Published on July 9th, 2020 | by Sandie Friedman0
The room is sunlit and adorned with giant vases of exotic flowers. Without even thinking to take plates, my mother and I walk past platters of smoked fish, marbled prosciutto, and cheeses; breads spilling artfully from a wicker basket; those lovely little rolls called “Broetchen,”; innumerable varieties of jam; pristine white bowls of mango, cherry, grapefruit, honeydew; a selection of yogurts and freshly squeezed juices. There are eggs—scrambled and boiled, hard and soft—bacon, grilled tomatoes; you can order omelets, crepes, or waffles. Waiters and waitresses hold champagne bottles in white cloths and pour glasses for anyone who looks up expectantly. It’s our first morning in Berlin, and the first of many lavish banquets set for this group of elderly survivors, including my mother. Because she was born in Berlin in 1935 and had to flee Germany, my mother has been invited as a guest of the city government to spend a week here. The trip includes visits to significant Jewish sites, including museums and memorials, and meals that seem extravagant to us.
My mother collects herself while she sips coffee, and when she finally feels ready to take some food, she chooses the same breakfast she has at home: an orange. For as long as I can remember, my mother has always had coffee and an orange for breakfast.
One afternoon, there are no tours, so we have free time. My mother and I visit the Museum Berggruen and look at the Paul Klee paintings, then go for lunch at a nearby terrace café. It’s pleasant in the little courtyard, under the shade of a tree. I order a salad, my mother orders a Flammkuchen, a pizza.
A pizza? My mother must be disoriented, not completely in command of herself. After she orders, I feel elated about eating a salad while my mother eats pizza—an entire pizza, which she has ordered for herself. But after the waiter brings our food, my happiness fades quickly. Instead of eating a slice of the pizza, my mother daintily picks the vegetables off the top, leaving the entire crust. I thought I had decisively won this round, but no—I have lost again.
We play, whether I like it or not, the “who-can-eat-less” game. The Game. We don’t go so far as to refuse a meal altogether—the rules demand that you eat, but the trick is to eat less than your opponent. The Game is of course unspoken, and maybe completely unconscious on her part. If I ever tried to bring it up, my mother would respond with shrill denial: Of course not! Of course I’m not trying to eat less than you; I always eat as much as I want! It would pain her, I am sure, to know that I perceive meals with her this way.
In Berlin, the Game intensifies, but we play at home, too. Ordering food from a menu is the decisive first round in the Game, a competition in passivity. At Oscar’s Deli in Westport, the conversation goes like this:
Me: Do you want to share the lox platter?
Mom: Whatever you prefer.
Me: Then let’s share. Do you want the bagel toasted?
Mom: It doesn’t matter to me. I like it either way.
At this point, I should just make a decision: Bagel toasted! Bagel not toasted! I’m aware that it doesn’t matter. But I’ve already reached the limit of my comfort with making decisions for both of us. We’re about thirty seconds into the conversation, and I am on the verge of wailing: “Well, you decide! Please!”
Nevertheless, we do manage to order the bagel (toasted). I decorate my half with a curved sliver of red onion, my mother covers hers with lettuce and tomato. We each try to eat more slowly than the other, hoping our opponent will finish first. She finishes first, so I win that round of the competition, but it’s not over yet: there is still the post-bagel conversation:
Me: Well, that was nice. The lox here is really good.
Mom: It was nice. (Pause.) But I ate more than I meant to.
I could smile and say: “Don’t be silly, ma.” But I don’t say anything, because I’m shrieking internally: “You ate HALF A BAGEL AND A STRIP OF LOX. Were you supposed to eat less than half a bagel? Would a quarter of a bagel been okay? Did you set out to eat a quarter of a bagel?” What comes out of my mouth is just a constrained little laugh. I can’t even acknowledge the comment. And now I feel guilty about the half a bagel I’ve just eaten.
A friend asserts, “Well, I wouldn’t play that game. I’d just say: fine, you win!” He demonstrates, holding up his hands in a gesture of surrender. I explain that, before the meal, it’s always my plan to resist: I’ll sit where I can’t see what she’s eating, I’ll completely ignore what she’s having, I’ll deliberately eat more than she does. I have all kinds of rebellious tactics prepared. Why don’t they work? There’s a physical sensation that overwhelms me whenever I’m at the table with my mother. It’s one part panic (heart racing), one part despair (invisible hand gripping the throat), and one part guilt (internal voices beginning to attack). In this compulsory inversion of a power struggle, we compete to see who can take less, who can make herself smaller, who can be meeker and more accommodating.
In an essay by Adam Phillips, I discover a psychoanalytic portrait of a child who erases herself in order to be loveable to a parent. Phillips explains that because the child “depends upon nourishing and protective contact” with her parents, “anything in the individual that disturbs this is potentially life-threatening.” That is, it feels like you might die if your mom is mad. The child experiences herself as acceptable only when her “bad” feelings are concealed behind “good” ones: “I am cross: it threatens to spoil the relationship I depend on: I make myself, I turn myself, into a nice, kind, gentle person. In this psychic alchemy, this magical act, this disappearing act, I reappear as acceptable to others, and therefore to myself.” Through this mechanism, the threatening emotion is banished, and the child feels safe. Somehow, I believe, hunger (desire) must have been, for my mother, as threatening as anger: I am hungry: it threatens to spoil the relationship I depend on: I make myself into a person who does not need to eat. Who never wants more.
In this scenario, the child becomes finely attuned to the parents’ needs, while concealing her own. She becomes, as Phillips puts it, the “unrecognized recognizer.” And because we are driven, Freud argued, to re-experience as adults these relationships with our parents—to re-enact the same sorrows with different cast members—we don’t outgrow this strategy for ensuring love and safety. If you were this child, Phillips writes, then even as an adult, “your project is to fit in with the other wants you to be (or what you imagine they want you to be); but there are aspects of yourself that are always threatening to break the bonds you need.” As long as you are hungry or angry or merely separate, you don’t feel quite safe; you have to keep hiding this separateness. You become a chameleon of feelings, changing to make yourself invisible.
So here we are: a pair of unrecognized recognizers, vying to be the one who erases herself more completely. We compete to see who can be the most skillful magician, transforming the hungry, willful self into the pliant, accommodating self.
Look, if you can, at the images.
In one photograph of prisoners in Auschwitz, five young men are seated close together on a bed. They have cloth draped around their waists, but are otherwise naked. The man on the far left hugs himself with his arms, preserving warmth. In starvation, they have become identical; bodies that might have been burly or lanky or soft or muscular have become uniform: protruding knees, sticklike arms, visible ribs. Their expressions are inscrutable, which also flattens their individuality. They look back at the camera with a collective level gaze, unwilling to betray suffering—except perhaps for the one who huddles against the cold. He looks back almost expectantly, still a distinct self. The photographer is not documenting people, but rather physical degradation, the results of starvation.
Because I grew up among German Jewish refugees, I was always aware of the Holocaust—there from the beginning, an originating “negative miracle,” as the essayist Philip Lopate puts it. But I did not have such images in mind when I began to starve myself. I just detested my normal body and in fact, have never learned to accept it. Only in retrospect, I made the connection with the images of starving prisoners in Auschwitz, Buchenwald, Bergen-Belsen. I was never consciously trying to be those figures, or to compete with them, or to compensate them, but I now understand they were there; lodged deep in my psyche.
Only later, as a graduate student, I tried to alleviate my own need to starve by confronting these starved figures directly. I came to believe that the way to appease them was to look in a sustained way—to look into their faces and try to see their individuality, even though suffering and starvation tended to erode their distinctive humanness.
Was it this way for my mother also? Is this what she means when she says she is burdened by “survivor’s guilt”? Maybe to starve is our way of speaking to them, to these ghostly figures implanted in our minds. Or to join them in pain. Maybe we are not competing with each other, my mother and I, but sharing a need to reach backward in time and share suffering.
The Berlin streets unsettle my mother in a profound way. Although the landscape has changed radically since my mother’s infancy, she finds the city familiar—as if she had stepped into an ancient memory. It is a city she recognizes, even though it’s now completely strange, uncanny. She scowls, her brow furrowed, as she scans the streets. “I keep thinking I see people I know,” she says. “People from my childhood.” After the morning at a museum and the walk back to the hotel, she gets into the hotel bed and pulls up the covers, looking as stricken and exhausted as I have ever seen her.
Most of the visitors this year were, like my mother, infants or very young children when they left Berlin. Of all the participants, I know of only one who was in a concentration camp. She is an elegant, reserved lady of 92, who spent two years in Auschwitz and lost her parents there. After Berlin, she will travel on to Auschwitz in order to find out about medical tests that were performed on her, and whether these experiments were the reason she was never able to have children. She holds herself apart from the other visitors, yet speaks openly with my mother about her past. They bend their heads close, like sisters. Or like mother and daughter.
At 84, my mother no longer drives, but my brother takes us to Sherwood Diner for lunch. “Mommy, are you in the mood for blintzes?” I ask her.
“If someone else is,” she says guardedly. In other words, she won’t order them for herself, but she is willing to share.
“I want blintzes.” This once, I am going to say what I want. This once, I am going to play a different game.
When the plate arrives, I pick the blintz I like the best, which happens to be in the middle of the plate, and I spoon on a giant dollop of sour cream. Then I pass the plate to my mother, who pours applesauce on top and daubs sour cream on top of that.
I try not to look at her plate while she is eating, but I can’t help glancing over at least once or twice. The process is excruciatingly slow, but gradually, she devours the blintzes. I force myself to look away and focus on my own plate, taking forkfuls of blintz with plenty of sour cream.
“Yummy,” I say, and she nods.