Sometimes, We Choose
Margaret Mary Doyle set Saturday aside for shopping when she moved to a Chassidic neighborhood off the Jamaica subway line in 1970. This meant the shops were fairly empty and she could wander at her leisure, humming along with the Muzak, looking over the meat in the butcher’s section, finding relaxation in the beigeness of the chore. A change in her job schedule found her going on Sundays, when it was crowded with the women of her neighborhood; Brooklyn-made wigs in place, lists at the ready, children in tow-- each one wanting the biggest chicken, the nicest kinsh, the freshest vegetables.
Eventually, they would congregate in the produce section, squeezing fruit and looking over vegetables with a small frown of concentration between their eyebrows... daughters learning the subtle trick to finding good ears of corn, sons standing patiently with yarmulkes bobby-pinned to cropped hair, payez tucked behind their ears. It was there, the second summer of living in the area, that someone finally answered the murmured hello she had offered many times. Weeks became months, and the two saw each other enough to share a smile and a nod when their eyes met... accepting that the produce department and discussions of food would always be the extent of their friendship of sorts. The boys would watch Maggie from under their lashes, not wishing to speak to a stranger, much less a gentile stranger...wondering why their mother did. Maggie never failed to smile at them, comment on their growth--they never failed to ignore her existence.
Over the next year or so, she watched the boys grow taller... knew when the elder made his Bar Mitzvah by his sudden absence. She congratulated her acquaintance on the upcoming birth of a child, bringing a small gift the week after she’d seen them back in the market. Passing the gift from one set of hands to the other caused them to touch--this action brought on the odd forced laugh one does in uncomfortable social settings.
Time passed, seasons brought squash and vine tomatoes and finally, the glory of summer melons. It was in late August when Maggie dashed in, late for a barbeque she was attending, focused on her list of items to buy, whispering under her breath and mentally ticking each thing off as it went into the basket. Unconsciously, she sorted meat from dairy, never allowing them near each other.
Cheese. Buns. Hamburger. All that remained was lettuce, two tomatoes and the cantaloupe she would cut up over at the gathering, letting it chill while they all ate...knowing the fruit dripping with it’s juice would cool throats rough from too many cigarettes, conversations and wine.
Looking the fruit over, she heard the voice she knew coming up behind her, speaking to the baby. The two women had never exchanged names, however, the children were known to Maggie from their mother saying them as she sent them to get a bag of potatoes or some apples. Asher. Samuel, who was now a man. Yakob. Baby Rebekah, sitting strapped in the front of the cart, content to suck on her fingers, not caring who you were; if you smiled at her, she responded with her whole body wiggling. Maggie felt a twinge of irritation...she didn’t have any time to converse, not even for their brief conversations. The manners drummed into her head by Sister Mary Paul put a smile in place, the words of Hello, how are you? already leaving her mouth... a question put forth that she silently prayed to God wouldn’t be answered.
They fell to discussing the price of cantaloupe, comparing it to larger, messier watermelon...never stopping in their testing, searching. Each had a different technique; Maggie sniffed the end, trying to scent the distinct flavour of the fruit. The other used the shaking method...holding them close to her ear, listening to hear if the seeds were at the point of coming loose from the flesh--a sign of perfect ripeness. As they stood and sniffed and shook and debated if this week or next would bring forth the best of the season, an older woman walked over, the younger boys holding her hands, all of them speaking rapidly in Yiddish.
Her friend turned, greeted the three, then said to Maggie, “This is my Mama. She is visiting us.” Smiles. Nods. Stepping up, she added another set of hands to join in the testing to find a cantaloupe that surpassed the usual standards.
Like daughter, like mother...the older woman, too, shook each round bit of fruit, moving from one to another, her wrist near her ear, listening for the ripe sound. All three concentrated on the task of finding that fruit; it bound them in the way only women are bound, the ancient voice hidden in DNA reminding them they were once the gatherers in tribes. It was then, as the older woman held up the yellow globe she had chosen, shaking it next to her ear, the long sleeves worn even in this weather slid back....Maggie had looked up to watch, a smile on her face...
There. On the forearm. Right. There.
Maggie stared. All else became unimportant. Those black-blue numbers held her eyes, her focus...stopped her breath. She wasn’t sure if it was the pale skin or the black knowledge of how it came to be there that caused them to suddenly stand out even more. With it, this woman had been listed, tracked, made a thing. Maggie stared, knowing it was her memory for life.
She heard something, focused on it, realised it was the older woman speaking to her.
“..... in August, 1943. I was 17. My Lilach stared that same way, the first time she understood this.”
Lilach took her mother’s arm, turned it so the tattoo faced up, kissed it.
Putting the melon down, Maggie turned, leaving her cart, leaving the group that suddenly seemed closed to her. Swinging her purse over her shoulder, she moved towards the doors, towards air. Towards something she could comprehend.
Maggie reached the bus, her seat, her stop....it was habit, and required no thought. In the apartment, sitting on the sofa, purse still in one hand, house keys in the other, she sat, trying to find some memory that didn’t have a dark place. She thought of the Leon Uris books she’d read, Mila 18, QB VII,...the works of Chaim Potok, books read since her move in some odd attempt to ‘understand’ her neighbors-- the books discussed the events, none had given her the skills to process what she’d seen.
The loss of six million was there, in that number. The loss of homes, security, freedom...of generations that would never be born. All of that and more was contained in the cheap ink, the badly drawn characters.
Maggie sat on her sofa, letting all of this settle into a brain that was still skittering over those details she’d never grasp, and knew something in her had changed.
With that knowledge came a great fear she’d do nothing about it, nothing to step up and voice her anger over genocides that still occurred. Standing, she let that fear find a hiding place in her soul, accepting it would stay hidden, accepting she’d live her life as it had always been...turning her head, remaining passive.
Margaret Mary Doyle unfolded her newspaper, and started to circle apartments in Manhattan.
First they came for the communists, and I did not speak out--
because I was not a communist;
Then they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out--
because I was not a socialist;
Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out--
because I was not a trade unionist;
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out--
because I was not a Jew;
Then they came for me--
and there was no one left to speak out for me.
----Pastor Martin Niemöller (1892-1984) about the inactivity of German intellectuals following the Nazi rise to power and the purging of their chosen targets, group after group.