A family heirloom the author’s mother left her tells a story about death, how we mourn, and building a monument from her grief.
One Black father with an ailing son has to routinely calm himself to survive in this white town.
One doctor examines the inherent violence of the medical profession where, as she puts it, surgeons and staff “hurt people in order to help them” by prying open their chest cavities and jamming tubes into veins. In the world outside the hospital, these acts would be considered traumatic and unsettling, so what psychic effect do they have on practitioners and patients? How can practitioners cultivate empathy? And how much medical violence is necessary?
After WWII, Russian forces occupied east Germany. The soldiers and their barracks became part of the fabric of life, though still separate from it, as was the forced camaraderie between citizens of each nation, “the sort acted out at parades rather than genuinely felt.” Here’s what one child’s life was like in occupied Germany beside some of those barracks, and what it means to stay cordial, curious but proud, living beside your occupiers.
The writer remembers her mother and the garden she loved:
“At the height of summer my mother would clip the most luxurious marigolds that she had successfully grown from seed, handfuls of intense yellow bobbing in the hot wind, reaching above her waist. She’d dip them in wax so that they would outlast the season, lighting her kitchen into dusky autumn. The marigold was the personal passion of David Burpee, the son of the company’s founder—who became a registered lobbyist in 1960 so that he could campaign in Congress to name the marigold the U.S. national flower. My mother bought seeds from the glossy catalogues Burpee pumped out during the years following World War II, showcasing a series of brand-new floral hybrids whose very names exuded drama and expectation: the Yellow Climax Marigold was followed by the Double Supreme Hybrid Snapdragon in 1960 and the Firecracker Zenith Hybrid Zinnia in 1963. When Burpee’s plants blossomed in my mother’s garden—luxurious flesh in pink, yellow, orange, white, and red—they transformed the day.”
The author recalls a childhood summer in the New Jersey countryside in 1939 before World War II:
“Toward evening, after we had showered and changed, we could hear grown-up voices rising and falling in contention. Whenever any of us would come near, they’d stop talking and pretend they hadn’t been arguing, but we could feel the tension even when we hadn’t heard any words. There was something else going on, and it had to do with the news they were hearing from the radio. All the Grinberg guests would gather in the evening around the set, a big wooden box sitting on an embroidered cloth covering a small table in the living room. One of the adults would fiddle with the radio dials, trying through the hiss and crackle to get a clear signal and hear the latest bulletins. The others would crowd the little table, their faces intent, for once seeming oblivious that children were also in the room. We couldn’t make out much, but the stern expressions told us a lot and seemed to have some connection with the words ‘Hitler’ and ‘war’ that kept recurring from both the radio announcements and adult conversation.”
A woman looks back on her family’s history as Holocaust refugees, and her family’s use of German at home:
“‘Fräulein Raeff,’ she turned to me. I stood up. ‘Can you give another example of a taboo?’ I suppose again that she was trying to go easy on me, but, because I was slightly annoyed that she didn’t think I could handle a more difficult question and because my response was accurate, I replied, ‘An example of a taboo in Austria would be talking about the Holocaust.’
“Hearing this answer, she did not smile and say, ‘Richtig.’ She did not write my name down in her book. She did not tell me that I needed to go back to my notes or to study harder. She simply sat down and was silent.”
[Fiction] A story about an unemployed ethnomusicologist, gray whales, and Miranda July:
“‘Garfield was my favorite president,’ said Brandon.
“‘James A. Garfield?’ said Kara. ‘President from March to July of 1881?’
“‘From Ohio?’ she said.
“‘That’s the one,’ said Brandon.
“He said: ‘I think he would have proven to be an effective leader if he’d been given the chance.’
“Charles put his hand on Kara’s knee.
“‘That’s funny,’ said Charles. ‘Garfield’s killer, Charles Guiteau, is my favorite presidential assassin, and it’s not just because we share a name.'”
A father and son visit a collector of Nazi paraphernalia in the mountains of southwestern North Carolina:
“My father glanced over his shoulder at me and emitted a wheeze-burst of laughter—an exhalation intended to express disbelief. He had led me to an underground vault containing the artifacts of the last century’s most brutal regime, and he now seemed downright giddy. I, on the other hand, didn’t know what to think or what to say. I found it difficult to process what any of this meant. That is, I didn’t know why it was here, how it had gotten from where it had been made to where it was now. Were we in the presence of some kind of monster? Or had he created this space for stuff he deemed historically significant, buried it in a moisture-controlled vault because he fancied himself one of history’s unbiased curators? Was this the product of an obsessive and sympathetic mind, one which interpreted the mainstream records of history as having been unduly cruel to the Third Reich, which had been a movement, in his eyes, about nationalism, about ancestors, about revering and honoring the past? I didn’t know. And, honestly, I was afraid to ask.”