Sara Kirschenbaum
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What I Was Looking For

Posted Sunday, Jun 03rd, 2012 at 5:40pm

I find her, my clue, in an old, small, black and white photograph that is curled in on itself. She is in a pile that I am sorting on my father’s desk. A mixed-up stew of bills, checks, envelopes, letters, scraps of paper with addresses, e-mail addresses, and software registration codes. Rubber bands so old they crack, a jar full of dimes, hanging file tabs, sixties buttons and a sculpture by Joseph Cornell that belongs in a museum. My father knows I am going through his stuff. He doesn’t like it but the bills and taxes have gotten unmanageable and for six months I’ve told him I’m going to show up at his door in New York City and devote two weeks to organizing his back room. It had gotten to the point where the drifts of paper were endangering my mother’s ability to safely get to the only accessible shower, in the bathroom off of his “office.” My mother with her cane has had to negotiate a tiny path, only inches wide, lined with slippery computer magazines, stacks of books, pieces of computer hardware, packaging, three broken printers (one bigger than a washing machine and dryer), and a tripod.

Back in the 1980’s when I joined the two self-help groups, Re-evaluation Co-Counseling (RC) and Adult Children of Alcoholics (ACoA), I had hope that I would get at the source of my lonely angst and find happiness. The two groups offered different philosophies: RC encouraged me to dig for the biggest, most stubborn, and earliest hurt of my childhood. Then, if I could cry, shake, stretch and sweat out the early trauma I would be free to “Take Charge!” of my life with a new, unencumbered perspective and power. ACoA walked me through the 12 self-reflective steps required to give up control of things I didn’t have control over and to seek the help of a higher power. ACoA encouraged me to “Let Go and Let God!” One paradigm told me I had total power to change my life, the other told me I was powerless.

I liked having it both ways. They were the opposing blades of a giant scissor – powerful and powerless - cutting out the malignancy of old hurt.

For years, I worked to decipher my treasure map of buried trauma: who hurt me? Sure, my father’s rage was prominent throughout my childhood with him storming around the house, sometimes breaking mirrors and even once, when I talked back to him, breaking his fist in several places by smashing it into a door. It was hard living with a parent who was perpetually threatening to kill himself when we lived on the 18th floor of an apartment building with huge modern windows that opened wide. He was particularly engulfed in rage around my mother. When he was shouting at her he would get as close as possible without touching her. His face would turn red as he yelled and my mother would freeze like a statue. Alcohol lubricated his anger and helped my mother stifle hers. But I never felt that I had found the mother-lode memory that could explain my obsessions.

Now as I approach 50 and my parents are in their seventies and eighties, I’ve found I’m less interested in digging up resentments and more interested in taking care of my parents. Their relationship with each other has sweetened over the years and time has mellowed my father’s discontent. They play role-play games on the bus on their way to their back-to-back psychiatrist appointments – my father pretending to be my mother’s mother and my mother pretending to be my father’s father.

“So what do you do?” asks my mother, pretending to be his father.

“I’m a lobster woman!” says my father, pretending to be her mother (She really was a commercial lobster woman).

I don’t know what the eavesdroppers on the bus think, but with these playful parents it seems long past the time for holding grudges. Now I am determined to sort out their bills and clear a path to the shower.

And there she is.

Near the top of the heap.

I am making piles. One for every year the taxes are still not done. One each for calculators (9 of them), rulers (23), keys (dozens), and loose change from foreign countries. I make piles of miscellaneous sentimental objects and broken pieces of machinery, even though some pieces, I know, belong in both. There are three mounds of bills: household bills, magazine subscriptions, and appeals from charities. It doesn’t take me long to find her. She is close to the top.

In my father’s papers I find a picture of a dead child.

When I uncurl the black and white photo I can see that she is dead. There is blood on her face. She is lying on her back on what appears to be a wooden plank lying on grass. The picture was taken from a low angle – almost at grass level – looking up at her face, which is turned to her right, toward the camera. She looks about two-years-old. She is dressed in thick warm clothes. I see four layers of clothes revealed at her wrist. Most horrifying – she has a rope tied around at least one of her wrists. It has a neat square knot and the rope looks new. The other wrist is out of focus.

I cradle the photo in my hands and start walking to the front of the house.

All day I have been carrying things to the living room where my parents are watching TV. I’ve been asking, “Save, give away, or throw away?” If they want to keep it I ask, “Here or at the studio?”

This time I say, “What the hell is this?” uncurling the photo and showing him.

My father knows what I’ve found. “That’s a little girl I found in the war.”

My mother pipes in: “Oh, the little girl. He always keeps that with him. In all his houses over the years, she’s always on his desk.”

My father mutes the TV and says, “We were in Germany and we found a whole arena full of dead bodies. I saw her and I borrowed a camera from a guy and took a picture of her. You can’t imagine how difficult it was to get film developed. It was a war you know. Anyway, I always keep her with me.” He turns back to the television and clicks the sound back on. My father is 82.

I carry her to the back room. Still cradling her in my palm. I stare at her little bloody face, and that new-looking rope around her wrist. Where were her parents? Certainly dead too. Who dressed her in four layers? Did anyone from her family survive? Did the rope go on her wrist before or after she died?

The back-room is still buried in drifts of paper. I set her down where I can find her again and go back to sorting. I find a couple of un-cashed checks – one in the thousands, over 10 years old. I find a Herkimer Diamond that my father dug up with a buddy in 1940 in Herkimer, New York. There are lots more scrambled tax records and yet another print-out of his computerized address book. I worry for a minute that I’ve misplaced the little girl. I look for her on a shelf I’ve filled with photographs. I see the little rolled up photo but my OCD needs to check for sure that it’s her. It’s her.

My father is Jewish but doesn’t like Judaism. He raised me without an ounce of Jewish tradition or education. He hates all religion for fanning the flames of war. So I am surprised to find thank you letters from the World Jewish Congress – thanking him for his donations. There are also several newsletters from the National Yiddish Book Center which he evidently supports.

My father hates war. In a stack of papers shoved on top of books in a bookshelf I find a stack of solicitations from Veterans from Foreign Wars. They say “Thank you Mr. Kirschenbaum for your generous donation.” I find a big pile of newsletters of The Fighting 69th. Infantry Division along with decals of their red and blue “69” logo. I walk them into the living room. Some of them are 20 years old. “Dad, do you need all these old newsletters?”

“Yes. Now leave my stuff alone, would you. I like those newsletters and they’re mine.”

My father had just turned 18 when he enlisted in the army in 1943. He had previously graduated from high school early, worked on a farm in upstate New York, and then attended Cornell Agriculture School with a major in Ornamental Horticulture. He had completed one year of college before he left for boot camp in Mississippi.

I’ve been sorting papers for a full week in his back room and I keep checking on the girl, afraid I’ll lose her. Her image made it this far and I feel some responsibility for the moral relay of her memory. I think mostly of her parents. They would want someone to remember that she ever existed, right? Was she the last one remembered in the whole town? Was she, in a way, its sole survivor?

I decide to find a frame for her. So as not to lose her. But would her parents approve of her being displayed in death? With a Nazi rope around her wrist? I decide to find a folding frame that, like a book, could be closed. Taking breaks from the back room I walk all around my parents’ neighborhood in lower Manhattan looking for a folding frame. There is none. I look in Duane Reade, Hallmark, Papyrus, and in the Lower East Side Tenement Museum gift shop. I look in photo stores, department stores and souvenir stores. I do not find a single folding frame.

In the middle of my two-week sorting project my mother and I go to lunch with my father’s sister, Francis, and her daughter, Sherry. They are definitely the more Jewish-identified side of the family. They had asked that we meet at a kosher restaurant called Circa, on Dey Street. It is about a block from where the World Trade Center once stood. It is the first night of Hanukkah and my aunt and cousin are each loaded down with three or four shopping bags. My aunt Francis recently visited Israel and has brought me three packages of Mount Olive Treasures tea: Joseph’s Dream, Jerusalem Mint and Heaven’s Blessing. When I suggest tasting one right here in the restaurant my aunt Francis cautions that they would throw me out for bringing in “outside” food. She said they would have a fit.

My aunt Francis is eight years younger than my father and looks youthful in the short haircut she has had since her chemotherapy. She’s a spirited woman, active in the Jewish philanthropy world. I tell my aunt that I have been digging through my father’s papers and have found some interesting things from the war. Immediately she says, “Let me tell you something Sara darling. Your father was difficult before he went off to the war. He was never easy. His high school graduation. He was to get honors in Biology. So they asked him to wait in another room so he could get on the stage from the right side. But no! Not Bernard. He’s in the audience. And they call his name. And everyone waits as he inches his way down the row, to the aisle, and then up on the stage from the wrong side. That’s Bernard. It wasn’t the war.”

When I walk home from the restaurant, I look in all the plausible stores for a frame that closes. No luck.

On my last day in New York when I have finished sorting the back room into files and boxes, I go to Pearl Paint Art Store. I find some gaudy frames with flowers made out of crystals around the edge. I think that of all the frames, the little girl would like these the best. But my father would hate them the most. He’s a purist in the Bauhaus design tradition. Was the frame for the little girl? For her parents? For my father, or for me? Finally I find a simple silver frame at Pearl Paint. It doesn’t fold but it suites my father’s simple style. Maybe I could put a cloth over the frame, to provide some respect and modesty. I also buy three kinds of flowered paper in case I need a background behind the photo.

I return to my parent’s house triumphant with the silver frame. I am going to be leaving in a few hours. I go into the back room and find the little girl. I carefully flatten her picture out and lay it on one of the subtly flowered pieces of paper and slip them into the frame. It is hard to get the curling photo to lay straight but it finally comes centered. You can’t really see the flowered paper I put in as a backdrop but I know it is there. I bring her out to my father, unsure how he will react to this meddling. He is very particular about his things and about design.

“Oh, that’s quite nice,” he says. He likes the frame. He stares at the little girl. “She just touched me. I’ve been meaning to get a frame. I guess I’ve been meaning to do it for 60 years.”

Before I left NY I took one last look around the back room. It was organized in boxes and piles. I had successfully prepped it to be painted as it hadn’t been painted since we moved in during the NYC black-out of 1965. I had taken down the shelves and started moving the cabinets. I was proudest of the floor. I stood on a chair and held my camera up to the ceiling and took a picture pointing down at the clear floor. It was all floor. What had been a path maybe 10 inches across was now at least twelve feet by twelve feet of empty floor. The floor was the bottom of the barrel. Looking through someone’s papers, you find all their secrets. For example - I discovered that my father had saved every one of my letters, including each e-mail I had sent, which he printed out and kept. I also discovered what wasn’t there; I found not a trace of pornography, debt, drugs, or secret love. My father is less of a puzzle than I could have imagined.

Three weeks later, I am back to Portland, and I call my father. “I decided to write an essay on that little girl – the picture of the little girl I found on your desk. Do you mind if I ask you some questions about her?” I find it interesting that people walk around with their stories curled inside them, as fully formed as an Amaryllis flower in an Amaryllis bulb. Without a pause, he issues forth:

“We were definitely in Leipzig. That I know for sure. We were looking for German soldiers. We came to this open…this open…you know where they play games. Football. We came to this open arena. The place was filled with dead bodies. All laid out. With paths through them. We were walking through, checking, and I saw this little girl. She just touched me. There weren’t many more…little people. I borrowed a camera from a guy and took a picture of her. I always carry her with me.”

I ask, “Why do you think she had the rope on her wrist?”

“They tied up people. There were others that were tied and then cut off. I mean, it was a whole field full of these people. I saw houses of dead people. I don’t see how people could think it was all made up – all the photographs…We all know people can do terrible things.”

Imagining my father, eighteen-years-old, from the Bronx, and newly deployed in Germany, I ask, “Were they all Jews?”

“We didn’t have much time. There was no time. No time in war. We were right in the beginning of it. We were looking for German soldiers. It was in Leipzig. An important city in the East. It was called Lipsk if you were in it.”

“She really touched me Dad.”

“She touched you because she touched me.”




  1. kate levine Wrote on Monday, Jun 04th, 2012 at 10:54am

    Fine work, Sara. Poignant but not sentimental.

  2. cathy chisholm Wrote on Monday, Jun 04th, 2012 at 7:48pm

    I agree Sara, fine writing. looking forward to seeing you at the slumber party. K's first ever!

    and congrats on being published in Calyx, that is a great magazine full of good stuff!

  3. Bev Woodsong Wrote on Wednesday, Jul 18th, 2012 at 11:53am

    She has touched me. Thank you Sara.

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