The Fam­i­ly by Nao­mi Krupitsky

I imag­ine I am sit­ting in the kitchen of a deep-Brook­lyn apart­ment with my great-grand­moth­er. Her back is to me; she is stir­ring a pot on a stove that is old­er than I am. She has pains in her feet and her back and she tells me so. What on earth do you have to com­plain about?, she asks me. She is brusque but she is kind, too. Okay, I say. I’ll describe it to you. 

It is three o’clock in the after­noon, in the fall of 2020, and I am stand­ing at the edge of an ocean.

The first thing you would notice if you were here with me is that it feels too qui­et. Except for a few intre­pid surfers — dots on the hori­zon — hard­ly any­one is around, and those who are keep silent, in rev­er­ence or in ter­ror. No one makes eye con­tact. There are no birds call­ing, and even the roar of the ocean waves seems damp­ened, as though I am watch­ing this day play out in a movie. I have to keep remind­ing myself that I am here.

The sec­ond thing you would notice is that it is dark. It’s often fog­gy in this neigh­bor­hood, but today, the sun hasn’t risen. Today, the one con­stant any­one believes in any more — the sun will always rise — has been proven false. The sky is a brown­ish red, an apoc­a­lyp­tic shade. Lat­er, mete­o­rol­o­gists will say there is smoke some­where high up in the atmos­phere; even though we can­not smell it, it blocks out all the light. But it will take them time to fig­ure this out. Right now, even the news­cast­ers are star­ing speech­less into the maw of an unfa­mil­iar evil.

Today, we are all ani­mals liv­ing on a dying plan­et, cling­ing as des­per­ate­ly as ani­mals ever have to the beat of our hearts, the stretch of our skin over our bones. Today I feel frag­ile in a way I nev­er have before.

When my great-grand­moth­er was a teenag­er, Hitler invad­ed her home coun­try of Poland. She escaped by mar­ry­ing a dis­tant rel­a­tive in exchange for pas­sage to the Unit­ed States. Both of her par­ents and four­teen of her fif­teen sib­lings were killed. Grow­ing up, I often tried to imag­ine the des­per­a­tion of her sur­vival. How incom­pre­hen­si­ble, to have life and death reduced to their com­po­nent parts. How incon­ceiv­able to go on liv­ing after every­thing that made her was stripped away.

As a child, I felt some pride at this his­to­ry, but most­ly I tried to dis­tance myself from the vul­ner­a­bil­i­ty of it. I thought she was brave, and I thought I had noth­ing in com­mon with her. I lived every moment of my life in Cal­i­for­nia like it was mine and mine alone. I played soc­cer and chal­lenged boys to foot races and climbed trees. I didn’t feel brave because noth­ing had ever threat­ened me. I didn’t see remem­brance — as it was sold to me by the reform-Reform Judaism I grew up with­in — as valu­able. I want­ed to imag­ine myself as hav­ing sprung up direct­ly out of earth, along with the sour­grass and calla lilies and nas­tur­tiums that dot­ted the Cal­i­for­nia hill­sides where I ran. I refused the bit­ter herbs, the prayer. I would pros­trate myself to noth­ing. I would have kicked the Pharaoh in his shit­ty lit­tle shins.

Once, in a Joshua Tree camp­ground, just before dawn, I saw five plan­ets strung across the sky in a curve so per­fect I sud­den­ly under­stood how our plan­et is hung in the solar sys­tem, how I am bal­anced on it.

I wouldn’t have expect­ed that cli­mate change would be what made me feel con­nect­ed to my ances­tors, but over the past cou­ple of years, Cal­i­for­nia has burned out of con­trol. The place I thought I could always come back to (is that what makes a home?) is not the same. The trees I climbed are ringed with black, or they have been incin­er­at­ed com­plete­ly. I know that in my life­time I will lose the place that made me. This feels like los­ing the path for­ward, but of course that path has only ever exist­ed in my imag­i­na­tion. Plan­ning for the future is a priv­i­lege giv­en to those who feel so secure they can let their minds wan­der from the present.

My great-grand­moth­er set­tled in Brook­lyn and worked as a seam­stress to spon­sor oth­er refugees. Her chil­dren grew up marred by her pain but intact, rel­a­tive­ly. I don’t know how she pulled the will to sur­vive out of the cen­ter of her­self, but as I get old­er I know that will — that swelling wave crest­ing toward sur­vival — is the only thing worth pray­ing to.

Jews are prac­ti­cal. Don’t com­plain, my great grand­moth­er tells me. She tastes what­ev­er is in the pot. She salts it. And then she heaves a sigh and sits in a wood­en chair. She shuts her eyes and cross­es her hands over her stomach.

Big Basin is burned and Echo Sum­mit is burned and the north side of the Bear Val­ley trail in Pt. Reyes is striped and charred. I am begin­ning to feel root­less, and still, my loss doesn’t approach hers. Don’t com­plain. So you weren’t born into a time that’s as sim­ple as you hoped. What are you going to do about it? In real life, I nev­er met her.

Once, in a Joshua Tree camp­ground, just before dawn, I saw five plan­ets strung across the sky in a curve so per­fect I sud­den­ly under­stood how our plan­et is hung in the solar sys­tem, how I am bal­anced on it. I saw how human lives flick­er into exis­tence and then go out, each a match struck in com­plete darkness.

When I let myself real­ly con­sid­er what’s hap­pen­ing to our world, I feel so afraid that the cav­ern with­in me seems so deep it’s bot­tom­less, so dark it’s light­less. All I will ever have is here on this earth, this flam­ing rock, this mirac­u­lous acci­dent. I can’t do any­thing about it, I wish I could tell my great-grandmother.

I imag­ine she’d laugh at me, because young peo­ple have thought the world is end­ing in every gen­er­a­tion, and then I think she’d try to feed me some­thing dis­gust­ing like tongue or liv­er, some­thing that’s been boiled for so long that the win­dows in the apart­ment where we’re sit­ting dur­ing this imag­ined con­ver­sa­tion are fogged up with an almost sol­id film of meat and steam. Puh puh puh, she’d say. She’d pinch my cheek, or hit me on the back of the head just hard enough that I know she loves me.

She nev­er would have let me get away with spit­ting out the bit­ter herbs.

Nao­mi Krupit­sky was born in Berke­ley, Cal­i­for­nia, and attend­ed NYU’s Gal­latin School of Indi­vid­u­al­ized Study. She lives in San Fran­cis­co, but calls many places home. The Fam­i­ly is her first novel.