I was five years old and in love with Dr. Kildare. Whenever I’d see him, I’d wrap my soft, pudgy arms around our TV set and give his screen image a great, loud smooch. “I love you, Dr. Kildare!” I’d announce, to the silent living room. “I love you!” My mum was just outside the room. She must’ve been listening.
I had a steady Saturday night date with Dr. Kildare. He was on TV every Saturday night between 7:30 and 8:30, though we were allowed only half an hour together. At eight o’clock, precisely at the time of the program’s second commercial, I had to go to bed.
Coming up to one Saturday night, my mother informed me that I would be allowed to stay up until 8:30, so that I could have a full hour with Dr. Kildare. I was thrilled. I did not yet realize that Mum had an agenda.
At 8:30 on Saturday night, as the weekly program came to an end, I saw something I had never seen before. The TV screen filled with two columns of names which I couldn’t yet read. Out loud, Mum read them for me, and to me. “Dr. Kildare….Richard Chamberlain….Dr. Gillespie….Raymond Massey…” What did this mean?
“Sweetheart,” Mum broke it to me gently. “Dr. Kildare isn’t real. He’s a character played by an actor named Richard Chamberlain.”
I was gobsmacked. Dr. Kildare wasn’t real? I looked to my mum for an explanation. “What’s a (sic) actor?”
Patiently, Mum explained. “An actor is a person who pretends to be someone else. When he’s very good at it, he gets to be on TV.”
“Yes.” I gazed into my mother’s sad and haunted eyes. It appeared she was telling the truth.
“But why do they have two different names?” My five-year-old world view had just been shattered. I couldn’t keep pace with this turn of events.
“They don’t have two different names. Richard Chamberlain is an actor who is pretending to be a doctor called Dr. Kildare.”
I stared at the two columns of names scrolling relentlessly down the screen. I was terribly confused.
“This means that everybody on TV is an actor with his own name who is pretending to be somebody else with a different name?”
“Yes, slodka.” On uttering this term of endearment, Mum slipped into her mother tongue. They call it ‘credits. The credits.’"
This was far too much information. Yet a glimmer of understanding was beginning to peek into my five-year-old mind. The same person with two different names pretending to be someone else. This was not a foreign concept. Not to the family I was born into.
“You mean like a ‘war’ name? Like the way some people who knew you in the war call you Krystyna?” My mother’s name wasn’t Krystyna. A Jewish female was never called Krystyna.
Mum flinched. “Yes, slodka. Something like that.” A five-year-old child isn’t supposed to know about war names. When I asked Mum about her other name, she told me it was her middle name, yet no one called Mum Krystyna except for a few people who’d known her during the war. There was no name for them, then. Today, we call them Survivors. It’s a fitting description. Though I became an actor, it was my mother who had gotten so good at pretending to be someone else that she survived.
About the author
S. Nadja Zajdman is a Canadian author. In 2022 she published I Want You To Be Free, a memoir of her late mother (Hobart Books, Oxford) and the story collection The Memory Keeper (Bridge House Publishing, Manchester). In 2021 she received an award from The Society of Authors in London.
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