanket on it for me, and I sat with you on my lap, shaking, while they drove all afternoon to Montauban, where they hadn’t been ordered to go. Corporal Gieser, his name was, gave you too much candy, and you had to throw up in a ditch. Konrad Gieser, yes. I can see him now. He was attracted, of course, but too well bred to take advantage, even if we had been alone. There was an electricity between us. Yet under my skin, the murderous fear. When I tried to mention the Fuehrer respectfully he just shrugged. In the military you do what you are told, he said. But he didn’t like this war, he had always loved French culture, and he just didn’t know, he just didn’t know. “How will it end?” was his comment on the world situation. “How will it end?”
        “Well, Vito, for us it didn’t end there. Konrad left us off on the outskirts of Montauban, saying that otherwise things would not go well for me. “My people” must not see me arriving in the company of Nazis. You see? He knew. He gave me money, he gave you more candy. We looked at each other for a long minute.
        “’I have a life too, Frau Maria,’ he said.”
        “What could I say?
        “Faced with my silence, the corporal winced painfully and turned away. He quickly made a funny face at you, to get you to smile. But you whimpered and hid your head in my breasts. Konrad shook his head, performed another Heil Hitler, gave the order, and they chugged off. All business.
        “Yet I would never be the same again. For a moment I was out of my mind with excitement. I had wanted him terribly. I had liked the power. I had even liked the taste of evil. The smell. You are old enough, finally, to understand, aren’t you, Vitolein?
        “There are no angels.

       “In town we found out that most of the socialists had already left for Marseille, but the communists, as usual, had things organized, with large bulletin boards on which members of separated families had tacked Zettelchen, scraps containing addresses and dates, some of them in code. So we could line up for hours at telegraph offices and send cables that might arrive six months later, when the loved one was already dead or in America. The phrase “displaced person” was just coming into use. “Displaced,” indeed. It seemed as if Europe was full of people split in two, seeking their other halves. As I was.
        “Nothing about Walther or Nona on any of the Zettelchen, so we made the round of the hotels and cafes, and instead of Walther we found Joseph Stern, that old hack writer whom you always called “Uncle Stern,” and he knew someone who knew where your father was, although it took seven more weeks before we all got back together. We stayed in Montauban for a month, and it was unreal, because Stern had money, and who knows? Perhaps he had always been in love with me.
        “Another one. I could have done without him. But thanks to him we stayed in a real hotel, and the luxury was so bizarre, a tub which occasionally gave us brown water, and the first privacy I had had in a month, and a place to write, for Stern shared his typewriter with me, and there was a park in which you could play. I could slowly get myself together.
        “Sitting on the park bench watching you, or sitting in the hotel’s restaurant eating whatever food the chef could still buy, mostly stale bread and the inevitable tin of paté, and drinking “coffee” made of grain and chicory, I would look out on the streets always flooded with the newest wave of the desperate, the grubby and the lost, and I’d feel unutterably fortunate, and also ashamed. After all, we had some connections with a movement, and there was always someone to help us with a little cash. Walther and I were known, to some extent, and recognized, while so many people had nothing, nothing, nothing but misery.
        “Terrible month, Vito, in which bad news was always followed by worse: Belgium surrendered and let the German army walk through, the French government fled Paris in secret after assuring its own citizens, until the last day, that the city would be defended. And then the old proud nation got on its knees before that gang of German criminals and begged for a cease fire. ‘Please, oh please.’
        “Hitler didn’t even answer for days. But then the details of the settlement caused many of us to lose hope. The French dishonored themselves by signing the infamous Article 19, known as “surrender on demand.” It committed them to deliver to the Nazis any foreigner whom the Germans listed as undesirable or suspect. If the occupiers could lock up the country quickly, it would become the killing field of Europe: for your parents, for you, for thousands more. For days we could not believe that the French had brought themselves to swallow this. But fear spread and ate into mens’ minds, and there was another epidemic of suicide.”

       10
        Walther Victor and his three dependents were able to reunite in Marseille, where their fight to stay out of Auschwitz became a battle for “papers.” The lovely Mediterranean city, home of so many foreign embassies, had turned into a slowly tightening, immensely complex trap, in which powerful diplomats as well as hapless civil servants of many nations found themselves cast as executioners or liberators. Suddenly faced with hordes of desperate fugitives, most of the officials were confused above all. And overworked. And often indifferent.
        Here it was Walther’s turn to perform the heroics for which his temperament was suited. Gregarious, extroverted, my father was a natural in the politics of self-promotion; we would call it “networking” today. His most important coup was to get the family placed on a desperately coveted list. President Roosevelt had been pressured by his wife to send a special ship to ferry endangered German artists, writers and other professionals to safety. No, Walther Victor was not in the same league with men like Heinrich Mann, Mark Chagall, Franz Werfel, Lion Feuchtwanger or Alfred Doblin; but my energetic and articulate dad had no scruples; whom he could not overawe and threaten, he was willing to flatter and cajole. The passenger list of the Nea Hellas, on which we departed from Lisbon in October 1940, was like an honor roll of significant German Jewish intellectuals … plus some lesser known luminaries, like Walther, Maria, and Vito.
        To get from Marseille to Lisbon, however, required navigating a bureaucracy which had bloated long before the Nazis began turning France into a trap for dissidents. European “coyotes” trafficked in human lives, forging papers and bribing border patrols to help the persecuted get across the Pyrenees and avoid being nabbed by Gestapo agents as they crossed fascist Spain. Most were in it for the money; a few were idealists, like Varian Fry, an American sent by a private relief organization, who was personally responsible for more than 1,000 successful emigrations before the anti-Semites in the U.S. State Department sabotaged his outfit by alerting Vichy agents. We owe our lives to this man and his staff, to the Quakers and Unitarians who provided food and shelter, to many other good people.
        In his memoir, Walther writes that the process “destroyed his nerves.”

        I must have been a small boy when I first started peering behind me into the foggy tunnel of time. Past my very first memories I always sensed a moist, warm glow. Snuggling or cuddling with my mother, already rare in the Bronx, must have been a continual heaven back in an even earlier, Golden Age.        By the age of seven our physical intimacy was over; we could no longer lovingly touch. In my mother’s version, she’d condescended to my fierce (and to her, somewhat ridiculous) desire to be manly. I remember how she would mock my alleged aversion to maternal caresses. I cannot tell which of us needed to wriggle out of the other’s humid clasp, once we had reached the United States.
        Who rejected whom? History is written by the adults … until the child rewrites it in the therapist’s office.
        Warm and welcoming breasts: are they everyone’s secret myth of origin? Mine survived the news that I was soon old enough to piece together. I learned that my infancy had coincided with my parents’ flight from a continent overrun by killers. I had escaped the Final Solution only in the trembling arms of a young woman nearly crazed by anxiety.
        Even today, though, when I rewind my brain’s hard drive past the files that hold the first data, I can see no evil in her. In the beginning was love. Particularly during that flight, I must have been held constantly - body to body - to the source of my life. Mother had been supremely available, and in some place and time during the Exodus, on some seedy hotel floor, or on the ground in some rain-soaked wood, there must have been at least one hour when the two of us surrendered to one another. When we simply melted together.
        I have held on to that bliss.

Vito Victor was carried out of Europe by journalist parents escaping the Nazis in 1940. Two decades later he dropped out of a Ph.D. program in Philosophy during America’s roaring 1960's.  He then attempted a psychic overhaul: psychotherapy, meditation, three years in India.  The wanderer found the love of his life in Taos, New Mexico in 1975, had a son with her and acquired a degree in Computer Science to pay the rent.  His real interests  have remained literature, philosophy, wilderness camping and hiking, and meditation.  His book of memoirs, OUTGROWING MYSELF, is looking for a publisher.  It is described in vitovictor.com

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