A Brief Introduction to Tomorrow
By Rose Rappoport Moss
At the Mendel Foundation dinner for past Fellows, I line up with a plate behind the woman with Botticelli hair. Someone in front of us is slow, she half turns round and I introduce myself, “I used to work here before I retired.”
Justina introduces herself. Not a Fellow herself, she is here as the Affiliate with Casimir, both geneticists from Lithuania.
“My grandparents lived in Vilnius and I visited last year. I didn’t expect the beautiful wildflowers” – barley fields thick with white daisies, blue cornflowers, orange poppies, fragrant thyme, campion, vetch, and more than I can name.
I felt I’d strayed into a past era. Walking near the inn and fields of barley and wild flowers I came on a hamlet of houses with steep roofs and saw a black cow tethered to a tree in a back garden. American cows live in herds. Near the cow, one row of beans. Ready to spring up overnight into a vine for Jack to climb? Will a nearby ogre say, “Fee, fi, fo, fum?” Does that dark forest over the hill hide a witch ready to stuff children into her oven?
Auschwitz and its ovens about one day's drive away, no fairy tale.
I do not tell Justina about my family, some perished in Auschwitz and some buried alive in flowering fields. I tilt our talk to her fellowship in America.
She loved her year here and sounds infatuated with America, a community of free and equal people. “Say what you like, read anything, go anywhere, speak with anyone.”
I’m finding this a harrowing time in America, vulnerable to monsters and ogres I used to think vanished.
She’s been working on interspecies genetics and has spent this year among scientists, scholars and students. When I worked at the Foundation, I too found it a charmed community. That’s why I’ve come back for this dinner for Fellows and Affiliates to meet local alumnae.
Justina finds a table for us in the Humboldt room. She points to a cluster of bottles on the table and pours wine for me and water for herself. “I’ve learned so much.”
“That’s why people come here.” The brain belt. Our industries are learning, teaching, research and publication. Our insults are “stupid,” “ignorant,” “naïve,” “unsophisticated.” We have a high sneer quotient. A dangerous indulgence. I blame it for eroding the frail paradise of respect and comity we used to believe we lived in.
“What courses did you take?”
“We were colleagues. I miss her still.”
“At home some people call her a witch.”
“These days big pharma likes witches. We want to know their herbs and simples and we apply to big pharma for grants to study their remedies.”
In my history of science courses we discussed witches. One year, a Korean wife, a gifted scientist herself, dropped my course mid-stream. I think her husband coerced her. The year after, an Indian husband forbade his wife to enroll in my class. The couple met for the first time at their wedding. Perhaps he heard I might condone witches.
I didn’t protest. These wives had to go back home to live in their other worlds with their local monsters.
Other wives fled their husbands and found shelter with American relatives or friends. Some took children with them. Some started affairs. Some marriages broke up. Who understands what happens between spouses? Things no one foresees, not even the spouses themselves. I find marriages crammed with riddles, secrets and unpredictability.
Justina says, “America opened my eyes. I see how men can treat women and women treat men.”
Her glowing vision of America may be a marsh gas leading her into a bog. “You know the Fellowship isn’t the whole country.”
“I want to tell people at home… When I was born my father cursed that I wasn’t a boy.”
A curse like that has clout. When I was eight my own mother said, “You were born by mistake,” and those words still lurk in me like recessive traits invisible on the surface.
Years later my mother explained that at my brother’s birth the doctor said she mustn’t have another child. He did not tell her how. I was born after all but my birth-guilt still lurks and tonight I feel it vibrate in sympathy with Justina’s cursed birth.
She complains, “All our lives, in every way, we’re judged by our looks. We’re expected to marry, not go to university.”
“But you did.”
“My father’s a physicist trained in Russia. He traveled and knew women who didn’t cook and clean house.” A physicist – he must have met Jews.
“You were lucky.”
I imagine Justina’s family local aristocrats. Her father’s travels probably gave her mother too some freedom. Someone made Justina’s ambition feasible. Now she wants more freedom than her past allowed. She blames the Catholic Church. Of course it’s guilty, though that’s not the whole story, and Communism wasn’t much better. Even here in America…
“Men also suffer roles they have to play.”
I like her compassion and that she can imagine another point of view.
The friends who drove me to the dinner want to leave. She says, “Let’s meet again,” and I write my contact information on a napkin.
At home, I check the internet to confirm the bond of flowers and curses. The entries I find show Casimir too. He is the Fellow, she the Affiliate. Her hair used to be dark. So she’s transformed herself and chose the stereotype. Social pressure, I excuse her to myself. Though she hasn’t changed her dark, intelligent eyes. She looks Jewish. They both published studies of disused Soviet weapon sites and of children of concentration camp survivors. They worked in England for a while and their photographs present healthy and compatible people who lead purposeful lives. At the Foundation, they researched epigenetic trauma.
No need for me to tell Justina about my family. She must know what happened to the Jews, more or less.
We meet again in outdoor sunshine where the bookstore’s café spills out to the parking lot. My peripheral attention accepts pedestrian movements, gossiping acquaintances, a mother talking to her toddler in a stroller, a woman discussing her resume with an older man. A job interview? Sales pitch? In the street, cars and trucks slow and stop for lights. A spring breeze touches our hair, faces and naked toes. I feel us like people on a beach partly immersed in the flow and pulse of others’ lives.
Justina says, “My grandfather committed suicide. And my father’s uncle. And my mother’s cousins.” A dangerous history. Like hereditary trauma.
I ask no questions, but see her smooth neck as she talks and turns her fair head. She says, “My mother told me I’d never be happy as a wife.” How does a mother say that?
My own mother wanted me to drown out all doubts and marry. It did not work out well.
I do not ask why we are meeting or why Justina confides in me. Perhaps she thinks me safe, outside her circle. Who else can she talk to?
Next time, at a restaurant nearby, “When I told Casimir what I was feeling, he wept.”
I have never elicited love like that and I envy her.
There it is, marriage, and its thick flux of incidents, plans, tasks, gestures, bodies and life. Why does she tell me? Boasting? “I want people at home to know that treating women with respect needn’t mean we should stop respecting men.”
I recover an image of a woman walking into a Lithuanian church, plump as a goose egg, her head crowned with golden braids. A woman of property, she claims her husband’s arm under her own. Secure and more confident than God. Can Justina’s ideals survive women like that? Men like that?
Weeks pass. I do not hear from her and imagine her busy with Fellowship events. Then she gets in touch and we meet on my porch where living air moves among branches green with new leaves. She has been in a clinic recovering from something that takes isolation – drugs? alcohol? bulimia? insanity? She doesn’t say. I know no one else to ask.
Like a recent convert drunk on truth she has a mission to change attitudes in Lithuania. I show no skepticism. She will find out soon enough. When she told people in the Fellowship her ambition, they cheered her on. She will apply for another fellowship to come back to America and build a process to change Lithuania and the world.
Some people do change the future. I may be an unreliable listener.
So unreliable I hardly notice that when I pour wine for myself and prepare to give her water, she asks for wine too.
Before leaving, she says, “I heard from the clinic. They said I was pregnant. The fetus didn’t survive but I can be pregnant. I thought I couldn’t. At home I’d have heard only loss and blame. At the clinic here they said next time I could carry a child to term. They were happy for me.”
A tear balances on her eyelash. She wipes it away with her index finger.
What about those radioactive sites they studied? Were there genetic effects?
At the bookstore café again she sounds happy. She has spoken to people in Lithuania, “Those stories weren’t true at all. My father didn’t curse when I was born. Lots of stories women told against men weren’t true.” So why did women tell them? She sees reasons.
I expect to see her at a graduation party, but Casimir seeks me out. “She’s not feeling well.” I like the look of him and would like to know him. Next day, Justina and I arrange to meet at the bookstore café to say goodbye.
She arrives late and says that somehow she became disoriented and walked in the wrong direction. Implausible, but I let it be. Thinner and more pale, she looks unkempt, not a Botticelli but a woman racked. The miscarriage? Or some other trauma? She’s spent the week washing and cleaning and at first I see nothing symbolic in these chores but something is not right between her and Casimir. She suggests he may envy her success.
Then she mentions an affair. Damn! Her past will unravel her future. She will not be single-minded enough to realize her grandiose plans. I feel betrayed myself, a naïve fool.
A month later her first email from Lithuania has no words, only a photograph of wildflowers, lavish, varied and profuse, so beautiful her skill takes me by surprise. Another month and her second email says divorce. Cassimir cannot forgive her. Her family hates her, she is a bitch and a witch.
If that is who she is, she will embrace it.
She plans a new project – to research the genetics of the fourteen witches in her village. What does she hope to find? Kinship? A grant from big pharma? Will she let her hair grow dark again? I write her about Mary Taylor’s courage and send photographs.
But come night, I cannot sleep. Do they still kill witches there?
Two of my family survived, but only last month historians unearthed bones where my family’s DNA lay unburied under trees and fields of bountiful flowers.