Shortly before she passes away, my 99-year-old Aunt Irene asks if I would continue the upkeep of her sister’s grave. Something she had done for decades− since the bleak November morning, when Jean, her name was Jean, fastened her chestnut hair into plastic rollers, ordered lamb chops from her butcher, then hanged herself with the belt of a chenille bathrobean item from her brand new trousseau. She had been married ten days.
“Of course,” I say, and we finish lunch locked in a hammering silence.
I am tugged back to 1951, a time of post-war jubilation. Our family, following many of our closest cousins, had packed up and said farewell to Brooklyn, taking up residence in the second promised land—the wide-open-spaces of south shore Long Island. Adored grandparents and favorite aunts were no longer a jubilant skip or hopscotch away. Visiting anyone meant nauseating car rides on rutted roads, causing me to vomit in the backseat.
Maybe that was why Aunt Jean, already in her 40’s, decided to try her hand at marriage. She was brave, then, to become a bride to up and leave her brother’s comfortable Brooklyn home and the family’s lucrative knitting business where she had worked since the age of sixteen. For her husband, she chose an affable blue-eyed man she knew briefly through business, whose forearm bore the indelible stamp of Auschwitz. His name was Max, a Polish Jew, who was not, at all, reticent when it came to recounting the horrors and turbulence of a world Jean had deserted thirty years prior. I vaguely recall his warm cheer while he responded to the many rapid-fire questions I asked while perched on his lapmy fingers tracing the blurred gray numbers emblazoned under his shirtsleeve. With heads barely touching, Aunt Jean and Max formed a loving arc above my choppy bangs and pigtails.
Then, like a random flurry in April, my aunt vanished from my life. Desperately needing answers, I became a champion eavesdropper, hoping to decipher the strange, broken Yiddish the family spoke mostly around the kinder.
Shaped like a beanpole, I leaned into dim-lit rooms, and listened to the tribal sounds of grief: wailing, muttering, shushing always followed by loud, almost comical nose-blowing. But the only truth was the vivid imagination of a young child left to fill in the blanks—a child, whose suffering multiplied inside a fragile shell of the unknown.
Day after day, while my mother primped me for school, I tried cracking the secret code: “Mommy, please tell, where is Aunt Jean?” And whenever she responded with more than a shrug, she said my aunt and her new husband had gone on a “far away” trip. Some long honeymoon, I thought. And why never a postcard to her favorite little niece− the one she called shana madele?
I became sullen, then angry at both of them for abandoning me so easily. They had to have been the biggest fakers. Then, one night, on a sleepover at my cousin Franny’s house I was enlightened by her younger brother, Richard. Uninvited, he came galloping through the bedroom wearing his cowboy Dr. Denton’s and a homemade noose around his neck.
“This is how Aunt Jean died,” Richard croaked between giddy yaps, jumping on and off the bed while I lay frozen in horror.
Everything clicked. Floating fragments of a naïve hope settled on the swirling carpet, instantly banishing the lie. Soaked in sweat and shivering with fear, I begged to be driven home.
Though my parents offered more outright denial, now, at least, there were discussions─ a hinting of my aunt’s previous, undiagnosed depression. Another secret is revealed: there was a younger brother who had decided to remain in Riga while his siblings fled to America. During the war, he, his wife and baby daughter were murdered when, during the high holy days, the Nazis set their synagogue on fire.
Jean took this news the hardest. She stopped eating, barely slept and became plagued with hallucinations. Once, while working in the knitwear factory, sewing gold fleur de lis crests on a slew of cardigans, her entire body began to quake. She pleaded with my grandfather to quickly remove the crests, convinced they were Swastikas.
It became convenient to hurl blame on Aunt Jean’s husband for sharing the atrocities he’d witnessed in the concentration camp. Some surmised these tales triggered her survivor’s guilt and each new bout of depression. Everyone had a theory, including that my aunt had not been prepared for her husband’s sexual advances. Could she have felt repulsed or defamed, trapped in humiliation and knew no other way out?
As I grew older, I hated that our family’s shame about Aunt Jean’s death served to eradicate all memory of her. It was as if she had never really existed. Hadn’t she, as a kind, loving person, deserved reverence? For too long, they shared a lie about her death rather than celebrating the fact that she had lived. Ten years after Jean’s death, my grandfather bought a plot for himself and twelve remaining relatives. It was 50 miles from the cemetery where his sister was buried− a place, nobody visited.
After lunch, Aunt Irene hands me the rest of her “important papers,” bundled in thick pink rubber bands. A thumbnail photo of Jean spills from a plastic holder onto the oilcloth. I press it close to my face; “Oh, how beautiful, she was.”
My Aunt hears me, though our eyes never meet.