Last night, Will & I watched Aziz Ansari's new Netflix special Live at Madison Square Garden and he talked about what it was it was like to be the child of immigrant parents. At the end, he brought his parents onstage and they watched as the crowd gave their son a standing ovation.
My mother was born in a refugee camp in Germany on the other side of World War 2. Her parents and her sister and her grandmother had left Russia on foot, but made a slight detour into a concentration camp thanks to the Nazis. It's part of the reason why I'm convinced I never went to summer camp. We don't do well at camp.
There are stories they used to tell when my grandparents were still alive, about being taken out in the middle of the night and stripped naked and hosed down. They would huddle around the children to try to protect them from the freezing water.
The camp was liberated, but with nowhere to go they soon became refugee camps. My grandfather used to collect bits of parachute silk and bring them to my grandmother to make clothes, which he would barter for extra food (and alcohol.) My grandmother gave birth to a pair of twin boys who did not make it, as it turns out that refugee camps aren't the ideal place to give birth. My mother was born a little while later. She was too stubborn to die.
My grandfather taught her to recite poetry and dance, and while he would collect and sell the silk, my mother would accompany him like an organ grinder's monkey. People were always willing to throw in a little extra milk or bread (or alcohol) for the show.
My grandparents ended up like a lot of other people's grandparents, in Florida by the way of Chicago. My baba would sit at her kitchen table which was littered with smoked fish (heads still on) and pierogi and kasha for breakfast as she'd watch her favorite show, Sanford and Son. She never spoke much English, but she laughed along anyway.
I spent summers there, my thighs sticking to the plastic-covered sofa, wondering what it was like to go from watching you people die to watching Fred Sanford grabbing his chest and declaring "you hear that Elizabeth? I'm comin' to join you, honey!"
My mother doesn't have an official birth certificate. It turns out that along with substandard medical care, refugee camps aren't great when it comes to record-keeping, either. But she does has her UNICEF cup and plate, which still sits in the cupboard of my childhood home in Glen Ellyn. They're the only things I've asked for when time marches us to our inevitable fate.
While other kids were brought up with the boogeyman, I was reminded that the Nazis could come get you in the middle of the night. One of my friends complained that the hallways of her NYC fifth-floor walkup smelled like cabbage. To me that smells like home.
My writing career has had innumerable starts and stops in the past 18 months. Projects that have seemed inevitable have disintegrated before my eyes, while others have dropped in my lap like a gift from the gods. I haven't played Madison Square Garden, but I've had some success. And on the days where it seems impossible I remind myself that my baba saw my name on TV. Right next to Sanford & Son.