Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Survivor - Euphemism

Bare with me, in the following piece, written in 1999 I allowed myself a long warming up (or barfing as Morris Berman taught us in his U.W. non-fiction workshop) to get to the point. And that's the point I want to make here in 2014, how big a struggle it was, has been and still is (more barfing) to come forward with my own stories. In the fifteen years that have passed, I've moved ahead, I've made progress, I've written my stories, but I'm not "out" yet. 
Adonai, Why? - Jaap van Praag 1955

Thanksgiving - 1999 - Euphemism 

Oblivious to the holiday frenzy, even after years of living in the United States, I traveled to New York City and back to Hartford, Connecticut on the day before Thanksgiving. The Amtrak train rolled into Penn Station with only forty minutes delay, leaving me with half an hour to get to my doctor’s office in Chelsea. Plenty of time to pop in at a drugstore to buy a Christmas gift for my father-in-law. 

Gary’s idea was to present his dad with a pair of good sunglasses, but since his mother had set the limit to twenty-five bucks (for us including postage) I offered to use my thrifty sensibility in finding something fun and useful. I left the store with foot care products for the man in the Lazy-Boy. Translate that household name in any other language and the guy in question would think twice before giving his weight to the backrest, lifting his legs off the ground, to take a leave of absence from the world. English, if not every living language is plentiful with euphemisms. Take "Play Footsie", foot powder promising a playful future for smelly feet, a lotion dubbed "Sole Soother", or a scrub that claims to be "Good for the Sole". 

According to the dictionary, a euphemism is a word or phrase that is less expressive or direct but considered less distasteful, less offensive than another. I say I went to see my doctor instead of shrink, or even psychiatrist. 

On my way back to Hartford I tell the man in the seat next to mine, someone I get vaguely acquainted with during the two hour delay of the evening rush, that yes, I went to the city for my work. "I’m a writer and kind of stuck," I explained. Would he have been the wiser if I had told him I’m a writer and I keep on telling other people’s stories while aching to tell my own?

Yesterday I spent hours on a letter of regret for the man who was coaxed into leaving his comfortable job and home in the Pacific Northwest for a job in the Northeast, which turned out not to be what he’d been made to expect. 

I can take on the voice of the oppressed, the sad and sorry; I write inspired speeches for group leaders, caring letters for adult children to their aging parents, texts for birthday cards and slogans for the local day-care center, but when I talk about myself, words leave my lips, go in one ear and come out the other. 

I read fictional and non-fictional accounts of troubled people, crying my eyes red and sore. I relate to the hardships of abused children and mixed-up adults and still I cannot accept my own fate. 

I tell myself I should not read the books that make me cry. I vow I’ll never move again, for each time I move the lack of a support group, friends and familiar neighborhoods makes me turn to the earliest solace I knew, books. 

Back at the library I read. Stories about people, stories that make me cry, stories that make me believe there’s a beginning, a middle and an end to each tale. Stories about heroes and heroines who learn from their mistakes, or not. 

I continue writing for others, their letters, their outlines, analysis of the stories they write and hope to enter in a contest, but my personal writing is stuck. 

I wonder about writing fiction or non-fiction and immediately tell myself I have no imagination, so fiction is out. And I really want to write my own story as non-fiction, but something holds me back. I don’t know whether I’m paralyzed by shame or fear.

My brain runs onto a dead-end track when I think of the plot lines of my life.

The urge to generalize is strong as a runaway locomotive. Overpowering, hard and cold as steel yet hot with the passion of fire that feeds the engine. I’m afraid to get burned, afraid to be run over, afraid to be shred to pieces, afraid to be left by the side of the track, unrecognizable, a Jane Doe, a Holocaust survivor without a tattooed number on my arm. 

Years ago I was qualified (what a term), as a second generation Holocaust VICTIM. That was in the beginning, while I still lived in The Netherlands. In Europe we were called victims. Then the term survivors came across the ocean, from the United States. 

Survivor, a euphemism for one who was not gassed, burned, nullified, but perhaps just left for dead, or  persecuted. The word victim, as those who knew best proclaimed, would further the victimization and therefore members of the surviving generations had to be called survivors.

Once a week I get on the Amtrak train in Hartford, Connecticut for a three hour ride that will take me to New York City where I visit the office of my doctor. I do so because I do not know what is keeping me … From what? 

In order to find out, I have to go back in time. Back to before Jake made me promise I would never forget his story, the story of our family and our people. Back to before I was born. Back to the time when I was a mere thought on my father's mind.

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This work by by Judith van Praag is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.