Rebecca Wong | Longreads | May 2019 | 8 minutes (2,187 words)
As a relationship therapist, I know a lot about love, loss, repair, endurance, and growth. Of course, I was trained for this. But the greatest lessons I’ve ever learned came from my grandparents, who taught me nearly everything there is to know about these things.
That is, until one evening three years ago that left me to question everything they taught me.
That night, I’m drawing a bath for my young daughters when my phone dings. As the water runs, I look and see that it’s a forwarded email from my mother, a message from one of my father’s long removed cousins — the daughter of my grandfather’s estranged brother. The email is about my grandfather’s dark side, a part of him I knew nothing about.
When I was a little girl, life with my Grandpa was full of love. I knew him to be a sweet, tender, gentle man. He and my Grandma were owners of a gourmet grocery store in Providence, Rhode Island.
The email is about my grandfather’s dark side, a part of him I knew nothing about.
I recall him lifting me, when I was 3, with his loving arms so I could sneak raspberry and blackberry candies from the wire baskets that hung overhead. Even though he helped me, it felt sneaky. He was my co-conspirator.
When I was 5, I remember asking him for the first time about the tattoo on his arm. By that time, the Providence store had been sold and my grandparents had moved to Pembroke Pines, Florida. Grandpa and I were sitting together in a flower print swivel club chair in the mirrored living room. (It was the early 80s.)
I sat on his lap, cuddled into him, and traced the green numbers, 106751, on his left forearm with my index finger, over and over, just the same as I’d located each freckle on his arm. These were his markings. I knew them by heart. What I knew more than anything was the love I felt sitting on his lap as I traced. This was my safe space.
“Grandpa,” I asked, “what do these numbers mean?”
“These numbers,” he told me — that time, and countless times to come — “are my story. And you are my reason for living.”
These were big words to land on the shoulders of a child still small and innocent enough to nestle into grandpa’s lap for a journey through the stories that followed each “why?” I so naturally provoked him with.
He told me he had so many stories in him, but that he’d promised himself not to share most of them with me. “You don’t need to know it all,” he said gently.
Over the years he opened up a bit more, in small bursts, telling me about some difficult experiences — like the time his family was separated immediately after getting off the cattle cars at Auschwitz. One of my grandfather’s brothers was carrying their invalid father, a World War I hero, followed by his mother and two sisters. When they arrived, everyone but my grandfather was sent to the left. He alone was sent to the right. He alone survived.
Later that day, he asked another prisoner when he’d see his family again. The prisoner responded by shouting to him, “Look up. You see that smoke? There they are.” And so my grandfather knew. Not even 24 hours after entering the camp, he knew what was in store for them all.
He also shared stories about liberation. My grandfather and his two buddies, whom he’d bonded and survived with in camp, went looking for a sister whom they’d heard survived at Bergen Belsen. They didn’t find her. Instead they met three women, among them my grandmother. The women were still living in the camp when they met. The men told them they’d be back when they had a place for them to live, then they’d marry them. The women laughed. Who were these guys? These three newly liberated men used their moxie and somehow managed to obtain new suits from a local shopkeeper, then came back to woo the women. Again and again. Each time in new suits. In no time the three couples married.
Girls my age had princes and princesses, but I had liberation as my love story.
Then, decades later, comes my cousin’s email. I learn from it that despite all my grandfather shared, there were many things he didn’t — things he couldn’t bear for me to know. After all, I was his reason for living. The email is about things he did to survive the war. While my girls dance around the house creating a ruckus and avoiding bath and bedtime, I read on.
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My cousin shares the reason her father and my grandfather were never able to repair their relationship. Of 12 siblings, he was one of the few who survived. She tells me her father did not talk about the concentration camp until she sat him down at age 93. It was then he told her that at one of the camps, my grandfather was a kapo — a Jewish guard working for the Nazis. He never forgave my grandfather for that. Grandpa asked him if he should have been killed instead, and his brother told him, “Yes.” In all the stories he shared, I had never heard any about my grandfather being a kapo.
I hand off my phone to my husband so he can read what I’ve just read. So he can know where my mind is whirling off to.
As I attempt to corral the girls into the bath, the little one bites me. She leaves marks on my arm. I’d like to say she never does this, but her sister nicknamed her Gator for a reason. Still, this is extreme. It hurts. I hold the bite mark. It’s right where my grandfather’s numbers were.
I’m so overwhelmed. This is not what I thought motherhood was going to be. I feel deep shame. I thought motherhood would fulfill me. But I feel like I’m failing. I feel full of my own unmet needs and defined by the needs of others. I wasn’t ready for all of this.
The blur between the girls’ actions and my inner whirling gets heavier. I’m trying to understand, “Is my daughter triggering me? Or am I triggering her?” I take a seat on the edge of my bed. The little one runs from my husband, upset with herself for biting me, and with me for not attending to her pain. She tosses herself dramatically, naked, on the bed next to me.
“Mamma!” she shouts, “when I grow up, I’m gonna live far away from you I think, ’cause you don’t hear me!”
It reminds me of the time, as a teen, when I was so angry at my grandmother, I yelled in her face, “I hate you!”
“I know mamaloshen,” she replied, “and still, I love you. I will always love you.” This moment is ingrained in the essence of who I am.
With my daughter’s words, I sink back into my body. Out of my head. This child is whirling in the mess of trying to understand it all with me, even though I haven’t spoken any words about my experience. My daughter is so much like me. Both of my daughters are. I hug her. She melts in. I have no words. Hers were plenty.
My husband puts the girls to bed that night as I think about all I’ve just learned and all that just happened. My husband and children are my reasons for living. This life we have built. This family. These relationships may be taking away all the things I thought I was, and making me into this new being full of feeling. But they are my reason.
That night I lie next to my husband with my girls tucked in their beds after a hard night, and I try to make new sense of one of my favorite love stories, passed down by my grandparents — two holocaust survivors who rebuilt their lives on The Somehow Theory. That somehow, if you believe enough, if you hope enough, it will work out. No matter how hard it is.
After reading about my grandfather I found myself asking, “Who was he? Did I know him?” Of course I did. I knew how I experienced him. He was security. Safety. He believed in me more than anyone. He was who he was to me, and he had a dark side.
I struggled to reconcile this new information with the old. How to make sense of the grandfather I knew and adored, and make space to accept and integrate this dark side? What if I couldn’t? Three years after my cousin’s email, I’m still processing, still making meaning.
What I understand today is that this kapo story is just a snippet of information about a person I experienced very differently. What’s more, it’s hearsay. He’s not here to explain, and I’m not sure it matters. What does matter to me is what’s been brought to light — the penumbra — the realization that we all have dark sides. We all have shadows, shame, and secrets. And those stories are parts of us, but not all of us. How we reckon with them, what we do with them, is what makes up who we are.
I have a dark side; you do too. I can suck at communication. Especially after holding deep, dark intimate space with clients, I can be guarded, brief, and distracted — absorbed with containing and replenishing my energies within myself and my family. At times, I come off as harsh or abrupt. My lack of tending is often about learning my limits, it’s such an imperfect science.
Perhaps what I know of my grandfather’s dark side can teach me more about myself. There are also parts of me that I find difficult to accept. I wonder how not accepting them holds me back and keep me stuck? When I accept my difficult parts I make space to move from surviving to thriving. Maybe my grandfather was working on accepting his difficult parts too. Maybe I never heard about them because of the shame he carried.
I know this intimately as a therapist, and yet I’m not so gentle with myself in my own inner dialogue. I can be harsh when reflecting on the darker sides of myself. It’s a much bigger struggle for me to find compassion and forgiveness for my own shadow than for grandfather’s, or anyone else’s.
Recently, I came to this realization: There is no information about my grandfather’s past that could ever change who he was to me. Twenty-five years after his death I find myself calling on that belief to hold me through my own shadows. To carry me through the trials and messes of life, partnership and parenting.
Something I heard Krista Tippet say in an interview about her podcast, On Being, has helped me to make sense of it: “It’s walking through things we don’t know we’ll survive that deepen us and force us to ask the hard questions…if I hadn’t had that experience I wouldn’t be what I am…”
My grandfather had already survived what he didn’t believe he would survive. And it’s after he survived that he impacted me.
I try to make new sense of one of my favorite love stories, passed down by my grandparents — two holocaust survivors who rebuilt their lives on The Somehow Theory.
We all suffer. We all have wounds. We all must discern for ourselves how to survive. In order to evolve, instead of burying these parts of ourselves, we must bring them into consciousness and reckon with them. This is how we heal and grow. And as we do, we must continue to reckon with these parts of ourselves from a more functioning, safer, protected, connected, place.
This kind of growth and healing is hard, but it’s necessary, and doable, and there is hope in it. This is where my training and experience as a relationship therapist greatly supplement what I learned from my grandparents.
Here is what I’ve come to know: In order to fix a problem, you first need to be curious and understand what it is. It’s through understanding that you’ll be inspired to make a shift. This process involves seasons of connection, disconnection, resolution and repair. The process is healthy.
The problem is what keeps us stuck — an old trauma, blocked energy. Something that can’t or hasn’t yet moved into our consciousness, and so we carry it. It can be of our lived experience, something that happened to us, or something that didn’t happen but should have. It can also be inherited, passed down through generations, showing up in our lives like an echo from the past — epigenetics. Showing up so that we can finally be the one to stand up for ourselves, our ancestors, and all the generations to come, and liberate it.
In order to liberate ourselves, we need to reckon with ourselves, and with our stories.
Is this story about my grandfather comfortable to live with? No. But I know this story is now mine to rumble with, to make sense or meaning of in my life.
Because if I don’t look at it, I’ll pass it down.
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Rebecca Wong is a relationship therapist, mentor, and creator of Connectfulness® method for restoring the connection to the self, others, and the world. She’s also host of the Connectfulness Practice Podcast.
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This essay is published in collaboration with TMI Project, a nonprofit organization offering transformative true storytelling workshops and live storytelling performances to underserved communities. TMI Project storytellers become agents of change for social justice movement building by bravely and candidly sharing the “too much information” parts of their stories, the parts they usually leave out because they’re too ashamed or embarrassed., a non-profit organization offering transformative memoir workshops and performances that invite storytellers and audience members to explore new perspectives. By sharing their personal stories, storytellers become agents of change. You can watch Rebecca Wong tell a version of this story at the 53:49 mark here.
Editor: Sari Botton