Black and White Christmas
Mitch was the only son of two Polish-immigrants who raised him among corn fields in Western New York and paid the Jesuits a fortune to educate him into that shelter reserved for wealthy idiots. His eyes were blue just like his mothers', and I don't mean just, like, blue-blue. They were Aryan-blue. And ironically, they only got googly for Jewish girls like me.
Mitch's father was a formidably handsome entrepreneur: urbane, always dressed in combinations of cashmere, silk, and leather. His accent made even the warmest sentiments sound like stern commands. He had permanent side-eye, and you could watch the corners of his mouth fight their way apart when he tried to smile. He looked like the good guy in a spy movie who ends up being the bad guy or maybe the one you think is the bad guy, but ends up being the good guy. He called me daughter even though I had no intentions of marrying his drippy, immature son.
Once a month, Mitch would put on one of the expensive, broad-shouldered blazers his father handed down; he'd tell me which black-and-red dress to wear, and we'd meet the debonair businessman at a private supper club in downtown Rochester. Three scotches in, father would cup son's face in his manicured hands, recount his childhood memories of picking up coal along the train tracks, and lament in Polish, “My synek: I do what I do so that you will never have to know such struggle.” Mitch would sulk in response as if he'd done something wrong, and unsure of what to say, he'd default to, “I know, tatuś.”
Mitch's mother never spoke of her upbringing in Poland, but Mitch conveyed some vague knowledge of her young life spent at a camp. She called me Laura no matter how many times I corrected her, and in spite of her disingenuous disposition and constant, vacuous chatter, ten years of twice-weekly Hebrew school classes meant I had this reflexive, unconditional empathy deep in my gut for her.
Some of our teachers were Holocaust survivors, and they shared their devastating, miraculous stories of capture, perseverance, and escape. They told us about being separated from their loved ones, suffering unfathomable beatings, relishing their daily rations of rotten bread and boiled potato water, being stripped to their raw skin in the bitter eastern European winters to wait, unsure if they were headed for ovens, gas chambers, or actual showers. They passed around photos of their young siblings who perished at Auschwitz. They showed us the tiny, dismal spaces where they hid. They made sure that our young, privileged eyes and minds confronted the reality of the the Holocaust. Their lives unfolded like grainy black and white movies and filled in the blanks left between the gruesome images in our history textbooks. They taught us to forgive, but to never forget.
Mitch's mother had a serious Martha Stewart complex. She even cut her blonde hair to enhance any possibility of looking like her. The thing is: Martha Stewart built her empire on clever, crafty solutions to all things home and holiday, and while Mitch's mom did have at least three themed Christmas trees each year, her specialty was more OMG than DIY. The most memorable part of my first holiday with Mitch's family, for instance, is not a delicate scone recipe, but the awkward silence she created by putting her hand up the back of Mitch's sweater and grabbing me with her Aryan-blue eyes to ask, “Do you ever scratch his back like this? He loves when I do it.”
I remember hoping that Mitch would say something so that I wouldn't have to. I was eighteen, and the only thing I could think to say was Are you fucking kidding me? but Mitch kept his face buried in his forearms on the table as if nothing was weird at all. His default when it came to his mother was to say nothing.
The woman might have loved her son a little too physically for my comfort, but I couldn't let that bother me. She had survived, and I would never forget.
After Mitch and I both moved to New York City, he somehow convinced me to go back to Rochester with him for Christmas. I had spent plenty of awkward holidays with these people, but this would be the first time I would have to sleep in their house.
The drive from the city to Rochester is long. It's cold and gray and brown there, and it was snowing when we pulled through the wrought iron gate and into the driveway. We were tired. We trudged to the door with our belongings where we could hear classical music piping through the speakers all over the house and the sound of a train in the distance.
We were welcomed with an embrace from Mitch's father: “Daughter. Synek. Good to see you.” And then Mitch's mother's decoration theme for that year hit us like an acid trip sponsored by Tim Burton. Black and white. Stripes narrow and wide, checks large and small, polka dots, paisleys, and gingham ribbons fashioned into bows, garlands, and wreaths. Strung up, hung, and dangling from everywhere.
A white, artificial tree stood in the vestibule, heavy with black and white globe ornaments, and in the den, I could see another aglow with white lights sparkling against millions of snowflakes that Mitch's mom had sprayed with black glitter. She made a show of switching the Wagner opera to a Bing Crosby Christmas classic before leading us into the living room to behold her masterpiece: an 18-foot spruce decorated from floor to ceiling with white lights and clear glass ornaments, each with a black-and-white photograph frozen in the center.
“I started making these in September! I went to the library and photocopied pictures, and...” I heard the train in the distance as I moved in to examine one of the images: a young, plainly-dressed girl standing stock still and squinting into the camera. The next one held a picture of a small house in what looked like the Polish countryside, and even though I was sweating, I shivered when I looked at it.
As a Jew, my experience with Polish Christmas trees and decorations was admittedly limited, but I was sure that this was not kosher. Previous holiday seasons had her decking the halls with unremarkable things like candy and hobo-chic snow- and gingerbread men, but the only other times I'd seen pictures like these was in our textbooks and at Hebrew school.
“...And I'll be darned if this isn't the most beautiful thing I've ever made...except for you, of course, synek.” When Mitch's mother finally stopped talking, she looked to us for approval. Mitch's blue eyes were glazed over as he stared at the shimmering lights. Mitch's father had retreated to the kitchen. The burden was on me to find something nice to say, but my lips would not part, and my tongue lay like dead weight in my mouth.
“Listen to me going on about silly ornaments. You haven't even taken off your coats! You look tired, synek, and Laura, I bet you'd like to wash up.” Six hours in the car. Three minutes in this room. I definitely needed a shower.
Mitch and I carried our luggage up to what his mother called The Princess Room, the puke-pink guest quarters where legions of dolls were crammed on the shelves, dressers, and bed. I heard the train again, but this time, it sounded closer.
Once the door was closed, my tongue sprang back to life. “What. The hell. Was that.”
“Huh?” Mitch replied, his clueless blue eyes clashing against the frilly pink décor.
“Your mother, Mitch. That tree, Mitch. She all but called me a dirty Jew, Mitch. What. The. Fuck.”
“We're here five minutes, and you're already picking on my mother?”
“How on earth am I picking on your mother? She's the one who chose to do Nazi Poland-themed crafts for the big tree this year. What even is that, Mitch, huh?” Mitch's face fell into that sulky, empty expression of not understanding. “This is not okay.”
“Well, what do you want me to do?” he replied, and I felt something snap deep inside my gut.
“We know that your mother grew up at a camp, but tell me this: which side of that fence was she on?” I could feel six-million lifeless doll eyes burning through me.
“I...never asked. I...I don't know.” I grabbed my stuff for the shower and stormed out of the room.
My shirt and cardigan were second and third skins, sealed to my body with sweat. I reached into the cavernous white-tiled shower and turned on the water, and the bathroom began to fill with steam. I peeled off my pants and thermals and wondered: was I really supposed to put the Waterford crystal shot glasses I had bought for these people under that god-forsaken tree?
I looked down as I pulled off my socks and stepped out of my underwear, and I noticed the white rug. Mitch's mother had gone through a rug-hooking and embroidery phase, and I recognized the rough texture of the tiny woolen loops and stitches from the seat pads in the dining room. I didn't want my feet or unmentionables touching her handiwork, so I kicked my stuff into the corner, and that's when I noticed the embellishments in the border design.
My eyes darted through the thickening steam to the hand towels, washcloth, toilet lid, curtains, and back to the rug, piecing together the coordinated set, confirming that yes: my boyfriend's mother had decorated her guest bathroom with a variety of meticulously stitched swastika motifs and set them out just for me to see.
The water screamed from the shower head, each drop bouncing off the tile like a bullet. I stood there--naked--thinking of my Hebrew school teachers, the smell of boiled potatoes, and raw skin blistering against the eastern European winters. I thought of every person who ever wondered if they were going to the ovens and gas chambers or taking an actual shower. They taught us to forgive, but to never forget.