Page 11 - WTP Vol.VII #3
P. 11

 A few minutes later, the session is done. After the therapist walks out the door, I lean over to kiss my mother. “I have to catch my flight back to Massachu- setts,” I tell her. “I’ll be back soon. I love you.” I stroke her head and kiss her again. I don’t want to go. I squeeze her hand, kiss her one more time, strap my bag over my shoulder, and leave.
“Arrest you? Why? Have you done anything wrong?”
Once at home, I receive an email message from my younger sister: “I think Mom doesn’t want people at Hebrew Home to know she’s German.”
But as she talks about the police day after day, I realize that in her world, being arrested isn’t necessarily a consequence of wrong doing. She says, “I’m trying to figure out who’s reporting to the police. I won’t tell anyone anything.” This paranoia isn’t about being a German among Jews. It has more of the feel of an anti- Nazi under the Hitler regime. Did a neighbor overhear her tuning in to BBC? Did a classmate denounce her anglophilia?
“I think you’re right,” I respond. “What have you noticed?”
“In the dining room,” my sister writes, “Mom told me the people at the next table were suspicious of her because she didn’t pray before eating lunch. And she didn’t eat her ginger snap because it wasn’t Jewish enough.” Her dessert wasn’t Jewish enough? What did she want? We can give her dreidl-shaped cookies with a glazed gimmel.
I return to Maryland and spend hours at Hebrew Home with my mother each day, in the dining room guiding her spoon to her mouth, cheering her on at physical therapy, and naming who’s who in family photographs. But today she doesn’t want to look at pictures. Instead, she asks me to position her wheelchair so that she can see two corridors, the elevator, and the nurses’ station.
I try to read, but my mother tells me to put my book away. When I pull out my crochet project, she tells me to put that away, too. I am to give my full attention to
all things going on. A speechless old woman sitting in back of us cradles her teddy bear, while nurses in navy blue scrubs rush from room to room or pause to enter notes into a computer, and assistants in maroon scrubs take residents’ vital signs. A physical therapist in street clothes helps an overweight man heave himself out of his wheelchair. The large man grasps a walker and takes three tentative steps forward, the therapist inching the wheelchair close behind.
My older sister writes, “When the speech therapist from China asked Mom what she wanted to work on, Mom said, her accent.” At ninety-three years old, she wants a Chinese woman to help her sound American.
Most of the nursing staff at the rehab facility are from Africa or the Caribbean, and many of the therapists have Spanish, South Asian, or Chinese accents. While some of the residents choose Hebrew Home for its kosher food and synagogue, the majority aren’t neces- sarily Jewish. And yet, my mother, who raised a Jewish family, converted to Judaism, and lived among Jews
all of her adult life, is afraid of what will happen if her background is revealed.
As dementia dissolves my mother’s filters, this truth surfaces: When she arrived in the United States
in 1948, newly wed to my Jewish father, she was scorned, frozen out, and insulted—at parties, at meetings, even at the hair dresser—as soon as people learned where she was from. As the daughter of a Ger- man, I, too, have been subjected to hostility. It’s not unusual to hear comments like, “I would never buy a German product,” or “When I was in Europe and had to travel through Germany, it gave me the creeps,” or “I admit my prejudice; I hate Germans.” Although public sentiments toward Germans have become muted over the decades, aversion often lies just below the surface, and my mother’s hurt remains.
My mother observes the comings and goings and whispers to me what she’s figuring out. “Watch that one there.” She nudges me, pointing her head toward
a navy-blue clad woman who has come into view from around the corner. “You see?” I nod, even though the nurse seems perfectly trustworthy and certainly isn’t reporting anyone to the Gestapo. Another nurse walks by, and my mother raises her eyebrows at me. Soon, her whispers sound like rustling leaves. I give up try- ing to understand her words and wonder what truths I’m missing. My mother remains vigilant. I lean toward her, wishing her to feel safe, wanting her to know that I am her ally.
And then there’s the other side of my mother’s early life experience. “I’m afraid they’re going to arrest me,” she says when I visit.
Schifter has published personal essays in Hippocampus Magazine, the Daily Hampshire Gazette, and in the anthologies Bubbe Meisehs by Schayneh Maideleh, edited by Leslea Newman, and Selected Memories, edited by Donna Talarico.
My mother seems stymied for a moment. Then she says, “Look around the room. You won’t find anything stolen.”
“That’s right, Mom. You haven’t done anything wrong. Nobody’s going to arrest you.”

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