by S. Nadja Zajdman
I identify the month of April with my dad because he was born in April and died in April. Like another rebellious Jew, my father’s last supper was a Seder, too.
My father’s favourite colour was green. He identified the colour green with the beauty of nature and the promise of hope and renewal inherent in the coming of spring.
Every time my dad went on a trip, it rained. I identified Daddy’s departures with the rain. One afternoon in spring long ago I was walking with my dad. Clouds shifted, gathered, swelled with anger, and released a torrent of April showers. “Daddy?” It dawned on me that I didn’t know, but surely my daddy would know. “Where does the rain come from?”
Whimsically, my father responded, “De engels in de heaven are making a party. Dey are getting dronk and trowing down de extra--” here, he hesitated, and then he chose, “Cola!” These celestial revellers sounded Russian, and Dad had decided to sanitize, for a young audience, his version of The Origins of Rain, by substituting Coke for vodka. Still, the story didn’t---ahh---hold water.
“If the angels are throwing down the extra Coke, then how come the rain isn’t black?!”
Now Daddy was non-plussed. He halted in his tracks. The man was stymied, and I knew it. “You can’t answer, eh?” I harrumphed in triumph. My victory was short- lived. Like the superb actor he could’ve become, Dad quickly improvised. “Waaaalll, maybe its Seven-Up!” Whether it’s composed of vodka or a cocktail of soft drinks, I still enjoy walks in the spring rain.
When we buried my father it started to rain. By the time we got home from the cemetery the heavens had cracked open. Thunder roared and lightning was splitting the sky. My mother stared out the window, shook her fist at the horizon, and began to laugh. “Abram! You just got there and you’re starting already?!”
It took a massive coronary to kill a man who seemed like a buoy that kept bobbing to the surface, no matter how many times trouble and hardship pushed him down. He was a Polish Jew who survived the war years in the Soviet Union yet refused to identify himself as a Holocaust survivor, believing that others, especially my mother, had suffered far more. Dad believed in looking forward to the future, and discouraged dwelling on the past. He enjoyed good food, fine wine, and a superior cognac. His reading tastes ran to Soviet espionage memoirs because, I believe, they gave him a context for what he had endured during the war.
Dad disliked being cooped up indoors, and often felt the need for “air.” Dad’s need for “air,” as well as his need for private time and space took him on long, solitary walks, even during the deep freezes of winter. On the easier, early spring walks he’d smile his warm, sweet smile and lift his head to the still-bare branches, welcoming the warbling birds that had returned from southern climes. He greeted, profusely, the neighbourhood dogs, and nodded perfunctorily to their owners.
I doubt Dad believed he was invincible, though he tried to give us the impression that he did. There was no self-pity in my father, though there was bitterness and resentment, aimed mainly at the older siblings who removed him from school and sent him to work when he was so close to graduation, after their father died suddenly, before the war, when Dad was sixteen. All his life Dad felt insecure about his lack of formal education. Like the character of Scarecrow in The Wizard of Oz, Dad confused the possession of a diploma with the ownership of a brain and hence, never realized how brilliant he was.
No matter how tough their lot, my mother would reassure my dad, “No one’s trying to kill us. We have the children, and we have each other.” In my mother my father found the unconditional love, support and acceptance he should’ve received from his surviving siblings. His wife and his kids became his world. He dedicated himself to doing what he had to do in order to ensure that his children would do what they wanted to do.
Dad’s sense of fun was infectious. He turned teaching, and learning, and even shopping for groceries into a game. “I like de yellow epples mit de red chicks! Let’s look for de yellow epples mit de red chicks!” To this day, I hunt for the rosiest-cheeked yellow apples I can find. And of course, broccoli looked like trees, and trees looked like broccoli.
Dad’s sense of justice was as fierce as his joie de vivre, and he could carry a grudge to the grave. In order to cope with his often-outraged sensibilities he learned to laugh at everyone, and everything. His laugh was infectious, and it was loud. In the best eastern European tradition, Dad would often laugh in lieu of crying. “The world is a beautiful place,” he insisted. “Its people who make it ugly.” When human nature’s ugly side turned its face to Dad, Dad turned to trees. He didn’t hug them, but he would lean against them, lie under them, and donate money to have them planted in Israel. “Making the desert bloom” was more than literal, for Dad. It was also a metaphor.
Dad dreaded the prospect of getting old and getting sick, and he managed to avoid both. He dropped, without warning, like a felled tree. My mother was a youthful 54 when she was suddenly widowed. Shattered, she picked up the pieces and reinvented herself as a Holocaust educator. The network she created and the fan base it led to would become international. Mum was feted and honoured in Hollywood as a result of a Holocaust-related film, and ultimately awarded the Order of Merit. Regardless, no one and nothing could fill the void left by my dad. On his 30th yahrseit she cried, “Thirty years with him, and thirty years without him. Why did he have to leave me so soon?’
My mother would not have to suffer another yahrseit. Six months later her long-standing cancer became untreatable, and she died on the first night of Hannukah, during the first snowfall of the season. With Dad, there was no warning. With Mum, there was too much. Mum’s last request was to die at home, in her bed, and my brother, a physician, took a leave of absence in order to ensure that her wish would be honoured. In the last weeks of her life I lay beside my weakening mother. Wordlessly, with waning strength, she would lift her arm and I would curl under it, trembling and terrified, clinging to her like a baby bird snuggled under the wing of its mortally wounded mama. Each evening, after Mum drifted into a drugged sleep, I returned to my apartment to cry a lot, to sleep a little, if I could, to pull myself together and to do it all again the next day. Each evening, as I left my mother’s apartment, there was a car parked in front of the building’s entrance. Its license plate read DAD, and its logo, as with all car plates in Quebec, read Je me souviens. (I remember) The car with the license plate that read DAD sat in front of my mother’s building every evening for three weeks. On the evening of November 27, 2013, on the first night of an exceptionally early Hannukah, I was alone with my mother. My brother had stepped out for an hour to get much-needed air. In the last few days it was no longer possible to lie beside her, so I sat beside my supposedly unresponsive mother, reading out loud from my first published book, which I had written for her, about her, and had dedicated to her. As the words fell from my mouth and the tears coursed down my cheeks Mum’s features softened, and her laboured breathing eased. She looked like an ill child listening to a bedtime story. Her soul escaped her tortured body like a bird flitting from a tree. I cannot tell the precise moment Mum passed, yet I was there. It was that gentle. All I know is that there was a new and sudden stillness in the air. Even more sudden, and stranger still, there was peace.
After Mum stopped breathing and I stopped reading I kissed her lightly on the forehead and suggested, “Go be with Daddy now. I’ll see you—both—soon enough.”
An hour later I stepped out of the building into a night illuminated by the candle-lit menorahs in neighbours’ windows, and by the moist, doily-like falling snowflakes. The entranceway was clear. The car that had kept vigil during the rainy, black nights of November was no longer there.
About the author
S. Nadja Zajdman is a Canadian author. Her first short story collection, Bent Branches, was published in 2012. Zajdman has had her non-fiction as well as her fiction featured in newspapers, magazines, literary journals and anthologies across North America, the U.K., Australia and New Zealand. She has completed work on a second short story collection as well a memoir of her mother, the pioneering Holocaust educator and activist Renata Skotnicka-Zajdman, who passed away near the end of 2013.