Diatribe

[Leer cuento en español]

By now, the odor of abandon and decaying food has almost dissipated from Mischi’s apartment in Queens. She has been paying rent for a vacant apartment since her death, and now Ruth and her son, Mark, have come all the way from California to dust it off, to expel the mustiness, to empty it of history and the tangible void of the last few months so that it can be released back to its owner once and for all.

Everything has been in disarray since the beginning of March, because the sudden news of her mother’s death sent Ruth rushing to New York to take care of the barest necessities. She stayed only a few days, convinced that she would be back in a couple of weeks to arrange everything properly. It had never crossed her mind that five months of purgatory would pass before her return. Yes, the virus was filling the news then, and New York was already giving hints that it would become one of the world’s epicenters, but it still seemed like a distant, foreign scourge, not quite real. In March, she took care of the basics. Collecting the ashes from Staten Island, she faced the same views of the Statue of Liberty that had greeted her mother arriving on these alien shores. Curious about a church she’d never seen before, she entered on a whim, and the remains started to writhe within their urn, because it seemed Mischi’s repulsion to Christianity survived even incineration. Back at the apartment, she recited the Kaddish, the prayer of the dead, with a minyan formed of the hodgepodge of nonagenarians and former employees Mischi hadn’t been nasty enough to drive away permanently. She ended up kissing and hugging these near-strangers as if everyone had forgotten that in these times, death lurked in every breath.

Ruth performed these obligations by ritualistic instinct, relief growing as she closed out this chapter of her life full of fighting and anger. Eager to be done and feeling slightly dazed, she threw things away with abandon, emptying the apartment as quickly as possible. Later, when she realized that in her cleansing frenzy, she’d thrown away all the death certificates she’d just paid for, she allowed the thought to cross her mind that maybe the anger hadn’t been completely surmounted. The one thing she kept without a second thought was the suitcase that Mischi brought on the Gripsholm, the Swedish ship that carried her to a new life in New York. In March, Ruth set this luggage in a corner and there it remained, oblivious to the march of history and the absence of Mischi. She still doesn’t feel ready to face whatever’s inside that shabby and enigmatic suitcase and has been postponing opening it all week long, knowing the memories it holds might shatter her.

Perhaps she’ll open it today, taking advantage of being on her own, since Mark set off for a Saturday in Manhattan and shows no signs of returning. Both mother and son deserve a break today, after a frenzied week trying to dispose of the seemingly inexhaustible stores of books, documents, tchotchkes, furniture, clothing, medical equipment, and now-obscure devices that accumulate over more than half a century of a life in the same apartment. Who’d have thought giving valuable items away could prove so difficult? Ruth has enjoyed strengthening her relationship with Mark over these days, but now she is lured by the idea of solitude, which seems to her like a chance for the long-awaited closure to the mourning that has clouded her since spring. She will say goodbye for the last time to that apartment where she spent most of her childhood and adolescence with her parents and sister, all of whom, it hits her, now exist only as memories, many of which are staged within these four walls.

Mischi made her exit at the right time; how awful it would have been for her to live through the pandemic. And what would Ruth have done? Expose herself repeatedly to the menacing, panting crowds of airports or move in with her mother? Both options sound potentially deadly, and just thinking about it sends a chill down her spine. Fortunately, Mischi died exactly as she wished — at home, suddenly, painlessly, after a long life, able to claim a moral victory over the cancer the doctors had said would kill her in three months all the way back in early 2017. It was almost to be expected, because by the age of eleven, she was already a reluctant expert on the necessities of survival, leaving behind all friends and family to escape to England on one of the first trains of the Kindertransport. But a week before she’d died, she announced on a phone call with Ruth that she was more than ready to leave this world behind too, and she finally did so at the age of ninety-two.

Over these days that mother and son have been confined to the apartment in Queens, they have erected a giant, chaotic pyramid on the Persian rug out of every document that exudes the slightest whiff of interest, and Ruth’s goal for today is to do a thorough winnowing.

She is eager to plunge into the maelstrom of paper because the written words are serving as stitches for a wound that has gaped open for decades. For some unknowable reason, Mischi spent more than thirty years bad-mouthing her as greedy and conniving, even threatening to disinherit her in later years, as if determined to perpetuate the pain she had suffered when her own father did the same to her.

Hence, Ruth was astonished when she read the will in March and discovered that Mischi’s last testament contradicted those lacerating, inexhaustible curses, not only granting her daughter her rightful share of the estate but giving her absolute power as the sole executor. This unanticipated posthumous gift was a tremendous emotional reprieve, a far cry from the single table and lamp granted to Ruth in an earlier will tauntingly shown to her by her mother. 

Now she sits before an overwhelming epistolary expanse and reads and reads without respite. Through her hands pass dozens and dozens of angry letters, from forgotten battles that took place between 1952 and 2016, and she separates them into two piles. On the right, she places the letters returned to Mischi which trace her fierce advocacy for Black civil rights in the 1950s and 1960s. She had already known the broad details of her mother’s education campaigning, but the deep commitment to fair housing was all new to her. On the left, she puts the Byzantine labyrinth of correspondence relating to her attempts to recover the family businesses, real estate, and works of art, in a struggle that spanned seven decades, with restitution of pennies on the dollar granted in spurts and dribbles. At the age of eighty-eight, her life already behind her, she received a tidy sum from the German government that allowed her, in her 90s, to finally discover the pleasure of spending money. Inextricably intertwined with this saga is her ultimately futile fight to recover her rightful share of her parents’ estate, traced in drifts of letters from a dozen different lawyers. Ruth has always wondered what led them to disinherit her — an impossibility in German law, as Mischi later discovered — because, from the correspondence she comes across, it seems they never stopped caring for their daughter.

Just minutes ago, she discovered a letter from 1944, in which Dr. Hilde Lion — founder of Stoatley Rough, the English boarding school for German refugee children where Mischi spent the war years — assures Lily and Hermann Matthiessen that their daughter loves to receive news and photos of them, that they don’t have to worry about any lack of affection, and that she is a good-looking, tall girl, very practical and quite capable to organise.

She finds a diary of Mischi’s. She skims through it, skipping whole sections, until she comes to a 1959 entry in which, exhausted and lovesick, Mischi contemplates suicide. Ruth’s first overwhelming impression is how much her mother truly loved her father, and the letters she’s found demonstrate that this endured until the end, even decades after their separation. But she can’t help the nagging realization that, conversely, Ruth and her sister, Irene, are mentioned only in passing, as if they were irrelevant to this decision… her mother has been ignoring her for even longer than she thought.

She tosses the journal away in a moment of ire, and glances out of the corner of her eye at the Gripsholm luggage, as if to say that now she has seen everything she needed to, that she is ready. But something is still holding her back: she knows her mother treasured that suitcase for decades. It’s ridiculous, because Ruth has never felt intimidated by objects, but she cannot open it yet; she does not feel strong enough to face its contents, maybe because of the weight of history. 

Instead, she grabs a small file cabinet with a label that reads “Kochrezepte,” which holds the recipes of her great-grandmother Helene Dobrin, Mischi’s beloved grandmother who was killed in Theresienstadt, the concentration camp near Prague. Helene and her husband Moritz founded the Dobrin Konditoreien, which quickly grew to many branches across the ritziest neighborhoods of Berlin, so successful that it became a fixture in guidebooks and even literature of the epoch. Family legend has it that Helene introduced the banana split to the German capital, and she was unquestionably a savant with desserts, so Ruth strokes the autumnal pages and vows to cook Schokoladencreme and Zitronen-Eis and Kastanientorte when they return to California.

Suddenly, an envelope drops from the file cabinet with a small note pinned to it: “Last letter from Helene to Lily before she was sent to Theresienstadt.” The ink is still crystal clear, as if written yesterday, but it is in German, the precise, old-fashioned cursive on the pristine onionskin so elongated that it resembles Cyrillic. Ruth is almost relieved that the message is indecipherable for now, and she places the letter next to the green passport with a large swastika that Lily used to flee to the United States via a tortuous journey overland through wartime France, Spain, and Portugal.

Generations of a family reside in these epistles that flood the Persian rug, yellowing papers with ink spilled in love and anger and confession by people who now must be conjured out of this correspondence that oscillates between futility and transcendence. They speak of music, literature, food and all the routines of a life, but the letters also served as a means for Ruth’s father, Stanley, to reveal his homosexuality, and for her sister to tell her that she had terminal cancer, shortly before her death at the age of forty-five. At this remove in time, there is indeed a curious flattening in which the mundane has become as important as the momentous. 

Ruth is besieged by so many simultaneous sensations that no single emotion can break through, and she feels absolutely nothing except dread of that brown, battered suitcase. She focuses again on the letters: she reads them quickly, with a curiosity that is both historical and familial, and she is especially amazed by those from the post-war period, because, in a single letter, Mischi is able to casually mix book recommendations with news of relatives killed in Auschwitz, and the pleasure of a night at the theater seeing The Rivals with the the horror stories of her grandfather Moritz about surviving Theresienstadt.

Among the countless letters between Mischi and Stanley, who couldn’t resist painting their love in ink even when living under the same roof, Ruth stumbles upon love letters to Mischi from a boyfriend in the 1940s, Hans, never mentioned by her mother in 70 years, yet apparently a key figure of her youth, and of her life. There, another side of Mischi appears, vivacious, chattily romantic, reproving him lightly for calling her “sweetheart” and “honey,” blaming it on pernicious American influence on newly-arrived Hans or perhaps a heat wave addling his mind. In a letter written a month before the end of World War II, Hans resorts to German words and uses the affectionate nickname “Mischilein,” expressing his impatience to be reunited with her in New York, which he describes as an amazing and dizzying city, as well as a place full of fruit and chocolate, so unlike England. He tells her that he has met with Lily and Hermann who, after so many years of separation from their daughter, are forced to ask this stranger whether she is tall or short, fat or thin, beautiful or ugly, straight or hunched. And Ruth suddenly makes a connection in her mind and realizes that this Hans is the same person as that mysterious figure who finally convinced Mischi’s parents to bring her over from England and reunite her with them.

A curious and slightly jarring phrase jumps out at her. Hans assures Mischi that he has not said a word to her parents about her “slightly fat hams”. At first it seems vaguely insulting, especially since Mischi has always been rather skinny, if anything, in her youth but then she sees its sweetness. This is clearly one of the inside jokes of a playful young couple (likely born in the awkward transition from Germanophone to Anglophone), repeatedly endlessly by flirtatious lovers who see a lifetime before them, until suddenly it is never repeated again. It was never intended to be seen, seventy-five years later, by the prying eyes of someone who exists only thanks to the disintegration of that romance.

After surviving all the stresses of a year apart, why did their love collapse so quickly once Mischi rejoined him in New York? Perhaps she didn’t marry Hans because for her, New York was always supposed to be a blank slate. She fervently refused to play the role of the pitiable Jewish refugee and strove to disassociate herself from anyone else who had escaped the Nazis. Driven by an instinct for self-protection and rebelliousness against her family, she preferred to marry the most Aryan-looking man she met, an intellectual Christian from rural Indiana, and to celebrate Christmas with her daughters instead of Hanukkah.

The explorer on the Persian rug also comes across less exciting but less distant messages, which had fallen into the oblivion of forgetfulness, and the Ruth of the present stares into the eyes of the Ruth of the past, who, apparently, was already obsessed with food and J. D. Salinger and casually bandying about Freudian terms to describe her feelings at the age of nine. But what surprises her most is to read how she and her mother joked with each other and talked to each other with love, and it brings her back to the first 20 years of her life, when she had admired her mother so much, before everything soured.

Mischi’s cooking is one bright memory she always kept, and Ruth clings to it. She opens the freezer, where the last taste of her mother awaits her, and the soup that Mischi froze the previous Passover still tastes like youth and life all these months later.

After this culinary reconciliation, Ruth returns to the fray and grabs a few more folders. She knew Mischi always had some aspirations as a writer, but she had no idea how complex her poetry was, or that she had gotten interest from publishers about short stories and even a novel. How could she have hidden this part of her life from her daughter? She finds a rejection letter from an Annie Laurie Williams, who regrets being unable to publish Mischi’s story, Exodus, but expresses great interest in her upcoming novel.

Ruth reads the first sentence of the novel, apparently untitled — “When the Jacksons did their customary entertaining on Saturday nights, Harriet Jackson underwent a complete metamorphosis” — and falls into the reader’s trap of wondering if Harriet is an alter ego of her mother. She leafs through the sheets and jumps from page to page until she reaches Harriet’s suicide, and she is stung once again by Mischi’s attitude.

She turns around and sees only photos full of inhabitants of the past which, instead of saddening her, suddenly make her feel an enormous gratitude for this world-wide caesura. Plunged by Death into dissociation, confusion and uncertainty, she has been able to take refuge in silence, isolation and freedom from distractions, the perfect ingredients for a generous balm, all of which she would have lacked under normal circumstances, since in American culture everything must be overcome from one day to the next, because it holds no place for mourning.

Seen as a unified story, the pile of documents floods Ruth with sympathy, compassion and appreciation. With the safety and perspective of time, reified on the Persian carpet of that apartment in Queens, her mother has been transformed into a literary character with multiple names — Marion, Mischi, Mischilein, — a stranger with a fascinating life that her daughter was often barely aware of. It seems to her that this post-mortem portrait exudes intelligence, humor and sensitivity, and Ruth forgives her mother all the years of threats and negativity.

Now she feels emotionally ready to face the suitcase. Ruth carries it next to the window to illuminate it clearly and, even though she’s not normally one for photos, she snaps a couple as a memento, because she’s afraid the valise will crumble in her hands. She wipes off her glasses, takes a deep breath, smiles, and steels herself to open the case, knowing she can take any painful memory or discovery. She has History before her eyes and feels powerful confronting that suitcase which bore her mother’s dreams and sighs on the long boat ride from Liverpool to New York and the unknown. For a second after it falls open, Ruth’s brain can’t process what’s before her eyes, and then she giggles helplessly as she realizes the case is filled entirely with the tackiest Christmas decorations she’s ever seen.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

More tales of the pandemic based on real stories at
Love in the Time of Coronavirus,
by Patricia Martín Rivas.

Love in the Time of Coronavirus

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