My momila, Channa, had five children, which was quite a feat because she had weak uterus muscles and was supposed to limit herself to only three.
Mom insisted on having more children for several reasons:
For one thing, she was chronically disobedient and defiant when it came to medical instructions. When prescribed any medications, she never took the recommended dosage. “The doctors just want to make money off you, Jaclyn,” she would tell me.
Second, my parents were “sloppy,” a term we used when we messed up in matters of importance. Birth control was clearly trivial.
Lastly, Mom and Dad were trying to rebuild the family they had lost in the war. Ultimately, I feel that this need to create life was the true reason they chose to have so many children.
This is the story of my parents, my four siblings, and me. Although this group has rarely all gotten along for any length of time, these people made me who I am.
I HURRIED DOWN THE hallway but stopped when I saw her. “Mom, why did you do this?” I cried. I stood there for a moment and studied her face. She looked beautiful. A white silky scarf was artfully wrapped around her head like a head¬band and she was wearing her favorite red lipstick. She was smiling at me and there was a twinkle in her eyes. “This could have all been avoided,” I told her. Waiting for a response would have been pointless, because photographs never an¬swer back.
The front door opened without a knock.
“Jaclyn, I’m here! Aren’t you ready yet?” Shirley, my younger sister, called out.
I slowly took my eyes away from the black-and-white photograph and headed down the stairs.
“I’m just going to grab a piece of toast and then we can leave,” I answered. Shirley and I had made a temporary truce. This was an important morning, and for the next few days, we were on the same side.
My cell phone rang as I got into the front seat of my sis¬ter’s car. It was Nina, the baby of the Poltzer family. “Re¬member, Shirley is still Shirley,” she reminded me. “So don’t tell her too much.”
The traffic on the way to downtown was its usual stop-and-go self, but we finally made it. We parked in the lot across the street from the courthouse and walked together into the imposing federal building and through the metal de¬tectors. Our names were printed on an informal sheet of pa¬per pinned to a board on the outside of a ninth-floor family probate room. Pushing through the double doors, we made our entry.
The walls of our courtroom were covered with wood paneling, and the floor was the standard government-issued marbled vinyl tile. A long wooden conference table with six chairs was set up for the attorneys and their assistants. At the head of the room was an elevated judge’s desk. It was flanked on both sides by flags, one for the United States, and one for California. Filling in the balance of the room were perma¬nently installed stadium seats with walking aisles on both sides and in the center.
Shlomo, the eldest among the siblings, was already seated in the first row. A bundle of frayed nerves, he had devised a method of handling his anxiety by placing a large, thick rub¬ber band around his wrist, which he planned to snap when¬ever he felt the need to yell. I wished he had brought an extra one for me.
Our attorney, Ken, walked in, exuding confidence. He stopped briefly in the aisle beside our seats.
“No making faces at Steven or the judge! No cursing, no mouthing words, no sighing, and no sounds of any kind!” he instructed us, but it was mostly meant for me.
A few moments later, Nina arrived. She came over to us and said a quick “good morning.” She was full of information she wished to review with Ken, so she took a seat beside him, up front at the conference table.
On the other side of the room was Steven, the remaining member of the Poltzer family. Piled up beside him were plas¬tic containers filled with files and paperwork. His laptop was turned on, but at the moment, he was concentrating on a document he was reading.
Five grown children on opposite sides of the aisle; Steven wanted it all.
Mom, what did you do to us?
CHANNA ALWAYS HATED STRANGERS
CHANNA PERSCHOWSKI, MY MOMILA, was a beauti¬ful young girl with thin stick-like legs and wavy auburn hair. She was petite, but her spunkiness made up for it. Her eyes were soft brown, but when she looked at you, you could see she was filled with determination.
She was born on November 27, 1929, in Baranavichy, a small rural town in what was then Poland. Picturesque with its redbrick houses, Baranavichy was nestled amid thick woods that thrived in the country’s moist, dark soil. Beautiful blue lakes dotted the landscape, and rivers wound their way past ancient castles dating back to the eighth century. Turrets belonging to the Belarusian gothic-style churches competed with the dome-topped, wooden Jewish synagogues, but only in the context of old-world charm. It was a lovely place to live. However, my mother’s simple, idyllic life would soon be lost to the horrors of a war like no other.
Channa was the answer to her mother’s dreams. Eleven years earlier, Rachel Perschowski had suffered the loss of her daughter Sonya, who had been born with a hole in her heart. The fragile young girl was plagued with shortness of breath and weariness and had spent most of her time in bed. Rachel was a dutiful mother, never straying far from her daughter’s bedside. She spoon-fed Sonya bowls of hot, sugary semolina with large dollops of butter that slowly melted around the sides of the cereal. Despite Rachel’s tender care, Sonya died in her mother’s arms at the age of eight.
Her death was extremely hard on Rachel. She blamed herself incessantly, wondering what she had eaten or done during pregnancy that could have possibly caused her pre¬cious little girl to lose her life. She visited the graveyard often, spending much of her time sitting on Sonya’s grave.
Rachel’s only joy in those dark days following Sonya’s death was her son, Isaac, who was two years older than Sonya had been. Isaac had grown into a healthy lad with boundless energy. He had dark features and had inherited his mother’s worried eyes and prominent Jewish nose. He was a little short for his age, but was solid as a rock and strong as an ox. Even at his young age, he had a tender side and had loved his sister Sonya dearly, always treating her with gentle kindness.
Sonya’s death was very hard on Isaac. No one could give him the answers he sought or help him express the tremen¬dous sadness he held in his heart.
Whenever he was outside playing and he saw a lizard scurry by, he would remember his little sister. He’d remember how he used to catch the small reptiles in his hands and carry them into the house. Sonya would gently stroke the lizard’s back, and they would both laugh until their mother came into the room.
“Isaac, get that out of here!” Rachel would always say.
Isaac’s deep sorrow about the loss of Sonya was lessened with the arrival of Channa. He adored Channa, and, being the much older brother, took on the role of her protector. The bond between them would prove to be more important than either of them could ever know.
A few years later, the family was additionally blessed with another baby girl, whom they named Yetta. She was a happy baby with round, chubby cheeks. Her hair was light brown and full of curls.
Rachel worked tirelessly and bestowed a great deal of love and affection on her three children. Often seated on the cold wooden floors, she would play games with them for hours, ignoring the cooking and the cleaning. On days when the weather kept her younger children inside, she would bake sugar cookies with them. She would carefully guide their small hands while they pressed various shapes onto the floured dough. Then she would patiently show them how to sprinkle sugar and cinnamon onto the warm cookies as they cooled on the counter.
Shlomo, the children’s father, was less patient. He worked hard, and when he came home, he demanded serenity. He had little tolerance for the children’s noise and energy, and at times, he could be quite harsh.
“Sit down and be quiet!” he often yelled. “If you can’t be quiet, go outside to play—and stay there a while!” When the children disobeyed his demands for silence, he would bang his fists on the table, causing them to run and hide under their beds.
Luckily for the children, Shlomo traveled extensively for business. He was often away for very long periods of time, which made Channa angry at him. She constantly feared he had abandoned them. When he was home, he never tried to earn their love, and they could sense their mother’s indiffer¬ence toward him. Neither she nor her siblings ever developed a close bond with their father.
While Shlomo might not have been the best father, he was an outstanding provider. He was in the schmate, or gar¬ment, business. He regularly journeyed to America with cloth¬ing patterns. These patterns were then turned into blue jeans and shirts to be sold to the American public. He would save up all the money he made and take it back to his family in Poland. With each homecoming came a bundle of cash, which was spent on a variety of things. The house and the barn always seemed to need repairs, and the children were always outgrowing their sweaters and shoes.
Channa loved the family home. The house had originally been built for Rachel’s mother as a gift from her father,