Paul’s journal documents the time before Susi’s birth. It offers, in her words, “incontrovertible proof” of his relationship with Mitzi, an affair that lasted until Susi was nine years old and Mitzi believed she must begin a pledge of loyalty to her husband, Alfred.
Susi had not discovered her blood-father until she was in her sixties, even though the evidence had stood gathering dust on a shelf for decades. Now, with so many questions, she had no answering-source.
She writes in her own journal, “It makes me sad [that] I did not respond to my mother’s giving me his book. What must she have thought? That I was angry at her?” She felt if she had known this when she was younger, she would have treated Alfred more softly during the depression of his end years. She said, “Mieze told me many times that I would never know how noble he was. I guess she referred to his making it easy for her, always treating me as his own child and Opau [Paul] as a family friend. When, in 1923, she wrote so glowingly about their love and their deep understanding of one another, perhaps that is what she meant, and it was true.”
Susi also kept extensive journals from a young age. My father compares her journals to mine, except she wrote about her ideas rather than feelings. As the journals transitioned from her native German to her new tongue, English, it is interesting to see how her language progressed: her essays are covered in a teacher’s correctional red ink, though underneath this ink (intended to point out grammatical errors), her own words are lyrical and expressive. A year later, in her wartime narrative of the political situation, her language is almost text-bookish.
My sister, from London, recently sent me another of Susi’s writings, from a journal she kept much later in life. Here, Susi writes about how she remembers receiving Paul’s journal: it was some time after Alfred’s death, and Leonard, returning from a visit in Los Angeles with Mitzi, brought it to her. Thinking it was her mother’s, she put it away. Mitzi’s journal excludes any mention of Paul, and Susi writes, “I don’t know how she could have left him out of it in this cruel way. Who was she lying to? Me, an unborn child?” Paul’s journal describes Mitzi with affection, and about one of the book’s parts, Susi says, “Throughout the whole story runs a pathetic refrain concerning her life in Brno from which he was excluded.”
Impressions that last after death—that can be re-adopted in cycles and by future generations—can be so easily sculpted. Here, so much is left out; Mitzi’s journal covers nothing of her child’s father, and she presents her daughter with slanted information. What the combined journals leave is confusing, with the content Mitzi chose to bequeath. I suppose it would have played much differently if Susi had read Paul’s journal when Mitzi was still alive. But as it was, there was no dialogue beyond her written pages. Susi herself chose to leave her family with much to understand her with—insights into her thoughts that perhaps none of us had known. What she does not display remains with her, private.
In a delicate world, origins are easily forgotten. What remains most genuine, after death, are not the artifacts, but the feelings.
I am trying to grasp what I had not collected in the first place. I am seeking to fill in the quick-in-passing, the gap within growth, the what-is-not-said in the boxes and boxes of journals and letters, albums and stories left behind.
I am trying in this way to glimpse their lives, to understand them. I want to know how I was made, to uncover the blur that expands boundlessly behind and in front of me.
Memory Paths: Hannah
By Zoë Pollak
Click here for Pollak’s complete multimedia project
I call my project “Memory Paths.” It’s a web module designed to mimic time travel. Currently, physics does not allow for time travel to the past or future. But you travel back in time every day, and not solely by remembering an event that occurred a long time ago. This time travel is involuntary.
Perhaps when you think of your childhood, nostalgia distorts the positive aspects of your youth and dims the more difficult memories. If you have a lot of work to do on a given day, you may reminisce about being in grade school and think back to when you took time for granted. On a rewarding day, you may revisit that same time in the past, but instead focus on the fact that your outlook was not mature enough to appreciate what has brought you satisfaction today.
The past changes every day – its fluidity is the only constant. Memory will always refine particular moments and blur others, but the combination of alterations is as infinite as the parallel universes that exist in theoretical physics. And because by the end of tomorrow evening you will have garnered several more new memories, your memory’s collection of refractions only increases.
What follows is the convergence of my own and my mother’s memory paths around a figure from my childhood.
Hannah (As Seen Through Two Angles)
As part of my study of memory, I have chosen photographs from my childhood, reflected on the photograph myself, and also asked my mother, a published memoirist, to write about the photograph from her perspective. In this game, neither one of us sees what the other has written until we are finished.
Me: I don’t remember much about living in Boulder , and all of what I do remember involves snow, bagels, or Hannah, my best friend in preschool. Hannah and I were best friends for only two years, but this short duration by no means correlated with how close we were. We were inseparable, so every single memory I have of preschool has her in it.
For the most part, I was subservient to Hannah. The few times I ever protested (for example, if I wanted to play in the sandbox when she wanted to play in the gravel), she would threaten that she “wouldn’t be my friend anymore.” This declaration worked to silence my objections.
But one day I worked up the courage to stand up for myself. Someone was having a birthday, and I was sitting with a group of my friends around the lunch table. As we eagerly waited for cupcakes, we talked about an upcoming sleepover. I told the group that I wouldn’t be able to make it, and Hannah then uttered her famous refrain, “I won’t be your friend anymore.” Before I knew it, my face was buried in her arm. As my teeth sank into her skin, I heard her scream. I let go to see tooth-shaped pools of blood. As Hannah yelped in pain, I suddenly felt nauseous, overcome with a strong wave of shame and regret. I slumped off into the playroom and deflated in a beanbag chair, while my sprinkled cupcake languished on the table.
Another memory, equally as traumatic, takes place at the Boulder planetarium. It was my fourth birthday, and my parents had bought a bunch of balloons, one for each partygoer (including me, of course). My favorite color was pink, and coincidentally so was Hannah’s. As my mother distributed one balloon per kid, Hannah asked for the pink one. But I wasn’t having it; it was my birthday, after all. So I told my mom I wanted the pink balloon, ignoring her suggestion to share (how could a balloon be shared, anyway?). So Hannah ended up with no balloon, since she wanted either pink or nothing.
We were distracted from the balloons by the planetarium show and a humongous supermarket cake covered in frosting. But when Hannah’s parents came to pick her up, she remembered the balloon and started crying for it. My mother gently urged me to give it to her; there was a red one that no one had claimed, which was my second-favorite color. But because the pink one was so coveted, its value was priceless in my eyes. I refused to give Hannah the balloon, and so her parents dragged her away, kicking and wailing on all fours, yelping like a dog.
Then a surge of guilt (much like the regret I felt after biting her) consumed me, and I ran after Hannah with the first balloon I could lay my hands on. Even though I ran as fast as I could (or so I remember), her parents’ pull was too strong for me, and I watched helplessly as tears streaked Hannah’s cheeks and she flailed her arms and legs, her screams diminishing as she disappeared from sight.
My mother: Hannah was Zoë’s best friend in Boulder. In this photo, two small girls smile into the sun with almost identical expressions and the same assertive stance. Hannah is positioned slightly closer to the photographer—probably me—and Zoë’s hair is a blonde match to her friend’s darker curls. They could be sisters. I’m surprised to see that they were barely out of babyhood when they knew one another, because in my memory their bond seemed full of the kind of feeling I associate with far more grown-up friendships.
In part, the intensity of their association was a product of the twin forces of their equally strong and stubborn personalities. Each was fiercely determined to get her way, occasioning many spats and two spectacular fights. I was called at work one day after the first conflict by a school official who revealed that my daughter had bitten her friend Hannah hard enough to draw blood. The two, I learned later, when I questioned my daughter, had been in the midst of a contest of wills. They were friends again within the hour, but it was the first and last time Zoë—at least to my knowledge—ever physically hurt another child.
Even when it came to their disagreements, the two were brilliantly matched and perfectly balanced; during the second such brawl it was not Hannah but Zoë who had the upper hand. At Zoë’s fourth birthday party, Hannah became enamored of a particular balloon, and had to be dragged away at the end of the party kicking and screaming by her apologetic mother—the classic toddler tantrum. Years later, long after we had moved away from Colorado, Zoë wrote to Hannah but received no reply—what occasioned this silence, we never knew. Had she moved away? In any case, my guess is that wherever she may be, her recollection of Zoë is as strong as is my daughter’s memory of her friend.
Another Birthday, Another Cupcake
Me: As I looked through the photo albums for a picture to reflect on this past weekend, I came across another photo of Hannah and me that I remember clearly. My mother is most likely the photographer here, as I am in the center of the image while Hannah sits at the very border, not at all content with being in the background. She glares at me while I concentrate on blowing out the single candle atop yet another cupcake of my preschool days.
It obviously isn’t my first birthday here, nor is it my birthday at all. In fact, we were celebrating Hannah’s fourth birthday, and this time I was jealous because she had four candles on her cupcake while I had none on mine. I asked her mother if I could also have a candle, to which Hannah protested, so we ended up compromising. Neither one of us, however, felt satisfied. I was still slightly miffed at having only one candle, which seemed immensely trivial in comparison to the symmetry of Hannah’s four dancing flames. My best friend was annoyed in principle that I even got one candle at all.
This photograph perfectly captures our stubbornness; I had waited to blow out my candle until after Hannah made her birthday wish so that I could claim the limelight a little longer. I remember being well aware of Hannah’s disapproval, but my awareness of her dissatisfaction didn’t get in the way of my wish-making.
My mother: Looking at this photo of Zoë—her hair pulled away from her face and gathered in a fountain of curls at the top of her head, her chubby child’s fingers braced on either side of her on the table—it looks as if blowing out a birthday candle were as demanding an activity as pole-vaulting. I guess it is, for a three-year-old, each year a sea of time that must be crossed before the next birthday celebration can begin and a new group of presents arrives. In one of our home movies, a Zoë barely two sits on a couch and sings “Happy Burday” to herself repeatedly while she plays with some kind of wooden puzzle or toy, oblivious of the camera’s eye upon her. I cannot help smiling as I recall her high, sweet voice absently sing this paean to herself, the notes rising and falling tonelessly in imitation of the cadences of the song.
Hannah is in this photo, as she is in most of the pictures taken of Zoë during our two years in Boulder. But here my daughter’s friend is pictured off to one side while Zoë herself sits front and center, no doubt enjoying the sweet and much awaited victory of the birthday celebrant, who is permitted on this day as no other in the year to enjoy her celebrity status. Zoë looks down at the cupcake, while Hannah looks either at her, or it—I can’t tell which.
I am certain, however, of the feeling on her face—the very picture of envy, the same face grownups try hard to hide but which occasionally stares out from newspaper images when a sidelined politician gets caught unawares. Hannah’s jealousy was, I’m sure, momentary, and nothing like the poisoned attitudes of adults slow to shake off their own ill will. Still it’s interesting to look at her fingers, which may be simulating the action of blowing out the candle herself. Or perhaps she is playing with them to keep herself from snatching the coveted icon on the table.
I recently visited my old elementary school with my father. As we were driving away, I looked back and saw a child running up the stairs. I imagined myself running after her. As we drove off, I imagined the children before me who climbed those steps. I wondered how many of them were the adults who hurried to work and stopped for a second to watch us play.
Even as a child, I knew these grown-ups did not see us as we saw ourselves, but I felt too detached from their lives, lives governed by a clock that ticked faster than our own, to wonder what they saw. Now I know they weren’t looking at us just because they thought we were cute or charming. They looked for more selfish reasons.
To them, we were shades of a different time, tinged with nostalgia or resentment or contentment. Now, I cannot reclaim myself from an old photograph or videotape any more than these adults claimed our silhouettes as holograms of themselves, projections of their own memories.
Day of Atonement
Click here for Liss’ complete multimedia project
This past Yom Kippur was the first time in five years that I fasted. And it sucked. As I entered the 22nd hour, I was doing laps in an olympic-sized pool of self-pity. For perhaps the first time ever, I regretted taking a day off from work. I kept thinking how unnatural the whole thing was. I was hungry. There was food. I should eat. Fasting went against every animal instinct I had.
It was at this point that some part of my hunger-addled brain began to flicker. How great is it that we are able to not eat–by choice. I could’ve eaten any number of things lying around the house. Or I could’ve gone out and ordered food. Or I could’ve called a phone number, and someone would have brought food to me. In other times and other places, being presented with all of those options would have been nothing short of a miracle.
And yet it’s because food is so plentiful that we have the choice not to eat it. It’s like the old joke about how you never visit the legendary landmark next door until someone comes to visit you. Since you know it’s always going to be there, you don’t feel the need to take advantage of it immediately. And so it is with food. The more we have, the less we need.
Of course, these thoughts didn’t help the fast go any faster. As soon as 6:06 rolled around, I went after the snack tray of dolmas as if they might evaporate any second. However, the fast did make me think, which I guess is the spirit of the holiday. It also reminded me of a concept I heard about a while back called the tragedy of the commons.
The idea refers to a hypothetical plot of land shared by a number of farmers. If the farmers each have enough sheep to keep the grass at a constant level, everybody wins. However, as soon as one farmer decides to try to earn more by adding another sheep, eventually the grass will run out, the sheep will die, and everyone will lose. This applies to any limited resource; people will try to get as much of it as possible for themselves, but if everyone does this, the resource will run out. However, if we know we have enough, we can feel safe taking what we need, and nothing more.
And yet, even though we live in an age of unparalleled prosperity, there is still a general sense of unease. We know that the world is at a tipping point. It seems that the higher we build, the more complex we get, the more precarious our position: the recent financial collapse has demonstrated that quite clearly.
Historically, humanity’s goal has always been to grow. But, as we stand on the brink of a population of 7 billion people, it’s becoming apparent that growth isn’t sustainable. What would happen if some crisis struck and crippled our modern infrastructure? Could we repair our own cars without electricity? Could we plant a garden without looking to the internet?
Which brings me to zombies. As you may have noticed, zombies are incredibly popular these days. These unreasoning, brain-hungry corpses are neck and neck (no pun intended) with vampires in terms of Google searches and kicking the crap out of werewolves, which is made all the more impressive by the fact that vampire-based fiction seems currently responsible for at least 78 percent of the American economy! Several of my friends have started planning for the zombie apocalypse, and even have an escape route planned out in case of zombie attack.
While both vampires and zombies are undead creatures roaming the night looking for more people to infect, over the years vampires have been transformed into sparkling sex symbols, while zombies have remained violent, bloodthirsty brutes. However, in recent films as well as all across the internet, the interest in zombies tends to focus on the aftermath of a zombie attack, rather than on the zombies themselves.
The internet offers both a lengthy Wikipedia article specifically on the zombie apocalypse and a Zombie Survival Wiki, not to mention an academic paper from the University of Ottawa about the effects of a zombie outbreak. Part of the attraction of the zombie apocalypse is the sheer freedom of it. I mean, in some respects, life would be like a giant game of Grand Theft Auto. You could go around, stealing cars, running over zombies, and doing missions for various underworld kingpins. However, there would be a more serious side, and that’s where all this obsession and preparation would come in.
In almost every zombie movie, the survivors are forced to find a way to provide their own food, shelter, and clothing–to survive without modern technology or conveniences. They have to be prepared to go for days without eating, and to live with only what they can carry. So, really, the aftermath of a zombie outbreak could stand in for that of any large-scale disaster. Say there’s a terrorist attack. Or some global warming-related weather event. Or SARS makes a comeback. Or genetically modified plants gain sentience and go on a killing spree. Or any of the dozens of things the news threatens us with every night. What would you do? Of course, nobody’s seriously preparing for any of these events, and with good reason. You’d go crazy from the stress, or at the very least people would think you’re extremely paranoid for acting on what seems like a very unlikely possibility. And yet the anxiety remains. You can see it in the increasing popularity of hobbies like knitting, homebrewing, and DIY projects in general. There’s something in the air, and real or not, it’s best to be prepared.
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