The Choice CHAPTER 1
The Four Questions
If I could distill my entire life into one moment, into one still image, it is this: three women in dark wool coats wait, arms linked, in a barren yard. They are exhausted. They’ve got dust on their shoes. They stand in a long line.
The three women are my mother, my sister Magda, and me. This is our last moment together. We don’t know that. We refuse to consider it. Or we are too weary even to speculate about what is ahead. It is a moment of severing—mother from daughters, life as it has been from all that will come after. And yet only hindsight can give it this meaning.
I see the three of us from behind, as though I am next in line. Why does memory give me the back of my mother’s head but not her face? Her long hair is intricately braided and clipped on top of her head. Magda’s light brown waves touch her shoulders. My dark hair is tucked under a scarf. My mother stands in the middle and Magda and I both lean inward. It is impossible to discern if we are the ones who keep our mother upright, or if it is the other way around, her strength the pillar that supports Magda and me.
This moment is a threshold into the major losses of my life. For seven decades I have returned again and again to this image of the three of us. I have studied it as though with enough scrutiny I can recover something precious. As though I can regain the life that precedes this moment, the life that precedes loss. As if there is such a thing.
I have returned so that I can rest a little longer in this time when our arms are joined and we belong to one another. I see our sloped shoulders. The dust holding to the bottoms of our coats. My mother. My sister. Me.
* * *
Our childhood memories are often fragments, brief moments or encounters, which together form the scrapbook of our life. They are all we have left to understand the story we have come to tell ourselves about who we are.
Even before the moment of our separation, my most intimate memory of my mother, though I treasure it, is full of sorrow and loss. We’re alone in the kitchen, where she is wrapping up the leftover strudel that she made with dough I watched her cut by hand and drape like heavy linen over the dining room table. “Read to me,” she says, and I fetch the worn copy of Gone with the Wind from her bedside table. We have read it through once before. Now we have begun again. I pause over the mysterious inscription, written in English, on the title page of the translated book. It’s in a man’s handwriting, but not my father’s. All that my mother will say is that the book was a gift from a man she met when she worked at the Foreign Ministry before she knew my father.
We sit in straight-backed chairs near the woodstove. I read this grown-up novel fluently despite the fact that I am only nine. “I’m glad you have brains because you have no looks,” she has told me more than once, a compliment and a criticism intertwined. She can be hard on me. But I savor this time. When we read together, I don’t have to share her with anyone else. I sink into the words and the story and the feeling of being alone in a world with her. Scarlett returns to Tara at the end of the war to learn her mother is dead and her father is far gone in grief. “As God is my witness,” Scarlett says, “I’m never going to be hungry again.” My mother has closed her eyes and leans her head against the back of the chair. I want to climb into her lap. I want to rest my head against her chest. I want her to touch her lips to my hair.
“Tara ...” she says. “America, now that would be a place to see.” I wish she would say my name with the same softness she reserves for a country where she’s never been. All the smells of my mother’s kitchen are mixed up for me with the drama of hunger and feast—always, even in the feast, that longing. I don’t know if the longing is hers or mine or something we share.
We sit with the fire between us.
“When I was your age ...” she begins.
Now that she is talking, I am afraid to move, afraid she won’t continue if I do.
“When I was your age, the babies slept together and my mother and I shared a bed. One morning I woke up because my father was calling to me, ‘Ilonka, wake up your mother, she hasn’t made breakfast yet or laid out my clothes.’ I turned to my mother next to me under the covers. But she wasn’t moving. She was dead.”
She has never told me this before. I want to know every detail about this moment when a daughter woke beside a mother she had already lost. I also want to look away. It is too terrifying to think about.
“When they buried her that afternoon, I thought they had put her in the ground alive. That night, Father told me to make the family supper. So that’s what I did.”
I wait for the rest of the story. I wait for the lesson at the end, or the reassurance.
“Bedtime,” is all my mother says. She bends to sweep the ash under the stove.
Footsteps thump down the hall outside our door. I can smell my father’s tobacco even before I hear the jangle of his keys.
“Ladies,” he calls, “are you still awake?” He comes into the kitchen in his shiny shoes and dapper suit, his big grin, a little sack in his hand that he gives me with a loud kiss to the forehead. “I won again,” he boasts. Whenever he plays cards or billiards with his friends, he shares the spoils with me. Tonight he’s brought a petit four laced in pink icing. If I were my sister Magda, my mother, always concerned about Magda’s weight, would snatch the treat away, but she nods at me, giving me permission to eat it.
She is standing now, on her way from the fire to the sink. My father intercepts her, lifts her hand so he can twirl her around the room, which she does, stiffly, without a smile. He pulls her in for an embrace, one hand on her back, one teasing at her breast. My mother shrugs him away.
“I’m a disappointment to your mother,” my father half whispers to me as we leave the kitchen. Does he intend for her to overhear, or is this a secret meant only for me? Either way, it is something I store away to mull over later. Yet the bitterness in his voice scares me. “She wants to go to the opera every night, live some fancy cosmopolitan life. I’m just a tailor. A tailor and a billiards player.”
My father’s defeated tone confuses me. He is well known in our town, and well liked. Playful, smiling, he always seems comfortable and alive. He’s fun to be around. He goes out with his many friends. He loves food (especially the ham he sometimes smuggles into our kosher household, eating it over the newspaper it was wrapped in, pushing bites of forbidden pork into my mouth, enduring my mother’s accusations that he is a poor role model). His tailor shop has won two gold medals. He isn’t just a maker of even seams and straight hems. He is a master of couture. That’s how he met my mother—she came into his shop because she needed a dress and his work came so highly recommended. But he had wanted to be a doctor, not a tailor, a dream his father had discouraged, and every once in a while his disappointment in himself surfaces.
“You’re not just a tailor, Papa,” I reassure him. “You’re the best tailor!”
“And you’re going to be the best-dressed lady in Košice,” he tells me, patting my head. “You have the perfect figure for couture.”
He seems to have remembered himself. He’s pushed his disappointment back into the shadows. We reach the door to the bedroom I share with Magda and our middle sister, Klara, where I can picture Magda pretending to do homework and Klara wiping rosin dust off her violin. My father and I stand in the doorway a moment longer, neither one of us quite ready to break away.
“I wanted you to be a boy, you know,” my father says. “I slammed the door when you were born, I was that mad at having another girl. But now you’re the only one I can talk to.” He kisses my forehead.
I love my father’s attention. Like my mother’s, it is precious ... and precarious. As though my worthiness of their love has less to do with me and more to do with their loneliness. As though my identity isn’t about anything that I am or have and only a measure of what each of my parents is missing.
“Good night, Dicuka,” my father says at last. He uses the pet name my mother invented for me. Ditzu-ka. These nonsense syllables are warmth to me. “Tell your sisters it’s time for lights out.”
As I come into the bedroom, Magda and Klara greet me with the song they have invented for me. They made it up when I was three and one of my eyes became crossed in a botched medical procedure. “You’re so ugly, you’re so puny,” they sing. “You’ll never find a husband.” Since the accident I turn my head toward the ground when I walk so that I don’t have to see anyone looking at my lopsided face. I haven’t yet learned that the problem isn’t that my sisters taunt me with a mean song; the problem is that I believe them. I am so convinced of my inferiority that I never introduce myself by name. I never tell people, “I am Edie.” Klara is a violin prodigy. She mastered the Mendelssohn violin concerto when she was five. “I am Klara’s sister,” I say.
But tonight I have special knowledge. “Mama’s mom died when she was exactly my age,” I tell them. I am so certain of the privileged nature of this information that it doesn’t occur to me that for my sisters this is old news, that I am the last and not the first to know.
“You’re kidding,” Magda says, her voice full of sarcasm so obvious that even I can recognize it. She is fifteen, busty, with sensual lips, wavy hair. She is the jokester in our family. When we were younger, she showed me how to drop grapes out of our bedroom window into the coffee cups of the patrons sitting on the patio below. Inspired by her, I will soon invent my own games; but by then, the stakes will have changed. My girlfriend and I will sashay up to boys at school or on the street. “Meet me at four o’clock by the clock on the square,” we will trill, batting our eyelashes. They will come, they will always come, sometimes giddy, sometimes shy, sometimes swaggering with expectation. From the safety of my bedroom, my friend and I will stand at the window and watch the boys arrive.
“Don’t tease so much,” Klara snaps at Magda now. She is younger than Magda, but she jumps in to protect me. “You know that picture above the piano?” she says to me. “The one that Mama’s always talking to? That’s her mother.” I know the picture she’s talking about. I’ve looked at it every day of my life. “Help me, help me,” our mother moans up at the portrait as she dusts the piano, sweeps the floor. I feel embarrassed that I have never asked my mother—or anyone—who was in that picture. And I’m disappointed that my information gives me no special status with my sisters.
I am used to being the silent sister, the invisible one. It doesn’t occur to me that Magda might tire of being the clown, that Klara might resent being the prodigy. She can’t stop being extraordinary, not for a second, or everything might be taken from her—the adoration she’s accustomed to, her very sense of self. Magda and I have to work at getting something we are certain there will never be enough of; Klara has to worry that at any moment she might make a fatal mistake and lose it all. Klara has been playing violin all my life, since she was three. It’s not until much later that I realize the cost of her extraordinary talent: she gave up being a child. I never saw her play with dolls. Instead she stood in front of an open window to practice violin, not able to enjoy her creative genius unless she could summon an audience of passersby to witness it.
“Does Mama love Papa?” I ask my sisters now. The distance between our parents, the sad things they have each confessed to me, remind me that I have never seen them dressed up to go out together.
“What a question,” Klara says. Though she denies my concern, I think I see a recognition in her eyes. We will never discuss it again, though I will try. It will take me years to learn what my sisters must already know, that what we call love is often something more conditional—the reward for a performance, what you settle for.
As we put on our nightgowns and get into bed, I erase my worry for my parents and think instead of my ballet master and his wife, of the feeling I get when I take the steps up to the studio two or three at a time and kick off my school clothes, pull on my leotard and tights. I have been studying ballet since I was five years old, since my mother intuited that I wasn’t a musician, that I had other gifts. Just today we practiced the splits. Our ballet master reminded us that strength and flexibility are inseparable—for one muscle to flex, another must open; to achieve length and limberness, we have to hold our cores strong.
I hold his instructions in my mind like a prayer. Down I go, spine straight, abdominal muscles tight, legs stretching apart. I know to breathe, especially when I feel stuck. I picture my body expanding like the strings on my sister’s violin, finding the exact place of tautness that makes the whole instrument ring. And I am down. I am here. In the full splits. “Brava!” My ballet master claps. “Stay right as you are.” He lifts me off the ground and over his head. It’s hard to keep my legs fully extended without the floor to push against, but for a moment I feel like an offering. I feel like pure light. “Editke,” my teacher says, “all your ecstasy in life is going to come from the inside.” It will take me years to really understand what he means. For now all I know is that I can breathe and spin and kick and bend. As my muscles stretch and strengthen, every movement, every pose seems to call out: I am, I am, I am. I am me. I am somebody.
* * *
Memory is sacred ground. But it’s haunted too. It’s the place where my rage and guilt and grief go circling like hungry birds scavenging the same old bones. It’s the place where I go searching for the answer to the unanswerable question: Why did I survive?
I am seven years old, and my parents are hosting a dinner party. They send me out of the room to refill a pitcher of water. From the kitchen I hear them joke, “We could have saved that one.” I think they mean that before I came along they were already a complete family. They had a daughter who played piano and a daughter who played violin. I am unnecessary, I am not good enough, there is no room for me, I think. This is the way we misinterpret the facts of our lives, the way we assume and don’t check it out, the way we invent a story to tell ourselves, reinforcing the very thing in us we already believe.
One day when I am eight, I decide to run away. I will test the theory that I am dispensable, invisible. I will see if my parents even know that I am gone. Instead of going to school, I take the trolley to my grandparents’ house. I trust my grandparents—my mother’s father and stepmother—to cover for me. They engage in a continuous war with my mother on Magda’s behalf, hiding cookies in my sister’s dresser drawer. They are safety to me, and yet they sanction the forbidden. They hold hands, something my own parents never do. There’s no performing for their love, no pretending for their approval. They are comfort—the smell of brisket and baked beans, of sweet bread, of cholent, a rich stew that my grandmother brings to the bakery to cook on Sabbath, when Orthodox practice does not permit her to use her own oven.
My grandparents are happy to see me. It is a wonderful morning. I sit in the kitchen, eating nut rolls...