In the mirror, my reflection
is so fetching
I can barely recognize myself.
But my mother is still not satisfied


Once, when we still lived in Budapest, before the Revolution, I asked Shoshanna how a baby gets inside her mother's tummy. Shoshanna was leaning over the kitchen table, which had been covered with a crisp white sheet. She was tugging paper-thin dough closer and closer towards her. A small tear formed in the parchment-like piece near the edge of the table. Shoshanna jerked her head back abruptly in annoyance. There was a smudge of flour on her cheek, ruddy from the heat of the oven or perhaps from emotion.

"Don't ask me about this," she said. "When you're old enough, I will tell you all you need to know about this."

The next day it rained, so Shoshanna sang me her rainy-day song. The song was from a musical version of Cinderella in which she had starred when she was twelve. It started out. "Oh, cream cakes are just so delicious."

A line in this song made tears trickle down my face each time Shoshanna sang
it in her heart-rending soprano. The little
girl in the song mourns the cream cakes she can't have because she has no Anyu and Apu to buy them for her. What a
very terrible thing it must be, to have no Mummy and Daddy to get you a cream puff when you so long for one.

Shoshanna was an orphan and so was Gusti, if you thought about it carefully, though they were not child orphans and Gusti was quite ancient to be thought of like that because soon he would be fifty. They had met in an orphanage. He had been forty-two and Shoshanna twenty-seven. Perhaps they didn't consider themselves actual orphans, only as having been orphaned.

How they had met was like this. Shoshanna told me about it after she had finished the rainy-day song and had begun to comb my hair for the third time that morning. Right after the liberation, she and her sister Lilli had come back from the camps together, to the small Hungarian town where they had been born. But it was so terrible in their house which had been stripped of all its furniture with the sole exception of their sister Ilushka's piano with Ilushka's portrait above it, that they had left this town forever. They took the painting with them, and travelled all the way to Budapest.

Shoshanna was able to get a job in an orphanage since she had been a teacher before the war. Lilli left the country and, after a time, ended up far away in Canada.

One morning when Shoshanna was pouring kerosene on the heads of the orphans to get rid of the lice, Gusti came looking for her. He had a message for her from her brother-in-law who lived in the country in the very same village where Gusti was an important man.

"Your brother-in-law has learned that you are here in Budapest working in an orphanage," Gusti had said to Shoshanna as he watched her emptying a keg of kerosene onto the head of a small boy. "How can he sleep nights knowing his brother's widow has to work among strangers when he and his wife have a roof they can share with you?"

And so, after a little while, arrangements were made and Shoshanna left the orphanage with Gusti and they travelled by truck to the village where her brother-in-Iaw and Gusti lived, and it was not long before Shoshanna and Gusti had fallen in love. And that, Shoshanna concluded briskly, putting away the brush and comb, was all I needed to know about how I got into her tummy.

When the nurses laid me in a bassinet by Shoshanna's bedside right after I was born, she couldn`t take her eyes off me. She had them leave the lights fully blazing though it was midnight. so she could feast her eyes on me. She wasn't disturbing anyone else. it was a private room in a private clinic - it was before everything was nationalized. Gusti still had money.

In the moming he brought her tea roses. Roses in November. The card read in his beautiful script, "Few flowers, much love." Then he slipped the heavy ring with her initials on it on her ring finger, where a wedding ring once used to be. He kissed her finger, then her mouth. He lifted me from the bassinet and started to cry. “To think,” he said, “to think I could have a child again.”

Shoshanna and Gusti kept a diary of my every ingestion. They laid me on the scales before and after each nursing, subtracted the difference, and entered it in a ledger. “2.80 kilos at birth,” wrote Gusti neatly in pencil; 2.70 kilos ten days later when they took me home. Net weight at the end of the month: 2.91 kilos. On this day Shoshanna inscribed in her slapdash scrawl, “ l /4 grated apple + 5 mocha spoonful lightly sugared orange juice once a day.”

Blanka néni, my paediatrician, paid us our first house call. Shoshanna unbound me for her from the polya on the dining-room table and removed my tiny undershirt and diaper.

"Her leg are bowed," Shoshanna said.

"Nonsense," retorted Blanka néni, "all babies have bow leg. It's the way the fetus folds itself up in the womb. Actually," Blanka néni took her eyes off me and fixed them on Shoshanna suggestively, "actually she has the shapeliest thighs l've ever seen on a baby girl."

"I'm not talking about her thighs, " argued Shoshanna who never ceded a point easily, "but her calves. They are so, too, bowed, Blanka néni."

They stood over me, these two women, discussing my baby legs. Shoshanna had the most beautiful legs in the world: long and firm calves, patrician ankles. Gusti called them the legs of a gazelle. In Auschwitz where Blanka néni and Shoshanna had first met, Shoshanna had taken first prize in a beauty contest. It wasn't a formal contest, just something the girls had invented to pass the time. There they were, herded together in a cavernous hall with their bald heads and not a stitch of clothing among about a hundred of them. It was not so long after they first arrived, so they still had shapes. And they awarded each other "prizes" for best shoulders, best breasts, best buttocks. Shoshanna took the prize for best leg. Blanka néni and her special friend Vera, another doctor, had been the judges.

Blanka néni is stout and lumpish. She wears mannish suits of tweed worsted. Her chin-length hair seems shellacked in place; she wears it pushed back behind fleshy, large-lobed ears. Though she is as Jewish as Shoshanna and Lilli, the Canadian aunt whom I don't know, in the camps >Blanka néni had power and privileges on account of being a doctor. Nothing clear cut, of course. To exercise them she had had to take risks.

Once, in the dinner line, Lilli didn't take the bowl of soup that should have fallen her due. The soup had nothing in it, not even the carrot chunk that ought to have floated in its scummy broth. Lilli held back her hand and reached instead for the bowl next in line. A guard plucked her out of the queue and beat her raw.

"Raw," Shoshanna says, "her buttocks were raw."

Shoshanna dragged Lilli off to show her buttocks to Blanka néni. Blanka néni applied salve to them wordlessly. But afterwards it was whispered that Blanka néni had let loose a torrent of invective at the camp commandant. The camp commandant himself. And would you believe, the commandant sent for the guard, chewed him out in front of Blanka néni, and transferred him to another detail?

But it could just as easily have gone the other way, Shoshanna says. Blanka néni had been lucky. She had risked her life over Lilli's buttocks.

Shoshanna looks up from her sewing. She is embroidering a smocked dress that Lilli has sent me from Montreal. "Blanka néni loved women, you know, but she was just a plain good friend to me and Lilli," she says. "That's why she is your doctor now."

Blanka néni carries a doctor bag of dark leather fastened with a metal clasp. The tools of invasion originate in this bag. Shosharma dips stubby round-tipped suppositories in vaseline before inserting them in me with infinite care. The enema bag of rust-coloured rubber has a long tube and a black nozzle that Shoshanna also dips in vaseline. Warm water courses in my insides, fills me, fills me to bursting, as the nozzle is slowly withdrawn. Gusti rushes me in his arms to the toilet down the hall.

Shoshanna bends over me, untying the rags around which my hair is tautly wound. "I hope I can disguise the bald spot," she murmurs as she combs out my hair. In the mirror, my reflection is so fetching I can barely recognize myself. Fluffy curls frame my chubby face, but Shoshanna is still not satisfied. She heats a curling iron on the stove till it's red hot. She wets the ends of my hair slightly so they sizzle at the iron's touch.

Shoshanna parts my hair at the centre and ties silk ribbons on either side of the part. She dresses me in the white smocked dress that Lilli has sent from Montreal, takes out brand-new knee socks, and laces up my freshly polished two-tone boots.

At the studio, the photographer asks Shoshanna to remove my dress and undershirt. He is a young man who makes funny faces at me and when I don't laugh takes a feather duster and touches it to my bare shoulder. That photograph will depict me with an adorable dimple, my tongue between my teeth, head screwed coquettishly around my shoulder. In the other photograph that Shoshanna sends to Lilli I'm wearing the white dress hoisted high to show my panties. My legs are crossed and a large picture book rests on my knees. I gaze at the page, serious and absorbed.

"The photographer posed her so as to disguise the extent to which her leg are bowed, " Shoshanna writes to Lilli. Her letters catalogue my many illnesses, in respites between which Shoshanna drags me to orthopaedic specialists who, though they find no fault with the shape of my legs, have diagnosed flat feet for which the treatment is customized arch supports. I sit with my feet in wet clay, ribbons of gauze wound up to my knees. Plaster moulds are taken, exercises prescribed. All this and more Shoshanna writes to Lilli who, when she finally meets me in person, will clutch me to her heart, smother me with kisses, then hold me at arm's length, her face wreathed in joyous smiles. "Ilushka, my precious," Lilli will say, "You're not a cripple after all.

I lie on the sofa for my afternoon nap. right thumb in mouth, a bunch of soft hair with which I caress my upper lip twirled around my index finger. My left hand slides surreptitiously down the back of the sofa and surfaces with more precious treasure - a secreted hairball which I transfer to my right fist. The rough canvas back of the sofa is upholstered with many additional tufts of hair.

Shoshanna threatens to have my hair shaved if I don't stop pulling it out by the handful.

I glower and say nothing. I'm not conscious of the acquisition of new hair balls. When the booty behind the sofa loses it delicious softness, I somehow obtain a fresh supply. It never hurts. Never.

Above my head the sheep are grazing beneath the benevolent eye of the mustachioed shepherd holding his staff in the landscape on the wall. On the opposite wall, a portrait of Mancika néni, Gusti's first wife, holding Évike, her baby, on her lap. I close my eyes and twirl the hair ball beneath my nose.

When I wake up, I go downstairs to play, first asking Shoshanna to lift me up so I can reach the mezuzah on the front doorpost, as Gusti has shown me to. Shoshanna obliges but without enthusiasm.

Downstairs, my friends are sweaty and hoarse from running around. I tag along as they head for church, a favourite hangout for catching your breath. The boys in the group doff their caps in the vaulted doorway. Following their example I shuck off my kerchief. I dab droplets of holy water from the font onto my forehead like the others and inhale the sweetish scent of mystery compounded of old wood and incense and must. In the chapel I cross myself and kneel. I feast my eyes on the play of sun on the stained glass. The blood-flecked statues and straining, sinewy Christ both repel and fascinate me.

Back upstairs Shoshanna confronts me at the front door. "I watched you from the window, missy. Since when does one kiss the mezuzah and then head for church?"

"I can't believe it," Shoshanna says, as she prepares supper and tempts me with sugared tomato slices. "I can't believe that the namesake of my sister Ilushka would go into church after kissing the mezuzah."

"Your Aunt Ilushka was a remarkable woman," she continues, slicing off small pieces of kolbász and placing them almost out of my reach to whet my appetite. She smiles to herself as I reach for a piece, thinking I don't notice her ploy.

Aunt Ilushka's portrait hangs out in the hall where we eat our meals when Gusti is away on business. Shoshanna continues her monologue below Ilushka's portrait during supper. "Of all my sisters, Ilushka was the most beautiful. I had a reputation for being a beauty, too, but I didn't even come close to her. Her hair was gold and her eyes green as a cat's. The artist really hasn't caught the refinement of her features, nor the flawless quality of her skin."

The original Ilushka was statuesque and large boned. Shoshanna says she was always dieting to keep her svelte figure. She lived largely on apples. Little green apples overflowed her bureau drawers and sewing baskets when she still shared a room with Shoshanna and Lilli. In the old days.

Shoshanna tells me how religious the original Ilushka was, how, after her marriage, the Rabbi sent yeshiva students to her house to eat, a privilege reserved only for the most pious families in town. I slurp my cocoa noisily and punch holes in my bread with my finger till Shoshanna notices and gets mad at me for playing with food.

When I come down with whooping cough, the city lies under a thick pile of snow. Blanka néni nonetheless upholds the view that fresh air is the only treatment for whooping cough. So, despite the bitter January cold, Shoshanna and I act like summer day-trippers. We climb Gellért Hill all the way to the peak. We go to the Zoo. We visit Margit Island.

On the island we follow the most exposed paths along the shoreline, for Blanka néni has decreed that wind in particular is beneficial for whooping cough. When I cough, the cold air enters my lungs with the sure thrust of a blade. Shoshanna stops at a small promontory, and tries to distract me from a bout of wheezing by pointing to a spot in the distance, a bay in the slate-coloured Danube. She says the orphanage used to be located there, the orphanage where she first met Gusti.

Absently she says, "If my parents had lived, I would have waited."

"Waited for what?" I gasp.

"Waited longer to see if Márton would come back."

"Who's Márton?"

"No-one .... I just wouldn't have taken up in such haste with your father. If my parents had lived."

"Why not?"

Shoshanna doesn't answer, doesn't tell me then of that other man, the one whose widow she thought she was when she fell in love with my father. No, she says nothing of that husband who came back from a Russian prison a few months after I was born. It won't be until I'm in my teens, as the two of us fold laundry in a suburban Canadian bedroom, a sheet pulled taut between us, that she'lI hiss, it now seems to me out of the blue, "You decided for me. The fact I got pregnant with you! That's why I didn't go back to Marton, though he still wanted me. Because you were Gusti's child, not his."

I rack my brains now trying to remember what prompted this outburst of hers. I heard it then as a piercing accusation. Still, it may have been a lament.

But way back, way way back, when we stood together on Margit Island, she didn't tell me about how I came to be born, but about how the orphans gave her her name. My mother's real name is Anna, but since that day on the island I have always thought of her as Shoshanna. That's what the orphans called her. The orphans whose hair was thick with lice. The orphans who sobbed in the night and whom she comforted. They thought the name Shoshanna suited her because of her dark hair and her dream of going to Palestine. Shoshanna was a fitting name for a pioneer. That's what she would have become if she hadn't met Gusti. She'd have gone to build a new country with her orphans.

I often dream these days of that scene on the island, of the weak sun glinting on the wave-puckered river, of the howling of the wind. Shoshanna's shoulders slump a bit, but her black hair under a jaunty red beret billows defiantly behind her. Snatches of her words swirl around me as, dressed in my woolly coat and pompommed hat, I struggle for breath. We stand together hand in hand, my mother and I. Once more I feel my fingers in their fuzzy mittens stretch to enclose her larger hand and squeeze it tight.


This essay was published in

May 1998


1998 - Canadian Literary Award for non-fiction
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