The last time I saw you, you were so frail and pained. Heartbroken. Weak and weary from a lifetime of struggling, your body was too worn out, too tired, to keep fighting the good fight. I curled up beside you in your bed, cradling you just as you have always done for me since I was born. The two of us are lying there in almost silence as I gently stroke your withered and wrinkled cheek, still so smooth to the touch. The only sound breaking the blanket of stillness embracing us were the soft echoes of slightly buzzed laughter from your legacy, drifting down the hallway and through your open bedroom door….
Her bedroom door was always left open. Never would she shut it. Not to sleep, pray, or get dressed. If she didn’t want company to see her change, she would use the bathroom; it was the only room of her house where she ever shut the door. You see, my grandmother was a survivor of the Holocaust. As a young girl, she witnessed more trauma and atrocity than any human ever should in an entire lifetime. And she endured even more. Her right eye was permanently blind from the damage caused by “scientific experimentation” because her hazel eyes appeared to be, inexplicably, two different shades of color- one blue and one gray. Her growth was stunted from malnutrition, her fingers and toes slightly gnarled from the resulting calcium-deficiency. She was in line for the gas chamber when a miracle took place and the gas lines burst, saving her from her turn at death. My grandmother’s innocence was stolen. I wouldn’t want to leave any doors shut if I was living with nightmares of the past in my head, either.
Growing up, my grandmother represented everything I thought a woman should be. Classy, intelligent, maternal, loyal, strong, sensitive, beautiful, loving- she encompassed them all. Every morning she would brew her coffee, pour herself a cup, and sit down at her kitchen table with her cigarettes, makeup, and curling iron. The next hour was spent sipping from her cup, setting her hair, and putting on her face. I’ll never forget the way her lipstick was always worn down by the shape of her lips, the sharp angles of its original shape flattened to a nub…somehow it even was when I knew the lipstick was still quite new. This fact was so fascinating to me, and still is, long after I have grown up. My grandmother belonged to the era of ladies who wore as lipstick religiously as they attended church, reapplying as often as necessary to maintain its flawless perfection.
Whenever I was in need of a safe harbor to escape to, my grandmother was the only person I would go to. Like so many others had done before me. She possessed such a calm, sheltering warmth, you wanted to share your darkest fears and deepest secrets with her without hesitation. Regardless of what you told her, you knew she would never judge or be superficial; she was the most genuine, kind-hearted, and gentle soul. Her door was open to anyone, anytime. Even if it was her last loaf of bread, quart of milk, or sleeve of crackers, she was going to feed you. Providing comfort to your belly, right along with your soul, was her main prerogative in life; one I hope I will master as well as her someday. Especially, because I know I will never master her cleanliness and organizing skills. She was an amazingly adept and hard-working woman. I still envy her motivational drive to this day and wonder where the fuel which kept her heart fire burning so strong came from, when so much in her life proved to be stifling, traumatic, and oppressive.
When I was in my teens- brimming with bitter angst, unfocused passion, and general repugnance for anyone taking an authoritative stance, I wound up moving in with my grandmother. She welcomed me with heart-warming hugs, a firm understanding of the situation, and the personal space I needed to test my wings on my own. Her only rules: be respectful of her and my grandfather’s routines and way of living and to always let her know if I was expected home before she locked up at 1 am. Any later, I would have to wait until my grandfather woke up at dawn to get in, because I was too never wake them for such nonsense. At the time, I thought she was too afraid I would run if she had tried to “mother” me while I was living with her by strictly enforcing more age-appropriate rules for a seventeen year old girl, but I know better now. My grandmother gave me exactly what I hadn’t had before, what every kid needs to have with their parents to feel connected: trust and respect. She knew me so well and used my own personality traits to keep me in line unknowingly, while giving me the room to grow wild and free. A chatterbox by nature, she knew I would tell her what was going on in my life on my own accord. Without pressure. Or expectation. A soft-hearted and sensitive soul like myself also would feel guilty displacing, disrespecting, or disappointing my grandparents in any way. So she tricked me into behaving like a respectful young lady by laying out a few simple rules which played on my natural characteristics. Smart, smart woman; I told you so.
My grandmother was such a powerful influence on my life. It took until I lived with her as a teenager and was studying the Holocaust again in my Western European History class to find out she was a survivor. Her nightmare had been tucked away somewhere deep inside herself away from sight all this time. She never even told the whole story to her own children; my mother and two aunts only heard enough to answer their inquiries as they learned about the events in History lessons. The lady I knew so well as a child, admired so deeply for her womanly perfection, never showed even three slightest glimmer of a glimpse of the evil she had once known. She had once lived in. Evil which had not only scarred her severely, but had robbed her of her innocence, as well. Her love was so great, so powerful and mighty it was able to bury the hate which should’ve filled her after witnessing such nefarious barbarities before her life even had much of a chance to begin.
If she could find happiness after spending her childhood in a real life Hell on Earth, than I have no excuses why I can’t find happiness in my own life. And I never have made any. Life has been tough for me, in non-quintessential terms, and I have never had a moment in time where I wasn’t struggling with something. The short end of the stick, deck stacked against me, losing end of the deal…whatever you wanna call it, there is a curse of bad luck with its dark cloud of depression which follows me everywhere in life. Yet, I never stop smiling. I never give up. I always look for the ray on sunshine and beam of light making the dark seem so bright again. But like her bedroom door, if you know where to look, you’ll see the signs that, maybe, underneath the endless amounts of giving and tireless acts of love, I’m just a little broken inside. But it’s what’s broken which feeds the fire and overpowers the bad with good.
I wish I had told my grandmother all of this when she was here. She made me the woman, the mother, and the survivor I am today. My children did not have enough time to know the magic of their grandmother’s tender touch, delicious food, and grounding presence. They will never know how insightful and wise she was, how her presence could command respect without ever speaking in a voice above a loud whisper. How she made you want to do good and be a better you without scolding, nagging, or lecturing. How inviting her house was- the only one I’ve ever felt truly home in, in my entire lifetime. I wish I could have laid there with my grandmother for all of time, absorbing everything I still had yet to learn from her. I wanted to smell her in my soul, feel her in my heart, and see every moment we shared from the time she held me when I was born until this very moment now, thirty years later. I was her belated birthday gift, you know. I came just two weeks late, but as you know, I am still late for everything to this very day. (Late for preschool pickup right now!)
Since she’s been gone, I find it hard to shut doors around myself. I can only imagine the terror she must have felt alone in the dark, even with her husband beside her. I carry her nightmares with me now, because we should never forget such pain and suffering to humanity as those of the Holocaust endured. It seems as though, today, the people of the world have begun to forget. Genocide, racism, evil, and hate still very much present in our world, the most recent attacks on Kenya, Beirut, and Paris confirming as much. How can we forget so easily? I know I can’t, because what my grandmother did with the rest of her life after such tragedy is remarkably amazing. To live so selflessly and humbly while countlessly taking care of those who couldn’t take care of themselves and bringing smiles and laughter into the lives of everyone she happened upon is just the truest show of courage and strength I have ever seen.
This woman was my grandmother. My hero. My angel. My rock. My biggest fan. My everything. Without her, I wouldn’t be where I am now. Without her, I wouldn’t be strong. Without her, I wouldn’t be a survivor. I can feel myself lying with her in her bedroom every time I close my eyes and I can’t help but think, even for everything cursed in my life, I couldn’t have been anymore blessed…to be her granddaughter.
In Loving Memory of Pauline Kustra.
By: Kristina Hammer, aka, The Angrivated Mom
3 thoughts on “The Survivor Who Saved Me From Myself”
What a loving tribute. She sounds like a remarkable woman.
What a beautiful, heartbreaking story.