For some reason yesterday I got to thinking about Anna. Strange how memory works sometimes, pulling up a stray event or day from many years ago. I met Anna on a park bench almost twenty-two years ago, and I have never seen her since. But she had a profound effect on my life that echoes right into the present.
What I remember is that it was a lovely fall day, still mellow out, the leaves starting to turn but the sun warm enough to warrant a visit to the outdoor Dairy Queen for ice cream for myself and my little girl. We took our cones and went to sit on a park bench not far away. After a little while, an elderly lady dressed all in red came to ask if she could sit with us, of course I moved over and said ‘yes.’ She looked ordinary enough, an elderly lady with permed grey hair and a vinyl purse, net shopping bags and the small cart that most elderly women took with them on the bus, so they could do their shopping and convey it home with relative ease. But Anna was anything but ordinary.
We exchanged pleasantries as she sat and arranged her cart and her purse. I couldn’t help but notice her accent. So I asked her where she was from. She told me Poland and that she had left there shortly after the war.
“I am Jewish, you see,” she said quietly. I did see, immediately and all too well. From a safe distance of both time and geography, of course, but I had recently read Leon Uris’ ‘Mila 18’ so I had some small understanding of what Polish Jews had gone through in WWII.
I’m a writer and have been for a long time, so it took everything I had not to ask her a hundred questions on the spot. But Anna was, for all her age, rather formidable looking and I sensed that she would speak if she wanted to, or would not, but it wasn’t for me to pry or ask questions that she might well not want to answer. But she did start to speak and it became one of the most amazing hours of my life.
Anna had lived in Warsaw, and then once the war came, Anna was put on a train and taken to Auschwitz. Auschwitz is one of those words that stands so stark in our minds and hearts that it needs no further explanation. She was young, unmarried, and somehow she survived. She didn’t talk much about the camp, because, as she said, there were so few words to really tell me what it had been like. I knew what she meant, because some things are beyond the description of mere words.
Mostly she told me about her life after the war, about how she had married a Polish man who had not been a particularly good husband, and how they had five children together and how she felt she had failed them as a mother. I can still see her profile, and the crimson leaves of the maples behind her as she spoke about her children, how none of them visited her anymore, nor had anything to do with her. She said it was her own fault, that she had been bitter for so long that she had not really been able to open her heart to her children, that she felt they could never understand where she had been, what she had endured merely to survive. That for so long she had seen life as just that—survival.
“Don’t ever be bitter,” she said, “it wastes life. I may die alone because I was so bitter, and if I do it will be my own fault.”
As she left, she bent down and kissed my daughter’s head, who was at that point, between the ice cream and sun, profoundly asleep. Then Anna turned back and put her hand, age-spotted and veined on my forearm. I won’t ever forget what she said next.
“You cherish that baby,” she said, “because all she needs is love, so just give that to her every day, the rest of it doesn’t matter and the time, the time will go so much more swiftly than someone your age can ever understand.”
She was so right.
Anna, if I could speak to you now, I’d tell you, I listened that day, I really heard you, and often it was your words that came to me when I was in the middle of a rough day, or feeling like a terrible mother, I heard you and I want you to know you made me a better mother, and a better human being. And Anna, you were so right, the time did go so much faster than someone my age could have ever understood. I hope that your children found forgiveness in their hearts, I hope they found understanding, and I hope one of them understood how swiftly time goes by, and I hope one of them was holding your hand when you left this world.