I shift from foot to foot as I wait in line to see the Mona Lisa. The line snakes around the corridor of the second floor of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. My mother and Aunt Regina insist that we must see this wonderful painting. Helen holds my hand and tells me that Leonardo da Vinci was one of the greatest painters who ever lived. I’m bored, but I pretend to be interested. Helen is very serious when she explains things.
“Leonardo da Vinci was a genius,” she says.
My brother is trying to swing from the red velvet rope that serves as a divider. My mother has already warned him twice, but he is determined. Mark is busy hooking and unhooking the brass clasp between each of the pedestals. Helen yanks my hand to make sure I am paying attention.
“Sonya,” Helen says. “Are you listening?”
She is using her best schoolteacher voice. I never get to be the teacher when we play school.
“Listening,” I say.
“Leonardo da Vinci’s peaceful, beautiful paintings are great examples of High Renaissance art,” she says. “He was a painter, a sculptor and an inventor.”
I know she must have learned about him in school this week, just as I did. Since the arrival of the Mona Lisa was announced, everyone in New York is talking about it. The face of the Mona Lisa is everywhere. My brother stops what he is doing and tries to use the velvet rope as a seat. A guard notices, and Jeffrey jumps up before he is reprimanded.
“He cut off his ear and had it delivered to a girl,” Jeffrey says.
Now I’m interested.
“Why?” I say.
“He went crazy from having too much sex,” Jeffrey says.
Now Mark is interested and joins us. Our mothers, busy talking, pay no attention to us for the moment.
“That was Vincent Van Gogh,” Helen says. “And you can’t go crazy from having too much sex.”
She’s fourteen and knows more about this than I do, but I’m willing to hear Jeffrey’s answer. He’s older than Helen by six months and may have already learned more about this fascinating subject.
“You can too,” Jeffrey says. “Vincent Van Gogh did.”
“He was depressed,” Helen says in her most bored voice, “And he had epilepsy.”
“He was a leper?” Mark says.
Since we all saw Ben Hur, we’ve been very interested in leprosy. Sometimes we act out the scene in the movie when Ben Hur’s mother and sister are cured of leprosy. It’s my favorite scene. I like being Ben Hur’s sister. I put a blanket over my head and pretend to cry as I touch my face in disbelief over the disappearance of my sores. Helen plays my mother. Jeffrey is Ben Hur. Mark plays either another leper or a Roman guard. Everyone agrees that I’m the best.
“Not a leper, you moron,” Helen says. “He had epilepsy.”
“Do you get that from having too much sex?” Mark says.
“Well, you’ll never have to worry,” Jeffrey says.
Helen and Jeffrey laugh, so I laugh also.
“Did he really cut off his ear?” I say.
“Yes,” Helen says. “He was very sick.”
“He was a pervert,” Jeffrey says.
We have been inching towards the Mona Lisa without even realizing that we are moving. A guard unlatches the brass clasp and counts. We are in the next group.
“Go on,” he says. “And stay behind the rope.”
My mother grabs Jeffrey’s arm while Aunt Regina holds on to Mark. Helen and I don’t need to be watched. I expected the painting to be larger than it is, but I’m not disappointed. I have heard that the eyes of the woman in the painting will follow you everywhere. I move my head from side to side, testing the accuracy of this report.
“Great-grandfather’s eyes are better,” Helen whispers.
I nod. It is true. In our grandmother’s bedroom is a large, framed photograph of her father. He is wearing the uniform of an Austrian soldier. Medals cover his chest. A white beard is carefully and precisely trimmed. Helen, Mark, Jeffrey and I spend many hours sitting on Grandma’s down quilt and moving our heads in unison from side to side as the eyes in the photograph follow us everywhere.
“Zee iz gants mee’es,” Aunt Regina says in a whisper meant only for my mother’s ears.
My mother laughs and tries to shush her even though it is unlikely that anyone next to us understands Yiddish. Even if the woman in the painting is not as ugly as Aunt Regina claims, she’s not all that pretty.
We are surrounded by people who would never suspect that the slim, stylish woman who is my Aunt Regina is an Auschwitz survivor. She was a young girl then, engaged to be married. Her fiancé, her parents, two brothers and a sister, her grandparents, aunt, uncles, cousins and friends were either gassed, beaten, shot or died of starvation or typhus in Auschwitz. Miraculously, Aunt Regina has pictures of the family that no longer exists. They show a beautiful mother and a dignified father surrounded by many children. The children are all well dressed and carefully groomed. It’s evident that they lived a good life. Sometimes Helen and I sit on her bed and hold the framed sepia photographs. She tells me stories about the family she never knew. They are stories passed from her mother’s lips with conscientious attention to detail. That’s all there is, stories and four photographs of a family that died ruthlessly and without provocation. Each time I stare at the photographs, I wish I knew what my mother’s parents and brother looked like. I’ve never seen a picture of any of them.
“Why don’t we have any pictures of my family?” my mother says, repeating my question. It’s not unusual in our neighborhood for people to have few family pictures from before the war, but we have none from my mother’s side.
“Before we left home, my mother gave me a few family photographs,” she says. “She warned me to be careful with them, but I was too young to really understand what she meant. Still, I guarded the photographs. I trusted my mother’s words.
“Then one day, soon after we arrived in the ghetto, a Nazi officer stopped me. I had been foolish enough to put my only pen in the breast pocket of my sweater. What the officer didn’t know was that I also had the photographs of my family in the very same pocket. He pointed to the pen, and I quickly withdrew the pen, pulling the photographs with it.
“I can still see them as they floated out of my reach and into the mud puddle. I stood rooted in terror. I bent over to pick them up, but it was useless. Before I could salvage them, a shiny black boot buried them forever in a muddy grave. I looked into his cold eyes and handed over the pen. `Danke schön,’ he said. I didn’t answer. I knew I would cry if I said anything, and I was so afraid. I walked away slowly, trying not to show my fear. As soon as I turned the corner, I ran. Sometimes when I close my eyes at night, I see the faces of my parents and my brother streaked with mud beneath the sole of that officer’s boot.”
The world is changing. Everyone says so, but I’m not sure what it means. I listen to the televised broadcast of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s speech at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington to commemorate the centennial of the Emancipation Proclamation. I sense that his words are very special. I listen open mouthed and thrilled when he says, “I have a dream that one day, on the red hills of Georgia, sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.”
We talk about brotherhood in school, but at assembly I notice that there are very few black children. There is only one black boy in my class. His name is Claude Neptune, and I am secretly in love with him. I’m not sure if I am more in love with his name than I am with him, but it doesn’t matter. I stare at his hands when he isn’t looking. The palms of his hand are pink, and I’m fascinated. My mother often tells me that the only black person she ever saw in Rumania was a Tartar. She’s ashamed now when she remembers how she and several of her friends had followed him, eager to see the color of his palms.
There is also a new girl, Guadalupe, in my class. She’s from Puerto Rico and doesn’t speak any English. Her ears are already pierced. My mother says I’m too young for pierced ears. Guadalupe wears tiny emerald earrings that shimmer when the sun catches them at the right angle. I smile at Guadalupe all the time and try to help her. Her long black hair hangs down her back. It’s not just the language that makes her different. Her clothes are a bit odd also, but it is more than that too.
Guadalupe’s skin is dark. Her hair is coarse. She wears a gold cross on a thick chain around her neck. She wears socks with sandals and carries her books in a funny plaid briefcase that straps to her back. Everyone who speaks to Guadalupe ends each sentence with “Si?” At times she shrugs and shakes her head. I notice how patient she is when others try to make themselves understood. It is almost as if she is the one who must help everyone with a new and strange language.
Before long, Guadalupe is not so different. She begins to put English words together and seems comfortable with everyone. But after school, she disappears. I wonder where she lives and what she really thinks about coming to this place where no one invites her over after school to do homework or to play. I worry about Guadalupe. I worry about Claude Neptune. I worry about things that I have no names for. They’re only feelings. At night, they spin a tight cocoon of doubt around my restless body. I worry about everything, and then I worry some more.
My father says that 1963 will come to no good. There is tension in the air. We listen, hopeful, to a presidential broadcast on civil rights. President Kennedy sounds concerned and sincere. That night, NAACP leader Medger Evers, is murdered in the doorway of his home in Jackson, Mississippi. I wait for my teacher to talk about the president’s speech or to mention the murder of Medger Evers, but nothing is said. I think the principal will say something during assembly, but she doesn’t. She asks Claude Neptune to leave because he isn’t wearing the regulation white shirt and black tie. I want to run after him as he walks up the middle aisle of the auditorium, but I stay in my seat and stare at my new blue suede Hush Puppy loafers and feel ashamed.
In the summer I like to swim in the dark interior of the lake that is a mile from our bungalow colony. Most everyone prefers the chlorine treated pool water, but I like the fish that swim beside me in the lake and the occasional frog. There are brightly colored buoys set up to separate the sections of the lake. I am a good swimmer, especially underwater. I like to propel myself under the surface, beneath the buoys in the far section of the deepest end of the lake. I can hear my mother’s nervous voice cut through the water, “Sonyala! Sonyala!”
I know she barely breathes until she sees me resurface, and I hold out until my lungs burn. I am always testing myself, always trying to measure my strength. I have to be sure that I am strong enough to survive anything. I wear goggles and keep my eyes open in the murky water. I can see the bellies of the buoys through the blue tint of my goggles that makes everything one color. Without the buoys to direct me, I might never find my way back.
I think about the buoys in early September when we hear that four black Alabama schoolchildren have been killed and nineteen people injured after a bomb explodes at a Baptist church in Birmingham, Alabama. I hear the names of the children, Denise McNair, Carole Robertson, Addie Mae Collins, and Cynthia Wesley, and try to guess what they might have been thinking about right before the bomb burst through the quiet of the Sunday services.
“Stop listening to the news,” my mother says. “It only upsets you.”
She raises herself off the couch to shut the television. She wants it to be that simple. If you don’t listen, don’t pay attention to the pain, it might go away. I know better. I know she knows better. I see her expression each time they flash photographs of the dead children across the screen.
I feel as if I’m in the lake, adrift in the murky water. I search my memory for the buoys. I need them to help me find my way through all I cannot understand about the world, but I can’t summon the image. Instead, I see faces floating along the surface of the lake water. I see Claude Neptune and Guadalupe. I see Denise McNair, Carole Robertson, Addie Mae Collins and Cynthia Wesley.
I search for my grandparents and my uncle, but I can’t find them. I’ve never seen their faces, so I don’t know how to recognize them. I see millions of nameless faces in the still, muddy lake water. I don’t recognize any of them, yet they all seem oddly familiar. I force myself to keep my eyes open. I have to, just in case.
Phyllis Schieber is the author of four novels, The Manicurist, The Sinner’s Guide to Confession, Willing Spirits, and Strictly Personal. She is currently working on a memoir, Background Music, about growing up as a child of Holocaust survivors. Faces is a piece from this growing collection of vignettes.