I realized I never truly knew my mother. I knew she plucked pieces of lavender and orange blossoms from our backyard and folded them into her white dresses. When she whisked me into her arms I used to press my rosy face into her linen shoulders, just so I could smell her springtime scent. I knew she was born in Liverpool in a big house with green shutters but hadn’t lived anywhere else for more than a year until she painted white puffy clouds on the walls of my nursery. That was back when we lived in the somewhat falling apart two-bedroom home on Chapel Street. I knew she had gone on pointe at the ripe age of 12, and although she had given up dancing many years ago, every Christmas she scraped together money for two tickets to the Nutcracker. I knew she always painted her nails a deep maroon and had a crooked smile. She loved to write poetry in long cursive letters. She must have had parents but I never saw a picture of them. I wonder if my grandmother had her deep black eyes, they were like splatters of ink against her parchment-pale face. She called them “dangerous eyes,” and said when she was my age, all she wanted was my powder-blue gaze. There was pain swirling behind her pupils but she was good at hiding it.
Once she volunteered as a chaperone for my seventh grade field-trip to a history museum. “Louisa Wilson” was scribbled on a name-tag pressed to her chest. Between the artifacts from a Viking ship and the painted stoic faces of medieval kings was an exhibit called “Images of Auschwitz.” I saw my mother hesitate, then wander into the exhibit. There was a picture of a girl with wide eyes her head jaggedly shaved. “Chaya Katz prisoner 107849.” Seeing it, my mother was violently jolted; though she said not a word I watched her quietly bite her nails until little droplets of blood formed at the edges of her fingers. I remember our drive home that day, sitting in her Volkswagen, the hot leather seats pressing against my thighs. “Did you know that girl in the photo, who was she?” I asked in a childish blunt way, my mother nodded slowly and we drove in silence the rest of the way home. I often repeated the memory of my mother in my mind, sometimes I was nervous it would one day fade away.
Tears dotted my face like freckles. A week after the funeral, I shoved boxes of my mom’s tightly bubble-wrapped possessions into the trunk of my car. As I slammed the rusted trunk shut I desperately longed to be a kid, my mom gripping the pink plastic handle of a jump-rope as I giggled, feeling my feet hit the grass between skips in the backyard. I climbed the rickety ladder to the attic where the last few boxes sat. I lifted the heavy wooden lid of the trunk. Inside was a strawberry red scarf my mother knitted, a postcard from Austria, a worn copy of A Moveable Feast and Tales of the Jazz Age with her initials scribbled on the inside, and, a little black journal. I could feel my heart slam into my rib cage. I hesitated a moment, staring at the cover, then hastily flipped through the pages of her swirly cursive letters and began to read.
Ballet Class Holland 1941
I was late by exactly seven minutes. My fingers thumbled with the pink silk ribbon that dangled from my point shoes. I hurried to tie them but the fabric slipped between my calloused fingers into a loose knot. Immediately I untied the mess of ribbons and started over. Out of the corner of my eye I could see the other girls were already stretching, leaning against the wooden barre grimacing as their white knuckled hands wrapped around the soles of their pointe shoes, the once blush fabric now withering away into a mess of dirt streaks, loose threads and tarnished lace. I pulled tighter on the ribbon, my fingers moving like a spider frantically crawling about my leg. I could hear Madam Morel crack her knuckles against the maple keylid to the piano in the corner; she did this every time she was about to play and the sound of her bones popping under her thick layer of wrinkled skin made me squirm.
She opened the lid of the piano and dusted off the keys with the cuff of her stained sleeve. Her messy mixture of white and grey hair spiraled by the sides of her face. She squinted her hazel eyes that were such a deep gold they looked like the violin resin my brother often left on the bookshelf. I watched her attention shift to her carpet bag with horribly embroidered lilacs on it that sat next to her on the piano bench. She undid the clasp and rummaged through the clutter she threw in the depths of the bag, lifting clean white sheet music as carefully as she could.
Madam Morel was an older woman who had a nineteen year-old son, he was a soldier in the last war. People often say nice things about him in a sticky sorrowful way even though I’m sure they never met him. I remember him faintly. He used to ride the paper route, Chaya had a crush on him and one time we left him gingersnaps in a brown paper bag by the mailbox. I didn’t pay much attention but maybe I would have if I knew he was going to die in France just a few years later. In a nightmare once, I imagined his body sinking into the depths of the trenches alongside bullet shells and ashes, his perfect blonde hair covered in dried blood, the creases of his blue eyes filled with clumps of dirt. If you walked by the big brick house on Third Ave. with the antique lace curtains and the blue heavy wooden door which Madam Morel lived in with her boxer Leo, at 7 o’clock, without fail, you would see her strike a match. The candle she lit flickered in a crystal holder behind the speckled window panes of her sitting room. A homemade memorial. It made me sad knowing that after practice she would return to a dozen empty rooms and a pudgy old boxer. My eyes fluttered away from Madam Morel as she shuffled through the pages of her music sheets.
Winter had crept upon the earth like a frigid snake slithering its way into Holland as we sunk into our burrows in order to escape the serpent’s fangs. The frost-covered windows of the studio framed each of the girls like Degas’s little ballerinas. Their silhouettes were long and angelic, porcelain faces and stiff collar bones, grey under eye bags from last night’s sleepless hours spent huddled in the tube station.
Anxiously fumbling with the hem of their nightgowns, listening to the light echoes of bomb blasts, pretending they were just fireworks upon crowded cement floors.
This morning, between yawns which they politely covered with the back of their hands and rosy-lipped half-smiles they whispered and giggled about the lobby boy of the Maret Hotel on Basma Ave., the one with the curly hair and freckled face, or spoke dreamily about the pink satin dress they had seen in a Ginger Rogers movie long ago. In the midst of the world shifting there were still moments of youthful pleasure.
There were twelve of us where there used to be fourteen. Elizabeth, a mousy blonde with a pointy nose had left to live with her uncle in Suffolk last spring, I had a competitive streak that bubbled-up when I saw her perfect pirouettes and was somewhat happy to see her go. Chaya, who seemed younger than all of us because of her tiny form and whose thickly lashed doe eyes teared up when she was sternly corrected had practically vanished. Her father owned a shoe store, which had been boarded up for months. I wondered where she was from time to time and if she continued ballet. No one really mentioned her anymore.
I could feel a chill upon the soft pink tights that wrapped around my scrawny legs as I walked to the barre. I struggled to tug my hair into a bun until Briggetta the oldest, wordlessly began to twist my loose strands of hair atop my head and whispered something to me about being late to practice but she was drowned out by the sound of Madam Morel’s ringed fingers brushing over the keys. I gripped the barre and felt my body become light and elegant like a daisy, its petals shifting slightly in the wind. I could hear the stiff click of my dance teacher Madam Dubois’s heels before I saw her walk into the room. She wore a grey collared dress and always smelled of cigarettes and freshly pressed laundry. We all straightened up a few inches and felt her narrow eyes linger on each of us. She slowly walked around the room each click of her heels blending with Madam Morels rendition of Tchaikovsky Pas De Deux in a lyrical voice the words “Arabesque, Attitude ….and Croise, relax your shoulders Louisa,” escaped from the gap in her teeth.
Later in the flickering lamplight each of the girls would drape worn coats over the slippery silk tutus and hug the edges of the brick walls dipping in and out of shadows clutching their pointe shoes between mittened hands. Adrenaline pounding inside their fragile ribbed chests. I often snuck out just a few hours past curfew. In Madam Dubrois’ 17th century family estate there would be a small crowd of people sitting on oak dining room chairs. As Madam Mourier played Vivaldi and Tchaikovsky each girl managed a smile and a few good jumps. Some of the audience cried and held onto one another, some smiled in blissful contentment. Seeing a rosy cheeked ballerina in a blue silk tutu seemed so foreign against the common sights of crumbled buildings and bloody faces. On a dining table sat a milk jug of spare change which the very next day Madame Dubois would wrap in newspaper and pass it to the grocer who then would give it to the Dutch resistance.
…I closed the diary holding it so close to my chest the edges poked at my ribs. In-between tearful inhales, I rubbed my fingertips against the worn pages with her inky words. It was like I held this small piece of my mother.