Categories
Temporal Reflections

Halloween

by Gillian Sutliff | Temporal Reflections | Spring 2021

Image by Katie Frevert

Terror and tedium in New York.


3:20

I can barely hear the gunshots when they go off. Yet somehow, they are the loudest thing in my memory. In the moment, though, what’s loud is Ms. Brando’s voice, desperately trying to keep the class’s focus on the role of the president when there’s only 15 minutes left of 10th period on Halloween. A guy in a giraffe jumpsuit bounces his knee violently, while Batman next to me scrolls through Twitter on his phone. When the shots ring out, Ms. Brando doesn’t stop talking. But suddenly everyone’s heads are up and alert, looking around confused. I twist around in my seat to see Michelle’s face, and mouth, “Did you hear that?” She nods with a furrowed brow. Someone raises their hand to ask Ms. Brando what that sound was. She didn’t even hear it. The PA system crackles to life:

“This is Brian Moran speaking: we are now in a soft lockdown. This is not a drill. Students may not leave or enter the building. Teachers, keep your students in the classroom, even after 10th period ends. We will be back with updates on the situation outside soon.” 

The room doesn’t erupt into panic like we later found out other classes did. We are all seniors and don’t get nervous easily, although maybe we should’ve. We’ve practiced lockdown drills before but it was never something that felt serious. Still, everyone takes out their phones and starts texting parents and friends, trying to figure out what could be happening outside. Ms. Brando doesn’t know what to do with her class that no longer cares about learning about the government. She stands at the front of the classroom until a girl in a witch costume gets up and asks her to pull up news channels on the smartboard. 

3:24

It takes the witch a couple minutes to find anything. It makes sense because she doesn’t really know what to Google. Finally, she finds a CNN blast with an update about two dead in a terror attack. We all stare with blank faces at the smartboard. Two dead? Were those the gunshots? If there was an active shooter outside our building, then this classroom was more like a prison than a safe haven. We are on the third floor; someone could easily aim and shoot through our open windows. I wasn’t the only one thinking this way. A kid in a hoodie slams down the window next to him. Batman is our Student Union President and he ducks out of class before Ms. Brando can say anything. A few minutes later he comes back with a handheld radio. He’s not even supposed to have it and keeps it tucked under his desk. He tunes into the channel the security team uses. Over the line, Mr. Moran says something about a school bus. Batman leans over and whispers to me. From the Student Union room he could see bodies on the Hudson River bike path. 

“I think there’s more than two people dead.”

3:40

there’s nothing to do in this room. I try to read American Pastoral, but it’s hard to give Roth my undivided attention when there may be a terrorist attack outside my school. That’s what the news is saying at this point. It’s all over Twitter. Terror attack in downtown Manhattan. Two dead, four dead, five dead and at least 10 injured. Social media is really a blessing on this day because our school officials have said nothing, besides reminding everyone that we are still in lockdown. Conversations are whispered, heads tilted towards phones with glances up at the smartboard. No one knows how long we’ll be here. Some lament Halloween plans that will surely be called off. Because people have died, and that puts a damper on our chipper Halloween mood. 

3:52

ms. Brando lets me out of the room to use the bathroom. She’s maybe a bit hesitant, but the hallways don’t feel dangerous. The garbage can overflows onto the floor. At the sink I run into Michelle vigorously scrubbing her face with a rough, brown paper towel. I don’t even remember her leaving. 

“I just had to get the makeup off my face.”

It’s then that I notice Michelle was dressed as a skeleton today. There’s not much she can do with the bones painted on her black t-shirt and leggings, but her skull makeup can definitely be fixed. It’s odd how people’s priorities shift when in crisis. A terror attack happened yards away from where we were sitting in class, and she can’t bear to be associated with the image of death anymore. So, she scrubs desperately at her face with something that is (practically) sandpaper. The skull pattern isn’t visible anymore, but her face is tinged a ghastly gray, so abnormal from her usual pink cheeks. When she asks if she looks bad I have to say no, she looks fine. 

4:10

after leaving Michelle, I go off to look for my friends who have 10th period free. They stayed inside because we had wanted to take pictures after school. The halls are empty and washed out in artificial light. I find them in the third-floor atrium, an outlet circling the theater with a ton of lockers. They slump against the lockers, along with at least 40 other students, mostly upperclassmen. But even in this crush of people, the noise is capped at whispers. It’s strange that the administration is letting all these people chill in a hallway when we are in lockdown. It’s strange my teacher has been letting us wander the halls too. I think she doesn’t know what to do either. It’s strange that we know next to nothing about the incident. My friends thank God that they didn’t decide to leave the building. They were about to go to the deli during 10th when the attack happened. Apparently, the security team let kids standing outside the building run back inside. They really shouldn’t have. An attacker could’ve run in with them. But there was a man on the street waving guns, Sage tells me. Did he shoot people, were those the gunshots? She doesn’t think so, but she doesn’t really know anything. We take a couple of selfies in our costumes together, right there in our locked-down school building, but it’s not very fun. 

4:33

iam back in Ms. Brando’s classroom when my phone starts ringing. I assume it’s my mother, but the caller ID says Lina. Lina worked with me at the New York City Aquarium this summer. She just started college at UMiami. 

“Hey, are you ok? Your school is on the news.”

Stuyvesant High School is on the news because it is now the site associated with the biggest terror attack in New York since 9/11. And my friend in Miami knows more about the situation happening outside my window than I do. 

4:40

the PA comes to life. One of the principal’s secretaries comes on the line. She tells us how a man drove a truck down the Hudson River bike path. He got on at Pier 40, the city pier that we use as our home baseball and football fields. It’s nearly a mile away. He killed eight victims, and seriously injured many more. He pulled off the bike path in front our school and promptly crashed into our school bus for students with disabilities. He exited his truck with two guns in hand and ran into the street waving them. Police fired several shots, eventually hitting him in the stomach. Upon investigation, the guns he held were a paintball and pellet gun. He was now in custody and had been since 3:30 P.M. 

4:58

the principal comes on the PA for the first time today. “Due to the situation happening outside, homework for all classes is cancelled.”

It’s a relief because no one can focus anyway. It is Halloween and for half a minute I debate if I could make plans. But that feeling doesn’t last; all I want is to go home. 

5:02

imight hate this classroom for the rest of my life. I hate the trapezoidal desks. I hate their blue rims and gray tops. I hate their U-shape arrangement. I hate the smartboard with not enough information. I hate everyone’s shoes. I hate the yellow wood and thin silver handles of the closets. I hate the posters with the first 10 Amendments, particularly the one about the right to bear arms. I hate the chair I sit on. I hate the people who are dressed up, and I hate the ones who aren’t even more. Mostly, I hate the boredom. Being on my phone feels superficial, and I want to save my charge so I can give my mom updates. Which leaves only my surroundings to entertain me. But after nearly two hours, there’s nothing new to observe. Some people sleep, most just look blank. Nobody knows what to talk about. 

“Due to the situation happening outside, homework for all classes is cancelled.”

5:06

we are stuck in this room. My body still feels laced with adrenaline, yet there’s nothing we can do but wait to be released. Police need to clear the area and secure a route for the 3,000 students to get to the subway so we can get home. And we aren’t the only school on lockdown; there’s also a middle school and a city college within a block. A whole block full of sitting ducks, easy targets. 

5:30

“have you seen Trump’s tweet yet?”

“In NYC, looks like another attack by a very sick and deranged person. Law enforcement is following this closely. NOT IN THE U.S.A.!”

(Later on: “We must not allow ISIS to return, or enter, our country after defeating them in the Middle East and elsewhere. Enough!”

“My thoughts, condolences and prayers to the victims and families of the New York City terrorist attack. God and your country are with you!”

“I have just ordered Homeland Security to step up our already Extreme Vetting Program. Being politically correct is fine, but not for this!”)

5:33

my mother won’t stop texting me about how I’m going to get home. She keeps asking if I want Daddy to come meet me. He works on Wall Street and could easily get to me. But she doesn’t understand that the whole area is closed. The trains are skipping our stop. There’s no traffic in our vicinity. He could come on foot but I don’t know where we will go once we leave these walls and I don’t know when we’ll be able to leave. 

5:46

a detective stops by. He’s white, maybe mid-’50s. He’s bald on top, with silvery buzzed hair over his ears. He asks if anyone saw or heard anything. We tell him gunshots and he leaves. He promises that they’ll start dismissing us soon. Since we are on the third floor we’ll get out soon. It’s too bad for those kids on the 10th floor, he says, they won’t be home for a long time. 

6:03

out on the street it is already dark. We walk out through the main entrance into a swarm of police and school officials. Students file out in a thin stream and are guided away from the intersection where the truck crashed. If you choose to look over your shoulder, you see the school bus that the terrorist crashed into. All along our route to the train there are police and teachers, a startling juxtaposition of calm people in control and frazzled adults who never expected this when they went to work this morning. 

“Oh, look at the pretty angel!” one policewoman says to her colleague. 

I give a small wave and smile. Because that’s me. I’m an angel. I have a white tutu on, wings that have begun to lose feathers, and a headband with a fuzzy halo attached to it. It all seems silly now. We walk in silence to the subway station—an angel, a boxer, Wanda and Cosmo, a witch, Batman, a skeleton—just a bunch of kids.  

Categories
Temporal Reflections

The Only Symptom

by Corrie Purcell | Temporal Reflections | Fall 2020

Image by Nell Beck

Notes on friendship and malaise during a unique spring and summer in Oberlin.


As the weeks go on, it becomes clearer that we won’t be going to the beach. This means campus shuts down and empties out in a matter of hours. This means the snow keeps falling. This means the flowers keep blooming and then curling back into themselves when the flakes cover the petals. We close the tabs on our computers where swimsuits have waited a month for us to purchase them. On the warmest days, we drag chairs into the yard and peer over tiny sunglasses at novels. It’s too easy to share a beer at 2:00 PM. It’s too easy to forget the sunscreen. With our eyes closed, the cars that pass by sound like waves.

We all become masters of the way several hours can pass like a shadow. We wave to the couple across the street who smoke and play cards from two to six every afternoon. We set up movies on the projector before lunch. I wake up most mornings feeling newly acquainted with the word ‘malaise.’ I call my mother and gain no comfort; she’s not feeling any sort of malaise. She is weirdly cheerful, resilient, hardworking. She likes her home office, feels as though she may even be more productive there. She’s finding time away from the workplace to be restorative. When I call her on my walks, she barely has time for me. She is taking two classes online and working on top of it. I have never felt more disconnected from her.

I struggle to get myself out of bed; I haven’t done homework in a week. I stopped taking notes the week after classes started back up. All I bring myself to do is find new paths in the Arb. All I can bring myself to do is pick up the guitar. And then, not even that.

***

Our friends who lived in a college-owned house across the street from us left in a hurry, not locking the doors behind them. Yesterday, we went in, just to do something new. The first floor smelled like rot. When we got to the kitchen, we found fruit on the counters with brown spots and fruit flies, expired dairy products in the fridge, takeout containers on the table. I wandered into the first-floor bedroom while everyone else went upstairs. A couple of years ago, I was seeing a girl who lived in this same house and I spent the night in that room. I marveled at the lines the sun cast on the bare mattress. 

One time, she and I went to the bar downtown and then walked back to her house, where I took my contacts out in the dark and fell asleep, earlier than either of us would have liked. Her room’s windows looked out onto the porch and each one was wide open when I awoke. I turned over and the bed was empty, but there were voices drifting in from outside. It was seven or so people, all of her closest friends, sitting there. I suddenly felt like an intruder, like I was taking away from her time with her friends; I had accidentally stumbled into something intimate and private. I dressed, then slipped out the back door. I texted her saying, “Hey, just slipped out,” and she responded, “Come eat ice cream on the porch,” which I pretended not to see until the morning.

Last night at dinner, I forgot about the rising body count. Lee and Sophie spent four days preparing for Passover: marinating, mincing, putting together. I came downstairs on Tuesday and Sophie was in the kitchen, crying while making homemade chrain. Laughing, I took her face in between my hands, wiping away her tears. 

Today, we opened up all the doors and windows, we wore freshly ironed clothes, we all put on shoes. We set the tables with bunches of flowers, moved chairs around, put wine glasses at every spot. When we held hands and prayed, there was nothing else. Sophie went to the post office and paid 10 dollars to print the Haggadah. It sat in a huge and heavy stack on the table. We kept passing it around, taking turns reading. We kept wondering if we would do this again, in a year. We kept thinking about where we were last year. Time stops and then picks up again, I guess. Maya and Grace got drunk off of four glasses of red wine. Everyone else joined them by glass six. Today, I’ve felt so gentle and smooth, I’m going to cut off all my hair and move without the weight of it. 

I wander downstairs sometime before noon. I watch one movie, and then another. I read A Little Life from cover to cover in a day. I stare up at the ceiling and forget why I came to the kitchen. 

I never knew I liked plans so much until I couldn’t make them. I’m obsessed with the spring break trip we didn’t take and I try to connect our daily life to things we could have done there. Grace comes in from a run, wet from sweat and snow, and I tell her she looks like she just stepped out of the ocean. Jae and I make plans for dinner and I suggest fish each time. When we bike past standing water that smells like trash, I always say it smells like the beach. I wonder if I’m doing this right. I wonder if I should be filling my days in other ways. I walk for two hours and then realize it will take two more to get home. Sometimes the clouds get so low that I stop making plans. 

I just got into a fight with Maya about a squirrel she saw killed by a car while on a run. She saw the car coming towards the squirrel, and then she saw the car leaving the squirrel, and when she went over, the squirrel was dead. She poked it with a stick to confirm. She finished the run and came home and wanted to go back to where the squirrel died, and because I hadn’t seen her all day I joined her. I biked back with her. She wanted to take a picture of the squirrel to put online. I thought that was a mockery of death. She told me if I wanted to leave it wouldn’t hurt her feelings. I left, convinced I was right. Now, I’m sitting alone upstairs. I know she’s back. I think she should apologize to me, to the squirrel. I know she’s feeling genuine grief. There’s so much curiosity about death. There’s so much grief we’re all holding. There’re all these headlines and all these burdens. I keep waking up in the middle of the night, dreaming that I’m sitting in front of my parents’ caskets. I forgot to mention that she kept poking the squirrel with a stick, reanimating its little limbs.

Of all the bedrooms I’ve ever lived in, I like this one the best. It’s got south- and west-facing windows, hardwood floors, light green-painted walls. I have my clothes very neatly organized in a closet that doesn’t have a door. I hung just a few pictures around the room, and the light is always perfect. There’s a queen-sized bed and a balcony. It’s very hard to leave, but when I do there’s always pizza in the oven downstairs or someone’s just finished a pie. Or Grace is studying for a test on the couch, and Maya and Jae are working on a puzzle. 

They keep surprising me, the people I thought I knew best. Mila takes walks and is gone for hours, comes back quiet and full of secrets. Maya scrubs the floor with such beautiful vigor. The dirt comes back within a few hours and then she’s at it again. Sophie watches RuPaul and is working on her fifth knit hat. Last week she made a full set of pottery bowls and mugs. Jae rises before us and is the most ready for adventure at the drop of a hat. Last week Jae cut my hair even though they had an essay due in an hour. Lee has to get into a body of water on a warm sunny day, no matter how cold the water may be, no matter how murky it may look. Grace dances in the Arb, in the front yard, by herself, with new people, with an old friend; she gets filled up on dancing and sometimes it’s enough for the day. 

***

And then there’re all the discoveries. For example, that the bike path doesn’t end in the middle of a field. Instead, if you turn left and enter Wakeman, you can bike alongside a highway for three more miles and then suddenly you’re at a square lake with geese. Or how two miles past Black River Metro Park, there’s a swampy bed for the trees and a white carpet of tiny wildflowers. There’s a trail that wanders through and the light is yellow-green. Everything is very quiet.

I keep thinking about split universes, and it seems all too plausible to me; I spend hours researching the whole Berenstain Bears thing, the Mandela effect. We sit on the couch in the seven-person home and suddenly notice that there are punched holes in Jae’s painting on the wall. We all pause, sure that these were new additions. When Jae comes in and we ask them, they laugh, Yeah, the holes have always been there.” But there’s something about the camaraderie of enough people remembering the past differently. There are so many of us who remember “Berenstein.” There are people who remember Nelson Mandela dying in the ’80s. We all remember the painting without the holes. There’re all those mathematical proofs. That’s what I’m saying about split universes. I can’t look at the spelling Berenstain.

Yesterday I cut off my hair to try to shear off all this dread. I’m practicing walking around the world without the weight of it. I keep turning over the word ‘butch’ in my mouth like it’s a piece of candy. I look in the mirror and wonder if it’s right. I trip my tongue over the words ‘boy’ and ‘dyke.’ I flip between thinking my hair is too long or too short. My best friend cut bangs into my hair in mid-March, right after we got the news, and I spent an absurd amount of time trying to decide if bangs made me look too femme. Then Jae cut into my hair more a week ago. I had them leave it long in the front, like I still have bangs, but it’s shorter on the sides and in the back. I look like a 10-year-old boy who needs a haircut. My curls fall into my eyes, so I have to push them back constantly. When I wake up, no hair falls on my forehead; instead, I walk to a mirror and I look like Cosmo Kramer, with 2.5 inches of hair standing straight up. 

I like it all the same; my showers barely happen. My body easily hides in baggy clothes. And I like getting all the way out to the middle of nowhere and not worrying about cars slowing down beside me. Last summer, my ponytail was so long and so high and so curly, it looked like an invitation. Every run, every bike ride, I practiced staring straight ahead. One time, a man in a Hyundai tried to run me off the road, came straight at me with a car until I jumped into a ditch. He yelled out, “Fuck you, bitch,” and kept driving. I put up my middle finger before I realized he had already turned the corner.

***

Still, I’m not convinced by the haircut. I like the way I look, but I’m not sure if I look like me. At least, I look nothing like what my high school self dreamed I would look like at 21. 

In high school, I wore skinny jeans and barely ate. I had this haircut that came just barely past my chin. I was really smart, and really motivated. I tried to fuck one of my closest male friends. At age 21 I wanted to look: sexy, confident, thin, with beautiful curls. I wanted: a fat ass, long hair that looked like an invitation in the sunlight, a perfect score on the LSAT. I wanted to be: desired, makeup free, relaxed, funny. In reality, I am: most of those things, but a lesbian. I use the term lesbian lightly.

I keep turning over the word ‘butch’ in my mouth like it’s a piece of candy. I look in the mirror and wonder if it’s right.

When I came down the stairs this morning, Maya ruffled my hair and I leaned into it. I think that there is a chance that this is the best thing that’s ever happened to me. On days when the sun is out like this and I move inside whenever it goes behind a cloud, when we move around an empty campus in a pack, when we strip naked on North Fields as the sun is going down. I mean, to live with my best friends in a world where they are the only things, I mean, to be able to make dinner and rules together every night, I mean, to climb into a bed with sun-dried sheets. I like moving from room to room, I like walking to kill hour after hour. When it’s warm and sunny, it’s like a vacation. 

Still, I keep looking up the definition for malaise. As in “a general feeling of discomfort, illness, or uneasiness whose exact cause is difficult to identify,” as in “unhappiness,” “uneasiness,” “restlessness,” “melancholy.” I look up what causes malaise. I look up how to cure malaise. I look up what causes malaise again. I can’t decide who decides what makes it malaise and not boredom, unhappiness, homesickness. This is my only symptom.

But here’s what I’m trying to say. When I was 10, we lived in Japan. My mother had this plan for us to see the five main islands. In Hokkaido, we went to the most beautiful beach I’ve ever seen. It was completely deserted. There were lush mountains on either side. We had to hitchhike to get there. We had to hitchhike home. Once we were there, we barely spoke. It was like being in a trance. The water was clear. The waves were calm. We are from Arkansas; my brothers and I had only seen the ocean a couple of times before this. No one put on sunscreen. 

We all swam out too far. It was only once the shore was several strokes out that we realized: the jellyfish. Jacob screamed when he felt the tentacles wrap around his ankle. Carlin and I weren’t as far out as him, and swam closer to help, not realizing what was happening. My mother was floating serenely on her back. When the stinging began, I was surrounded only by the people I love most in the world, many long strokes from shore. Fear alongside comfort.

Categories
Temporal Reflections

A Good Night’s Sleep

by Kira Findling | Temporal Reflections | Fall 2018

Art by Benjamin Stevens

There’s a disconnect with elder care in the United States. People are living longer, but nursing facilities aren’t catching up with the need for comfortable and engaging long-term care. My grandpa, Martin, moved into a rehab facility last summer following a series of intense surgeries and near-death experiences. Martin, who I call Papa, loves to nap. In my childhood, whenever I visited his house, I’d find him snoring on the couch, my grandma hitting his arm to wake him up. He seemed peaceful, drifting off in the middle of a conversation or television episode. At the rehab center, however, he struggled to sleep through the night, plagued by anxiety and loneliness. Along with the rest of my family, I tried to visit as often as I could, but found myself trapped in limbo, unsure what to do to help him in the face of a system beyond my control. Like Papa, many elderly people spend their days stuck in routines they didn’t choose, waiting for something to change, regardless of the good intentions of their family members. Among those who are receiving care in facilities, almost half struggle with depression, according to a study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But some relatives of the elderly believe that nursing home care offers the best option, while others are determined to take care of people in their own homes. Home care typically involves the work of live-in caretakers, who relieve families of nursing duties and allow for a good night’s sleep. Yet while Medicaid can help pay for this service, the application process can be onerous and inaccessible, requiring many documents and extensive financial information. Limited by government policies and financial concerns, people around the country are forced to make decisions about elder care with very little room to consider individuals’ happiness and specific needs.

In the facility, Papa often gave up and retreated into himself. Sometimes we entered his room to find him in another world, eyes unfocused and voice quiet. When my grandma brought him his favorite ice cream, he shrugged. On those days, his passion and excitement seemed to have evaporated. While some of that came from his poor health, I’m sure that much of it was due to his environment. His rehab center was state-of-the-art, with rigorous physical therapy and a rotating entertainment schedule, but the basic setup of nursing home care promoted boredom and isolation. He didn’t talk much to the other residents, instead relying on my family to visit constantly, to the point that my grandma decided to hire a caretaker after many sleepless nights. Time after time, he’d yell, “Get me out of here,” and we’d sit uncomfortably, unable to give him what he wanted. The reason why the current system of elder care isn’t working for my grandpa and many others? It’s premised on routine and repetition.

A doctor from New York wants to change that. Dr. Bill Thomas has spent his life working to tear down the nursing home system as we know it. In the early 1990s, he spent hours observing patients in nursing homes—patients who, like Papa, sat alone and waiting for hours, only to be wheeled somewhere else to do it all over again. Dr. Thomas began to think of nursing homes like spaceships, devoid of any sense of life or nature. Interviewed on the podcast Reply All, he said, “If our lives lack enough spontaneity, it loses its tang. It loses that sweet edge that comes from talking about that thing that happened, that nobody thought was going to happen. And nursing homes, actually the best of them, are extremely good at wiping out spontaneity—crushing it.” Dr. Thomas’s first big idea was the Eden Alternative. He introduced animals to the nursing home: four dogs, eight cats, and four hundred birds. Within minutes, the old folks began to giggle and chatter. One elderly man who had been unable to speak for months verbally requested a bird. He transformed from someone locked inside himself to someone speaking animatedly with a parakeet. The death rate of the nursing home plummeted and its patients were using significantly less medication. The success of the Eden Alternative came down to its chaotic nature. The elders were now living like they did for much of their lives: with little knowledge of what exactly would happen next. But though Dr. Thomas traveled around the country promoting the Eden Alternative, the initiative’s effectiveness waned when animals were introduced in an orderly manner, and nursing homes once again lost any sense of unpredictability.

The Eden Alternative holds incredible possibility for improving the lives of elderly people like my grandpa. It made care facilities into dynamic spaces with surprises and reasons to get up in the morning. Why bother spending energy when you know you’re living in a fixed, unmalleable environment? The Eden Alternative’s conclusion is that people need unexpected things to happen in life, or they will give up and retreat inside themselves. No one wants to stare at the wall all day. People want to connect, to be together, to talk and debate, to laugh. Dr. Thomas believes that elders deserve more autonomy, and that we have the opportunity as a society to build an entirely new system of elder care.

Last summer, I was always only a thought away from crying, wishing I could leave my desk and drive to the rehab facility. Papa was always confused, spinning from recklessly hopeful to dismayed. He asked my grandma why he was eating lunch at midnight, when really it was noon. One day he got so frustrated that he told us that he could imagine why someone would want to commit suicide after being stuck in a bed with no one to talk to. His caretaker was there for hours during the day, but at night Papa was alone. He woke intermittently to watch infomercials on the TV mounted to the wall, the speaker soft next to his ear so it wouldn’t wake his roommate.

Some believe that no one needs to live in nursing homes because they could get that care at home for the same price or cheaper. On Reply All’s episode on elder care, Tammy Marshall, Chief Experience Officer of the New Jewish Home in New York, said, “There isn’t anybody here that needed to be here. I could literally close this. […] All that we’re doing here can be done in your home.” Nursing homes are extremely expensive in comparison to the cost of hiring home care workers, who work long hours for low wages. Yet families often find themselves in a position where nursing homes seem to be the only option due to specific needs and the amount of energy that caretaking requires. In my papa’s case, he had to be in a rehab facility to access physical therapy. But even with “good” care—his daily physical therapy and opportunities for group activities—Papa felt aimless and missed us when we couldn’t be there. My grandma brought him home as soon as possible to end his feeling of isolation and the exhaustion of driving back and forth to the facility. A physical therapist came to the house a few times, but his treatment wasn’t as intense as it had been. The nursing home offered services that the house couldn’t, because of spatial limitations and availability of therapists. The situation left my family in a difficult position, having to choose between my grandpa’s happiness or physical health. Though Marshall is correct in saying that the services offered in a nursing facility can be replicated at home, doing so isn’t easy. It requires resources and emotional energy that many simply don’t have.

Print by Ian Ruppenthal

Caring for an elderly family member is a deeply intimate experience. Relationships change as power dynamics are flipped and decades-old dynamics disappear. Though caretaking can be a burden, it is a burden that many take on without thinking, out of love. My grandma’s life now revolves around taking care of Papa, but she can’t imagine it any other way. Like most people, she views her commitment to my grandpa as a promise to care for him towards the end of his life. She’ll be by his side. But this vow becomes an undue burden when she finds herself with very few options for elder care and when, despite her best efforts, Papa feels lonely and understimulated.

When I think about Papa’s experience in the rehab facility last summer and his continued support from live-in caretakers, I like to imagine a new world. I think of a system where Papa could decide what would make him feel healthy and supported. His dementia would prevent him from dealing with practical concerns, and we’d still have to remind him that he couldn’t drive or go to the bathroom alone, but he could tell us what he wanted and we would do our best to make that happen. So much of elder care is trying to figure out what’s best for your relative. Each day last summer, my grandma tried to make Papa happy while keeping him safe. But sometimes in the chaos of stress and decision-making, his emotional needs got lost. Papa was most at peace when we followed his lead and played along with the world he was living in, when we went along with his confused trains of thought rather than trying to correct them. For a moment, we would be on the same page, together in his world of endless daylight and imaginary orchestras and protein drinks for dinner, and he would smile.

When I imagine a better system of elder care, it’s based around community support and accessibility. Family members have a variety of affordable and supportive options for their relatives who need assistance. No one has to shoulder the responsibility of caretaking alone. I feel hopeful that, to some degree, that better system already exists. Over the summer, my extended family took turns visiting Papa and helping my grandma with logistics. These days, we all do what we can to make sure she is supported. Everyone—especially those who live close by—pitches in with food, advice, time, and words of support. But in my imagined system, it goes further. Caretaking is accessible and possible for all people, and valued as a job in and of itself. No one has to make decisions that leave their family members lonely and scared. There’s an institutional safety net for people who fall through the cracks. In my imagined system, Papa never stops caring. He’s present, with his family, and everyone gets a good night’s sleep.

One afternoon in July, after hours at the rehab facility, my family went back to my grandma’s house to go swimming. The evening flew by—pizza dinner, a call from Papa’s caretaker that she was leaving for the night. As I headed home, I realized that I had left my sunglasses at the facility. At 10:00 PM, I walked into the rehab center, greeted by the familiar sounds of wheelchairs in the halls and nurses’ shoes squeaking on the floors. Before I entered Papa’s room, I saw that he was pushing the call button again and again. The nurse bustled in and asked what he needed. Papa said, “How are you?” She smiled and adjusted his pillows. He had woken up and didn’t want to be alone. Their conversation was short; as they spoke, I snuck into the room, got my sunglasses, and left. I told myself that it would confuse him to see me there only for a moment, but really I wasn’t sure if I could handle the interaction. I knew it would wreck me to see him so helpless and alone at night. But as I left, I ran into a nurse I recognized. She smiled. “Saying goodnight to your grandpa?” When I shook my head, she gave me a long, appraising look. I poked my head into Papa’s room. He said a soft hello, sweet and tired. I told him that it was late—he had no idea what time of day it was—and that I had to go home, but that I’d be back soon. He nodded, and I kissed his forehead. Papa waved me goodbye all the way out the door. I walked out of the facility slowly, smiling at people in the rooms who were still awake. It still makes me cry to think of leaving him in that bed. That’s the reason I care so much about nursing homes and loneliness. I saw him ringing that call button again and again, and all I wanted to do was talk to him until he fell asleep, and sit by his bed until he woke up and we did it all over again.

Categories
Temporal Reflections

Limburg

by Gabe Schneier | Temporal Reflections | Fall 2018

Julia DiFiori, how the light gets in

It was early March when the email came in.

“Dear Toby,” it read, “I’m wondering if you are the widow of an Ernest Rosenthal, and if so whether you might have information about his family.” Toby Rosenthal, my grandmother, lives in the sleepy southern-belle city of Richmond, Virginia. She was dubious of this email from a German graduate school student named Markus Streb, inquiring about family records for personal research. It felt odd, she told me, to get a message out of the blue from someone who found her on Facebook. She called my aunt, who revealed that she, too, had received an email from this sender about a year prior, and pushed my grandma to respond. When she did, Markus’ requests were simple. He was doing research on Holocaust remembrance in Germany and was contacting individual families to find documents that could add a personal dimension to his data. Specifically, Markus was investigating the histories of Jewish families in the town of Dauborn, where he himself grew up. His search led him to an interest in my great-grandmother, Joanna Strauss. My grandma filled him in on the history, informing Markus that Joanna had moved to a town called Limburg after marrying her husband Max Rosenthal. She scanned and sent him a few pictures that she had.

The photos were taken from a small collection of documents that my family has recording my late grandfather’s past life. There are also letters, written before and after my grandfather and his mother left Germany. The story of their fleeing Nazi Germany was majorly significant to my grandfather’s identity and has become an important history to the whole family.

“I don’t remember much from that trip,” he used to say, “but I do remember on the plane we took to America they served olives. That was the first time I ever tried an olive, and I hated it. I told my mother, ‘If this is what they eat in America, I want to go back.” The memories would then usually come back about life in Limburg, going to school there, going over to an aunt’s house every weekend for dinner. But I first heard the story of my great grandfather’s migration from my mom.

My grandpa and Joanna had left early on in the regime of the Third Reich, sensing that things would likely only get worse. Thanks to their foresight, leaving was relatively easy. My grandfather, however, was not so quick to part with his homeland. He had a sense of pride in his side job as a caretaker of the local synagogue, and he stayed to carry out his duty. As fate would have it, events took a tragic turn. He was living in the synagogue during Kristallnacht, and like so many others, bought tickets to leave Germany promptly after that night. He boarded a ship called the SS St. Louis in 1939, headed for Miami, with 936 other refugees. When the ship reached the US, Roosevelt had decided not to take any more refugees. The boat docked in Cuba while the captains argued with government officials back and forth for 40 days, but in the end the boat was forced to turn back to Europe. Max disembarked in France and briefly worked as a cook in the foreign legion, but when the Vichy government came to power he was deported. The last that Ernest and Joanna heard from him, he was in Auschwitz. I don’t know exactly why he did this or what his hopes were, but the story is always told in my family with an emphasis on his bravery. I’ve never entirely understood his decision to stay but I’ve come to respect it for what it was.

For my family, Max’s story is the sort of identity-defining story that many families have—stories that capture the essence of a different era and explain a foundational aspect of who they are. I’ve come to think of it as a story about bravery and fortitude in the face of adversity. It’s also about change, preserving traditions and upholding ideals. There is a powerful idealism and hope in his choice to stay and work at the synagogue. Yet the story is also about the cruel injustices of society, and the pain that it inflicts on the powerless. It wasn’t Max’s optimism that led him to doom. He found a boat ticket thanks to the goodwill of his neighbors and those personally invested in seeing him returned to safety. There were even passengers on the St. Louis who managed to leave since they already had US visas. In so many ways, it was a sheer twist of fate that stopped him from making his way to be rejoined with his wife and child.

This story left a paper trail through Max’s letters home. Eventually, my grandma’s correspondence with Markus developed into an exchange of information and stories, her sending him these records and him responding with interesting finds from his research. After about a year of being pen pals, the the idea was floated that my family ought to come to Germany for a tour with him.

We made a plan. We were going to travel back to Limburg, where my family started. Going back would be, in a sense, to displace the story as we knew it, to give it color and a new level of familiarity but also potentially to find the cracks and seams between oral history and reality. It would also mean, in some degree, finding a way to fit our family’s story into the shared history of so many other diasporic families around the world with German-Jewish immigrant roots and relatives who died in the Holocaust. In getting closer to the family’s story, we were also learning about what it meant not just for us, but for Germans like Markus who were trying to forge their own relationship with this troubled past.

Before leaving on our trip, Markus sent us an itinerary of his plans. It began:

Monday, 20 August
10:30 Stadtarchiv (city archive) Limburg, close to the cathedral with archivist, maybe the mayor
Mühlberg 2, Limburg
Tuesday, 21 August
10:30 Peter-Paul-Cahensly School Limburg/Blumenrod, gathering with pupils who visited the Auschwitz memorial this year, respectively last year. They held a minute in silence for Max Rosenthal during their visit at the Auschwitz memorial.

I was in Oberlin for the summer when I got the email. Things were slow and I was spending a lot of time enjoying solitude. I hadn’t been home all summer and the prospect of the chaos and foot-stepping of intimate family vacation was daunting. My anxiety was balanced by my enthusiasm for experiencing a new place and interest in the family history, but upon hearing about these details, my first reaction of excitement was followed by what felt like an almost obligatory ambivalence. I didn’t feel like I had anything in particular to share with German high schoolers about their country’s past. Up to that point, I had almost no relationship at all to my German heritage. With no common ground besides the violent relationship of our elder ancestors, what kind of conversation could really take place? I knew that Markus was studying the ways in which Holocaust memory was honored and upheld in German society from a critical lens, and while I appreciated his arrangements, I had never felt the pressure of representation that this event seemed to entail. It felt like a challenge, and it infused our trip with a sense of purpose and meaning that was quite daunting to me.

Photos by the author

The rest of my family did not share my feelings exactly. When I spoke to my parents, they seemed to relish the opportunity. I didn’t understand why at the time, but in retrospect I think that for them, it was a way to carry out an important interaction of a societal occurrence that has affected their lives, or at least their parents lives, in some ways. My mom mentioned to me recently that she has never really seen herself as one to fill these shoes due to the privileged American life that she has led.

No one in my family went through concentration camps and survived to tell the story. In many United States Jewish communities, these survivors are the ones whose stories are most told and given priority. In the setting of small-town Germany, survivor stories are much more rare, giving the opportunity for my great-grandfather’s story to take on the importance that it truly does hold. My grandfather and great-grandmother escaped, yes, but they grew up in an entirely new country with little money and no father or husband, respectively. This was the holocaust for them, and they survived it. My parents were excited by the packed schedule and focused on the uniqueness of the opportunity that we were being afforded. Encouraged by their attitude, I halfway came around, dwelling for the anticipatory period in the overlapping spaces of submissive dread and nervous enthusiasm.

The fact that none of my family properly slept during the seven-hour flight made me question my parents’ outward appearance of confident enthusiasm. When we disembarked in the Frankfurt airport and made our way to the rental car station, there was some palpable tension. I fell back on old habits of horsing around with my brother and my Mom and Grandmother hung close together while my Dad arranged for the car. The hour-long drive from Frankfurt to Limburg took us past pleasant views of the German countryside. We arrived at our hotel, which was a new building on the outskirts of town. The rooms had a sort of prefabricated feel to them, complete with built-in furniture and bright color-themed rooms with full-wall, photo-printed wallpaper that collaged local landmarks with local maps. After an hour of settling and resting, I went downstairs to meet Markus with the rest of my family. We sat outside in the driveway of the hotel while we waited.

“There he is,” said my Grandma, as a 30-something man approached us. He was tall and rather gangly, with thin blond hair and an outdoorsy look. He took off his sunglasses and smiled as he approached us. We all said hellos and he bent to shake each of our hands, then gave my grandmother a hug.

“So what’s the plan?” my mom inquired, recalling our strict schedule.

“If you are feeling ready, we will go now to see the archivist. He has prepared some things that I think you will like to see.” I looked around to see if anyone else was not feeling ready.

“Sounds great!” my dad proclaimed, and we started walking into town. We crossed the highway that separated our hotel from the town center and began walking. We went past a salon, chain drug store, movie theater and another hotel with an open-air ground floor restaurant. The street began to slope up and we started seeing older buildings. They were built with exposed timber beams, usually with one on each corner. In the upper portion of theses buildings, the exposed beams were used decoratively, criss-crossed over the white plaster facade to form triangular sections. The streets became cobblestone and the stores gave way to small restaurants and cafes with outdoor seating. We had reached the old town center. As Markus led us, he asked about when my family had last been there.

“It was in the early ’80s, maybe ’82,” my mom said.

“Yes, with the group project to bring back survivors,” my grandma filled in. “How did you get in touch with the archivist? What should we expect?” asked my dad.

“He has been going through the things they have there and has pulled out all of the things—what would you call them? Sorry, my English is a little not so good,” Markus laughed.

“Files? Artifacts?” my Dad offered.

“Yes. He has found everything that you might want to see. I think there are some newspapers, and marriage documents. But you will see soon.”

We stopped at a towering church, made of the same half-timbered red beams and white plaster as the other buildings. It has slightly more decoration and the paint looked brand new. Many of the red beams were carved with yellow-painted ornamentation and the facade was dictated by rows of gothic-looking pointed arches in interspersed rows at various scales. The spires of the building towered above the stout structures around it. Past the church, we came to a lookout point that showed off the vista from the top of the hill. We took in our surroundings briefly, and Markus talked a bit about the town’s buildings and history. We followed Markus through a stone gateway to a small courtyard where the government building was, and then entered the archives.

Inside, we were welcomed by two middle-aged German men. Markus introduced us the the archivist, a soft-spoken, bespectacled man with white hair who wore a short sleeved button-down shirt. The mayor of Limburg stood beside him, wearing a dark suit and squared-off glasses. He gave each of us a firm handshake and with a tone of hospi-tality and seriousness, the two then asked us into the archive room. Inside, two younger men sat around a rectangular arrangement of tables with papers and books opened and spread out neatly across their surface.

As the archivist, his students, and Markus seemed to buzz around solemnly stating the significance of each piece of historical evidence, I began to feel even more of my exhaustion. I tried meagerly to keep my attention on what the man and his students were explaining to me. My attention was waning with my energy despite my knowledge of the significance of what stood in front of me. I stared at the yellowed paper in front of me, hoping for a wave of historical connection to rise off of the page. As I settled down, I slowly became more focused, and it actually began to happen.

I felt as if I was in a state of meditation as the archivists spoke in a monotone German accent about each of the documents in front of me. This one here was a birth record, kept since the early 1800s in Limburg and Dauborn, of my great-grandmother. “It took me quite some time to find this, because we had to contact the archive of Dauborn to get it brought here,” said the archivist quietly. This book, the one in front of me, was a marriage announcement.

“There you will see, it says ‘Maks Ro-sen-tal and Yohanna Strauss’ in, em, 1886.” Everyone looked toward the newspapers lying in a bound book in front of me. The bold, elongated sans-serif font of the word “Karla” jumped out at me. It was their second daughter, said Carol, who died from influenza as a child. She was my mother’s namesake. Around the faux-plaque design of the announcement were ads for furniture stores, typewriters, and pharmacies.

When the archivist and his assistant had finished presenting us with their findings, we all lingered in the small but well-kempt library, taking time to look at the documents ourselves. I was the designated photographer for the day, and spent a great deal of time taking photos. One of the most striking documents was a record of residence that listed, on a 4” by 5” card, the place of birth, known addresses, and place of death for each citizen. At the end of the list for Max was a line written in bright red script that marked his emigration to Cuba on the St. Louis. After that was a lines in pencil that I couldn’t make out. I turned to Markus to confirm my suspicions, which he did.

“Yeah. That says ‘Later taken to Auschwitz,’” he told me. Confusion washed over me. Should I be upset by this? It was material evidence of extreme cruelty and persecution, documented casually and without affect. I scrutinized the piece of paper. Why was it written in pencil? Did someone want to leave open the possibility of literal erasure? Or was it scrawled as an afterthought as it appeared to be?

Try as I might, my scrutiny brought nothing to the surface. My fascination with the historical fact of the document gave way to a satisfaction in its conformation of the narrative that I knew. I also felt some long-lost desire to be angry or feel disdain at the dispossession of my history. But there was nothing. I felt no anger, no simulated pain or disgust—none of the things that I remember being invoked in me when I was a child learning for the first time what had happened to the Jewish people in Germany whom I was connected to.

Some change had taken place within me since then. When I was in the fifth grade, I learned about this history for the first time, and I was moved by the stories that I was told to anger and pain and disgust. I felt connected to my relatives and to the Jewish people as a whole. I felt connected to my friends who had similar family stories to mine. But not as much anymore. It wasn’t gone entirely, but it was not at the forefront of my feeling, and seemed like an impression that was formed in my mind but was not registering emotionally anymore. I did not confront that consciously in the moment, but I think that in my nearly-conscious attempt to push back against it, I had acknowledged, maybe for the first time, that it was true—I was not in mourning. There was no more grief to be felt, no stages to go through. I was past acceptance even or maybe trailing out of it slowly.

In the corner of the room stood a banner about six feet tall. “Max Rosenthal” was printed in large letters across the top, and it featured a short biography as well as reprinted images of old photographs. This, more than any of the artifacts, was moving to my family, especially to my mother and grandmother. Both of them had travelled to Germany before. It was in ’86 on a trip that was organized specially by the German government for the families of holocaust survivors. They had toured Limburg with my grandfather before he died, met residents and learned about life there through his and the other survivors’ memories. I think that coming back for a second time to see this person whose memories they had been entertaining and whose footsteps they had been walking in, honored by the town, was powerful. It meant something to all of us that there had evidently been effort put into memorializing this figure who was already a subject of my family stories.

We all felt welcomed by our experience at the archives. It was a new level of attention to personal experience for my mother and grandmother, and an entirely new and rewarding experience for the rest of my family. After the rush of that day, we took some time to settle in and explore Limburg a little, meeting with Markus and one of his professors for lunch. On our way to the restaurant, Markus stopped us at a house in order to point out a new monument.

“Ah, here it is,” he stopped on one side of the cobblestone street next to a house and we crowded around him. Squatting, he pointed to a small golden square, about the size of half a chocolate bar. Max’s name was engraved in it, along with a few sentences in German. We paused and then kept walking as Markus explained that these small monuments were called ‘stumbling stones’ and could be found all across Germany.

That afternoon, as we drove with Markus to the edge of the town limits, I asked what we might expect.

“There will be a translator,” was Markus’ reply, “And the students have prepared some things to show you and talk to you about, I think, and then you can maybe speak to them a little about Max.”

I was getting nervous. I haven’t set foot in a high school classroom since graduating from mine, and wasn’t eager to be in that setting. On top of that, I had no idea what to expect in a conversation about the holocaust with German high schoolers.

The school was a modern building made of brick, glass, and green-painted steel. Inside, we were led by the principal and teacher through the communal center to a classroom. About 30 students sat in a circle, and a translator stood next to the principal at a podium. A few other adults were present, and we stood around mingling briefly before the principal asked if we were ready to begin. He gave a brief speech about the school’s recent visit to concentration camps before turning things over to the students.

In a clumsy mobilization, we all arose from out seats and went outside to a nearby courtyard to see a series of posters that students had made in groups. Each poster showed images from their trips—many were of concentration camps and featured recognizable images of Auschwitz. The students told us solemnly how incomprehensible the experience had been. A boy with a swash of black hair wearing a graphic T-shirt and athletic shorts was explaining the trip to us.

“We all knew of this before, but when we actually saw it…” he trailed off.

“It makes it much more of a reality to see something like this,” his classmate, a slightly taller, blond boy wearing square glasses, finished his thought.

“Yes, when you learn about it in class, you know that it is terrible, but then, to see it, you begin to really understand how terrible it was,” the first finished.

The planned activity had us make rounds of the courtyard, stopping in front of groups of students who stood in front of the posters they had created after the trip. Each told us about a different part of their experience, with background research before the trip and thought exercises after. As I watched, my unease and feeling of being out of place grew. I felt unprepared.

I couldn’t bring myself to stand and listen alongside my Mom and Grandmother. As they nodded and interjected occasionally to clarify things, I started feeling impossibly distant. I knew what the kid in front of me was feeling, to a degree. I could easily remember what it was like to be in his shoes—confronted with a historical atrocity that you have only just begun to be able to comprehend, trying to express and develop that notion of what it means.