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An Unmodern Love photo

I do not want modern love.

I want a historic, enduring, relentless love. The quiet pulse of a lifetime of boring moments, building into a fire of endurance and commitment. Even if that sounds like that’s ancient love.

I want the love of Stanley and Dora, the Holocaust survivors who raised me.

Their love is captured forever in a black and white photo on my desk.  It immortalizes a moment when Stanley left Italy by boat for the United States. To do that, he had to say goodbye to Dora, not knowing if they would ever reunite. He had already lost, as had she, all those they loved in brutal circumstances. To walk away from love again, to risk forging a new life for both, after these losses was brave, poignant, and seemingly impossible.  But they were still young and somehow found love again in Italy.  And they mustered hope to chase opportunity risking losing each other all over again.  In the photo on my desk, before he got on the boat nearby, he looks at her while brushing her hair from her face with a tenderness that simply makes my heart swoon.

After, while on his journey to America by boat, he continued to use the camera he had taken off a dead Nazi to take photos documenting the long trip. After landing in the States, my Stanley created a book of photos for my mother Dora, narrating his experience. He did not have the money to mail it, or as they said then, to post it to her. Once reunited he gifted it to her, evidence that she was always with him, even when they were apart.

I love to finger the black construction pages on which he glued the black and white photos of the vast ocean he had crossed, then captioned them in white ink, simply stating “water, water”.  A simple photo of the Statute of Liberty, the polestar for the final freedom of a country they both so appreciated the promise of.  The documentation of his moments away from her are such a testament to sharing everything with he, not willing to leave anyone he loved behind ever again.

Once he set his feet down on US soil, he found her a scholarship to pursue her chemistry degree, education being her highest value after Nazis robbed her of schooling, as Stanley knew she would never come to America if such opportunity did not exist.  And then he rubbed his few pennies together to make the prohibitive long-distance call to propose.  Their love crossed continents against all odds, and remained sturdy against distance, time and poverty.

As a child, their form of love, their formality did not look to me like the love I saw on television on The Love Boat, or The Dating Game or I Love Lucy,  shows of the 60s filled with silly, effusive, gooey love.  But Dora taught me many secrets about how their quiet love could persist. She said it was humor. But I never thought my father was very funny. In fact, he was so dignified and erudite. Behind his back we children made fun of his accent and sardines or herrings he ate. Nazi occupation had stolen his youth and he was not a playful man.  Moreover, he was volatile, a familiar characteristic of Holocaust survivors who have PTSD, and have not resolved the impossible pain of their youth.

But after he would explode, perhaps both ashamed and proud, he would find her and tell her, “You can beg for my forgiveness.”  The absurdity of it would cause her to burst in laugher and break the ice, with the fight instantly evaporating. 

Of course, that explosiveness did lead to short spats, but they kept those hidden from us by speaking harshly in Polish.  I knew they might be disagreeing from the look on their faces but when she burst into laughter, I also recognized her other motto – never go to bed angry. Implicit in this credo was knowing a stark reality, that anyone could die before you repair. So never leave any stone unturned with bitter unresolved sentiments. 

With respect to his quick fuse, I asked her “how can you stand that part of him? She would remind me “Karen, you think anyone is perfect? He tolerates my faults, so, I can put up with his”. And she warned me, “There are many worse faults a man can have”. She would manage his high expectations with a hot dog.  When we wanted to escape on a spree of shopping to Loehmann’s which could last for hours with my mother, she knew to placate his need for her to service his dinner by parboiling the franks he loved, leaving them in the pot.  Somehow pork on a bun worked a magic. Simple but effective. 

After her angioplasty, I saw him sitting by her side for hours at the hospital.  When I came into the room, I saw a beautiful glow in her eyes that stunned me.  I questioned, “Mom, you look so happy.” She said “I am.  I am grateful to be alive and I had the most wonderful day with your father.” “Tell me more”.

“Well,”, she said, “we talked.  All day.  He read me an article from the New Yorker.  We talked about our children.  What we created.” She paused. “You.” I envied this companionship.  I witnessed a respect and capacity to sit through these tough moments holding hands.  This little heart surgery? Nothing compared to the Shoa.  Their shared trauma in youth was a linchpin for the 68 years of marriage they chose.  Unspoken, yet so sturdy like a keystone that could hold paper walls with a sturdy foundation that was never wobbly.  It was a secure way to grow up despite an understanding that anything at any time could be ripped apart from under your security, and your life.

My mother taught me another imperative for her long union with Stanley: sacrifice.  When he worked late, she waited to share dinner but when he unexpectedly brought home a work colleague to eat after working late into the night, she offered up her piece of meat never saying a word about going to be hungry.  This was not real hunger to someone who starved for 2 years in a barn hiding from Nazis.  Now, she could boil a potato and eat in the kitchen quietly.  This kitchen stocked with any food at all was freedom, in fact, luxury to her. Her dinner was but a miniature contribution for her husband, who worked for the family to pay for the food. Sacrifice perfectly holds hand with appreciation, one of the other values they shared.

Stanley adored Dora and found her beautiful – or so he said all the time.  He would not even acknowledge any famous movie stars’ beauty in our presence, out of what I suppose was loyalty or respect.  His mother had very long hair.   The last time he saw his mother he was only 17, and he watched after she hid him in the rafters of his home while the Nazis took her and his siblings away to their deaths. Dora never cut her hair, growing it long the way he liked. 

Stanley was an incredible artist, photographing and painting her, his Dora, his movie star, his beauty, again and again. In every painting and photograph, he captured Dora’s intense direct look of love, her passion for hats and fashion, and her thick black ponytail.  To paint someone is to really examine and see them, and to capture their image in immortality.  Something he longed to do for anyone he loved despite the impossibility of such a lofty goal.  Every painting keeps his vision of her, and his adoration of her everlasting. 

I never saw them kiss or hold hands except a photo I saw of them in their 90s walking together in Costco taken by a caregiver.  But somehow, we were conceived.  Now I recall when they closed their bedroom door claiming to take a nap and strictly forbade us to knock. How clever as I know only too well that the tap tap of my children on my door is a big fat sex buzz kill. Later in life my mother in her late 80s came to me with another special marital secrets and advice.  “Karen I must talk to you” she said with the most serious face I ever saw. I was terrified she was going to announce a terminal illness. “Listen, this is very important” she said in her heavy Russian accent reaching to hold my hand with her freckled crepey skin.  “Mom, are you okay?”  “Yes yes,” she waved her hand.  Then held mine again tightly, more persistent. “Listen to me”.  She paused.  “You must have sex.  A lot of it with your husband.  It does not matter if you like it. Turn off the lights. Pretend if you have to.  Do it.  All the time”. 

When she started to lose her capacity to Alzheimer’s, a woman who spoke eight languages and could converse with him daily about almost anything with vibrancy, he claimed that this was like the Holocaust all over again for him. As he lay dying in the hospital, and we brought her from her nursing home to say goodbye, we were stunned when she asked us “how is that guy?”  Did she forget who he was?  Or was she simply unable to articulate after multiple strokes? 

Before she declined, she once told me “I have had the best life.  I am tired but I love you and your brothers and I dearly love your father. I have had a great life and I am good.”  It was special gift to know she was happy and had loved us all deeply – the best gift a parent can give a child. 

After their deaths I emptied his wallet where I discovered the only photo I had ever seen of his deceased family.  I also found love notes between them in short messages, left on the back of the tiny cards attached to flower arrangements he yearly gave her. On one such card dated on their anniversary in 1985, he wrote “I love you”.  She wrote back on the back “ I love you too, dearest. I am so happy you came into my life and am so very grateful for all the wonderful years we had together. I wish for many, many more!”

Their choice to love each other for 68 years reminds me of the quote of Antoine St. Exupery, who passed some 80 years ago: “Love does not consist in gazing at each other, but in looking outward together in the same direction”.

No, I do not want any kind of modern love, with all its entitlements, its open doors swinging as former lovers walk away, and all its new theories on gender roles and demands. Relationships that allow one foot to be inside the open door and one out considering a newer shiny model, all illusions, and delusions to me.

I want to look together outward with such gratitude in the same direction.

I want the old-fashioned love, that is built on choices: to stay every day, to fall in love again and again – the choices people talk about in their vows, but sometimes slowly start to forget as the rust takes the shine off the sparkle. I want a historic, enduring, relentless love.

I want to say, as one of us closes our eyes for the last time, “I am tired, but I love you. And I have had the best life.”