According to my archive, I submitted this in 2004. It seemed to be well liked then. Haven’t done a lot with it tidied and fiddled.
I watch the ground below and wonder, even at this moment when it would be far too silly and embarrassing to say that I’ve changed my mind, am I doing the right thing? I’ve done the research, painstaking, painful research, I’ve made the contact and I’ve made sure that everything is running smoothly at home. I shouldn’t worry, but there are the what ifs. What if the baby, my first grandchild and a boy, bless him, should arrive while I’m out there? What if something should go wrong with the birth?
Oh, no, I mustn’t think like that. I MUST NOT think like that. The baby will be fine, and he won’t come early. Essie will be fine. She has first class medical care and I’ve made Moshe promise on his life, that if something should happen — it won’t— but if something should happen, he will call me, and I’ll come back. No matter if I have to get off one plane and straight on to another, I will come back.
Then, there are the other what ifs, the more frightening what ifs. What if there’s no one at the airport to meet me? I’ll just have to get a taxi. But, what if the taxi gets hijacked and I end up being part of a Palestinian suicide bombing?
No! Stop this Sarah Stern. Stop this right now. Calm now, deep breaths, remember why you’re doing this. This is supposed to calm me? I tell my head. Thinking of why I’m going half way across the world to people I don’t know and who don’t know me, is supposed to give me a sense of wellbeing? I think not.
A steward hovers close to me and asks if there is anything I need and for a moment I wonder if he sees me or just a middle-aged, Jewish lady all dressed in black, going “home”. I decide it doesn’t matter what he sees and say no thank you, I’m fine.
I’m not fine though. I haven’t been fine for over forty years. I’ve pretended, I’ve believed the lie made for other people, so they shouldn’t worry about me, but I am not fine.
I close my eyes and try not to think, but there it is, like a film running in my head.
My mother and father, their faces all pale and somehow crumpled. My grandmother had died, quite suddenly, and going through her papers with my dad, I’d found papers concerning me, my adoption. I suppose, had my dad been thinking straight he wouldn’t have let me anywhere near the papers but he was upset and then so was I.
My parents were gentle and kind, but it still changed things, irrevocably and forever.
By the time they had trotted out all the platitudes about my being special and them loving me all the more because they chose me and all the other things that parents say to ease the pain of their adopted children, I could think of nothing but all the clues there had been. The fact that no one ever said how much like my parents I looked. Not like they did with my sister.
‘Oh, she’s got your eyes Francis’ or ‘Doesn’t she look the image of your Nancy when she was that age.’ And they would even bring out the pictures to prove it.
There was my grandmother too who never quite managed the same tenderness when she spoke to me that entered her voice when she spoke to my sister.
Then my father was saying something else and my mother was trying to stop him but being dad, he soldiered on any way.
“I think you should know about your real mum.” They didn’t use ‘birth mother’ or ‘biological parents’ in those days.
Mum butting in with, “It’s enough for her take in at one go, Billy.”
But I wanted to know. Real mum, real dad, I wanted it all.
Someone nudges me, the Rabbi sitting next to me.
“I’m so sorry,” he says. “Did I wake you. I apologise.”
“That’s all right,” I say. “I was just thinking.”
“Your first time going home?” and he asks it like he means it.
Do I look Jewish? I’ve never really thought about it. People know I am, just as I know I am but do I really look ‘Jewish’.
I tell him, because it would be rude not to answer, that it is my first visit to Israel and I say it like that perhaps because I don’t think of Israel as home and maybe because I don’t really want to talk to him. He seems to take the hint and I close my eyes again and go back to my thoughts and memories without feeling too guilty.
Things really changed for me when I found out about myself. I became a different person. Even before my parents explained everything about my mother, I changed. I didn’t want to, but I was different. For one thing, I wasn’t my sister’s blood relative any more, somewhere I had a twin brother and that was painful. Until then I had been close to my sister, she and I had been real friends and then suddenly there was someone else. Someone I shared blood with. Yes, I admit it now, I pushed her away.
Everything changed. My parents tried hard not to let it, they really did but there were too many questions I needed answers to and some of them were questions that they couldn’t answer. I suppose I chose to believe that they wouldn’t answer them.
Things got put away after a while, feelings and resentments got shoved to the back of my mind and I tried to carry on like it didn’t matter but I couldn’t do it, not really, not and have any real honesty in my life.
I survived school, family gatherings but only by pretending, by playing a part. That’s what hurt more than anything because it wasn’t just me playing. My whole family knew that I knew, and they didn’t mention it. After a while it felt wrong to be Jewish, like it was something you should be ashamed of.
The holocaust was something I learned about in school and suddenly it was my history they were talking about, my people who had allowed themselves to be treated like that. How could I be someone like that, someone who didn’t fight back? Decent people fought oppression, always you read that or saw it on TV. Why hadn’t the Jews fought back? Where were the Maccabees?
As I grew older, got in to it more, read the history they didn’t teach you in school, my opinions changed. I understood why it was easier to let things happen. I saw that if you feel no one is going to come down on your side, that you are alone in your struggle because other people really don’t care what happens to you, it is simpler to roll over and take the kicking. When enough people tell you or at least let you know you’re not worth defending, why defend yourself?
Somewhere between Heathrow and Tel Aviv, I fall in to a troubled sleep. All the things of my life get mixed up in my mind until I wake, confused and flustered, what seems a lifetime later with the Rabbi telling me that we should do up our seat belts.
The first thing I notice, after the security people have practically removed my costly bridgework looking for only they know what, is the people waiting to meet and greet. There seems an urgency about them, a need to grab whoever they have come to collect and to get the hell out of here. As if they believe that even with the guards with their Uzis or AK whatever number they are on now, they have no chance of protecting them.
And then someone is saying my name, quite firmly but with a touch of friendliness and I am very glad that I e-mailed the photograph.
“Sarah Stern,” he says again.
I look at him. He is tall, much taller than I, has close cropped grey hair and he is in uniform.
“Ariel,” I say. “Thank goodness you managed to download the photograph…”
He looks straight at me. “I didn’t,” he says, holding out a large, very clean hand. “I had only time to read the e-mail.”
It puzzles me a little and something of that puzzlement must pass between us as we shake hands.
“You are very like mama.”
I press my hands together hard. My trick for stopping tears. This was something that worried me more than anything else in the what if moments. What if I look like my father? Given the history that would not have been good.
We hurry away, moving towards the outside world. I am afraid.
His car isn’t so much a car as military transport and for the first time I start to wonder if this, all of this is right.
Why couldn’t I have been contented with the kind letters from the Red Cross, the detailed explanations of how chaotic things were after the war and especially with the Jews who wanted to get to Palestine. Why couldn’t I have trusted my parents. “We love you Sarah. It doesn’t matter where or who you were born. We love you.” But then there was the legislation that made it possible for adopted children to find out about their birthparents and personal computers, the Internet and yes, my own children and it suddenly became more important than anything that I knew.
I notice Ariel’s driver is a woman. Woman? Girl, not more than twenty-two, twenty-three and she too is in uniform.
I ask him, “Are you a career soldier?”
“Yes. A lot of people think we’re just a conscript army…”
“Oh no,” I say. “I remember seeing pictures of Moshe Dayan. My daughter is married to a Moshe.”
I smile. “Ester really but she got stuck with Essie when her brother was small…”
And we chat amiably until we reach the hotel.
Ariel tells the driver to park at the back of the hotel when we are out of the vehicle then turns to me with a smile. “It’s safer for her.”
The hotel is good, very clean and modern and Ariel comes up to my room on the fifth floor and tips the young man who brought my bags up.
“I could have done that,” I say.
“Habit. Will you be all right here?”
“Is there anything else I can do…tell you…”
“Is…well… mother, is she all right with meeting me?”
He closes in on himself a little bit and I think maybe she isn’t all right with it, that maybe he at least thinks that he has forced her in to this.
“I will be honest with you, Sarah,” he says, “I don’t really know how she feels. She seems to accept it, the natural justice of it but how she really feels is something she is keeping very much to herself. I can’t guarantee what she’ll say to you.”
I touch his shoulder. “Don’t worry. I can’t guarantee what I’ll say to her.”
After a while, after he reinforces his information about her stroke and how often she seems to have good days and bad days all of which I understand completely, he leaves with a promise that the driver will be there at ten o clock the following morning to bring me to his house where mother lives. I kiss his cheek as he leaves. He has been good and kind and gentle in the months of our Internet acquaintance and I am grateful for that.
I don’t know what the time is in England, but I phone home and Josh answers immediately.
“Mazel tov,” he says, “You made it.”
“Don’t be a clown and don’t say anything that might be misconstrued.” I’m not sure if I believe the phones are tapped but it wouldn’t surprise me if they were.
“So, the flight was all right?”
“I think I slept through most of it.”
“That’s good. And your,” he hesitates because brother, in relation to me is a relatively new concept for him. “brother met you?”
“Yes. He’s in the army, a colonel. We’ve talked a bit.”
“That’s good too.”
“Gave birth to quins two hours after you left.”
“Can we have the one with the pink nose?”
“I’ll see what she says. She’s fine. We’re all fine except me and maybe the dog who are missing you like crazy.”
“Silly old man,” I say, “and silly old dog too. I’ll be back before you know it.”
There’s a lot of small talk, the big talk won’t really come till tomorrow when I tell him word for word what I say to her and what she says to me but the small talk is always important for us, for Joshua and me.
Eventually, when we decide that the ‘phone call is costing more than the room, we hang up on a count of three.
No bombs or gun battles, no wailing crowds or sirens disturb the night but I do not sleep. I do not close my eyes, so the morning does not catch me unawares.
I wash, dress choosing black and grey. I am small, fifty-four years old, slightly overweight for my height. Black helps.
Breakfast is simple. I am normally not a breakfast person, but I haven’t eaten for hours and my stomach is making noises.
At ten o’clock precisely, the “Little Drummer Girl” driver turns up, pretty and smart as paint. I check my bag, that I have my photograph albums. She checks my bag, that I don’t have anything else, and the sweetheart, she apologises for doing it, then I follow her down to the car. She holds the door for me and looks around. She drives fast, knowing we are a target.
Ariel’s house is large, clean, and white. The sun strikes it and makes it shimmer against a cloudless blue sky. Shrubs and flowers grow in terra cotta containers around the small courtyard and I’m reminded of our holiday home in Tuscany. Our sign of having made it.
Ariel greets me at the door. He is warmer and friendlier out of uniform.
“Shalom,” I say, and he grins broadly.
“Shalom lochiam. Come on in.”
I hand over a book of poetry I had published two years ago and the delight on his face is good to see.
“You arranged for flowers to be in my room,” I say.
From what I presume is the kitchen a young man appears, so obviously Ariel’s son he needs no introduction. He comes forward and takes my hand. “I’m Daniel,” he says. “And you are my aunt Sarah.”
“I am indeed.”
For a moment I think about it then I hug him because that is what I want to do.
A girl comes in and Daniel introduces her as Miriam, his fiancée and for a while we sit and talk and drink sweet black coffee and eat biscuits that taste sweet and crumble in my mouth. I show everyone my pictures, carefully telling each story. I watch their smiles and think I want nothing more than this, this interested, warm, acceptance. And now I understand the Rabbi from London calling this place home.
Ariel goes through the wars, the struggles, the hardships that have given him this life and I think, would I have fought so hard? But I was not given the chance to find out.
She enters the room like a ghost. Her wheelchair is well maintained, silent and she steers it with comparative ease.
Daniel brings her forward. Silently, she pushes his hand from the back of the chair.
I know she is seventy years old, from my time online with a man called Emmanuel Horovitz who was in the camp in Cyprus and remembered her. She had survived the camps, the turmoil after the end of the war. She had found protection with a doctor and his wife, but the doctor had abused her, raped her, made her pregnant and she had finally fetched up in the British run camp where she had given birth to twins on the fifteenth of May 1948.
Professionally I judge the results of the stroke. Left side partial paralysis, her left eyelid droops, and her left hand occasionally contracts into a spasmodic ball. There is a tremor in her left knee which shakes the folds of her black dress.
She is taller than me and a lifetime of work has coarsened her. Her hair is grey, slicked back in to a tight fold behind her head. Her eyes are midnight black and they stare at me.
I have imagined this moment, turned it around, viewed it from every angle possible. I have thought about my hugging her, her hugging me, my leaving, her leaving. I have turned it upside down, made it beautifully good and hideously bad. But I have not seen this, have not heard this empty silence. It hangs between us, almost unbearable. I have a thousand questions Ten thousand words bubble in my mind, then finally distil themselves in to just two childlike words that slip from my mouth and fall in to the silence. “Why me?”
She leans forward a little. “Excuse me?” she says, and I hear in her voice the retained German accent. “Why you? What do you mean?”
“Why did you give me away and not my brother?”
She sits back, almost smiles but the left side of her face isn’t up to it. “After fifty years this is all you want to know?”
I nod, unable to say more to her and hating myself because there is so much more I should say, but my trick with my hands is not keeping the tears away this time
“You think I had the choice? You think I said here, take this baby. I have two, this one I don’t need.”
I resent her making me feel ridiculous, but I say nothing.
“Please believe me, it was not like that. I was sixteen, still in many ways a child. I had thought that surviving the camps was enough, I had paid my dues but there was still more to pay. For eighteen months after the end of the war I was looked after by a doctor and his…”
“I know this,” I say, “I just need to know why I am sitting here as the visitor in your life. How was the choice made if it wasn’t made by you?”
She sits forward again. “Tell me, have you had a good life so far?”
I realise that this is what is important to her, that she can exonerate herself. I’m tempted to lie, to tell her my childhood was one long term of abuse, but I don’t. “I have had, so far, a wonderful life.”
“Then why is it so important to you to know why?”
“Because there is in all of us an irrational child. The child who takes the blame for all the wrong things that happen…”
“You were seven weeks old when the Red Cross took you. I do not know if what they did was legal, if there was any legality in what was going on in that place, but they took you because I could not take two children to Palestine. They took you because Ariel was circumcised, they took you because you were a girl…I can think of many other reasons but that’s not what you wanted to know. You wanted to know why I let them take you.”
I can feel the tension in the room, Miriam’s embarrassment because she is still outside all of this. I can imagine the many conversations between father and son, mother and son, that led to my being here and causing this pain, but I can do nothing about it now.
“Like I said, I’m not that rational. Even after forty-three years of knowing, I can still not be rational about this.” I look at Ariel. “If this offends, I’m sorry. I’ll go.”
“No,” he says. “No one wants you to go, Sarah.”
So I stay and I listen and I talk and somewhere, sometime, between her and me there is understanding.
It isn’t anything we say in words, it isn’t one moment when everything becomes as I wanted it to be.
It doesn’t change what has happened, knowing the whys and wherefores, knowing that she did not choose but it changes how I can let myself feel about her.
When I was growing up, after a while of ‘knowing’, I had started to think that I had accepted things, that I understood her reasons, that perhaps I might have done the same thing under those circumstance but all that was false, a pretence.
I could convince others that there were no issues for me regarding my adoption but I couldn’t convince myself. I had never understood the pain I’d felt, never really understood the betrayal I felt, the guilt, the irrational ‘it must be my fault’ and maybe I never will fully understand why I felt like that but knowing her version of the truth feels better.
Daniel takes my pictures and scans them in to the computer and then he takes pictures with his digital camera, very swish, and he prints them out for me. Me with my new — no — my old family.
I stay for a week. I get to know her, a little and I make sure that she gets to know me, that I am proud of what I have made myself, that I think I did a good job of becoming a Jew, and then there are just too many things that call me home and I’m driving back to the airport with Ariel and Daniel. I’ve said my goodbyes to Ruth and Miriam. I’ve said the usual, that I’ll stay in touch and as I kiss my brother and my nephew goodbye, I really mean it.
Plane journeys are boring and this time I don’t even have the Rabbi for company and I don’t have my thoughts either, not the same thoughts.
I take out the pictures and look at them. Oy! Is that really me in Israel? Can I believe that is me?
Joshua smiles. His face is beautiful when he smiles, his eyes light up and he sort of lolls his head to one side as he holds out his arms to me. And there’s my boy, my Jacob all embarrassed smiles and big hugs.
I look and there’s my Essie with Moshe and I hold her so close I could crush her. My hand rests on her belly. The child moves. And I am filled with joy. I look into my daughter’s face and see she trusts me.
I am home with my family and who I might have been had things been different is not important now.