Runaway Parade

New Life


May 1, 2013

Every morning I pray that Saul will write to me, just so I know he is alive. The not knowing is tearing me apart. Nurse Lacy keeps saying stress is bad for the baby. When she says this, I want to throw my breakfast tray at her, thinking how easy it must be for someone who’s been in America the entire duration of the war. I don’t hold it against her though. I know stress is bad for the baby. She’s just trying to be helpful.

It’s been six months since Saul and I parted. I have replayed the conversation we had in Stockholm the night before I left so much that it has become as regular as my heartbeat. I can see Saul’s face even now as I lie back in bed with my eyes closed and it’s like he’s right here beside me, saying it all over again. I promise, I will follow soon and we will marry and start a new life. I will find electrician work in Stockholm and save up enough money to find a place for us to live in America. We made love by the port that night, right out in the open, which is something I never would have done before the war. It felt like a statement—we had survived and had not forgotten how to love. The next morning, my sister Lipa and I boarded the ship to New York City and waved to Saul from the deck. I have not heard from him since.

I discovered I was pregnant two months after Lipa and I moved into the tiny tenement apartment Cousin Daniel shares with his wife, Aviva, on the Lower East Side. I was quite ill and afraid that after everything I was now having symptoms of a disease that I picked up in Treblinka. I thought, what a cruel irony that I would die like that after making it through. But Daniel took me to the clinic and it was confirmed that I was two months pregnant. Unwed mother: my new yellow star. Aviva wanted me out immediately, but Daniel and Lipa fought for me to stay, at least until I showed. I wrote to Saul at the address of the family he was staying with in Sundbyberg, telling him about our baby and that it was urgent he arrive soon.

Daniel, Lipa and Aviva all worked together at the textile mill, but I couldn’t; I was dreadfully ill, vomiting nonstop. They couldn’t afford medical care for me and they worked long hours at the factory, so I was alone most of the time. Finally Daniel sat me down and told me they were bringing me to a state funded maternity residence on Staten Island, which is where I’ve been for the last five months. It’s called “New Life: Prenatal Care for Unwed Jewish Mothers.”

Lipa visits often and the nurses and caseworkers have been kind. The other women here are all sad, scared immigrants, probably many of them Jews too. We mostly speak different languages, though when we pass one another we do force smiles. I read somewhere that if you make yourself smile, it tells your brain you are happy. I have forced many smiles over the last six months but have not felt happy since that night in Stockholm.

I have written to Saul once a week without fail since I moved to New Life. My first letters were about my excitement for our baby, lists of names, ideas about where we could live and what our home would look like. After a couple of months without a reply, my letters became more about what to do with the baby if Saul did not join me after all, followed by pleas for him to assure me he was alive and well. It’s funny, I survived the Lodz Ghetto, I survived the camps, I lost my father, my mother, my brothers, and the grief I feel right now eclipses all the rest. This is the place where I cannot stop crying, this place where I have food and shelter and vitamins and care. Because I thought I had been redeemed. And now, for all I know, Saul is dead.

I am looking out the window by my bed. It’s a gorgeous morning: sun and a light snow. It makes me homesick for Poland, for Lodz before the Nazi occupation. I remember snowball fights with my brothers between buildings with the sun setting, the train rolling past, Matka calling us in for dinner. A hand on my shoulder startles me— Nurse Lacy.

“How are you feeling today, Esther?”

Thank goodness she speaks Polish.


“You haven’t touched your breakfast.”

“I’m not really hungry.”

Lacy sits on my bed by my side. I slide over to accommodate her.

“I know it’s hard right now, but you must think of the baby.”

“Yes of course.”

She interlaces her fingers with mine.

“Will it help if I sit with you while you eat?”

“Yes, I think so.”

I eat my oatmeal in small bits, placing the oats and cinnamon delicately on my tongue and pressing them to the roof of my mouth until they dissolve. One minute a whole substance, the next gone. No not gone; transformed. So rare that we think about the way an oat becomes our blood becomes our children.

Lacy sits with me until I finish the bowl, just as she promised. I feel a great kick within my belly, like the baby is angry with me, and I clutch my stomach, afraid the oatmeal might come back up. Maybe the baby doesn’t like oatmeal. To be honest, I don’t like it much myself.

“Are you alright?” asks Lacy. “Do you need some water? An extra pillow?”

“No, I’m fine… Lacy…what do I do if… if I don’t want to keep the baby?”

This is the first time I have uttered it, though I have been thinking about it for months now. I’ve had this recurring dream where my baby is crawling on the dusty basement floor of some government building with the rest of the unwanted children, wailing as their teeth are charging through their gums, with nothing to chew on and no one to dry their tears or wipe their noses. I heard that if infants don’t receive physical affection, they can die. I don’t want my child to die.

“Well there are adoption services of course and you can talk it over with the caseworkers. They will make sure your child is safe… if that’s what you decide you really want to do.”

I lean back against my headboard and look out the window again. The snow has turned to rain and clouds superimpose the sun. Of course that is not what I want. I want Saul to appear in this ward at this very instant, and then I want him to take me home to our new apartment, where there’s a nursery all ready with stuffed animals and powder blue walls. If it’s a girl, I want to name her after our mothers and if it’s a boy, after our fathers. And then I want to have at least three more to name after the siblings we lost.

“It’s not what I really want, but I don’t know how I could raise it alone… Lacy, how could I raise it alone? Never mind that I have no skills, no money, and nowhere to live… but the shame… I don’t think I can handle more shame in this lifetime. Survival is so exhausting. I want to thrive. I deserve that, don’t I? Does that make me selfish?” My tears are hot and thick, and they sting my eyes and cheeks like tattoo needles. I am sure I look ugly, and I am so tired of feeling ugly. No one ever made me feel as beautiful as Saul.

Lacy says nothing, just shines her sweet smile and keeps hold of my hand. Her hands are cool. I think of Saul’s hands and how they were always warm. I think of all the things that hands make possible and how my hands have never been as pink and healthy as they are now, and how this body is mine and it’s all I’ll ever own.

Nurse Eleanor rushes in suddenly and speaks to Lacy in rushed English. Lacy nods her head and her hand slips out of mine.

“There is a resident in labor,” she explains, “I have to go help. You rest. I’ll be back as soon as I can.”

I nod. She walks out and I feel a chill, alone again. The baby kicks. I place my hands on my belly, thinking life is about change, and how we never see it coming.

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