Tag Archives: memoir

Portrait of the Writer as a Woman: My New Year’s Resolutions, 2016

UnknownDecember 2015 was a very rough month for my writing. In fact, I believe I only got one blog done, and nothing on any of my books. One of our cats was diagnosed with uncontrolled diabetes, had stopped eating and drinking, and was doing an excellent imitation of a Zombie-cat: she could have done a cameo on The Walking Dead without any previous acting experience.

Tom and I hadn’t even realized that cats could get diabetes.

After the first shock of the diagnosis, we were hammered with the cost of the insulin: $389 for 10ml. I began to weep, despite the fact that the vet said that bottle could last as long as 6 months. All I could think was that one of my babies was going to die because I couldn’t afford her medicine. Tom was too deep into shock to register much of what happened after he heard the diagnosis: he just assumed it was a death sentence, so I don’t think he heard much of the consultation beyond that, though he did hear the cost of the medicine.

Apparently, human insulin, $25 for the same amount, doesn’t work as well on cats, and the more expensive one has been shown to put many cats into remission.

Not cure.

Remission.

But I didn’t have $389. I’d just spent almost $500 on new tires for my ’99 Jeep Wrangler: my old ones had no tread, and winter was coming to the mountain. Without off-road tires and 4-wheel-drive, no one can make it up here. Over the past few months, as my car had broken down several times, with parts simply wearing out from age, I’d also paid our mechanic $2300 on a “back-up vehicle.”

Which wouldn’t start.

images-2So I didn’t have the $2300 I’d spent on my back-up vehicle, whose insurance is more costly since it’s a “classic.” I thought the insurance representative was playing a joke on me in May when I bought the ’94 Jeep Cherokee Sport, but, apparently, it is considered a “classic,” and so my insurance is higher. So there was that cost: $89/month since May, on a “classic” car that I didn’t even have, and for which I bought new tires, a new windshield, new brakes, etc. Yet it was still sitting at the shop because, despite my mechanic’s insistence that he could start the car, I couldn’t. Ever.

I still can’t.

Only now it’s sitting in my driveway.

Waiting to be towed back down to the shop, where we’ve decided to “swap it out” for another vehicle. Or, at least, to swap out the $2300 I already paid and apply it to a more reliable (read, it starts right away when you turn the key, not three days later if you’re lucky) “back-up” car.

stethoscope-1-1541316And then there were all the medical expenses.

Since the blessing of Obama-Care, my deductible has gone from $500/year to $7K in 2013, to $8.5K in 2014, to $12K in 2015, to $15K in 2016. Needless to say, I’m still paying off the “deductible” bills from 2013. Despite the fact that it is illegal to have a medical insurance deductible higher than Obama-Care’s $3K, the President or Congress or some idealist didn’t realize that you cannot have “government” health care provided by private,  for profit providers, like Blue Cross / Blue Shield (who is the only provider of Obama-Care, as far as I can determine), nor can you force other for profit insurance providers to lose money. So, technically, as my insurance provider has constantly assured me every time I’ve protested or vociferously complained, my deductible is only $3K a year.

My “co-insurance,” which I never had before and which is, apparently, unlimited, makes up the balance of what I have to pay each year.

I say deductible, you say co-insurance… let’s call the whole thing off.

So there’s that, too.

And then we got slammed with Trixie’s “uncontrolled diabetes” diagnosis and the cost of the preferred insulin.

IMG_1005My grief over the thought of losing Trixie because I didn’t have the money for her medicine encouraged the Vet to suggest that I save for the medicine that might put her into remission, while using human insulin to keep her alive and out of the Zombie-cat mode.

I’ve spent the entire month of December managing Trixie and her hypoglycemic crises. Yes, that’s hypoglycemic, as in her blood glucose falls too low. The Vet insists that this is good, and that she might already be going into remission. Apparently some 15-20% of cats can go into remission on any insulin, relatively quickly after they start treatment. We can’t know if it’s happening with Trixie yet because she needs to stabilize, and the Vet has had to lower the dose virtually every day this past week.

These are the kind of things that prevented me from writing in December 2015.

They’re also the kind of things that made me think of how different writing can be for a woman than for a man.

After all, though I’m sure Tom could take care of Trixie if he were forced to, he mostly hurriedly volunteers to take the dog out to the bathroom or to shovel 4-6′ snowdrifts away from the vehicles and the gate rather than to test her blood glucose or give her the insulin shots. Mommy is the one who does that.

Mommy also watches for the Invasion of the Zombie-cat, which means Trixie is hypoglycemic and could go into a coma or have brain-damaging seizures. It’s Mommy who rubs the Karo syrup on her gums when she becomes non-responsive and sits staring at the wall. The one afternoon I went out to do some food shopping and get a medical massage (which helps reduce my hemiplegic migraines) and asked Tom to keep a “close watch” on Trixie, he promised to do so but went out to work in the barn and was out there all afternoon. In fact, when I got home, he didn’t even know where Trixie was. Oh, he knew she was in the house since the cats don’t (can’t) go out up here on Big Rock Candy Mountain because of the wild animals, but he hadn’t been in the house himself to see where or how she was.

These are some of the events that have made me re-evaluate my usual New Year’s Resolutions: I was born a woman, but I believe I was also born an artist.

The artist in me chose writing as the medium through which to express herself, so any Resolutions have to include the fact that I’m a writer simply because that’s who and what I am.

Resolution 1:
Write More

images-5I must write more blog posts, more regularly, as I was doing for most of 2015.

If that means that Tom must do more grocery shopping and meal preparation, as he’s been willingly doing since Trixie’s diabetes diagnosis, then he’ll have to do more of the household chores as well. We’re both liberated, and we’ve always shared the chores. Now that one of my jobs as a woman and as the Mommy seems to be nursing the sick animals, Daddy will have to do more than half of the chores. We’re both retired, we both have our own businesses, but his is more seasonal than mine, while mine is much more time-consuming than his. Therefore, it’s off to the market and into the kitchen more often for Tom because Mommy, who nurses any of the animals who’s ill, needs to blog more.

My blog-reading audience is actually contacting me via the twitter and the book of face and asking me to blog more, asking me if I’m all right because I haven’t been on the social media sites during December, asking me for suggestions about what shows or films to watch (I mostly blog about entertainment). They keep telling me they need my blog posts.

They are the boss of me.

I resolve to blog more.

Resolution 2:
Lose Weight

Me & PatrickI know some of you don’t believe that’s me there with Patrick, but it is. The year was 2000, my second novel, Only with the Heart, had just come out, and since he’d optioned my first novel, The Kommandant’s Mistress, to star in it himself, he asked me to come out to LA so we could meet in person and discuss the book. (We’d talked many times on the phone in the previous 6 years, but had not met). And that was not my heaviest, my highest weight. Of course, I don’t even recognize myself in that photo with Patrick, let alone in the photo Tom recently found of me at (almost) my highest weight, when we met and fell in love in 1994.

Between 2005 and 2007, I lost 275 pounds.

I don’t know how much more than that I lost because my therapist in Ohio wouldn’t even let me look at a scale until I’d lost 40 pounds (she brought the scale in to her office and weighed me). I was at 450 the first time she let me look, and I wanted to die of shame. Instead, I resolved to conquer my eating disorder and get my weight back under control for my own health.

Here’s how I did it: I ate whatever I wanted but only when I was hungry, and, even more important than that, I stopped eating as soon as I was no longer hungry. I didn’t continue eating until I was full. Not even just a little full. I put the food away as soon as I no longer felt any hunger.

That meant I ate several small “meals” during the day. It meant that if I wanted to eat ice cream, for example, or a candy bar, then I ate that as a meal but stopped if I found I was no longer hungry even if there was only one bite of candy bar or ice cream left. I kept telling myself that I could always have it later.

I ditched my parents’ Clean your plate rule.

I threw away the Three Meals a Day rule.

I didn’t care if anyone else thought my “diet” was balanced or not.

I have an eating disorder. In the past, it manifested mostly as anorexia, when I lived on sodas and sugary iced tea rather than on food, dropping down to 120 pounds (I’m 5’8″ with a large frame: my non-dominant wrist, at my lowest weight, is 7.75″ around the bones). After my first book was accepted, the anorexia changed, for some reason, to compulsive overeating: I literally could not stop myself from eating, even if I was in physical pain from eating too much already. And I was a complete failure at bulimia, which horrified my therapist when I said that to her after I sought help.

Drugs did not help me: I had an allergic reaction to virtually every one I tried, or it made it impossible for me to lose weight.

Restricting my food intake by calories or types aggravates the eating disorder.

Weighing myself daily does that, too.

Because my Muncher mother used to starve us children.

Women who practice Munchausen’s by Proxy — called Munchers by law enforcement and medical professionals who discover their abuse, torture, and killings — do so much damage to their children, it is virtually impossible to heal it all. They’re more than the female equivalent of male serial killers because they do damage to their own family members and to others dependent on their care — in the privacy of their own homes, where no one sees them, and with few people believing those who tell what is happening within the home.

M is for Munchers cover w mask 1In any event, I needed to lose weight for my health — even though I had no obvious medical problems — as well as for my own self-esteem, but I had to do it in a way that would not trigger the Muncher-abuse-induced eating disorder, which I and all my siblings suffer from. That’s how I came up with my eating plan.

Because it had to be for the rest of my life.

I lost the 275 pounds and, mostly, I’ve kept it off.

When my favorite cat died of heart failure in 2012, my grief tipped me over into the eating disorder again, and though I knew it was happening, I couldn’t stop myself. That’s what makes it an eating disorder: you cannot stop yourself without help. I gained 50 pounds before I got my eating disorder under control again.

Then I hit what has to be one of the longest plateaus in weight-loss history ever: 2012-2014. I didn’t gain any weight, but I didn’t lose any either. No matter how little I ate or how much I exercised.

Last year, I re-dedicated myself to my personal eating plan, and I lost 26 pounds.

My doctor insists I only have the original, re-gained 50 pounds to lose, and so now I only have 24 more to lose.

I think losing 50 pounds would be better (taking me down to 150), but he insists that I’ll look like a skeleton and that he’ll be really annoyed with me if I lose more than 24 additional pounds. I say it’s my body and I can lose whatever amount of weight I want. But… this is a woman thing, I think, and even writing about it too much is treacherous because I begin to convince myself that if I could only be anorexic again — which happens after I don’t eat anything for a few days — it would all be so much easier…

And I would be treating myself just as my serial killer Muncher mother did: starving myself.

As my first therapist asked me, “Would you do that to a child of yours? Would you ever do that to one of the abused, abandoned, neglected cats that you rescue?”

No, no I would not.

So, I resolve, once again, as I did last year in Jan 2015, to continue to lose weight.

In a healthy way.

Resoultion 3:
Write More

POV cover 2015 webI will finish the revised edition of my 2001 book Mastering Fiction and Point of View. Not only have writers, experienced and new, published and not, been asking me for the new edition, but my editors actually were planning on publishing the Revised, Updated, & Expanded edition in December 2015. But I didn’t get it finished. I didn’t even get to the point where I could give it to my editors for their feedback.

Was I blogging too much?

Was I spending too much time on social media?

Was I working too much on my memoir of life with a serial killer mother, M is for Munchers?

Was I doing too much of the household chores, errands, etc?

Was I too busy learning Kundalini Yoga?

Was I spending too much time watching movies with Mads Mikkelsen — for blogging, of course…

Was I spending too much time staring out the windows?

Whatever I was doing, I do agree with my editors that I was not spending enough time working on the revision of my POV book.

I resolve to work on it until it is finished, get it to my editors so they can give me feedback, rewrite — taking their suggestions into account, and then get the book back to them so they can publish it without having to change the cover again.

They are also the boss of me, and though it probably won’t take them (or their graphic artist) too much work to change the words 14th Anniversary Edition to 15th Anniversary Edition, I really need to get this book done.

Resolution 4:
Walk More

pink-fitness-center-1432405When I originally lost that 275 pounds, I not only ate only when I was hungry and stopped when I was no longer hungry, I walked. Not fast: we live in the mountains, and you can’t walk fast in the mountains. At least, I can’t. But I walked every day.

I started with 5 minutes a day for a month. Then I moved up to 10 minutes a day. Each month, I added 5 minutes until I was at 30 minutes a day.

Despite eventually dropping down to 175 pounds, which was not the lowest weight I’ve ever been at, or even what I considered “normal” for most of my life (that would be 150 pounds), I was thinner than I had ever been. I was wearing smaller clothes, higher heels, and feeling better about my body than I ever had.

Walking, even slowly — I walk about 1-1.5 mph — can dramatically change your body shape. It takes a lot longer than running, but I can no longer run. In 1995, I fell down a mountain in Wyoming and shattered my L leg and ankle. It took 3 years to heal from the surgery, which replaced most of my bones — which had shattered into such fine dust, the surgeon had to use a surgical vacuum to get the bone out of my leg — with metal plates, bolts, and really big, long screws. Both the surgeon in Wyoming and the surgeon in Ohio, where we lived, told me I could never run again. They said that the plate would buckle and take the entire bone it’s attached to with it, necessitating another surgery and even more extensive recovery time and physical therapy.

They told me I would have to become a Walker, and this was long before most of us had heard of The Walking Dead.

I’ve walked since then.

In 2008, I was eventually walking 45 minutes a day, albeit at the same 1.5 mph pace.

Then I got a stress-fracture in my pelvis.

The doctors at the ER and those at the Sports Medicine Center told me “humans weren’t built to walk 45 minutes a day.” I think they’re all crazy: what did humans do in our ancient past, before we had animals to ride or vehicles to transport us? Still, that’s what all of them except my GP kept telling me. In any event, the stress-fracture side-lined me for several months while it was healing.

Two years ago, I discovered, during my annual physical, that I had virtually no vitamin D or calcium in my blood, and, after a bone-scan, that my bones are thinner than they should have been for my age. It’s a condition known as osteopenia rather than as osteoporosis, I guess because the bones didn’t just snap and break. They eroded over time with exercise (bones are supposed to release calcium etc into the blood when you exercise: that’s how they signal your body to send more calcium there and the bones get stronger), but my bones were too thin to begin with, and the doctor suspected that the osteopenia, combined with my exercise, caused the three stress fractures I’ve had in the last 10 years (2 in the pelvis, one in the foot).

The most likely reason for the osteopenia and the virtual lack of vitamin D and calcium in my blood?

Childhood dietary deficiency.

That’s another word for being starved by your Muncher mother.

I took supplements until I got into the low normal range, then began walking again, but I had to start all over again with the 5 minutes a day and adding 5 minutes a month routine.

In 2015, I walked 30 minutes a day, at 1-1.5 mph,  81% of the time: 297 days out of the year. I didn’t walk at all in February because I had bronchitis. That means I actually walked 297 days in the remaining 11 months.

When do I walk? After I feed the cats their breakfast — canned food, which is the only time of the day they get it; the rest of the day, they eat from the buffet of dry food — at 5 a.m. Why so early? Before we moved to Big Rock Candy Mountain, when I was teaching, I used to get up at 5 to write for at least 2 hours before I went to teach my classes at the University. Our cats thought that since I was already up, I might as well feed them breakfast.

Though I’m now retired from University, the cats still think breakfast is served at 5 a.m., and for much of the year, here in the Desert Wilderness, the temperatures are in the 90s before 7 in the morning, so, actually, walking after serving them breakfast at 5 works for this writer-Mommy, because I usually write after that.

Though I only lost 26 pounds in 2015, I lost 5 inches all over (except my bustline, which is genetically large… to Tom’s delight). In the past, when I was anorexic or “dieting,” losing an inch off my waist, hips, etc equaled losing 10 pounds of weight. Not so with walking. It may take longer than it takes with running, but walking gets you to the same place eventually. And you end up thinner at a higher weight.

This year, I resolve to continue walking and to add 5 minutes a day to each walking session.

I’ll walk 35 minutes a day, at 1-1.5 mph, and my goal is to walk at least 90-95% of the time.

Resolution 5:
Write More

The Zombied Trilogy Book One webIn January 2015, the first volume of The Zombied Trilogy was published: Love is a Many Zombied Thing. According to my editors’ plan, the 2nd and 3rd volumes of the trilogy were to have been written, edited, revised, and published in 2015.

I think it didn’t happen because, in 2014, I began completing their suggested (major) revisions to my memoir, M is for Munchers: The Serial Killers Next Door. That book has taken me years to write, and not just due to the editors’ suggestions about changes. I entered an earlier version of it in a contest in 2007, and was given enough praise and critical suggestions for me to completely change the way I was doing the book, given its subject matter. So I know I had an entire manuscript of the book, with a different title — which none of the judges in the contest liked, by the way — in 2007.

After Love is a Many Zombied Thing was published, I felt a blank about where the second and third books in the series should specifically go, although the editors and I were clear about where they should generally go. In short, I had the ideas for the remainder of the trilogy, and the editors heartily approved the ideas, but I didn’t know how to start book 2.

As is my usual practice when something won’t come in a book, I begin working on a different one. That’s how I began the revisions to Munchers.

But what stopped me from writing any of the other books was the intense grieving that writing the memoir caused.

I thought I’d done all the grieving when I wrote and revised Munchers originally.

Apparently, I had not.

The grief almost overwhelmed me.

Though Munchers was published in 2014, the grief prevented me from finishing Zombied on schedule. By the time I finished Book 1, I had already missed the deadlines for Books 2 & 3. My editors were not pleased, though they claimed to understand the grief-delay.

I resolve to finish — or at least to start — the final two books of The Zombied Trilogy.

After all, those characters, and my readers, deserve to have the story finished.

Resolution 6:
Spend More Time
With Those I Love

Ling and SophieThat means Ling (L) and Sophie (R) as well as Trixie. After all, Sophie is the one who has Feline Stomatitis, an auto-immune disease or disorder, whom we would have had to put down if extracting all her teeth, including the roots, had not put the disease-disorder into a manageable state. She gets NSAIDs every other day. Each time we’ve attempted to increase the time between doses or to reduce the dose — to protect her kidneys — the painful inflammation and swelling of her gums, tongue, and throat return. In the wild, she would have starved to death, in great pain. We have to get her blood tested every three months, to monitor the kidney function, and she’s staying steady — at an already slightly elevated rate — so Mommy has to take care of her, and that includes checking her mouth every time I give her the meds to make sure she’s doing fine.

Ling and Sophie are the ones who contracted Bubonic Plague in 2012 (and gave it to us) and almost died. I didn’t even know Bubonic Plague still existed when we moved here, but it still exists all over the world, not just in laboratories, but in dry, arid climates like the American Southwest. We already almost lost them once.

IMG_2520 It means spending time with Sascha (middle) because she’s been operated on twice in the last two years for cancerous tumors on her lower lip that have gotten so close to her jawbone that the Vet promised she would never take Sascha’s jawbone, even if the suspicious cells became malignant. When Mosie died, we didn’t even realize she had cancer until the week before she died: she began breathing strangely, and X-rays revealed the tumors. Though Mommy checks Sascha’s mouth regularly, the next surgery and pathology report — if there is one — could reveal malignancy rather than “suspicious cells.”

IMG_2397It means spending more time with Shooter Tov, the oldest of our cats (12 this month), who has FORLS. I can’t recall right now what it stands for, but 20% of Rescue cats have the condition, which has also been found in the skeletons of sabre-tooth tigers. The enamel of the teeth doesn’t re-form, eventually exposing the root or simply breaking the tooth, leaving the animal in great pain. Additionally, if the affected teeth are not removed, the disease moves into the bones of the jaw, face, head, neck, etc., killing the cat.

Shooter’s already lost 3 teeth to FORLS, two years ago, and two weeks ago, he began crying out if anything touched his face. Two more teeth have broken, exposing the roots. He’s having surgery Wednesday (and has been on pain meds until the Vet could get him in: it takes special expertise to get the teeth, root and all, out of the jaw, so that the disease will not eat away the jawbone).

I know that, even if the Vet had to extract all of Shooter’s teeth, he’d be fine. After all, Sophie’s had no teeth for over 2 years now, and she not only eats dry food just fine, she hops, skips, and dances around the house like she owns the place. Still, Shooter’s in pain now, so I’ve also been nursing him for the past 2 weeks, and he’ll be in more pain after the surgery: he’ll need Mommy, whether Mommy thinks she needs to write or not.

IMG_2417IMG_2429I resolve to spend more time with Baxter (top) and Mr. Eli (bottom), who are virtually always with me in my office while I’m writing, not because there’s anything wrong with them, but simply because we rescued them and they deserve love and attention even if they’re not sick.

IMG_2165I can’t forget Sadie-Doggie, who had to have a molar extracted last month after she began vomiting and we discovered an apricot-sized lymph-node under her jaw. Her immune system was trying to fight the infection from the rotten tooth, but it was losing. It the infection had gone systemic, she would have died. Because she’s part Border Collie, part Terrier, and part Hound, she has the loose neck-folds of a Hound, and we didn’t notice the lump till after she was vomiting.

I love all the pets we’ve rescued, and have been devastated each time we’ve lost one. As one of my friends who also rescues cats said, upon hearing of Trixie’s diagnosis, “We know they’ll most likely have health issues because they’ve been abandoned, neglected, or abused, but we have to just act as if each day with them is the last. Because it might be.”

This year, every day, I’m going to act as if each day is the very last I’ll ever have with each of my babies.

Because it might be.

Resolution 7:
Don’t Forget Tom

I know this might sound corny after 22 years together, but sometimes I probably do take Tom for granted. After all, he’s a reliable, faithful, good man, and I certainly don’t “forget him” on purpose. Other things drag at my attention — like a dying cat — and it takes me a while to remember that’s he’s right there beside me, grieving just as much. He completely morally supports my writing, and so stays out of my office and doesn’t disturb me when I’m writing — no matter how long I’m at it. (He sometimes even makes dinner, fixes a plate for me, and puts it in the fridge for me to eat after I’m finished for the day.)

Tom’s gotten up with me every single morning at 5 since Trixie’s diabetes diagnosis to take Sadie out to the bathroom, wash all the animals’ breakfast dishes, and give me a kiss before he’s gone back to sleep, and I’ve headed for the treadmill. (He’s horrified that it’s still dark when I wake him: when he worked, he worked second shift virtually his entire career, so it was always light when he woke.)

Though he doesn’t admit to panic over the animals when they’re ill, he’s clearly stressed. He could probably use some more attention and comfort, too.

He also was diagnosed with diabetes himself last year, and though he lost the 20 pounds as directed, and mostly keeps to his “diet,” he has suddenly decided that he needs to take care of himself better.

And I need to love him and appreciate him more.

I need to tell him so.

Because each day might be the last.

Resolution 8:
Read More
Books-1

Because it makes me happy.

Final Resolution:
Write More

stock-photo-20291293-vintage-woman-writerBecause it’s who I am.

And because, sometimes, as women, we have to make a greater commitment to our art due to all the other things vying for our attention.

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Filed under Blogging, Books, Caregivers, Cats, Creative Writing, Editors, Memoir, Munchausen's by Proxy, New Beginnings, Point of View, Real Life of a Writer, Writing, Writing & Revising

Love on the Tech Support Line

fairy-tale-1314678Having updated my computer recently, I needed some help recalling how to restore my files and information from the external hard-drive backup to the new computer. First, I called Apple. Since I use their Time Machine, I thought it would be a relatively quick and painless process. Though the average wait time was supposed to be “longer than usual,” my call was picked up relatively quickly. Maxwell said he could help me without any difficulty whatsoever. He asked me to verify my name. I did so.

“Wow,” said Maxwell, “Alexandria Constantinova. That’s a beautiful name.”

“Thank you.”

“I don’t think I ever heard a name so beautiful.”

“Thank you very much. I changed my name as soon as I was legally and financially able to…”

“And your voice… It’s so… beautiful…”

“Thanks.”

“And I just love your laugh.”

“Okay…”

“It’s really beautiful…”

“Maxwell, could we…”

“Alexandria Constantinova. It sounds like Russian aristocracy. Are you Russian aristocracy?”

“Yes. My real name was Anastasia, but it got too much attention, so I changed it.”

“Are you as beautiful as your name?” said Maxwell. “Do you look like a princess?”

naficeh-1432782Now, if I were about the age of the lovely princess fairy in the photo above, I might be flattered by the fact that Maxwell kept addressing me as “Princess.”

If I lived in a palace like this,

hluboka-castle-at-night-1-1486316or in a castle like this,

old-castle-2-1230829

I might even request that Maxwell call me “Princess.”

But I’m not a fairy princess, don’t live in a palace or a castle, and I had a lot of work to do. I needed to get my computer restored. I reminded him why I’d called. Coughing nervously, he again told me that he’d never heard of a name more beautiful or spoken to anyone who was Russian aristocracy before…

I began to wonder how long Maxwell had been drinking on the job, and whether his fellow tech support  unit could see him sitting at his desk, surrounded by fumes of vodka. I wondered if they were aware of his fixation on Russian aristocracy, which has not existed since the Tsar and his entire family were executed during the Russian Revolution.

Claiming I had another call coming in, I discreetly disconnected from Maxwell — who did not return the call, by the way — and called in to another tech, who led me through the steps without drooling over my name.

princess-1-1577494Next on the list was Microsoft. It’s changed the way it handles Office and Word, including Office for Mac, which I use in creating e-books and other documents. Now customers pay for a subscription, which basically means that for $99/year, you get unlimited phone, chat, and email support. Since I’d bought the new Office 365, with Office for Mac 2016, while my computer still on the FedEx truck heading for my office, I hadn’t downloaded the software.

Also, more troubling, I couldn’t find the product activation key anywhere, though I had all the purchase order numbers and emails verifying my purchase. And I’d paid for the small business package, so that I could load it onto 1-5 computers.

I needed tech support. Irving came on the line. After I explained that I couldn’t find the download page, he, too, asked me to verify all my personal information, including the email I use with Microsoft. I did so.

princess-1-1434100Irving set up a “screen-sharing” session, when the Tech Support personnel can see what’s on your screen and guide you through the necessary steps. I’ve done it many times in the past, mostly with Apple, and I’ve used Microsoft Word and Office since 1989, so I was comfortable “sharing my screen” with Irving.

The major difference between Apple’s and Microsoft’s “screen-sharing” sessions, however, is that Apple can only point a big red cursor at what it wants you to click, while Microsoft can actually control your computer with its cursor.

Chatting merrily away, Irving got the download started, clicking Okay, Agree, and Continue to everything — which is what I would have done, of course, but then the cursor whipped across the desktop to a folder titled “Alexandria’s Books.”

“What’s this?” said Irving.

“What?”

“This folder here.”

“My books.”

“You write books?”

“I do.”

“Had any of them published?”

“All of them.”

princess-headwear-1-1424186Now, I have to admit that something similar to this part of the conversation has happened before, with various tech support personnel, from many different companies. Often, when I’m buying software or computers or upgrading said items, support personnel ask me what I want to do with the equipment and software.

When I tell them I’m an author, they sometimes ask if I’ve written anything they might have heard of. I usually tell them they probably haven’t, but I have had a few tech support people in the past who had heard of my first novel, for example — and some had actually read it — or of my Mastering Point of View (1st edition) because they wanted to be writers themselves.

They’re usually very excited to be talking to an author, and they do everything they can to help me get back to work as soon as possible.

“Oh, my god,” Irving suddenly blurted out while we were waiting for the installation of Office for Mac 2016 to complete. “Is that you?”

“I’m still here,” I said, not really understanding the question in the first place.

“No, I mean, is that picture you?”

I had no idea what Irving meant since no tech who “screen-shares” can see your desktop photo, and, in any event, mine is of Mads Mikkelsen.

“What picture?”

The Alexandria Papers,” said Irving. “Is that you?”

“Oh, that’s my blog. What’d you do: look me up on your computer while waiting for the download?”

“Is that picture of you?”

“The typewriter keys?” I said, trying to steer him away from any tangential conversation. “No, that’s just a photo of the kind of typewriter I learned to type on. You know, the manual kind. ‘Cause I’m lots older than you are, I’m guessing.”

“I mean, is that red-head you?” said Irving, not to be distracted by anything as trivial as my age.

“Uh, well, yes…”

“How recent?”

“About 2 weeks ago. Maybe 3.”

That red-head is you? Oh, my god…”

“You’re probably looking at the wrong page, Irving.”

“You’re so beautiful,” said Irving. “You look like a princess.”

princess-1225925

Irving sent me his email, his phone number, and his cell number — and I’m guessing Irving lives in India since it was an international number — in case I ever needed to get in touch with him about the download and the installation.

All of which Irving was handling just fine remotely, clicking away until everything was up and running.

I thanked him profusely and finally managed to get off the call after I checked my email, while Irving waited on the line, to reassure him that I had, indeed, gotten his email with all the pertinent information.crown-1181841

My last call that longest day ever was to Verizon since I’d decided to raise my data allowance. Despite Apple’s constant denials, ever since its Mavericks & Yosemite OS, and its iOS 7-9, the data drain has been enormous, especially if you leave your WiFi on, and even if your computer is asleep. I knew iOS9 was coming out, that the new El Capitan OS was coming, and I do have blogs to write, tweets to tweet, Facebook posts to post, for the remainder of the month, etc., and I didn’t want to go over my data limit.

Wilken was more than happy to help me adjust my monthly data allowance, while giving me a substantial discount for being such a loyal customer since 2008, with so many “unencumbered” devices (which means that I bought them elsewhere, so only one of my devices is under contract, and that one is only under contract for a few more weeks). Verizon is happy to give you a discount on each device that could be taken to another company without penalty, for up to two years, but you have to ask for it: Verizon doesn’t advertize this fact.

While I was waiting for the final monthly bill figures, Wilken suddenly spoke, sounding strangely dreamy.

“Alexandria Constantinova,” he said. “What a lovely name. It sounds like the name of a princess.”

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Filed under Humor, Memoir

Anna’s Tattoo

For Anna Brunn Ornstein

Anna Brunn

Anna Brunn

From the age of five to almost 30, I dreamt I was in a Nazi Concentration Camp, and that I died there. I would wake — screaming aloud, sometimes weeping, shaking and disoriented. The older I got, the more often the nightmares came until, finally, I asked, “What am I supposed to do with these dreams?” The answer came immediately: “Write about the Holocaust.”

Despite its being kept a secret, I had known my family was Jewish since I was 8, when I asked my Great-Grandfather Hirsch. All the Hirsch daughters attended Catholic schools. All their children and grandchildren did the same. We were all baptized, attended Mass every day (that’s how Catholic schools started when I was young: with Mass), learned our Catechism, and never ever talked about being Jewish or about the Holocaust. I didn’t even know what that word meant. When I was older, I learned that my Great-Grandparents had paid for everyone in the family to go to Catholic schools, to protect us from the rampant anti-Semitism that existed in America in the 1950’s & 1960’s.

It didn’t work.

Despite my coloring — every member of the family had strawberry-blonde hair and green eyes, as well as “the famous Hirsch nose,” as everyone referred to it each time a new baby was born into the family — my classmates mercilessly called me “Yid” and “Kike” from the first grade. When I walked home from school every day, I had to pass my Great-Grandfather’s corner grocery, which was on the same block where my mother, divorced with 4 young children, lived in a house owned by her parents. I loved my Great-Grandfather more than anyone else in my family, so every day I stopped by his store.

“What’s a ‘Yid’?” I said once, after a particularly brutal and distressing day in second grade.
Grandpa Hirsch came around from behind the counter, knelt before me, and wiped my face, though I’d long stopped crying.
“Somebody called you a ‘Yid’?”
“What’s it mean?”
“It’s short for ‘Yiddish’.”
“What’s Yiddish?”
“It’s a German dialect. What Grandma and I talk to each other.”
“What’s a ‘Kike’?”
“That,” said Grandpa Hirsch, handing me a piece of my favorite candy, “I do not know.”
“Why do the kids at school keep calling me that?”
“Because sometimes you say Yiddish words.”
“Is that bad?”
“Not in my opinion.”

Did I know then which words I said that were Yiddish? No. Did I know then that Yiddish was a Jewish dialect of German? Of course not. Our family never spoke of such things. Despite the fact that Grandpa Hirsch closed his store every Saturday and opened it on Sundays — in an era of the so-called “Blue Laws,” when no businesses whatsoever were permitted to operate on Sundays. In fact, I always feared that the local policemen who walked the neighborhood and who invariably stopped by his store on Sundays for fresh coffee and my Grandma Hirsch’s pastries would arrest my Grandpa for breaking the Blue Laws. They never did, of course, and they always seemed to be chatting genially and laughing with Grandpa, who had a wicked sense of humor, whenever I went to the store on Sundays to make sure he was safe.

“But why do you stay open on Sundays when it’s against the law?” I said almost weekly.
“Somebody has to be open,” said Grandpa. “Everything else is closed on Sundays.”
“Is that why you take Saturdays off?”
“I’ll take Saturday as my Sabbath,” he would always say, “since everyone else takes Sunday.”

Eventually, somehow, I figured out what the elaborate Friday night suppers meant, what Yiddish really was, and why Grandpa and Grandma Hirsch’s Sabbath was on Saturday instead of on Sunday, when everyone else was off work and went to church.  (My Grandparents never attended Mass: they were working in the store. It seemed reasonable to everyone in the family at the time.)

When I was 8, the only thing I wanted for Christmas as a chess-set, having learned the game from my mother’s boyfriend, who eventually became my step-father and then my adopted father (when I was 15). It was no accident that my Grandpa & Grandma Hirsch gave me the chess-set for Christmas. Grandpa treated me as a favorite: he was the only one who cared that I wanted to be a writer and listened to my stories, he always remembered my favorite candies without my having to remind him (though he gave all of us children far more candy than our pennies or nickels could have actually purchased), and, from the time I was small, I believed he was the only person in my entire family who actually loved me. So, when I opened the Christmas present to reveal my first chess-set — still in my possession almost 50 years later — and looked up in excitement at his happy, grinning face, I was naïvely astonished that he knew I liked chess.

“Grandpa, how did you know this was the only thing in the world that I really wanted?”
“A little angel whispered it in my ear,” he said, tapping his shoulder.
“An angel?” I said. “Aren’t we Jewish? Do Jews believe in angels?”
He patted me on the head.
“Such a clever little girl we have.”
“Who’s a clever little girl?” said Grandma Hirsch from behind me, her hands on my shoulders as she kissed me on top of the head. “And why is she so clever?”
“Because she just asked me if we were Jewish.”

Grandma Hirsch dragged me over to the dining room table, looking very frightened. Grandpa followed. She knelt down in front of me and, still holding on to me tightly, glanced around the family gathering in their home before whispering.
“If anyone ever asks you if you’re Jewish,” she said, “you must say, ‘I was baptized and I go to Catholic schools.’ You understand?”
I nodded, not knowing why she seemed so distressed and frightened.
“Are you Jewish?” she said.
“Yes.”
“No,” she said. “You were baptized and you go to Catholic schools. Are you Jewish?”
“I was baptized… and go to Catholic schools.”
“Good girl,” said Grandma, kissing me on the forehead before she hugged me.
“You see?” said Grandpa, messing my hair in that nice way he always did. “I told you she was clever.”

The rest of my family didn’t consider me so clever. They said I was “obsessed with being Jewish,” only they said it in the same hateful way my classmates called me “Yid” and “Kike,” often using the same anti-Semitic terms. Though everyone in our family used Yiddish words and phrases, though everyone acknowledged that Grandpa and Grandma Hirsch were German and that all the rest of their family had remained in Germany, and though everyone said we all had “The Hirsch Nose” — whatever that meant — no one ever admitted that we were Jewish. Most, eventually, probably never realized it.

Yet I still kept dreaming that I was in the Nazi Concentration Camps, and every night I died there. As the years passed, I noticed that my Grandma Hirsch often cried to herself, alone, in the kitchen, but if I found her there and asked her what was wrong, she always said, “Nothing. Go play.” I realized that Grandpa Hirsch had an air of grief that no one else seemed to notice. If they did notice it, they never acknowledged it. Once, I asked Grandpa why he was always so sad, despite his jokes and his laughter around other people. He sighed.

“Because so many bad things happen in the world.”

How could I have possibly known that he meant the Holocaust? How could I have known that he and my Grandmother had lost every other single member of their family — all of whom were in Germany — between the years 1940-1945? No one else would even admit that we were Jewish, my Grandma insisted that I must keep it a secret, and eventually, most of my family even forgot that we were Jewish, calling me crazy or obsessed whenever I insisted that we were.

So, about ten years after my Grandpa Hirsch died, when I had long lost contact with my abusive parents and siblings, when the nightmares of dying in the Nazi Concentration Camps increased to the point that they were waking me every single night, when I asked myself and the Universe, “What am I supposed to do with these dreams?” and the Universe answered, “Write,” that is what I decided to do.

I was already a writer — a poet, specifically — with many poems published in prestigious literary and university journals, working on Ph.D.’s in English and Comparative Literatures, and in Creative Writing. So that was what my dreams were telling me, I thought to myself in the dark in the middle of the night: I’m supposed to write about the Holocaust.

It was then that I realized that I knew nothing about it.

Beyond knowing that the Nazis had perpetrated this genocide against the European Jews during World War II, I knew nothing about the Holocaust. We had never studied the Holocaust in the Catholic schools I attended as a child nor in the history classes I took in college. I had never read Holocaust literature or, to the best of my knowledge, seen any films — documentary or otherwise — about the Concentration Camps, the Nazis, or the Holocaust. (My step-father watched World War II movies when he wasn’t watching football, but those John Wayne/Dirty Dozen-movies were always about the soldiers and how they’d beaten or escaped from the terrible Germans, who were Nazis. Those movies were never about the Holocaust and what had happened to the Jews. They were adventure/action movies about  the American heroes who ended the war, or about the American POW-heroes who outwitted the mostly dimwitted German-Nazis.  [My father was a huge fan of the television series “Hogan’s Heroes.”] The movies and shows he watched were never, ever about the Jews or the Holocaust.)

What I read while researching the Holocaust so that I could write about it did more than depress me: I found myself crying to the point of grieving. I was unable to do anything else but think of the Holocaust, the Jews, my lost heritage, and my poor Great-Grandparents. Yet none of the books or films or memoirs answered some of my most important questions.

That’s when I decided to find survivors and ask them if I could talk to them about the Holocaust and their experiences.

That’s when I met Anna Ornstein, who was in Auschwitz when she was only 16 years old.

Anna Brunn

Anna Brunn

I got her name and professional address from one of my dissertation advisers, who had heard her speak on the Holocaust. She and her husband Paul, also a survivor, lived in Cincinnati, where I was working on my Ph.D. I sent them a copy of my first — and at that time, my only — Holocaust poem: Cutthroat: A Player Who Plays For Himself. In the accompanying card, I told them I had questions about the Holocaust and wondered if I could talk to them. Anna called me right after she and Paul read the poem. She asked what camp I’d been in.

Paul Ornstein on his bike, going to see his girlfriend Anna Brunn

Paul Ornstein on his bike, going to see his girlfriend Anna Brunn

The Ornsteins both thought I was a survivor myself. (Part of that might have been due to my adopted father’s last name: his parents came from Hungary during the war, and Anna, Hungarian herself, recognized the name. She and her her husband Paul are the only ones who’ve ever pronounced it correctly without being told how to say it.)

Anna Brunn and Paul Ornstein

Anna Brunn and Paul Ornstein

Because Anna wanted to know as much from me about myself and creative writing as I wanted to know about the Holocaust from her, we decided to meet. She was fascinated in how I could have made her believe that I had been in a Nazi Concentration Camp, how I could have known some of the things I’d written in my poems if I’d never been there. I wanted to ask her about things I couldn’t find answers to in books. It took more than one meeting. It took more than a few months. It took years. What began as a common interest in examining the Holocaust, on my part, and understanding how artists create, on her part, developed into a life-long friendship. She and her husband Paul, who had escaped Auschwitz and survived the War with the Partisans in the woods surrounding the infamous extermination camp, welcomed me into their home, their hearts, their lives. They told me everything about themselves and their families – before, during, and after the war. They discussed moral issues surrounding the Holocaust. They introduced me to other survivors.

They read everything I ever wrote.

They reminded me of my Grandpa Hirsch, only without having to hide the fact that they were Jewish.

Anna Brunn Ornstein and her friend Lili Gluck

Anna Brunn Ornstein and her friend Lili Gluck

Eventually my poems on the Holocaust became so long that editors at the journals where I submitted the poems began to write me notes on the bottom of the rejection slips: “Are you sure you’re not writing fiction?” and “Is this supposed to be a short story or a part of a novel?” and, after I submitted a 32-page single-spaced poem, “Our journal is only 50 pages long…”

“Maybe I should write a novel about the Holocaust,” I said to myself one day, realizing that I had so many moral issues still to explore about it.

As soon as I thought that, I heard the voice of The Kommandant, from a poem I’d written (originally, a very bad short story) during grad school, about a Nazi Kommandant who forces a Jewish inmate with whom be becomes obsessed to be his “mistress.” I heard the Kommandant, who had no name up to that point, say, “Tell my story.” At the same instant, I heard the voice of the girl saying, “You can’t tell his story without telling mine.” And I saw a vision of the book I would write.

(By the way, I don’t know how that happens. It’s one of the mysteries of my art that I have never attempted to figure out, but this is what it’s like: I’m in a dark, unfamiliar room. For one instant, there is a flash of lightning which illuminates that room. In that moment, I see everything in the room, know most of its history, and understand something about it. Then the room goes dark again. My job then is to re-create, in words, that momentary vision. And that is the most difficult work I have ever done in my life.)

Throughout the writing of the book which would eventually become The Kommandant’s Mistress, I had many questions to which I could not find answers in my sources, primary or secondary, or from other survivors. Whenever that happened, I turned to Anna.

Paul & Ann Ornstein (L) celebrate a wedding with their best friends Lucy & Steve Hornstein

Paul & Ann Ornstein (L) celebrate a wedding with their best friends Lucy & Steve Hornstein

One of the most important questions I had while writing the novel involved the numbers the Nazis had tattooed on the arms of the Auschwitz inmates. These tattooed numbers, visible on the inner left forearms of many survivors, originated in Auschwitz, designed specifically as an Extermination camp rather than as a Concentration Camp.

Auschwitz was not meant to “detain” Jewish inmates for extended periods of time. It was built as part of the Nazi’s “Final Solution to the Jewish Problem” — said “problem” being how to eliminate all Jews from Europe and other Nazi-occupied territories. It was constructed with the sole aim of killing Jews as efficiently and quickly as possible. By gassing them, en masse, mostly upon arrival,  with Zyklon B: cyanide-pellets that turned to gas when exposed to air, designed to exterminate rodents, a term by which the Nazis had long referred to the Jews.

Not all the Jews arriving at Auschwitz were immediately killed, however. It seems the Nazis needed the Jewish labor for the war effort. By the time Auschwitz was operating at its highest capacity, Germany was losing the war. As its martial defeats increased, so did the Nazi escalation of eliminating the Jewish population in its occupied territories. Hitler’s rabid obsession with the Jews, and Nazi anti-Semitic attempts to exterminate the entire Jewish population in all of Europe, Russia, Greece, and any other Nazi-occupied territories, directly corresponded in escalation with Germany’s defeats and loss of territory in the War.

Thus, in 1944, when Anna, her family, her future husband Paul, his family, and other Hungarian Jews were deported to Auschwitz, the extermination camp was operating at what was probably its highest capacity: 450,000 Hungarian Jews were killed in about five weeks. The remainder were interned there, to be worked, starved, beaten, and tortured to death. Unless the Kommandant of Auschwitz was in one of his more playful moods. At such times, he would order all the inmates to line up in groups of five – zu fünf – and arbirtrarily shoot every tenth, or fifth, or umteenth one, until he got bored and trotted away on his famously beautiful white horse.

It was in Auschwitz that the practice of tattooing inmates began. These random, meaningless numbers were not a way to identify and keep track of the Jewish inmates, though the Jews believed that they were, but a way to further insult, degrade, and dehumanize them. These tattoos also mocked the Jewish beliefs: the origin of the traditional Jewish prohibition of tattooing seems to be in Leviticus 19:28: “You shall not make gashes in your flesh for the dead, or incise any marks on yourselves; I am the Lord.” Tattooing may have been considered idolatry or part of pagan practices, which the Torah forbids.

Of course, some Jews have always gotten tattoos. Ilse Koch, wife of  Karl-Otto Koch, the Kommandant of the Nazi Concentration Camps Buchenwald (1937-1941) and Majdanek (1941-1943), and one of the first prominent Nazis put on trial by the American Military, harvested Jewish tattoos, selecting interesting tattoos, having those Jews killed, and the tattoos cut away from the bodies; she is rumored to have said tattoos made into lampshades and other decorative items. Additionally, there are photographs of Auschwitz inmates’ tattoos, considered attractive or unusual by the notorious “Angel of Death,” Dr. Josef Mengele, who requested that these photographs be taken for him. One such tattoo that Mengele wished to have photographed was of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. (Later in his life, the Nazi photographer claimed he was “forced” to take the picture, and that he “regretted it.”) It is assumed that the Jewish inmate with that tattoo either died as a result of Mengele’s experimentation upon him, or in the gas chambers after the photo was taken.

When I was writing the scene where the female protagonist, Rachel, is getting tattooed in the unidentified Auschwitz-like camp, I had not yet gotten my first tattoo (which I would get at age 47), so I did not know what it felt like. Anna Ornstein has two numbers tattooed on her inner left forearm. I called her to ask about what getting a tattoo felt like.

“I don’t remember,” she said.
“Does it hurt?”
“I don’t know. I felt so happy those days we were tattooed that I simply don’t remember what it felt like.”
“You felt happy?”
“We thought it meant we would survive. We weren’t registered anywhere, so we thought they were identifying us with tattoos to keep track of us. I remember the sun was shining, birds were singing, and I was happy.”
“Why do you have two numbers?”
“They told us they got the numbers wrong the first day,” said Anna, “so they had to do they again the second day. To get the numbers right.”
“But the numbers were meaningless.”
“We didn’t know that, so I was happy. Besides,” she said, “we thought, ‘Even the Germans wouldn’t be stupid enough to go through all this trouble and then kill us all’.”

Anna went all along the line of tattoo artists until she found a girl who was doing very neat, small tattoos on the inmates’ inner left forearms. (Some inmates’ numbers are very large, stretching along the entire length of their forearms. Some numbers start on the inside of the inmates’ forearms before continuing on the back, down to their wrists.) Anna complimented the girl who was doing the small, neat tattoos on her work. The girl was flattered. Anna’s original tattoo — B-71 — if done under any other circumstances, could be called tasteful or even attractive. (Having had it so long, Anna simply considers it “part of [her] body.”) The next day, when they were ordered to get an additional tattoo — Anna returned to the same girl, complimenting her again and requesting that she be the one who did Anna’s next tattoo. The B was crossed out. An A, supposedly for their barracks though Anna was not in Barracks A but in Barracks B, was put before the original B. The number 200 was put above the previous 71. Anna’s number was, supposedly, technically, A-20071, but it ended up looking like this (I’m not sure of the type of line used to cross out the B, so I have not put it in):

         200
A-B-71

In the seven years I’d spent researching the Holocaust, first for my poems, then for my novel, I had never been able to find any information on the tattoos, other than the fact that some Jews had them and some did not, and some photographs of them, like this one:

Partial Photo Mural of Auschwitz Survivors displaying their tattoos (On permanent display at the United State Holocaust Museum)

Partial Photo Mural of Auschwitz Survivors displaying their tattoos (On permanent display at the United State Holocaust Museum)

Anna’s story was so unlike anything I expected to hear that I put her story about the tattoo, exactly as she told it to me, into the novel (when Rachel is getting tattooed).

World War II ended 67 years ago. The Nazi Concentration and Extermination Camps were liberated 67-68 years ago. Soon there will be no Holocaust survivors left to tell their own stories. Only those of us who knew them, and their own family members will be able to tell their stories. Eventually, however, the Holocaust will, inevitably, become part of the “distant past,” existing only in art.

Some children and grandchildren, in an effort to preserve their family members’ stories, have had the numbers of their loved ones tattooed into their own arms. Some oppose this; some approve. I believe that we each must choose our own ways of remembering the Holocaust and reminding others that this kind of hatred and genocide still exist, against Jews as well as against other ethnic or religious minorities.

I have written two books on the Holocaust, telling the stories of the survivors, the victims, the perpetrators, and the observers who stood by and permitted it to happen. In addition to telling the story of Anna’s tattoo in The Kommandant’s Mistress, I wrote the story of her mother’s and her time in Auschwitz — based on all the stories she told me over the years —  in the poem “Sofie and Anna,” which appears in Where Lightning Strikes.

This year, I decided to go another step toward Remembering and Reminding others about the Holocaust. Yesterday, with Anna’s blessing and permission, I had her Auschwitz numbers tattooed on my inner left forearm, along with the transliterated Hebrew words Yizkor (Remember) and Zachor (Remind).

My intention is to tell everyone who asks what it means Anna’s story and the story of the Holocaust. Until the day I die. After that, if I am lucky, I will be able to continue to tell the story through my books.

Already, however, I know I made the right decision, getting Anna’s numbers tattooed, along with Yizkor and Zachor, on my inner left forearm.

Because of what happened at the tattoo shop.

Of the three younger people (aged 33, 27, and 26) working at the shop where I got my tattoo, only one knew what the Holocaust was: the oldest. She’d asked what I wanted to get as a tattoo while I was filling out the required paperwork, awaiting the tattoo artist on duty that day. When I showed her and told her what it was, she said, “Oh, my god, that is so incredibly awesome and wonderful of you. Tell me about Anna.”

I did.

The young man who did the tattoo did not know what my intended tattoo meant. When I told him Anna had survived the Holocaust and those were her Auschwitz numbers, he said, “What’s the Holocaust?” (Apparently, it is still not taught in many schools, at any level.) He wanted to hear Anna’s entire story before he did the tattoo. Then he spent hours, literally, preparing the tattoo (it’s drawn on transfer paper, pressed onto the skin, and everything “approved” before tattooing begins, since, once done, it can’t be undone). In fact, the actual tattoo took less than fifteen minutes. It took so long to prepare, he told me, because he wanted it to be as “respectful” as possible, and to be as “beautiful” as he could possibly make it, considering what it originally represented.

When he put the transfer on my inner arm, I got emotional.
“Don’t get emotional on me,” he said, “or I’ll get emotional and I won’t be able to see what I’m doing.”

Afterward, with a catch in his voice, he asked if I would please tell Anna how honored he was to have been chosen (even if by fate) to have done “her” tattoo. I told him that I would tell her as soon as I got home. He shook my hand several times, thanking me for telling him Anna’s story. He also told me that he has had many Jewish customers come in for tattoos, usually for a Star of David. He said he will tell every one who comes in about my tattoo as well as about Anna’s story. He said he also intends to read up on the Holocaust.

When I went to pay, I was charged much less than the price I was originally quoted. I asked why. The other young man in the store said he was told to give me the largest discount they offer, for that tattoo and for any other tattoo I ever have done. He then asked to see it. He asked what it was. The young girl told him.

He said, “What’s the Holocaust?”
“You love history,” she said, “but you don’t know about the Holocaust?”
“I know it happened during World War II. I guess I better read up on it.”
Then he asked me to tell him Anna’s story.
Afterward, he, too, shook my hand and thanked me.

I know some Jews fiercely object to having the numbers of Holocaust survivors tattooed on a child’s, grandchild’s, or friend’s inner left forearm. Some famous survivors have spoken publicly against it. The Internet is filled with debate on the “trend,” as it is sometimes derogatorily called, and the debate seems equally divided for and against people having the numbers of their loved ones tattooed on their own arms in order to tell the story of the Holocaust. There are others, too — non-Jews — who oppose this practice: some state their reasons, some do not.

But already, by having my friend Anna’s Auschwitz numbers tattooed on my inner left forearm, along with Yizkor and Zachor, I have accomplished what I wished. One young girl who knew about the Holocaust learned Anna’s story. Two young men who knew about World War II but nothing else, learned about Anna and about the Holocaust itself. All three are determined to share that story with others.

My tattoo, with Anna’s blessing & permission, of Anna’s Auschwitz numbers, followed by the transliterated Hebrew words YIZKOR (Remember) and ZACHOR (Remind)

This is how we will help keep the Holocaust from becoming the “distant past” that can “never happen again” — by telling the story, over and over and over. By making it personal. By emotionally involving others so that they, too, feel compelled to tell it. Perhaps, by continuing to tell the stories, in every way we can, we can make a difference.

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The Snow White Watch

Despite the fact that my family was Jewish, my great-grandparents sent all their children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren to Catholic schools, so the biggest event of my life when I turned seven was to be my First Communion. Or so I thought.

To be perfectly honest, I didn’t care very much about the First Communion itself, though the Bishop himself was coming to the Church Of Holy Angels to administer it. I didn’t have any problem memorizing our lines in Latin since, back then, the entire Mass was in Latin, so learning our lines was easy. I didn’t even think very much about the new prayerbook — in Latin — of my very own that I was to receive, or the new rosary, which one of my aunts had hinted looked like diamonds. No, there were only two things I cared about concerning the impending First Communion. 1) the fact that, in my white dress, patent leather shoes, and veil, I looked like a bride; and 2) that I had asked for only one gift – to increase the chances of my actually getting something I wanted: A Snow White watch of my very own that I was to receive, or the new rosary, which one of my aunts had hinted looked like diamonds. No, there were only two things I cared about concerning the impending First Communion. 1) the fact that, in my white dress, patent leather shoes, and veil, I looked like a bride; and 2) that I had asked for only one gift – to increase the chances of my actually getting something I wanted: A Snow White watch.

How I loved Snow White. Not the dwarves, not the Prince who eventually woke her from her sleep with a kiss, and certainly not the evil Queen stepmother, who reminded me too much of my own parents. I loved Snow White herself. She sang like an angel, and when abandoned in the woods for dead, she found a way to survive. I didn’t sing myself, buy I knew how to survive. She was my hero. I wanted my first watch, which each child in our family got after s/he turned 7, to have Snow White’s picture on it so I could look at her every single day.

I fear that I don’t remember very much about my First Communion, though I do recall that I looked like a bride (the fact that every single girl in the second-grade looked like a bride didn’t take away from my pleasure at resembling one). There was a white-layer-cake and punch at the house afterward, but I didn’t like the taste of either one. I received my own Latin prayer book with gilt-edged pages, but its cover was white, not pink as I’d plainly made clear was my preference. Finally, though the new rosary did glitter like diamonds, I knew that they weren’t because my own mother told me they were merely cut-crystals immediately after my grandparents presented it to me. All very well and fine. But nothing exceptional to a little Jewish girl in love with Snow White.

Then my great-grandfather drew me aside. He took me to the corner, reached into his jacket pocket, and pulled out a package wrapped in pink tissue paper, tied with pink ribbon, and knotted with a single pink bow. I adored my great-grandfather even more than I did Snow White. He was the only one who ever listened to me. He was the one I could depend upon to tell me the truth if I asked a question (he’d told me the truth about our family’s being Jewish after I’d asked, though my great-grandmother cautioned me that I must always tell anyone who questioned me about it that I’d been baptized and attended Catholic schools). My great-grandfather was the only person in my family who loved me. (I believed it then, and I still do.) So, it shouldn’t have been a surprise that it was out of his pocket, on First Communion Day, came a pink-wrapped present.

Breathless, I untied the bow, removed the ribbon, untaped the paper and folded it. A cream-colored box. Like nothing I’d ever seen before. I opened it. I looked up at my great-grandfather, who, smiling, patted me on top of my veiled head. Inside the box, on a pink wrist-band, was a Snow White watch.

It was already set for the correct time, and wound, so that the second hand swept around her lovely face as she sat in the woods singing for all the little animals. Great-grandfather took it out of the box, taught me how to set and wind it, then put it on me. It was absolutely the happiest moment of my seven-year-old life. Great-Grandpa Hirsch was my Prince Charming, and I hugged and kissed him till he laughed.

I wore that watch every moment of the day and night – except, of course, during the weekly bath. I wore it to school, where, to my surprise, none of the other girls had gotten a watch. Most of them had either gotten pearl earrings (complete with the piercing of their ears), a pearl necklace, or both. It was the boys who’d gotten watches, and none of them had received a Snow White watch. I alone had a Snow White watch on a pink band. I checked the time every few seconds, ensuring that it matched the great clock that hung in the classroom, in the school hallway, in the cafeteria, and the small clock in the kitchen at home. When I woke in the middle of the night, I looked at Snow White to check the time. I was so happy and proud.

And then, tragedy struck.

All the neighborhood children and I were playing in our backyard, on the swingset. Specifically, we were dashing up the ladder to the slide, grabbing the top of the swingset, lifting our bodies up into the air, and flinging ourselves down the slide as hard and fast as we could. Once at the bottom, you had to jump up as fast as you could – before the next person barrelling down the slide slammed into you – run around and scramble back up the ladder to do it again.

Suddenly, about the hundredth time I grabbed the top of the swingset, the world went black.
Just like that.
Black and silent in an instant.

Then a fireman was slapping me rather hard in the face, telling me to wake up. I was lying at the side of the house, about 30-50 feet from the swingset. Our house, on a corner lot, was surrounded by firetrucks and police cars, all with flashing lights. The yard was filled with sobbing children, shrieking college girls from the houses around ours, and wailing mothers. (It should be here noted that, for many reasons, my own mother was standing silently against the wall of the house – not crying, shrieking, wailing, nor wringing her hands – calmly and unemotionally observing it all.) The fireman slapped me again, asking me over and over if I knew my name.

I thought how funny he was: of course I knew my name. What I didn’t know was why he kept putting that big head of his, in that even bigger fire-helmet, in front of mine, blocking my view of the bluest sky I’d ever seen. I didn’t know why I was lying in the yard so far away from the swingset, why everyone was weeping and wailing, or why I felt so calm and peaceful. He slapped me again, demanding that I tell him my name – when anyone else there could have easily told him – as a policeman lifted my wrist, pointed to my Snow White watch, glanced over at the swingset, and cursed aloud while he jumped to his feet. Everyone else in the yard looked in the same direction and immediately screamed as if a tornado had just touched down.

It seems that in the night, during a storm, a powerline had fallen and landed atop the swingset. Each time one of us had grabbed the top of the swingset to throw ourselves down the ladder, we’d been within inches of touching it. But I was the only one old enough to be wearing a watch. My Snow White watch. That last fateful time on the slide, Snow White had touched the live powerline and I’d been electrocuted, flung through the air from the top of the slide to where I’d landed, unconscious long enough for all my brothers and sisters to run, screaming, for the neighbors; for the college girls and other mothers to call the fire department and police, then rush over into our yard and huddle around crying; for the fire trucks and police cars to arrive, sirens screaming and lights flashing; for the firemen to rush over to me, begin slapping me, and shouting.

In short, everyone thought I was dead.

I wasn’t. I never did manage to say my name, however, as I quickly slipped back into unconsiousness and was transported to the hospital. I don’t know how long it was before I came home again. I heard, afterward, that our backyard was cordoned off for days while the electrical crews repaired the downed powerline. It was weeks before the burn on the back of my left wrist healed. More weeks before I could get out of bed and return to school. Like Lazarus, I’d risen from the dead, only without Jesus’ miraculous help. But something, besides my voice, was missing: my Snow White watch.

It seems that the current from the powerline had melted the watch into my skin. Snow White had been destroyed. Doctors said that if it hadn’t been for the watch, no one may have noticed the powerline. They told my family that if I hadn’t had my arms up over my head when Snow White hit the powerline, I’d have been killed. The word “miracle” quickly circulated around the mostly Catholic neighborhood. I didn’t care about any of that. All I cared about was Snow White – my destroyed Snow White. I hadn’t even gotten to see her buried since they disposed of her while I was unconscious in the hospital. I asked for another Snow White watch.

“We’re not the ones who broke it,” said my mother and step-father. “Why should we buy you another one?”

And that, as they say, was that.
At least, as far as my parents were concerned.
And no, my grandmother scolded me, I could not ask Great-Grandpa for another watch: he had children and grandchildren and plenty of other great-grandchildren. He’d already given me one watch: he would not be asked to give me another. Which, she added, I’d broken in the first place.

I never got over her. My Snow White watch. My Snow White. She was gone forever. I was forced to grieve in silence.

One Christmas, 34 years after being electrocuted and about three years after my boyfriend and I had started living together, he asked me if I’d like to open our “Christmas Eve gift” early. Two weeks early. Laughing, I said no. All the presents were wrapped under the tree, we always opened one gift a piece on Christmas Eve. Why on earth would I want to change the tradition that we’d started, over twenty-five years after both of us, separately, had stopped celebrating Christmas altogether, then begun again after we’d moved in together because we liked Christmas trees and the season itself.

He didn’t act happy. He was not himself. He’d been on the phone for months beforehand with one of his sisters (she lived in California; we lived in Ohio). He paced the house like a madman every time the mail or a delivery truck arrived, but I never saw anything of importance that would warrant such distress. He seemed so anxious and unhappy. Now he wanted to ruin our Christmas Eve tradition by trying, every day, to get me to open a present beforehand. I simply had no idea what was troubling him. To make matters worse, whenever I asked what was wrong, he’d freeze and mumble, “Nothing” before escaping the room. I began to think our relationship wasn’t working out, and that he wanted me to open a present early because he wasn’t planning on being there on Christmas. My own mood plummeted.

Christmas Eve DAY arrived.
“Open a present,” he said.
“It’s 9:00 in the morning.”
“Open a present.”
“Later,” I said. “It’s not Christmas EVE yet.”
He stayed in his office all day long.

As soon as the sun set, he bounded out.
“Ready to open a present?”
I agreed.
Instead of permitting me to choose which present I wanted to open, as we usually did, he brought out a box from under the pile, from the back of the tree, hidden under the branches. We sat on the couch. He jumped up.
“Wait,” he said, running from the room.
I was beginning to think he’d simply lost his mind when he came rushing back and handed me a handkerchief. He put one for himself in his pocket. I opened the package, as I always did: untying the ribbon, removing the pink paper and folding it. Pink paper. Pink ribbon. Why was he squirming around so? Pink paper. Pink ribbon. Something in me felt… uneasy.

This was what I got.

The Snow White Watch Box

 

I looked up at him, thinking, confusedly, “Why on earth did he get me a DVD of Snow White?”
Then, “How on earth did they make the DVD so small?”
As I slowly untied the box’s purple ribbon, the seven-year-old girl inside me, the little girl I thought long dead, rose once again, shrieking with joy: It’s the watch. It’s the watch.
Heart pounding, I opened the box.
This is what was inside.

The Snow White Watch


I sobbed.
My boyfriend 
wiped his own eyes before taking the watch out of the box and putting it on me.
The little girl inside was dancing, jumping, and laughing with joy.
I was crying so hard I could barely see the watch’s face.
“Is it the right one?” he asked.
“What do you mean?”
“It’s the 60th anniversary of Snow White and the Seven Dwarves,” he said. “There were only two watches left in the entire country (these were the days before the extensive internet availability of products): both watches were in Disney stores in California. One was gold, but I didn’t think you’d have had a gold watch when you were a little girl. The other, they told me, had a painted face. They held it for me, and my sister Beth drove over three hours to the store that had it and got it for me. I’m sorry it doesn’t have a pink band. They said they don’t make pink bands for adult watches. But besides the color of the band, is it the right one?”

Oh, yes. I don’t remember how long it took me to stop crying, or how many times I hugged and kissed him. I don’t recall how many times I woke in the night and turned on the light to look at my Snow White watch (yes, I wore her to bed), but every time I woke, he did, too, asking, “Are you happy?”

Silly boy.
“Ever since you told me that story,” he said as we lay there together looking at the watch, “my heart broke for that poor little girl. Until I finally realized what I had to do.”
“Why didn’t I ever think of getting another Snow White watch myself?”
“Because,” he said, “someone who loved you had to give it to you.”

This will be our 19th holiday season together, and he still claims it’s the happiest Christmas memory of his entire life. It is for me, too. It’s the only watch I wear, and people are always asking why I’m wearing a Snow White watch. Sometimes, I say, “It’s a long story,” and they turn away. Other times, they do want to hear, so I tell them: women break out into tears, men get watery-eyed and begin clearing their throats. I usually get so emotional, I have a hard time relating the story.

But every time the little girl in me looks at the watch, she’s so happy, she wants to tell the whole world how, 34 years later, she got her Snow White watch back.

Now she’s told you.

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