Essays

On This Day

The war and the memories

Mary Barnett
A stack of old issues of The Yale Review. Courtesy Pentagram
Courtesy Pentagram

It’s been a busy, if ordinary, week. Husband: work. Daughter: camp. Neighbors: fence. Cat: vet. Hot water heater: dead. I’ve withdrawn from the news lately. NPR is on every morning as I drive the kids somewhere and myself somewhere else, but that’s about it. I am weary of the buffoon-bully-demagogue in the White House. (You too? #MeToo.) Without making any sudden moves, I have backed out of the rooms he occupies. After all, this is my living room, my car, my family. I’ve built a wall.

Families are being separated at the border, but how does that work exactly? (I am skimming through yellow light, pulling into Stop and Shop – stray cart – slamming on brakes.) Cages. Really? I think, in passing, it just can’t be as bad as it sounds. Can it?

In place of cautious political optimism, we have a storyline filched from an episode of The Walking Dead: ominous swarms of killer bees, flesh-eating locusts, murderers and rapists (the undead) are taking over the country! They think they have the right to have rights. They don’t. They are dead.

I put the groceries away. The compost stinks. I hear Krista Tippett’s melodious voice in the background, like a flute of French champagne glasses clinking on a kitchen island (someone else’s). She’s interviewing the literary historian Lyndsey Stonebridge, and they are talking about Hannah Arendt. “Arendt warned us this would happen,” Stonebridge says. We’ve been forging symbiotic relationships between multinational corporations, not people. Universal human rights are a myth. Nations guarantee rights. People who stand outside their national boundaries have no rights. They are invisible. “If you stand outside your country, in a sense, you aren’t even in the world anymore,” she says.

My son yells down to his father, who is working in the basement. “Who turned off my internet!” The answer is inaudible. “It’s not fair. You didn’t tell me you were going to do that!” I can hear my husband pushing back from his computer and reluctantly mounting the stairs, to repair the breach.

Tyler is fourteen. Sometimes he wants to stand outside his country, our family. But we won’t let him. At age eight, when he lost TV privileges, he ran away down the street in the middle of the night with a sleeping bag. I found him curled up on a stranger’s lawn next to the garbage cans. I didn’t wake him immediately, but stood behind a lamp post and cried. Someone I loved, for a a moment, looked like someone unknown to me.

Maybe it’s this: Without a wall, I’ll have to touch what I want to push away. Another human being’s vulnerabilities might be contagious. I could be the one trapped in a Thai cave, with people who speak a language I don’t understand, the monsoons coming. I could be the one shivering beneath a space blanket on the cement floor of a big box store. It’s not just others’ vulnerabilities I don’t want to touch – the intruder put his hands around my throat on October 31 1997 and started to squeeze – I am vulnerable, too. And I don’t want to remember it. So I build a wall: This is my country. My living room. My family. My body.

“The world has found nothing sacred in the abstract nakedness of being human,” says Hannah Arendt.

On July 16, 1942, seventy-six years ago, the secretary general of the French national police force, Rene Bousquet, oversaw the round up 13,152 Jews in a Nazi-directed raid. Bousquet had brokered a compromise: the French police would provide the census information and the manpower to carry out the round up, if the Jews detained could all be foreigners. Jews from Germany, Austria, Poland, Czechoslovakia, the Soviet Union and the apatrides, “stateless,” whose origin couldn’t be determined, were rounded up across France, housed in a crowded stadium without food, water or access to bathrooms. Eventually they were packed into trains and sent directly to Auschwitz. 5,802 women. 3,299 men. 4,051 children.

I feel a chilling kinship with the French and German farmers who must have looked up from the fields as the trains passed by. It couldn’t be as bad as it looked. Could it?

While the round up was initially planned to spare those under 16, Vichy Prime Minister Laval and Bousquet expanded it to include all children over 2. This was presented as a “compassionate” measure to keep families together (not a policy) but historical documents suggest that the prime minister’s consideration had more to do with the problem of the resulting Jewish orphans. What would he do with them?

“About suffering they were never wrong/ The Old Masters,” begins Auden’s “Musée des Beaux Arts” – I open a box of mac and cheese and watch it schuss down the cardboard slope into the boiling water – “how well they understood/ Its human position:” – Tippett and Stonebridge are still talking – “how it takes place/ While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along.”

“Arendt was not interested in figuring out where evil comes from,” says Stonebridge. She wanted to know how it was organized. The administrative details.

In the morning, I see it. The photograph in the New York Times. A young child, her head tilted back, her mouth wide open, wailing. She stands knee high to the khaki-panted legs of an off-camera adult, who is wearing antiseptic purple latex gloves. The caption explains that the pants belong to a border officer in the process of detaining the child’s mother.

My five-year-old daughter once disappeared from our backyard in the middle of the afternoon. I checked all the usual places. My voice, usually calm, measured, got funny. The blood started ticking in my ears like a bomb. Twenty minutes later I found her asleep, completely hidden under a dwarf Japanese maple, an ant making its way up her pant leg.

These are the same. These are not the same.

Four or five years ago, a woman I recognized from pick-up at my daughter’s elementary school bumped into the back of my car at a stop sign. I got out to exchange information. (No harm done.) Her English was poor. She fumbled for a long time for identification, and then just looked up at me, her face dissolving in tears of panic and fear.

Never mind, I said. Really. No worries.

What was that all about, I wondered, driving home.

I never saw her at pick-up again.

Mary Barnett is an essayist whose work has appeared in Tin House, Commonweal, Christian Century, and Letters. A former choreographer and dancer, she is the director of In Good Company, Inc. and the performance series Dancing Out Loud.
Originally published:
July 16, 2018

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