Growing up, my parents’ home was always full of friends. A mere handful of years after the end of the war, my parents had managed to build a business in which they worked incredibly hard, and with which they filled their home with a sense of affluence that they generously shared with anyone who came in. And many guests came in, some to stay for some weeks, and others just for the day, but there were welcome guests there every day. My parents’ friends gathered at our home on Saturday evenings, my older sister’s friends were in the room she and I shared, and my brother’s friends, a whole bunch of growing lads, were either filling his room or taking over the kitchen, eating what my hard working mother cooked for the coming days, like a ravenous bunch of locust. But my parents loved the happy gaggles of young people that filled their home and I never heard my mother complain about the disappearing food.
The kitchen was the heart of our home, with its European glass-door china cabinet that held my mother’s china, which we used daily. Since those were the days before dishwashers, these pretty dishes had a short half-life and the full sets would quickly dwindle and lose a plate here, a soup bowl there, as we kids would frequently break a piece when doing the dishes. We would peevishly tell our mother when yet another piece of china broke, expecting her to get upset. But my mother would respond with unflappable equanimity. “Mazal Tov!” she would say, without any hint of irony, as the Jewish custom views the breaking of a dish as an omen of good things to come. A strange association, when one stops to think of it, but my mother would calmly say, “It’s only a dish. What is a dish?” and what she did not say was, what is a broken dish in comparison to the loss of everyone you loved? My mother’s tone of saying it was not bitter, nor depressed. It was matter of fact, and it was comforting to see that she was not upset and not angry. It was about keeping in proportion the small losses, the small detours that life takes one on, and the annoyances of everyday life.
My mother wanted us to have some endurance for minor discomforts. She did not minimize our trials and tribulations, but out of respect to the extremes of suffering which she had lived through and which others around her did not survive, she consistently reproached us for using commonly used figures of speech such as “I am dying of hunger!” or “it was so boring I thought I would die!” When we did use such extravagant phrases, she would comment, “it is not so easy to die”. And we would realize how different her experience was from anything we could comprehend, as we were feeling the early pangs of hunger before a good meal, only a few hours from the previous good meal we had had.
As the youngest child in the family, it was my job to go to the grocery store and bring the bread home for dinner every evening. When I brought the loaf of bread, golden and fresh and sometimes even still warm, my mother would hold it to her face and, with a glowing smile, inhale deeply the fresh scent and exclaim, “what a wonderful bread this is!” Every day of her life, she was able to celebrate the marvel of fresh bread, to enjoy the house full of young noisy, happy, hungry children and friends whom she could feed, because every day the memories were still there, close to the surface, yet fueling a passion for life. This is what I would like to remember this year on the day we commemorate the end of the catastrophe that destroyed our parents’ world. How they succeeded in moving forward, despite unspeakable pain, and the amazing resilience and vitality that they put forth in rebuilding their lives.