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Sardines Again?

Sardines Again

1000 Words

8-minute read


         While studying World War II in high school, I saw a movie clip from the Red Cross about a summer camp for Jewish tourists in Czechoslovakia called Theresienstadt. It was a ghetto used by Hitler for propaganda films. Surrounded by strawberry farms, the film presented a jazz swing band that played upbeat rhythms. An officer in a poison green uniform with red armbands corralled a group of young children, pretending to whine about their rich diet: "Sardines again?"


         I had never met my grandmother until she pulled into the driveway of our new home in Woodstock, New York, to dispose of her old furniture before she moved to Hong Kong.


         A driver in a blue suit and shiny brown shoes opened the door. My grandmother stood, smoothed her skirt, reached into a padded pocketbook on a gold chain, and pulled out a cigarette. She affixed it to a lengthy black lacquer holder. Despite the absence of cold weather, she draped a fur stole around her shoulders, complete with the animal's head and dangling feet. She was wearing a cream-white suit, and buttery leather pointed pumps. She leaned against the car, surveying the house and the movers as she lit a cigarette and took a long drag, her red lips wrapped around the black filter.


           My mother was wearing one of her tie-dye scarves as a skirt, a few bandanas tied together to make a halter-top and a chenille macramé sweater that dragged on the floor. A peacock feather attached to a clip held the last bits of a marijuana cigarette. It looked like a standoff between Coco Chanel and Janis Joplin.


           My grandmother shook her head, waved her cigarette in our direction, and walked across the neglected lawn. The moist earth sucked at her feet. Diligently commanding her shoes to come with her step-by-step in the mud, her cream suit acquired a speckled brown trim.


           My mother reached out with a hand as if to rescue her and whipped the fur from her neck. 


           "It's awful to wear animals."


           "Yes, darling, confer with the Eskimos." 


           Even if my mother disapproved, she wrapped the strange mangy animal with teeth around her waist.


           "Well, it adds a touch. Certainly, it improves the skirt you stole from a dead gypsy.”


           They kissed each other on each cheek and went inside.


           I could not reconcile the strange lady in her cream-colored suit, long cigarettes, driver, lavender linens, and brocade furniture with my mother. My mother wanted me to be a realist. No fairy tales. No Barbie dolls. A world that had nothing to do with us was being delivered to our new house. We were people who walked in fields barefoot, picked clover flowers and unopened lilies, rolled them in eggs, and fried them up for lunch. 


           In my infant years, I was accustomed to living in motels. My mother placed empty wine bottles on the windowsills and shrouded lights with batik scarves to create an ambiance. The house was a gift because my mother's parents were moving to Asia and would no longer be able to bail her out of jail. I am sure the intention was good, but houses meant permanence. Houses were not for people like Eva. 


           Houses need maintenance, upkeep, planning, and care. Eva liked to tear things apart, cut them down, and break them. She called it constructive reincarnation.


         They sat on the lemon-yellow, ankles crossed, the brocade still covered in plastic. Their cigarettes blew at one another while they held two tall glasses, like mannequins in a mirror. Fascinated and disturbed, I waited in the entry between the kitchen and living room while the movers navigated around me in the doorway.


           "You've been camping at a friend's house until now, Eva?"


           "Yes, matka. This house is a good new place for me."


           "Does that mean thank you?"


           "After what you put me through with the stepfather?”


           My grandmother shrugged.


         “Well, it's no strawberry farm but an old art colony. Woodstock was where artists made a pilgrimage, especially in their thirties. We even heard rumors of it in Europe, a safe place for all races and religions. Not like the lies of Theresienstadt."


           "You should visit more often."


           "We'd kill each other."


           They laughed so hard they knocked over both drinks and barely paused to splash more gin in the glasses. My grandmother stared at me.


           "I see you, little one, bring us the olives."


           In the kitchen, on the counter, was a large open jar of green olives with red dots in the center. The vinegar filled my nose, but I held on tightly. I placed the olive jar on the marble coffee table in front of them with a tiny splash. My mother put a hand over mine. Now that I was close to them, their features appeared to be replicated from a wax mold.


           My grandmother tugged on my dirty tee shirt and pulled me close. She yanked on my hair and pushed her finger into my cheekbones. She inspected my teeth, pried my eyes open, and, with the other hand, grabbed two olives and tossed them into her glass.


           "Solid specimen. Himmler would have been proud.”


           They both emptied their glasses.


         "This one needs a bath before we go to the store," she laughed. "No bath. No shopping. Appearances, darling."


           "Matka, we don't need anything."


           "She needs things. You are a waste of time, darling; you made your choices. Don't exclude her from the joys of superficial posturing."


         “Would you like grandma to take you shopping?”


         “I don’t know. We don’t shop.”


         “Oh- what do you do at the store then?”


         “Steal,” I said confidently.


         My grandmother pursed her lips and sucked down two olives. She turned to my mother.


         “We are going to town. I need another bottle of gin for this, and I’m craving sardines.”


         My mother, whom I had not seen touch my grandmother except for their initial air kiss, took the back of her hand and gently pulled my grandmother to her. With their foreheads pressed together, they whispered: 


           "Sardines again?"

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