“So,” readers ask, “is that you on the book cover?”
The child adorning the cover of my novel The Sweetness was born years before me. There is no need to say, “But we are related,” and certainly no need to mention that, although we are second cousins, we have never met. Yet the desire to tell every single detail about the story burns within me.
The truth is, though it would take years, writing became a way of breathing life into the girl seen on the cover of The Sweetness: her face unforgettable, her eyes, in particular, haunting and as inquisitive as the persona I created for her in this novel inspired by my family’s complicated history. Her real name, Rosha, is the name I chose to give her. I saw no reason to alter that particular truth. She came into my life quite unexpectedly about fifteen years ago on a chilly, dark, December afternoon while I was visiting my great aunt’s tiny studio apartment in the Brooklyn neighborhood where she had lived for over fifty years, the last twenty as a widow.
When she could no longer travel to spend time with my family, I would try a couple of times a month to visit her and bring lunch — usually fresh bagels and smoked salmon from the city. I could almost mouth her words as soon as she took her first bite: “These are ridiculous! Too big for human consumption.” Actually, though difficult to please, she was right, and so we ate our lunch in silence, me not wishing to rattle her mood. But I somehow always knew she was glad for my company. In her younger, healthier, days, she had often joked saying she was my real mother. My aunt had married late in life and never had kids of her own.
It was after lunch on one of those visits that, instead of dozing off in her favorite tufted high-back chair in the steamy living room, my aunt reached into her linen closet and took down a round metal cookie box, which she placed smack in the center of her kitchen table. Thinking (hoping) that maybe the box contained sugar-coated butter cookies, I pried open the lid to find the box stuffed to the brim with tattered documents and letters. With her pale arms crossed against her chest, my aunt sat back and gazed out the tiny window streaked with winter’s dirt. I babbled on, quickly riffling through the floral embossed box, as if searching for the crackerjack prize, and after some minutes I selected a thick envelope yellowed from time. Inside, there was an official looking document from Riga, Latvia: a telegram addressed to my grandfather — my aunt’s older brother — from relatives announcing the birth of their baby named Rosha, who they announced was doing well. The year stamped on the document was 1931.
A sepia photograph slipped from the envelope onto the table, and suddenly there she was — a child, no longer a baby, perhaps five or six years old. I held that photo in my hands for a very long time, glancing up at my aunt whose eyes had quickly reddened. In another photo I recognized my grandmother riding in a horse and buggy and sitting alongside a woman with the little girl, who was the child’s mother. My grandmother, spiffy in a large brimmed hat looked like a sophisticated traveler totally out of her element — far from her busy life in Brooklyn with her own two children.
When my aunt said she wanted me to keep the box filled with all her documents, I felt as though she had handed me the keys to my family’s mysterious past. Of course I had lots of questions, but she said very little, and to push further I knew would have upset her. What I do remember about that day was her saying these words:
“I should have stayed. I never should have come here.”
“But if you had,” I answered, “you might have been killed.”
“So what,” she said, turning from the window, “so what!” She looked more like a belligerent teen instead of a frail, 95-year-old woman. It was as though her eighty years in America had been nothing more than a handful of seeds that never took root.
I will never forget how she looked that day; there was so much sorrow etched across her face. It wasn’t until she passed away that I began writing my story. It was Rosha’s story, which I eventually alternated with another nearly-completed narrative I had been working on separately. And it was through the merging of those two parallel tales that a theme finally became clear to me.
At the end of her life, once more, my aunt had to face all the choices she had made, each haunting regret that evolved from merely surviving. It would take me a long, long time, but through the writing of The Sweetness, I began to understand her remorse.