“When the Blitz was over,” my mom says, seated at the dining table, smoking one of her Kents, nails a perfect swish of red—I’m six or eight, though I could be any age, and already in thrall—“we were so fed up with kipping in the Anderson shelter we moved back into the house.”
The Blitz. Kipping. Anderson shelter. These words captivate my spirit, long before I understand they have already altered my cells.
“Then the doodlebugs came later, right?” I know these stories well. Yet I need to hear them, drawing them from my mom and dad like succor. I know little of my parents’ lives before the war. It’s as if the war creates them.
“Yes, V-1s. The buzz bombs. They were pilotless aircrafts,” my mom continues. How matter-of-factly she speaks. None of the usual tightness to her voice, no furrow to her brow. Adrift in Chanel No. 5, her hair a dazzling chestnut brown, she shapes a pilotless aircraft above the dining room table with the hand holding her smoke. “They would come over, and at a certain point their engine would cut off and they would fall and explode. As long as you could hear them, you were okay. But if you couldn’t hear the engine, you knew you were going to be a direct hit.”
I gaze out the window at our backyard. Rose bushes, gooseberries, daffodils, bird feeders. I lean forward, examine the sky. We are safe. Always safe.
Am I crazy to wish otherwise?
What child covets war?
But everything sounded so fantastic, so important.
“One night my dad and mum heard the whirring and they yelled upstairs, ‘Get down here now!’ We had this huge, heavy table, and as we tumbled down the stairs, my father pointed. ‘And get under the bleeding table!’ So, all of us girls who still lived at home scrambled underneath. One sister saw a mouse, and, just like that, we all jumped on top of the table and chairs. Our father was livid because we were more afraid of the mouse than the bombs.”
My mom was the youngest of nine children. My dad, the youngest of four. I have one brother. I’m a titchy child, as my father likes to tell me, a deep introvert, towheaded, with a pixie cut and a whopping love for animals. I live in white middle-class suburbia, with three meals a day, a soft bed, and the expectation of college.
My backbone tingles with delight as I conjure the mouse—silvery brown, with pink-lined ears. And the sisters in their white nighties smelling of Oxydol. And my grandfather, dead before I’m born, exasperated by their foolhardy displacement of fear.
How could I not be jealous of this? The camaraderie. The adventure. The extraordinary pluck of surviving the day.
“Then came the V-2s; rockets fired from across the Channel so fast and high there was no noise, no warning, nothing, until they were right on top of you. And then you were done for.” My mother rolls her eyes. “The Nazis thought they were going to win the war with those shocking things.”
My mom and I don’t always get along; she can be too clingy, want too much from me. But when she knows about rockets and bombs and speaks about Nazis as if they’re cheeky schoolboys in the middle of a spring afternoon, she’s a thing of wonder.
“Were you ever afraid?”
She shakes her head and blows smoke over mine, her red lips a perfect O.
“I was with my family.”
As if on cue, my dad walks into the room. Evacuated during the early years of the war, he also carries magnificent worlds within him. His voice is like charcoal; his thrice-broken rugby nose embarrasses him, but I cherish it: busted but scrappy. “Did you tell her what you said to your sister?”
My mother leans toward me. “On the day peace was declared I turned to Aunt Maggie and said, ‘Everything is going to be so boring now. Whatever will we do for fun?’”
She sits back in her chair, pleased as punch as she and my dad share a laugh.
My bare legs, already scratched from climbing the early-leafing maple, swing beneath the chair as if I am running, running toward war-torn London. And: The Fun.
As far back as I can remember, I’ve been preoccupied with war. Conundrums swim in my head: A lifelong vegetarian, would I eat meat if we were at war? Would I take in strangers if they needed hiding? What if I had children? Would I take in strangers that needed hiding then? How well could I mislead authorities?
Quite well, I decide, conjuring myself as a steady and confident liar. I imagine strangers in my basement, wearing my clothes, using my towels. I imagine teaching myself to cook so I can feed them properly; emptying buckets of their waste in the cool light of evening. A quiet certainty courses through me, like memory.
If a blister appears on my foot while, say, I’m walking my dog in the park, my first thought is of soldiers. I smell the dank of the jungle, see the jutting knees of my companions; I am there.
On the occasions I have a full fridge, I wonder: what if the electricity blows and everything rots? During a war, one can never have abundance.
I’m always practicing. I buy little clothing and mend what I can, finish everything on my plate, sit in pools of sweat rather than run the AC, turn off the water while brushing my teeth and washing dishes until it’s time to rinse. All of which is mindful of the planet, but also speaks to the scarcity war bequeaths. War is fun! I learned. War also taught me not to want too much.
Some days, apropos of nothing, I ponder how far I’d make it without collapsing if I needed to flee on foot. Who would live in my abandoned home? What would become of my belongings? How long could I carry my cats while simultaneously guiding my dog on her leash? How would I feed them? Would someone try to eat them if we were starving during our exodus? What would I do to protect them?
Recently, when my beloved kitty Hank died, I experienced a small, horrible relief: Things will be much more manageable now, I thought. I will only have to carry two cats.
Why these conjured fleeings when my mom’s family hadn’t budged? They’d stayed put in their terraced house in Dagenham. True, when an unexploded bomb landed in the back-neighbor’s yard, they’d fled their home, the Sunday roast tucked inside a pillowcase, and walked across London to a relative’s. But when the all-clear signal came the next morning, home they marched.
“The queen is staying put, her children are staying put, we’re staying put,” my grandmother declared. I never met her, but in pictures she has the sort of face that doesn’t abide nonsense.
She also said: “There are far worse things than being killed by a bomb. If we go, we’ll all go together.”
On the other hand, my dad was evacuated. War was declared when he was twelve, visiting an aunty and uncle in Worcester. They all gathered around the wireless to hear the prime minister’s solemn announcement, and my grandfather cried. And when the holiday was over, my dad, the youngest of four, was simply left behind. To keep him safe from the bombs, he was kept apart from his parents and siblings for four years, until he returned to London at sixteen, with a couple years still left of the war. Yet there was no on-foot fleeing for him, either. No blisters. No cats in carriers that fellow flee-ers might want to eat.
In the early fifties, my mom and dad, along with two of my dad’s best friends from his rugby team and their wives, left bone-weary England—where many goods were still being rationed—and settled in Michigan, land of car companies. One of my mom’s sisters came shortly after. Other friends were already here or came later, leaving behind working-class London for middle-class America. They’d not fled trauma but embraced a more promising economic situation—at least, this was the myth upon which I was raised. This collection of ex-pats became my aunties and uncles, my family on this side of the pond.
My earliest memories are of gatherings in someone’s fixed-up basement, a bar along the wall. How glamorous they all seem to me now, a stylish lot, almost all of them smokers. The women in fitted dresses and coiffed hair, sharing confidences as the Yorkshire pudding cooked, knowing each other in a way no one in their future ever could. The men arresting in crisp shirts and ironed trousers, oiled hair; strong, charming, banter-ers, swinging us children in circles. They teased one another, their jokes precipitously close to cruel in the tradition of British humor. The air hummed with the birr of deeply forged attachment; there was never silence, only stories. Ducking in the covered alleys on the way to school to avoid the bombs. Bringing tea and homemade scones to the docks for the lines of soldiers headed overseas. And later, watching the trucks full of soldiers sweep by on their way to their embarkation points in preparation for D-Day, handing cigarettes as they passed. Up I would climb onto my dad’s lap as he sipped a manhattan, the ice clinking, and listen.
Even before I intellectually understood, my body knew I was among people who would kill to protect me. Who would hide me or flee with me when the war came. After all, they’d been through it once before. Heavy with their love, I became a warrior. I became their carrier of unresolved truths.
One of the cornerstones of intergenerational trauma is that we inherit the burdens of our ancestors; that our cells bear traces of the experiences of those who came before. These legacy burdens can drive our nervous systems. Neuroscientists at Emory University shocked a generation of mice while exposing them to an odor, and their offspring, who were never shocked, nevertheless had shock reactions when exposed to the same odor. Genetic markers, which had previously been thought to be wiped clean before birth, transmit trauma across generations. In children of war parents, levels of cortisol (the hormone that helps us deal with stress) can be lower. Our blood pressure higher. We’re more susceptible to chronic illnesses. Which can be hard to fathom because our parents are tough motherfuckers. They share war stories with ease and whimsy. Did they disassociate themselves from their fear in order to survive? Most likely. Do we, the children, inherit what they buried? Is it our job to work through what they couldn’t?
One of my friends, who’s trained in trauma therapy, has a lot to say on this topic.
“You were born to parents disrupted by war. You inherited the fracture. You know all about the suffering without having lived through it. You can be plagued with this sense of everything in your life being a gigantic mess, but you can’t sort out why.”
Fracture. This word feels correct even if I don’t entirely understand how my parents’ trauma ended up inside me.
“Your mom undoubtedly had PTSD,” she continues, “and this changed her biochemistry. When you were in utero, you gestated in her cortisol pool. As a result, your nerves have less insulation. Not literally—just that you have a hypervigilance not founded within your own traumas.”
I am hypervigilant. My nervous system always alert. I was unnecessarily aware of my surroundings during my childhood. I’m slow to trust. Quick to doubt. In my thirties, I took to boxing like my life depended on it. I’ve often wondered where these street smarts—which began long before I dropped out of college and moved to New York City—came from. They don’t reflect the safety of my life.
The flip side is that I’m intensely loyal. Which is also a trait of the war, as no one could have made it through without community.
My friend flattens this a bit: “War isn’t a bonding of love or affection, it’s a bonding of survival.”
Street cred. Before I knew there were words for this, I recognized it in my parents.
They’d had bombs dropped on them.
Well, not directly on top of them, but sometimes close by. The sky blossomed with Spitfires and Messerschmitts, flickering through nighttime spotlights, boldly tumbling down bombs during the day. My dad’s house was hit by one, and the family had to move out for repairs. Several months later a parachute bomb landed down the street, and bicyclists set it off in the morning with their loud chatter. My mom stopped going to school at age twelve because it was bombed, and later, while she was working in Woolworth’s, a bomb fell right outside a window she was decorating, leaving her and her workmate slick with shards of glass.
My parents lived on rations, trounced through rubble; overhead dogfights were so common that my grandmother instructed my mom to “run all the way and dodge the shrapnel” when she left for the shops. Huge swathes of London were lost to fire. The city was either dead quiet or rattling with alarm.
More than 24,000 tons of high explosives fell on London during the Blitz. Over a period of 247 days, London was bombed by the Luftwaffe eighty-five times; one stretch lasted fifty-seven consecutive days and nights. Nearly two months of nonstop bombing.
“You get used to it,” my dad says. “Take the theatre. At first, people stopped going, but after a while, they returned, and you could hear bombs going off outside—the crashing and banging and all the rest. You’d sit in the theatre, watching the film and thinking, Well if it’s going to hit me, it’s going to hit me.”
What they’re getting used to is, of course, wildly traumatic.
Every night during the Blitz, my mom’s family crammed into the bomb shelter in the back garden, a space barely the width of a double bed. It was cold, damp, and had no electricity, and when it rained small puddles sprang from the earthen floor.
“Did anybody sleep?” I ask. I’m in my teens now, my queries more practical.
“I don’t think the adults slept much. My mum would bring in a pot of tea, and we’d tell stories while she knit balaclavas for the soldiers.”
“Well, all sorts.” She shrugged. “My brother Johnny and his best mate Tommy Wratten would pretend they were fighter pilots. ‘Zrmm . . .’” She conjured a gun, skating it before her with surprising precision and ease. “‘Good shot, Wratten.’ ‘Brilliant aim, Blakey Boy.’”
And she giggled, her hand passing coquettishly over her lips, eyes bright. How youthful she suddenly appeared; her body transported.
Then she came back to me.
“Or my dad and I would go on walks. He would bring a cup of tea, and we’d see what was going on.”
“Wasn’t it pitch black?” During the war the streetlights were no longer lit so as to make the Luftwaffe’s job harder. I pictured my mom—a wisp of a girl, with enormous, curious eyes—and the grandfather I’d never met, a china mug in his hand, strolling down streets that, at that point in my life, I’d never visited but felt I knew. The protective thunder of the ack-ack guns. The thick blackout curtains drawn across windows taped with x’s to prevent shattering. Forgotten bits of laundry on the backline, though they couldn’t see it. The lingering punch of boiled fish in the air.
“We knew the streets well and felt our way along. Sometimes there was moonlight. Full moons were called bomber’s moons because they helped the Nazis see better. Sometimes bombs dropped, but they weren’t always in our vicinity. We could see them. And feel them. There was one night when they burned Woolwich Arsenal, which was just across the river from us. It was a ring of fire. They dropped incendiaries everywhere. We were inside that ring. It was wondrous.”
I pictured my mom inside this wondrous ring of fire, my grandfather beside her, their faces bright with distant flames.
Later, on the 114th night of the Blitz, the Nazis dropped more than 100,000 bombs on London. That’s 99,999 more bombs than my mind knows how to process. And even that one bomb gets a bit stuck. Entire streets were flattened. The city erupted in flames. Over 20,000 firefighters struggled to extinguish the conflagration with minimal water. The mains had been bombed, and while hoses could be filled from the River Thames, it was at a particularly low ebb. Plus, unexploded bombs lurked along her muddy shores. Even St. Paul’s Cathedral was hit; Churchill sent word Christopher Wren’s masterpiece should be protected at all costs. The sky went from pitch black to a halo of yellow and orange. It was deemed the Second Great Fire of London. A dozen firefighters and 162 civilians died that night.
My mother bore witness to that.
Worcester, where my father lived for nearly four years with his aunty and uncle, had two rivers and ambling farms and cricket grounds and castle ruins and nearly carless streets.
“I loved it there,” my dad tells me. “You could run free, roam where you liked—unless there was a cow or bull.”
Communication with his parents was spotty: they weren’t able to visit often or write much and didn’t have a telephone. His siblings were deployed throughout the country and overseas.
“The war split us up,” my dad says. He’s been eating an apple and swallows the core, seeds and all. My parents also eat fish bones. We’re walking the Lower East Side, still heavy with graffiti in those days, where I’ve lived for a decade. “It was never the same family again.”
These confidences are new, not a part of the original repertoire, perhaps because they’re being shared with a city-dwelling adult now. The foundational stories held no consequences. Bombs dropped, people slept in shelters, food was scarce, brothers were at war, brothers-in-law missing possibly taken prisoner (they were), and everything was fine.
This new family was a family I better understood; a family lost to one another.
My dad may have loved Worcester, but his stories of his time there were often gutsy and hard. Pinching bits of the downed Heinkel bomber sprawled in a nearby field until the Home Guard chased him away. Or swimming with friends in the River Teme only to be sucked down by the undertow and fighting to push through the crust of water and breathe again. Or the disoriented cow, whom the farmers couldn’t prod back out of the river’s waters, so, while my thirteen-year-old father watched, they cut her neck, and the water burned red. Small battles within the greater war.
But the skies were empty.
“Other than the rations and no streetlights and louvered headlamps on cars, could you even tell there was a war on?”
“Not really, no. There were some soldiers about. And there was tension because the Americans didn’t want the Black soldiers eating at the same pubs as the white soldiers, which was strange to us, but I was young and didn’t understand. I was happy there.” He pauses. Two fire trucks race by, sirens blaring. “But it was quite boring.”
And then there I was: fleeing. With my two terrified cats in my arms, squished in a borrowed cat carrier.
It was four days after 9/11. The night was hot, the air peppered with the stench of burning chemicals and paper and plastic and wood and, though it wasn’t uniquely discernable, people. I was clad in a skirt, T-shirt, flip-flops. My neighborhood, due to its close proximity to the towers, had been barricaded. Armed soldiers patrolled our streets, demanding identification for us to return to our homes. Even in the heat, they wore gas masks; we civilians—if we wore anything—sported small paper ones, the sort meant for keeping dust out of your mouth while sanding. No cars could come and go, so when the deli ran out of grapefruits, there were no more grapefruits. When the cash machine ran out of money, there was no more money.
It smacked of war.
Of course, unlike during a war, we could walk the fourteen blocks out of our neighborhood to an unbarricaded one where grapefruits and money awaited us.
That night, in the quiet, hollow dusk, the streets were still empty. I left with a couple changes of clothing, my jewelry, and the floppy disk of my novel in a duffel bag strapped over my shoulders like a backpack. The cats and I were headed to Grand Central to catch a train to Connecticut to stay with friends, Carron and Ed. The phones had gone down with the towers, and it was next to impossible to reach anyone. I’d spent nearly four hours that day dialing their number over and over again until, at last, the call went through.
“Yes, come!” they’d said, pertinent info crammed into less than a minute in case the call dropped. “Yes, bring the cats.”
The cats were heavy. I had to stop every block, put them down and wipe the sweat from my forehead.
I’d been in the city for almost twenty years. I knew her well. To my right was Two Boots Pizza and Video with its collaged countertops, terrazzo floors, and modest cinema in which cult films were shown. I wondered if it would still be here when I returned.
I hoisted Mathilda and Lulu, straightened my shoulders, pressed forward. Would I return? I pictured my apartment. All the treasures left behind.
I trudged forward another block. Low-flying jets rumbled overhead. The sidewalks were as lonely as a holiday. I kept us moving. There on my left was Pyramid Club, the epicenter of counterculture and the drag scene in the early eighties. Dean and the Weenies. Lady Bunny. RuPaul. How many mornings had I stumbled out of there into the harsh streetlight, green against the awakening sky? In time we passed Tompkins Square Park, once the home of a riot, now an oasis with fenced-in grasses and winding paths, a dog run, a spray park, games of chess. Fleetingly, I imagined her razed. Bombs? Another plane? A battle? Why not? We still didn’t really know what was going on.
I had prepared for this. My war ruminations had trained my nervous system to stay calm, my mind to track solutions, my body to act.
Yet, this wasn’t an adventure. I wasn’t spunky and plucky and brave. I was calm. I was functioning. I was capable. But: I was afraid of the toxic fumes hanging over the lower part of the island and wondered if the terrorists would hit again. I knew all about persistent attacks. The general consensus was they’d already proven they could hit our most populous city, so they’d spread out now. Yet, what better way to show how vulnerable we were than to hit a city that was already on nonstop high alert.
In the days after the towers went down, I would be in one part of the city and find my mind magnetically drawn to another part, vividly envisioning it being bombed. My breath caught short. Had Marissa survived? How about Matt? These transient conjurings rose in me like lost memories, but they were more likely inherited continuations. This was what my parents’ lives had been like. This caught breath of alarm.
My mom was afraid the loss of war would make her life dull.
She was seventeen.
I was thirty-nine. Fleeing, at last. On a thick September evening with my cats, I was making my way toward the clean air and soldier-free streets of Connecticut. Fun was the last thing on my mind.
Afterward, my parents and I wrangle over who had it worse.
“You were taken completely by surprise,” my mom says.
“You were bombed,” I say.
“We knew it was coming; we were prepared,” my dad concurs.
“The towers went down in a day. You were under attack for six years.”
“Your whole sense of trust was shattered.” My mom waves her cigarette toward me as if the smoke were cleansing.
“So was yours! Plus, you slept in bomb shelters, waited in line for hours for food, Dad was evacuated.”
My mother rarely slept through the night. Two or three in the morning would routinely find her seated in the kitchen with a cup of coffee and a smoke. Was she waiting for the all-clear siren? She worried about everything, just every little fucking thing you could worry about. She sometimes went cigarette to cigarette. In between she chewed Doublemint gum. Why had I never seen this as an outcome of the war?
She was astoundingly fragile. Self-doubt and fear seemed to encase her. She was afraid of the water; afraid to ride a bike; afraid to not do what was asked of her; of saying the wrong thing; wearing the wrong thing; afraid of herself, I believe. Afraid of the potency of her love, because she’d grown up in a world of active hatred, a world of bombs, a world of clearly defined limitations in the form of rations and coupons and brothers and fathers and uncles away in the war.
And yet. She was also gigantically hearted and determined to help others. In the early eighties, when she and my dad would visit me in Manhattan, it was nearly impossible to make it down each block. Homelessness was rampant then, and my mom stopped to listen to the life stories of each person who was sleeping in a cardboard box or on concrete steps; she gave them hugs, squeezed their hands.
Even in her final weeks, the war was with my mom. When she fell ill the last time, my niece gave her a stuffed bunny to keep in bed beside her.
“What shall we name them?” I asked.
Her eyes bright with delight, my mom said, “Tommy Atkins.” Which my aunty later explained was slang for British soldiers—the soldiers she’d gone to the docks to give tea and scones to as a child.
“Everyone must be loved” were some of my mother’s last words. She’d been in a blissful state, eyes wide, laughing, gesturing, mesmerized and mesmerizing from her narrow hospice bed. “There’s no reason not to love everyone.”
War did this to her, I thought. Scared her out of her wits and also instilled in her that helping one another was the only way through. Because what is war if not fear put into motion? And what is loving-kindness if not the antidote to fear?
My dad is also big-hearted. He volunteers at the church, helps the children of the English clan (or really anyone who needs help) move into new homes, carries boxes, paints, fixes cupboards. He moved me to Manhattan in 1982, helped me clean a disgusting studio apartment, which involved chiseling out human hair embedded in the bathroom floor, and helped me leave in 2006, even though he’d just finished chemo for cancer. “If someone needs help and you’re able to, you must help them,” he instructed me as early as I can remember. There wasn’t a choice.
You can tell my dad anything, good, bad, or neutral, and he will extend it to its worst-case scenario, then figure out how to fix it. Or at least endure it. This includes weather reports and road conditions. Looming storms, potholes, swathes of ice—he warns me about all of it.
After the eleventh, I realized this must have been his coping mechanism during the war. Lonely, seemingly abandoned by his parents, he was living his actual worst-case scenario. Later, he returned to a London with missing buildings and homes half-opened like tins of sardines and winding lines at the butchers and grocers and fishmongers and tired soldiers home on leave and sirens and the silvery smell of a fire somewhere. How could England have survived without a contingency plan?
In Connecticut, back in that September full of Bin-Laden blue skies, the air was bright, clean, the trees still in bloom. Ed met me on the steps of the train station and before we spoke a word, he held me, and I wept. My only tears until I moved back to Michigan five years later.
The cats and I commuted every weekend for a year. Tuesday through Thursday we were in the city so I could teach and stay connected to my home; Friday through Monday we were in New Canaan with her safe air.
We evacuated. Just as my dad had. But we also stayed put like my mom and the queen.
I finally moved out of Manhattan in February 2006, ostensibly because my apartment had become unbearably loud. The long neglected Lower East Side had shot into trendiness overnight. Daytimes were wild with construction and nights with drunken wannabes stumbling from club to bar. I hadn’t thought about the eleventh in ages. Yet two weeks before my dad came to collect me, with half my belongings in boxes, panic shot through me: What if they hit again before I get out?
And, later, when my dad and I and my kitties made it to the Jersey side of the Holland Tunnel, I burst out in tears. My dad thought I was mourning my beloved home of nearly twenty-five years, and I was, but in that moment, the voice had spoken again stating simply: I’m safe.
Shortly after leaving New York City, I fell ill in the aftermath of a head injury. My life tumbled into a strange and lonely hell I feared I would never leave. In the beginning, I saw a therapist. Nearly every other visit, a distant siren would go off.
“Like air raids,” I said, my nervous system jangled by the rhythmic pulse.
She nodded. “They must be testing equipment.” Pause. “You know, this doesn’t happen with anyone else.”
During these years of extremely poor health, I was working on a novel I had started writing a few months before. It follows the lives of a family in London during World War II— beginning the day war is declared and ending on V-J Day. None of it is true to my parents’ stories, but the blood and marrow of them is in there. I worked on it for eight years; when I was finished, I had 1,100 pages. My mom, in her mid-eighties, read them all.
“What we lived through,” she said, when she handed me back the tall stack of pages, “what I lived through. I didn’t realize it had all been so hard.”
My mom devoured books about the war. She watched films about it, read articles, saw plays. I’m unsure what it was about my book that finally unveiled the horror, but it seemed to be healing for her. I’m glad for that.
Several years ago, I adopted a rescue dog, Delilah. She came to me with massive anxiety, much of which was quelled simply by being near me. But thunderstorms, low-flying planes, fireworks, alarms, cars backing up have her shaking from head to toe for half an hour or more. All sounds of war.
In my novel, there’s a beloved family dog who is so done in by these sorts of sounds that the father shoots her as an act of kindness. I wrote this before meeting Delilah, but it’s not hard to see how regular bombings and dogfights and ack-ack guns would stretch her nervous system beyond what it was meant to handle. Would I shoot her? No. Would I do whatever possible to bring her to safety, including fleeing? Yes.
And the cycle begins again.
Actually, it never stops.
At the height of my illness I wasn’t able to drive, so one of my chosen cousins would take me to the store, and I’d buy enough toilet paper to last six months. I stuffed my pantry with tins of cat food. My office closet burst with reams of paper. Who knew when I’d get to the store again. I was stockpiling, preparing for life in the trenches. The opposite of fleeing.
War isn’t always on foot.
I’m out to dinner with my dad and my uncle David, one of the friends my parents came to America with and my godfather. The conversation turns, as it still does, to the war. Uncle David’s telling us about the day a bomb fell in his back garden when he was twelve.
“I flew straight up from my bed, and when I came down the ceiling came down with me.”
He dips his battered fish in vinegar, then takes a bite.
“A bomb fell in your back garden?” I say. “That must have been traumatizing.” I’ve never used this word with my parents or aunties and uncles before. I’m experimenting.
My uncle David’s eyes grow wide. He looks at my father, who shakes his head as if he can’t believe I’m his daughter.
“It was a small bomb,” my uncle says, his voice modulated as if I were a child. He pats down his arms and legs as he says, “I checked my limbs. They were all there. I was fine.”
And then he and my dad launch into a discussion about the various sizes and sounds of bombs.
A year or so ago, I started trauma therapy to help me deal with all that I’ve lived through with my health. The loss. The isolation. The fear. The endless challenges. I thought we’d while away the time talking about vertigo, the shock of staying awake four days straight, the staggering loneliness of the chronically ill. But instead we speak of the war.
“My parents’ war,” I say. “I wasn’t there.”
“Your war,” my therapist corrects. “Your nervous system thinks you were.”
Her smile is kind but firm. We’ve been through this before.
I resist my lineage as burden. In part because it doesn’t seem possible that I could carry the trauma my parents successfully compartmentalized for decades. In part because my lineage is that of knowing small bombs from large bombs. My lineage is if your limbs are all there, you’re fine. My lineage knows how to dodge shrapnel. My lineage watched London burn and slept in bomb shelters and ate apple cores and fish bones and then moved to America. It’s not a burden; it’s triumph.
Britain alone took on Hitler.
Not long ago I watched Darkest Hour, an account of early tensions between war cabinet members—who wanted to forge a peace with Hitler—and Churchill, who refused. I knew everything that was going to happen, and yet my heart surged when the “little ships” crossed the Channel to rescue the soldiers stranded in Dunkirk. And while—just as with my parents’ stories—I knew almost every word by heart, I wept with pride when Gary Oldman’s Churchill delivered the “We shall fight on the beaches; we shall fight on the landing grounds; we shall fight in the fields and in the streets; we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender” speech in the final scene.
Last summer, I visited the Imperial War Museum in London. For the first time I saw a Spitfire—gloriously suspended three stories above my head. I saw a V-1 suspended beside it and a V-2 mounted staunchly at my side—so much bigger than I’d conjured, so much more solid. These are what flew toward my parents. Dwarfed beneath the bombs, I surprised myself by weeping. The sort that lands you on your knees on the floor. A docent rushed over and grasped my hand.
“It takes everyone differently,” she said.
“Studies show that children carry what their parents could not,” my therapist says.
“But my parents did carry it,” I say.
My therapist gives me another of her kind-firm smiles. We both know no one successfully carries war.
My dad also read my novel, loved it, yet continues to hold the line that the war was fine. He’s now ninety-three. I’m pushing sixty. I still ask him about the war.
“Do you ever wish you’d been in London?”
We’re seated at my kitchen table after five rounds of gin rummy. Delilah is flopped on the floor between us; Rudy and Clementine, my kitties, are sleeping on the table. I don’t have human children, so my dad refers to them as my family.
“Oh, god, yes. I missed most of the war. Kind of a cowardly thing, you know, being left behind. I wish I had more exciting stories to tell.”
“When Mom told her stories, were you jealous?”
He pauses. “I hadn’t considered that word before, but I suppose I was.”
“Me, too! Why are we jealous of trauma stories?”
“To liven up our lives. Our lives are basically dull. Then all of a sudden, boom. Most of my dreams have been some heroic thing I’ve been doing.”
This is true. My father has a recurring dream. There is always someone in need—one person or many people, and he is the one who can help them. He tosses and turns in his sleep, often muttering out loud, struggling to get to everyone before time runs out. It’s a restless sleep. I imagine it’s the sleep of war.
“How did the war shape you?” I ask. Certainly now, he will see the sorrow, the hardship, the loneliness just as my mother had.
“It didn’t. Nothing traumatic happened to me during the war.”
When my dad leaves, he kisses me goodbye. Delilah and the kitties gather at his feet. He pauses, looks me in the eye. “I hope it’s something you don’t have to put up with,” he says wistfully.
“Sending all your family to different homes because someone decided to bomb the joint.”
As I close the door behind him, I think, There. An almost-admission of pain; that war is not fun, is not whimsy, is not even heroic.
And with the almost-admission comes a sadness that nearly knocks me off my feet. My childhood pinings had been built on a false promise. Delilah licks my shin, and I kneel beside her, put my forehead to hers, inhale her earthy sweetness.
Here is what I know now: if war comes, I will walk to the ends of the earth to save us. Or I will stay put. Depending. My parents trained their daughter well. War still floods my blood, instructing me. And I listen. And feel guilty for quietly wanting more life.
Scrappy junkyard dog is how my friends describe me. Even when I felt most broken. Even when I have felt most tender, most alive.
I will fight. I will never surrender.
After all, I’ve been preparing my whole life for the bombs.