From Chicken Soup for the Jewish Soul

I Married Her Sunshine

There is a comfort in the strength of love; t’will make a thing endurable, which else would overset the brain or break the heart.

William Wordsworth

Like many young newlyweds, I often found myself verbally sparring with my mother-in-law.

My own willingness to argue with her disturbed me. I had been raised from infancy to be respectful of my elders, so why was I behaving so differently now? It was a worrisome situation.

But one Passover night, everything changed. All the men had gone to synagogue, and she and I were left alone for a very long while. I will remember for a lifetime what she said to me that night. It was as if a floodgate had opened up inside her, and a torrent of words came pouring out.

She began by describing the beautiful life she led before World War II. Raised in affluence by loving parents, she was surrounded by an enormous extended family who doted on her, the “baby” of the clan. “They were hardworking, kind, generous and exalted,” she said of her family. The smile on her face as she told of this wonderful time in her life made me realize that at that moment she was back in their comforting embrace.

As she continued her story, her serene appearance began to change and was replaced by a look of great pain. She became detached and remote, as if she was recounting the events of someone else’s life rather than her own.

The little girl she was all but disappeared when the German tanks came rolling through Poland in 1939. “My grandmother, after watching her beloved husband and eldest daughter being dragged away in the middle of the night, was determined to save what remained of their family. For six long years ‘Mama’ used her considerable wealth to ‘rent’ space under a barn from a kind, Gentile farmer, who was an old family friend.”

These were the six years of life when a young girl should have blossomed into womanhood. Yet, she explained, she spent those six years in total darkness and in near silence. At a time when the giggles of school friends sharing secrets were the only hushed words she should have heard, the fear of being discovered was so crippling that she and her mother could not speak above a whisper. The only companions she had were the field mice who came in at night, and as she listened to the chickens above her head being fed their daily fare, she wondered why her food rations were so meager. And like a flower robbed of the nurturing sunlight and water she began to wither away.

And then finally liberation. As she emerged from the cave that had become her home the brightness was blinding, and yet she drank it all in as a parched desert traveler would absorb the waters of a running brook. But, just as the bud began to blossom again, the clouds rolled in once again, robbing it of the precious sunshine.

You see, the peasants who had been occupying her home during the war were not pleased to discover that the former tenants had miraculously survived. Angry at the prospect of having to leave their lush surroundings, they became increasingly hostile.

One evening, as her mother peeked out of the window, she saw an angry mob heading towards the house. Quickly she pushed her daughter into the cold pot-bellied stove to spare her from whatever was to come. As the crowd gathered, the young girl watched through the window of the oven as her mother argued for her property, and then, as she begged for her life. But her words were to no avail, and as her young daughter looked on, she was shot, along with her sons, in cold blood.

When the group dispersed she quietly emerged from her hiding place. Although her mother had meant to spare her certain death, the young girl wished in her despair and heartbreak that she, too, had met her mother’s fate. At that moment, she swore to leave behind the land of her birth forever.

Somehow she was placed in a foundling home and eventually found her way to America to live with a distant relative. From the outside, she looked like any young girl, energetic, vivacious, attractive. But on the inside something had died. Something that she thought would never live again.

Then one day she met a handsome young man, who swept her off her feet. And once again she began to experience love. What had died on that horrible day in Europe just a few years before was reborn on the sidewalks of New York. She and her Prince Charming married and after one year they were blessed with a beautiful son.

And then she turned to me and in broken English spoke the most eloquent sentence I have ever heard. “From the moment the war began, until the moment I gave birth to your husband, the sun did not shine for me.”

And at that moment I understood. I understood why she was obsessed with her children. I understood why her children were the “most” beautiful and brilliant. I understood why her children could do no wrong. I even understood why she constantly pushed them to eat.

Strong feelings of shame began to overwhelm me. How could I not have accorded the proper respect to a woman who had endured unspeakable hardships, and yet had the courage and the faith in God to rebuild her own life, and bring a new one into the world? How could I have not seen the signs of a woman so deeply scarred that the only joy she derived from life involved her family? Why had I silently ridiculed her when her overprotective tendencies appeared? How could I have been so blind?

Then and there, I resolved to change the way I looked at her. Never again could I peer into her face and not see the little girl hiding in an oven. Never again could I stare into her eyes and not see the vision of death and destruction that she so vividly described. Never again could I eat at her table and not imagine the pangs of hunger that must have enveloped her. And never again could I hear her voice and not think of the hushed whispers of her lost youth.

Now, when I see a woman who thinks her children are the “most” everything, I ask myself, Why shouldn’t she think so? Now, when I see a woman who loves so unconditionally that in her eyes her children can do no wrong, I admire her conviction. I no longer see a woman who is pushy at mealtime, but a generous and giving human being. And now I can even see why I seemed unworthy of her son’s hand in marriage. For after all, who would be worthy of marrying her “sunshine”?

Miriam Goldbrenner

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