The voice on my answering machine was plaintive, panicky.
For as long as my mother lived, I could read the full gamut of her emotions in the way she said my name.
“Daddy and I are watching the news on Channel 5…
Of course: “It’s 10 p.m.; do you know where your children are?” Well, my mother knew where I was, and it frightened her to her core. Done with yeshiva high school (and with New Jersey) by age 16, graduated from NYU by age 20, I was taking my walk on the wild side – through the unrestrained, pre-AIDS Greenwich Village of the mid-1970s.
“They said a girl’s body was found under a bridge, and that she looks… Hispanic! So please, call home!”
“Viv?” she bleated mournfully. “WHERE COULD YOU BE????”
Twenty-five years later, comedian Amy Borkowsky compiled a bestselling book and a CD, “Amy’s Answering Machine,” from her mom’s outrageous messages, featuring advice no adult offspring can do without: reminders to use the bathroom before getting on the line in the DMV, tutorials on how not to get gum disease from kissing and on the best shoes to wear on a plane in case of an emergency landing.
My own cassette contained similarly over-the-top gems, but I wasn’t laughing. This wasn’t stereotypical Jewish mother shtick. My parents were refugees from Nazi Germany who were convinced that mortal danger lurked everywhere. As a young child, I was safeguarded from menacing dogs and rabid squirrels, epidemics and undertows, kidnappers and anti-Semites. Later, after I fled the nest, I was warned about Mickey Finns and Peeping Toms, even about – yes – snipers who might put me in their sights if I didn’t shut my window-blinds over University Place. And then there was the cavalcade of dread diseases. Unwashed fruit harbored countless parasites. Ice cream was referred to as “frozen germs.” You could get God-knows-what from a water fountain, or from the toilet-seats in Port Authority Bus Terminal (my gateway to freedom after tense visits home). And Toxic Shock Syndrome, from the lethal, left-in-too-long tampon.
Ironically, my father, a survivor of Auschwitz and of a death march to Buchenwald, was much less angst-ridden than my mother, who escaped Berlin as a teenager with her family in 1939 – after Kristallnacht but before full darkness descended. He fit the profile of the Holocaust survivor who was tough-minded and adaptable, embracing the future despite occasional bouts of rage and despair. She was an intelligent, pious, fragile beauty, with luminous blue-grey eyes that were veiled with sorrow. Of the 400 girls in her Jewish high school, fewer than one out of ten survived.
I hated upsetting my mother, but in those years, there was something about her anxious gaze and frantic tone that infuriated me. Coming of age, as it happened, with legions of young women whose mothers struggled with shifting roles in the early days of feminism, I was openly relieved that I favored my male parent and had inherited his irreverence, and lusty, tenacious spirit.
I recognized that Holocaust trauma was woven into the fabric of our family – “secondhand smoke,” author Thane Rosenbaum would later term it – but was convinced I had dodged its toxic effects. Unlike some other survivors’ kids I knew, I wasn’t phobic or depressive, anxious or anhedonic. To my parents’ credit, they’d given my younger brother and me plenty of the right stuff too. Their “smoke” was deflected by abundant humor, candor and love.
And so I partook exuberantly of unwashed (and occasionally forbidden) fruits, sat on every toilet, and flung open the blinds. I dove into churning waters and walked the dark streets of many cities, choosing to trust most of the folks I encountered along the way – good people of every stripe – and rarely finding cause for regret.
More than three decades have passed since the Era of the Over-The-Top Messages – years that began with me embracing my wonderful parents and ended with me burying them; years in which I held my own babies close, and then, opened my hands to let them fly. But during the course of those years, an uncomfortable truth has wafted and billowed, clouding my joy and irritating the hell out of everyone around me.
As a daughter, I was fearless. But as a mother – much as I try to conceal it – I am always, always afraid.
It used to be choking hazards, allergic reactions, and participation in any activity requiring helmets. Now that all three kids are grown, I fixate on car accidents (a fear that surges to epic proportions during inclement weather), rare illnesses and street crime.
The legend of “WHERE COULD YOU BE????” has morphed into an affectionate homage to my mother/their grandmother, a familial catch-phrase left teasingly on each other’s Facebook walls. I’d never seriously send my children such a desperate message; in fact, the older two (ages 22 and 25) complain I don’t call enough! But left to my own devices, I obsess nonstop. About Offspring #1 living in Manhattan in a non-doorman building near a housing project, and traveling to impoverished lands as part of her job with an international relief agency. About Offspring #2 on the campus of a hard-partying state university that’s seen assaults, hit-and-runs, and even a fatal stabbing over the past year. (In the summer, she’ll be heading back to live and work in Alaska, where she packs a spray can of “Bear Defender” to fend off the aggressive grizzlies that have proliferated in the region.) And about strapping Offspring #3, forever my baby boy, currently battling a hard-to-treat infection in a country in political turmoil that also has one of the highest rates of traffic fatalities in the world.
Go on: tell me the odds are miniscule that my winsome, adventuresome daughter will get eaten by a bear. That’s where the secondhand smoke darkens my vision. We children of trauma give statistics their due, but we know too much to trust them. Tell me that my loved one has only a 2% chance of overcoming a devastating diagnosis, and watch my “rescue personality” shift into high gear to help give him or her the best possible shot. Assure me there’s a 98% chance that everything will turn out fine, and witness my deep, primal fear that this time the roulette wheel might land on my precious family.
The future lies before us, filled with more milestones, more minefields. Which shoes, I wonder, will help us stay safe?
Could secondhand smoke become thirdhand smoke?
And how do I make it go away?
Vivien Orbach-Smith teaches journalism to undergraduates in NYU’s Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute, and co- authored Soaring Underground: A Young Fugitive’s Life in Nazi Berlin, her father’s memoir of survival.