Friday, February 20, 2009

My Parents and Happy Places

Recently, SGI Quarterly, a Buddhist magazine devoted to Peace, Culture, and Education, asked me to write a piece about my mom and dad and what they -- as concentration camp survivors -- were like as parents for a special issue of the magazine devoted to parents and children.


At first, it was hard to think of my parents as parenting role models. My mom and dad had gone through years of slave labor in Nazi Germany's camps, and the experience left them with traumas they never were able to shake. In one of my new poems called "The Evil that Men Do," I write half jokingly about how as a kid I sometimes thought that my mother had learned her parenting skills from Nazi guards.

I didn't think I could write the article. But then I did. Here's the article:

My father was a man plagued by nightmares about the Nazi concentration camps he and my mother both spent years in. When I was a child, his screams would wake us all. I don't think I've ever heard screams like that. They were muffled in an odd way. Screams, in my experience, are usually accompanied by an explosion of air. My father's nightmare screams were drawn in. Even in his sleep, it was almost like he was afraid to scream. I would come to my father's bedroom, and he would be asleep and screaming and struggling with the Nazi guards who were beating him. He drank all the time to keep these nightmares back.

My mother's experiences in the camps showed themselves in a different way. She was afraid of so many things, loud noises, whistling, even clowns she saw on TV; and she was especially afraid of things being done incorrectly. She would beat and scold all of us, even my father, if the table was set the wrong way for dinner or if we came home late after an outing. My sister and I often thought that our parents were crazy; our lives amid the screaming and fear and anger just didn't make sense.

But despite all of this, I now realize that my parents wanted so hard to give us happiness. And when I think about my childhood, I think about the happy times my parents tried to give us, and I think about the special places where these happy times took place.

For me, the most important of these moments took place on the June day I turned four years old, a Sunday in 1952, when I ran to the garden in the back of a little house we were renting in Chicago and stood there among Black-eyed Susans with their yellow petals and long, thin necks. And my mother in a white dress with little blue flowers sat in the garden between me and my sister, and my father stood in front of us with a Brownie Cadet box camera.

He was asking us to smile in the Polish we still spoke at home, while my mother told me about the day ahead, how we would go to Kiddie Land, an elaborate children's playground, and my sister Danusha and I would ride on the blue and yellow and red cars and the roller coaster built just for kids. My mother made it sound like there was something special about being a kid the way she talked about the day we had planned.

It makes a picture I don't want to forget.

I think we all have such special perfect places, happy places where we feel most ourselves, most comfortable. Maybe we remember these special places and special times and turn to them because they were the places and times our parents were happy, before their lives took their inevitable turns. Maybe not. Like most of us, I'm not good at figuring out the complex why of things.

But I remember that particular Sunday morning when I was four, and you remember sitting at a baseball game between your mother and father, and both are yelling at one of the players in a way that frightens you just a little but you know is okay; or you remember a day when your parents took you swimming and your mother was laughing at your father because he was wearing her bathing cap pulled down over his eyes in a silly way; or you remember your father sitting at the piano with a cigarette between his lips, playing some slow, sad piece you loved so much while, in another room, watching and listening, your mother stood washing some dinner plates or ironing some clothes.

To see the entire issue of SGI devoted to Parents and Children just click here.