I once had a husband who started obsessively painting squares—three squares in shifting relationships to each other on what appeared flat ground, colored emptiness. He explained to me that the negative space in his work was as important as the positive, that each took its form from the other. What interested him most was the tension between them. I remember being fascinated by his concept of negative space, though negative seemed the wrong word for something that had so much presence. I was still young then, too young to look at my history and see how my life has shaped itself around absences—first by happenstance; ultimately, perhaps, by choice.
Samuel Rosenberg’s Daughters
Toward the end of her life, when I thought my mother’s defenses were finally down, I asked whether she remembered her father’s death, which occurred when she was five years old. “Oh, yes,” she replied brightly. “He was in a trolley car accident, and we never got the insurance.” Then she looked at me with the glimmer of a crafty smile. “You’ve asked me too late. I’ve forgotten everything.”
She had never spoken of what it was like to grow up without a father. In fact, she seemed to lack a recollected girlhood, except for one memory she was willing to call up: the Victory Garden she’d tended during World War I, when her family was living near Bronx Park. Her garden was at the top of a long hill. When she was in her nineties, her mind kept wandering back to that sunlit patch of earth, and she would marvel over and over that the carrots she grew there were the sweetest she’d ever tasted. Otherwise, except for her singing, which had pre-dated my arrival into the world, it was as if my mother’s life and memories had begun with me.
“I have a trained voice,” I’d sometimes hear her tell people. In a bitter way, she seemed proud of that fact. On the music rack of our baby grand was an album of lieder by Schubert, her favorite composer. Once in a while, when one of my aunts induced her to sing, she would reluctantly sit down on the piano bench to accompany herself, and her voice would sound to my astonished ears like the performances that issued from the cloth-covered mouth of our wooden radio. Whatever was “classical” was welcomed into our living room, but if you switched to the wrong station and got the blare of a blue note, my mother would give it short shrift. “Popular,” as she dismissed all music that was not classical, was “dissonant” and therefore no good, with an exception made for melodies from certain Broadway shows. For months she dusted and cut out her dress patterns humming “My Ship,” a song from Kurt Weill’s Lady in the Dark. She even decided to teach it to me, though it was really too difficult for a four-year-old. “My ship has sails that are made of silk,” I remember singing shyly for my aunts and my father, with my mother prompting, “The decks are trimmed with gold,” in her radio mezzo as I faltered.
When I was older, I learned that she had actually been serious about her singing, with ambitions of performing Schubert on the concert stage; at some point, though, she had simply given up. The family didn’t want her going on tour, she told me, and besides, there had been no money for further voice training. But perhaps her need and will to sing hadn’t been strong enough. I never felt my mother was passionately musical—or passionate about anything except the rarefied, lonely life she envisioned for me with her at my side—effectively shutting out all other relationships—as she guided me toward my destiny of early success.
Her singing may really have been a means to ends other than music itself—a way of setting herself apart as “special,” a possible escape route from the blight that had descended upon her sisters. Most of all it may have represented her sole bearable connection to the cultured, artistic father she scarcely remembered, the one thing she had from Samuel Rosenberg in the way of a birthright, which she would pass on to me—not as a gift but as an obligation to be lived out, on her terms.
I was once shown a photograph from another century of a slender, bearded young man. It was right after my grandmother died, when the wall around the past briefly became permeable. “This is your grandfather Samuel,” Aunt Anna said, before snatching the picture from my hands as if she just realized she’d committed an indiscretion.
I’d seen a man with bleak, grief-stricken eyes, one hand on an open book as if distractedly keeping his place, the other clenched into a fist. I was sixteen, I had questions. My mother and her older sisters had always told me I was like him—like him in that I’d inherited the talent he had for writing. They’d said he was a poet and a scholar, the descendant of a long line of eminent rabbis in Warsaw. At the age of thirty-seven, he’d died of some illness. That was the story.
I asked my aunt what illness he’d died of. She fell silent, then in a terse, matter-of-fact way let me hear the truth. On April 12, 1908, my grandfather, who had injured his hands in some factory and been out of work for a while, had turned on the gas and killed himself. “Don’t tell your mother I told you.”
A few days later my mother uncharacteristically took me into her confidence: she and my aunts had found some writings of my grandfather’s among my grandmother’s papers, and they had burned them. Burned them? I remember feeling bereft and estranged, as if something that should have been mine had been stolen from me. “Why did you do that?” I demanded, sure that part of the answer was the suicide my aunt had forbidden me to mention.
My mother seemed startled that I would care so much, that I would suddenly have such interest in someone I’d never known. “They were private,” she said. “They were not for anyone to read.”
But poems are written to be read. I knew that at sixteen. I wondered whether she’d lied to me about burning everything. Years later I searched her papers for some yellowed pages with lines in Yiddish or Hebrew, but found nothing in my grandfather’s hand.
My mother died with three suitcases still lined up under the piano, exactly where she’d put them in 1984 when she’d moved into her last apartment. In the days when suitcases were called valises, the flaking brown leather one had accompanied my father on business trips to Patchogue or Asbury Park; the blue-and-tan pair had vacationed in the Catskills or in Florida with my mother’s older sisters. She, the sole survivor of that generation, had ended up their custodian, as if my father and my aunts had one by one gone off on their holidays, forgetting to bring their luggage.
Although she’d always been house-proud, she didn’t seem to care that the suitcases spoiled the look of her new living room. She needed to go through them slowly, she told me—slowly and with care. “But, Ma, what on earth are you looking for?” I’d ask her. “For something of value,” she’d answer cryptically, as if she expected to find a misplaced diamond or stock certificate.
I didn’t press her for details. If I probed, I knew she’d pull back altogether or I’d get that glassy smile of hers as she deliberately threw me off track. I was in my fifties now, but since my teens, I’d had difficulty talking to my mother without a filter of ritualized politeness, and I was still careful to reveal only the things about myself that she might find acceptable. Our conversations had little content. I had the feeling that was the way she wanted it. When it came to the adult stranger who was her daughter, she preferred not to deal with too much reality.
A month after her death, I reluctantly spent my first day in her apartment dumping old sweaters, yellowed handkerchiefs, and ancient tea towels into plastic garbage bags. In her desk, I found bundles of old letters and papers and a collection of address books—most had hardly any names written on their pages; a few were completely blank.
Deciding to tackle the suitcases, I dragged them into the middle of the living-room floor. All they’d ever contained were photos, hundreds of them, not only unfamiliar old snapshots of members of my family but studio portraits mounted on heavy cardboard— the kind that used to be shot in storefronts by professionals squinting into one of those big black cameras with accordion fronts.
The decades were as scrambled as the contents of my mother’s chests of drawers. You might pull out a sepia portrait of Aunt Anna and Aunt Leona as tiny grave-faced children in Warsaw in the 1890s, followed by a shot of me looking out at the world in surprise from a baby carriage in Brooklyn in 1935; then my mother would appear, attempting to smile in an unbecoming cloche and dress in the flapper era, or in a colored Polaroid from 1960, wearing black on her trip to Israel right after my father died. Perhaps she’d sometimes pored over these pictures with her magnifying glass under the Chinese lamp on the dining table, but there was no sign she’d ever gone through them with the intention of labeling them or creating order. I had the feeling she’d left it to me to make what sense of them I could. Maybe she’d never looked at them at all, kept putting it off until her memory went and what might have troubled her once didn’t matter anymore. “I have a very good forgettery,” she had taken to saying with eerie satisfaction.
I was not surprised when my grandfather turned up forty-five years after I’d last seen him—immediately I recognized the portrait Aunt Anna had put out of sight. Then I was excited to come upon an ethereal old man in a black robe and a yarmulke, who unmistakably resembled him. The old man’s finely drawn features were framed by earlocks and a long white beard. The photographer, someone named R. Majorkiewczl, had posed the two of them—they were clearly father and son—the same way, perhaps on the same afternoon one hundred and ten years ago, shortly before my grandfather Samuel Rosenberg sailed for America with his wife and two small daughters. In each photo was the same open book, the same bamboo stand. My great-grandfather, a reflective, spiritual- looking person, perhaps more resigned to the coming separation than his son, appeared to be looking inward, not outward . . . I’ll never know his name. There’s no one alive who remembers it.
My grandmother Eva Rosenberg believed in the Evil Eye. For luck, she’d bury a smooth white stone at the bottom of a crock of sauerkraut. Several years older than her husband, she was a shopkeeper’s daughter just educated enough to be able to read a Yiddish newspaper. My grandfather must have been no more than sixteen or seventeen when their marriage was arranged—a union of opposites. Aunt Anna once said they’d had little in common.
When my grandparents landed in America, they would soon find that the intellectual achievements that had made my grandfather seem a promising young man in Warsaw had no negotiable value. In one factory after another in the grim cast-iron loft buildings of downtown New York, the mistakes made by my grandfather’s clumsy, shaking hands would lead to his downfall. Within a few years he had more children to support with the hateful jobs he had such difficulty keeping. A frail asthmatic boy named Uda was born in 1899, and in 1903, my mother (her fourteen-year-old sister Anna, who loved Shakespeare, insisted they call her Rosalind).
In the earliest photo of my mother, she’s a bright-eyed four-year-old, wearing high- buttoned shoes, a short heavy linen dress with perfectly ironed pleats, and a big white bow in her flaxen hair. She’s holding a nosegay and smiling—fully smiling—there’s nothing forced about it. She’s the adored youngest child, a bright spot in the lives of her anxious family, not at all intimidated by her visit to the photographer’s studio.
By the next photo, taken three or four years later, that particular smile has vanished. In the interim came my grandfather’s angry exit from a world in which he could not find his bearings. My mother’s smile evidently never reappeared.
The family was precariously kept from destitution by Anna and Leona, who even while their father was alive had needed to find jobs right after high school, and by the continued largesse of a relative of my grandmother’s, who had helped them establish themselves in America. Aunt Marcia had left Warsaw in the 1850s and made an advantageous marriage to a wealthy widower in the United States. She enjoyed to the full her power over her poor relations. Her humiliating interference in my grandfather’s household had undoubtably contributed to his misery.
In November 1908, six months after Samuel Rosenberg’s death, Aunt Marcia was away from New York, visiting in-laws in Shreveport. A postcard she sent to my grandmother indicates that she had taken my mother along with her. Was Eva Rosenberg still too distraught to take care of her youngest child? Was my mother unable to forget something she had seen the day her father turned on the gas?
Aunt Marcia’s message, signed “Much love,” has a peremptory tone: “Took the child out shopping. Never mind if she misses school a day. I want her ready.”
On the other side of the card is a disturbing photo of three women dressed in black, as if for a funeral. My grandmother is in the middle, looking dazed and numb under the weight of a hat loaded with black feathers, with the hawk-faced Aunt Marcia’s hand on her shoulder.
Perhaps Aunt Marcia wished to remind the niece who had lost her husband in such a disgraceful way of the gratitude she expected for continuing to support her and the four orphans. Under the photo is the incongruously cheerful inscription: “Here is a picture of the three home folks.” Beneath this are the wavering capital letters of a little girl just learning to write.
On that postcard I found an unexpected address: 428 East 120th Street. I didn’t know my mother and her family had ever lived in East Harlem, a neighborhood whose brownstones and tenements were filled with Eastern European Jews at the turn of the century. I can imagine how relieved they must have felt when they were finally able to escape from the tainted rooms where my grandfather had taken his own life to the fresh air of the Bronx. They not only changed their address, they cast off the name my grandfather had given them. In 1919, my grandmother and her four children petitioned the City Court of New York to let them become the Rosses. I’d never heard about that either, though each year on April 12, the Ross family lit a yahrzeit candle for Samuel Benjamin Rosenberg.
Like my mother, I would seek ways of resurrecting him. But the paths I took were different. I’d search for Samuel Rosenberg in exiles, in artists who could not find acceptance, in the rage and sadness of these men that would make me fall in love with them and ultimately leave me alone again with my freedom.
Copyright © 2005 by Joyce Johnson. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.