By Leah Eichler
My five-year old granddaughter came up with the name. Once she heard me whispering about the “titkos,” meaning secret in Hungarian. To her young, Canadian ears it sounded like Tick Tock. And from then on, the name stuck. Still, we tried, we believed that our titkos, our Tick Tock, could remain just that. A secret. But from whom?
Up until then, she refused to mimic any of the Hungarian words I tried to teach, basic phrases such as ‘how are you?’ or ‘my name is …’ If I pushed, I could force a “szia,” meaning “hello” or “bye” from her lips but only because she believed she was saying, “see ya.” Nothing could convince her otherwise. After a while, I let it go, believing it for the best. Somehow, speaking only English kept her clean, like a piece of jewellery still in its box. But then, out of nowhere, this word, this name came out of her lips as if she knew it. As if she knows everything, without me even telling her.
My sister called, as she does every morning, and I picked up the phone quickly in the kitchen. I nodded to my little granddaughter to go watch her Saturday morning cartoons. While Shabbat, we both silently understood that these rules, we could bend them, so long as it was for our health. My sister needed the medicine of my voice. And my little one needed to watch TV to laugh. That was her medicine, laughter, and I wanted her to have it in excess, to store for the future. When God gives you no reason to laugh, you’ll understand what I mean so let her enjoy her Bugs Bunny and The Jetsons.
With the TV on loud in the other room, I began to speak quietly about visiting the hospital, worried my little one’s big ears would pick up on something they shouldn’t. I told my sister I would bring my special chocolate sponge cake with chips. It was light enough to melt in your mouth. I prayed the information would alleviate her guilt. She changed the subject, to what her daughter cooked for dinner the night before. Then, out of nowhere, the real news.
“She’s pregnant, again.”
“Mazel Tov,” I whispered, careful to tread lightly.
“Don’t I deserve a healthy grandchild, too?” she shot back, accusingly. I nodded to myself.
“Yes, of course, my precious kitten. You deserve it all.” The nickname soothed her. It always did. Ever since I became her mama, when our own died.
“I’ll call you when I get home,” I told her, and blew her kisses before quietly returning the phone to its cradle. Now I know why my sister hasn’t been to the hospital in many days. They are already starting to erase the old baby with this new one. A real new world baby, instead of the broken one God gave them, a leftover tragedy passed down from the womb as a reminder. Or a warning.
A voice from the kitchen’s entrance surprised me, interrupting my train of thought. I wonder if she stood there the entire time.
“Are you visiting the Tick Tock today, nagymama? Can I come?”
Those little, big ears hear everything. For a moment, I imagined, my little doll, my living miracle, opening her eyes on such a horror. I tsk-tsked her for eavesdropping on adult conversations and lightly smacked her on the bum before sitting her down in the kitchen with a piece of the sponge cake.
“Es Es, mein kin,” I said, ignoring the question. “Your mama will be finishing work soon and will pick you up on her way home.” In between bites, I pushed the telephone towards her and asked her to call a taxi. Her tiny fingers dragged each number carefully to the end of the rotary and in her most grown-up voice she recited my address. After almost 20 years in this country, English still came begrudgingly to my tongue. The world moved too fast. My lips couldn’t keep up. I kissed her with approval.
Had you told me 30 years ago, when my cousins held me up in the rain during roll call in Auschwitz, puh puh, may its memory be erased, that I would be raising a grandchild in Canada, in Toronto, I would never have believed you. On rainy days, I can still see them, Bayla and Freya, pressing against me with their shoulders, whispering words of encouragement when I was ready to give up. At night, Bayla would hold me and whisper stories about our trips to the beach, her voice brought such life to the telling that for a few moments, I imagined myself there.
If I try, I can still see Bayla, her eyes so full of life right up to the end. Would my little big ears do the same for her cousin? Most likely, they will never meet and in 30 years, she’ll have no tragedy to forget. Sometimes, I too, forget. If it weren’t for this stubborn ache in my legs, and swelling in my ankles, sometimes, I swear, I almost don’t believe it myself.
The taxi dropped me off in front of the Hospital for Sick Children. The idea, of a hospital just for children, amazed me. In my village growing up we didn’t even have a doctor. I hurried past the nurses at front desk and smiled, quickly looking down. I didn’t want questions. I didn’t have any answers.
Tick Tock lay in her tiny cot and screamed like a tortured, exhausted kitten when she saw me. I tapped her back softly, making a soothing noise with my teeth, careful to avoid the bandages and gauze covering the exposed sack protruding from her lower back. Her spine, from what I understood, escaped her body in the womb. The name of the condition, as far as I know, had no Hungarian equivalent. Perhaps these children always existed in secret, living and dying without my notice. But once you know, you can’t unknow.
We were alone today, the other beds like empty coffins. No, no, don’t think that. Maybe these children went home healthy, to their families. That must be it. The thought lifted my spirits and suddenly the air felt lighter in the room. The June sunlight spilled out of the window and onto the cot and I wanted Tick Tock to breathe it in. Children need sunlight. I raised enough kids, my own, others left behind, I should know. I pulled up my sleeves to try to open the window, the muscles under my blue tattooed numbers straining to make themselves known peeked out from under the sleeve. Their presence irritated me. Like dirt. The window remained firmly shut.
Tick Tock watched me quietly as I moved away from the window and sat next to her cot. Her hair black as ink and eyes dark blue, larger than they should be. Who did you look like, my precious Tick Tock? Not your mother. Or my sister. Maybe our father, may his name be a blessing.
“Pretty Like the Moon, you are
Bright Like the Stars
From Heaven you were sent to me like a Present.
“My mother sang that song to me. It’s Yiddish, not Hungarian. She would be your great-grandmother. She died when I was six, just a few years older than you. Then I became a little mama to your grandmother.” I hummed the song, pulling out the tiny comb from my purse to brush her hair away from her eyes. She stared silently, mesmerized. I squeezed my thick hand under her delicate face and tried to maneuver her into a seated position.
“Hungry my little girl? Here, I brought you something from home.” I reached back into the plastic bag and pulled out the tin of sponge cake, cut carefully into squares. I washed my hands in the little sink and said a blessing, before pulling a small piece off with my fingers and inserting it into her mouth. She kept staring as she chewed.
A doctor walked in briskly, more surprised to see me than the other way around. He looked at me suspiciously.
“The great-aunt is back. How nice,” he spoke slowly, so I’d understand his meaning. “How come the baby’s grandmother no longer visits, or dare I ask, the parents? No one has been here in days. This is a child, a baby. She needs to be held.” Now it was my turn to stare. The words, his words kept coming. I opened my mouth but really, what could possibly come out?
“Do you understand what I’m saying? The prognosis for this child is not good, but you can’t leave her here. She needs to go home.”
I shook my head yes, not understanding every word, but understanding all the same. He left, a cloud of anger in his wake. I went to sit down; his glare, and the swelling in my legs, made me shake. Tick Tock tried to follow me with her eyes, making a guttural sound when I moved out of sight. I shuffled two chairs closer to her cot, picking up my own legs, one by one, with my hands to rest them on the chair.
“See, my legs don’t work well either.”
She looked with curiosity, I thought. Intelligence. Maybe the doctors were wrong. Maybe her mother was wrong. Maybe.
I took a deep breath and followed the light as it danced through the window. For a brief moment, my heart filled with hope. When sunlight hit the camps, Bayla would make me close my eyes and demand that I listen to her imaginary ocean. “I can hear the waves,” she would insist. “Can’t you hear the waves?” Maybe, just maybe, there was a chance, here too.
A nurse quietly entered and as if on cue, a cloud must have blocked the sun. She changed Tick Tock’s diaper and brought in some food. It smelled like turkey but looked like applesauce. She ignored me as she checked her tubes and pressed some buttons on a machine. She sat Tick Tock up a bit more than I had and began spoon feeding her very slowly.
“I. Can. Do. This.” I tried to speak slowly, using my best English. I wished my son were here to help me. Likely he remained at shul, drinking with friends, passively praying for redemption. The nurse looked at me skeptically.
“How do I know you’ll feed her?” she yelled, enunciating every word.
I didn’t know how to respond.
“How do I know. You’ll. Feed. Her,” she yelled again, pointing to the girl’s mouth.
“Trust. Trust.” I said, begging for the food.
The nurse stared at me from the corner of her eye.
“I’m checking later, Ok? Diaper must be dirty. Ok?”
The last part confused me, but I gratefully accepted the food. The moment the nurse exited I tasted a bit and then restrained myself from spitting it out. Creamed turkey and sweet potato. No salt or flavour. It was cold.
I sat on the corner of the bed and carefully took Tick Tock into my lap, leaning her up against my chest. I tried not to stare at her angry back. and worried that my coarse skirt would irritate her fragile skin.
“Open up wide, little mommy, the airplane is coming in.” Her big eyes opened even wider as I brought the tiny spoon to her lips, her black pupils large like the moon.
“Pretty like the moon, you are,” I sang again.
“You know, my cousins fed me like this once. I was just a little thing, barely 80 pounds. Could hardly stand but Bayla, even though she was younger than me, would say, ‘open wide, little mommy. The airplane is coming.’ She and Freya tried to make me laugh so I’d open my mouth. Even over there, they found some humour …”
I took a deep breath.
“Even in the war, there were some good people. Some good Germans. One soldier gave me extra food in the beginning that I shared with my cousins. And at the end, when I could barely walk and they kept marching us, in the snow. In the cold. You could still find some good in people. Not everyone. But some.”
Tick Tock didn’t make a noise. Other than the scream when I entered and a few grunts she seemed utterly silent. I tried to remember my kids, my granddaughter. At two and a half, what did they do? Could they speak? Could they laugh? Was Tick Tock’s brain not working, as everyone said, or was it simply that she had nothing to say to any of us? I wouldn’t blame her.
“You know, your mama, she’s very beautiful. Very beautiful. She lives in a nice house with her husband, your dad. You don’t remember but you spent some time there in between hospital visits. I don’t think they intended to keep you here this long but each time they discussed bringing you home, they started fighting again …
“These children of ours, they aren’t made of the same stuff. They couldn’t survive the war. The camps. The starvation. The smell of death. I’m not even sure they could survive a strong wind. I wonder if we used up all our resources, my generation, leaving the next one, lacking somehow. Unable to cope. They seem so fragile.
I remembered the expression of horror on my niece’s face, when the doctors said her daughter would never walk, would never be able to go to school. They told her she wouldn’t survive childhood. Maybe live three or four years. Maybe five. Her husband blamed her, of course. Bad genes, he said, and that broke her a bit more. Eventually, it was easier for her to believe her daughter died. Or that she never had this baby at all.
Tick Tock’s eyes began to close. I placed the food on the side of the cot and made myself comfortable, my legs now resting on the bed. I bent over, bringing my lips to her forehead. She smelled like hospital but her warm body felt so familiar.
The lights grew dimmer outside. I felt my eyes grow tired, too.
“Pretty Like the Moon, you are.
Bright Like the Stars.”
I shook myself awake. Violet, that’s who I used to sing this song, to. My little Vie.
“You know, my Tick Tock, I was only 22 when I came back from the camps. My husband was still missing. I stayed with his sister in Prague, praying for his return. Others came back, too. Like skeletons they were. Some women were even pregnant. One friend, from childhood, said she wanted to go to America. Somehow, she found a way, to get a job as a maid. But she couldn’t take her baby. So, I watched her for a few years, until her mama came back. We called her Violet, because of her eyes. She had dark hair, like yours. Now that I think about it, she had a brace to help her walk. Vie hated to wear it but I forced her, even through her tears. And now, look at her. Living in New York with her husband, an American. Her children go to the university!
“Then, when everyone told me to move on, my husband came back as if from the dead. He was sent to the Eastern front for slave labour, but God saw him return to me and then blessed us with two children. He died just before you were born. He was only 61 but I bless every year we had together, stolen from the Angel of Death.”
Twenty years we lived in this country. When my kids were little, we smuggled them across the border into Austria before making our way here. We drugged them, so they wouldn’t cry when we snuck across. My son was your age and for a while he wouldn’t make up. I worried we drugged him too much. Mein Gott, the scare I had, wondering if I pushed my luck too far, if God had other plans.
“In Toronto, I raised other children. Nieces, nephews. Somehow, we managed. My husband loved a full house, even if we didn’t have a lot to offer. I sometimes wonder what he would have made of this mess, had he lived. He had the voice of a tsaddik, a holy man, and everyone listened to him.
My son says she is created in God’s image and he’s right. But he’s not here, is he? No one is anymore. It was just my sister and I taking turns, but now, who knows? I’m an old lady. An old lady. It’s not only my legs, but also my heart. It beats but reluctantly. I’ve felt too much in my life and used it up. How could I care for this child? I rocked her back and forth and felt her breathe on my arm.
“From Heaven you were sent to me, like a present.”
The nurse returned and eyed me suspiciously again as I rested on the cot, this tiny child in my arms. She carefully pulled her up. Tick Tock didn’t stir. Children under stress, I remember, rarely do. They sleep like death.
The nurse peeked into her diaper and nodded her head.
“Good,” she said.
I struggled to stand. By this time in the day the swelling in my legs became overwhelming. I hoped I could find a taxi in front of the hospital to take me home.
I motioned for the nurse to wait while I pulled the tin of cake from my purse. My mother used to bake the cake on holidays, and it was one of my sister’s only memories. ‘You can’t be sad and eat cake at the same time,’ my mother once told me and I repeated it to my sister, when I baked it for her, telling her how the eggs will make her strong and the chocolate will lift her spirit. Then I baked it for my own children and for hers, telling them the same line, and now if Tick Tock could only eat a little bit of it, I feel, maybe, just maybe, a miracle …
“Cake. For the baby. I make. It’s good for baby.”
The nurse tilted her head in disbelief.
“The baby doesn’t need cake. The baby needs to go home. If you want to do something good for this child, take her home. Otherwise, don’t come back.”
The nurse could have spoken any language, German, Italian, Gypsy. I would have understood every word. I collected my bag and nodded in agreement. I tried to avoid looking at the baby as I left. We would meet again, I thought. Soon enough. In Olam Habah, God willing. The next world.
As I stepped out of the room, I heard a piercing scream coming from the cot. I squeezed my eyes shut, keeping in the tears. I lived through worse, I reminded myself. I lived through worse. I invoke my mom, cutting her cake in the kitchen, and Bayla feeding me with her fingers, saying “open up wide, little mommy,” but the scream broke my dream. It followed me down the hallway, into the elevator. I swear I heard it as I entered the taxi and carefully enunciated every word of my address.