Searching for Hen*
Lauren is in a tizzy and feels discombobulated once again. The details of the dream are still hovering over her like Mississippi mosquitoes on a humid summer evening. Her body is soaked with sticky droplets of sweat, and her pillow is damp from the unconscious tears her eyes have squeezed out in the siege that has just taken place within her mind. Though she has had this recurring dream for a number of years, it never fails to move her again with its thundering reality. She thinks about it once more as she lingers in bed hovering between that state of drowsy sleepiness and a more alert state of wakefulness. In her dream,
The sky is so gray on this morning that the horizon seems indistinguishable from the clouds above. The black smoke arises periodically as the planes above drop their bombs. There are fires burning in the oil fields nearby. The noise, though deafening, does not affect the young woman. She simply trudges forward with her torn black bag in one hand and two small children in the other. The children appear to be around four and six—a boy and a girl. Their faces are grimy and almost blackened, matching their dark black hair, olive skin, and ebony eyes. Their hands are cold enough to chill a bottle of wine. The empty remains in the woman’s stomach make gurgling noises and periodic piercing sounds, and she begins to imagine the meals her family used to enjoy at home. The Shabbot meal had been just two days ago (but she asks herself, as if a voice is entering her consciousness from a world not her own, “How do you know anything about Shabbot since you are a born and bred American Southern Baptist?”); nevertheless, she lives and relives that succulent moment—roasted lamb, potatoes, carrots, and challah. After dinner, she had gone to the cupboard and removed a precious possession: a little brown bag containing the finest coffee available in Vienna. She served her husband from the silver coffee pot, a family heirloom. She sees the tiny room before her with its lit candles, giving it a ghostly, iridescent glow. Now, however, she looks up when she hears and then sees the single engine enemy fighter nosediving toward the ground about 500 feet from them. The old woman ahead of her screams “Hannah, hurry, Hannah” as she looks back at the young woman. She wonders why the old woman’s calling her that when her name is Lauren. She, in turn, screams at the strange children beside her “Children, quickly, on the ground now!” and she sees their deer-in-the-headlight eyes looking into hers, hoping somehow that she can save them.
Lauren stirs languidly in her bed knowing that the 1970’s radio alarm clock beside her bed will soon jar her fully awake. She has chosen to place it several feet from her bed so that she can’t go back to sleep without getting up and turning it off. She sees the red letters of the clock announcing that it is almost seven a.m.
She thinks about her recent conversation with her sister about this dream as she goes to the bathroom to brush her teeth and get ready to shower. As she looks into the mirror, she closely studies her face, “How did I get so old?” she wonders to herself. It was just last week that she had the dream conversation again with Ann Carolyn, who is two years older than her, “I am Jewish and am walking in the countryside somewhere when these bombs are exploding everywhere and a plane crashes into the ground and then . . .,” Lauren says to her as they are riding around the curves in eastern Oklahoma, way too fast, in Ann Carolyn’s new burgundy SUV to eat dinner at Cory’s Steakhouse, just about fifteen minutes from their respective houses back in Magnolia.
Ever the Southern listener to stories, Ann Carolyn can never keep from interrupting Lauren to ask for more details to the story than she has offered. “How do you know she’s Jewish?” she inquires.
“Well, obviously she doesn’t have a mirror with her at such a crucial time, but I just assume she is Jewish since everyone else around her seems to be.”
Since her question that night, Lauren has been thinking once more about her and Ann Carolyn’s shared childhood experiences. Mama and Daddy were divorced when they were four and Ann Carolyn was six. According to all the family stories (primarily from their Mama’s perspective), their Daddy was a compulsive gambler from the very beginning. The first week of their marriage he took $25 Mama had given him to repay a loan at the Natchez bank and gambled it away instead. After that, he took up drinking and became an alcoholic and then even later than that, he became a womanizer. It was only when he started to become physically abusive to her and Ann Carolyn and Lauren that Mama decided they had to part ways forever. Only Mama didn’t fare so well either emotionally after the split. She had to go to work as a waitress and work long hours to support them. By the time Lauren was eleven, Mama was bordering on clinical depression and sent Ann Carolyn and Lauren to her mother’s house to live.
When Ann Carolyn and Lauren get together to remember fondly about their common childhood, it is as if Ann Carolyn had another upbringing entirely. She does not seem at all traumatized while Lauren goes around announcing her childhood traumas even to a stranger on a street corner waiting for a city bus to come by, “Did you know that when I was five and in an elementary play in school my mother berated me all the way home for not smiling during the performance? Now, I ask you, ‘What did I have to smile about?’”
On the other hand, she can hear Ann Carolyn reminiscing about Gram’s cooking and the fact that she cooked all her meals on high heat over her gas range (often risking sending the small white frame house into flames she shared with the two teenaged girls). Ann Carolyn remembers Gram’s sewing for them during their teenaged years and fashioning lots of lovely polished cotton dresses while Lauren remembers only that Gram used one sized pattern only—a size 14 (due to her limited finances) that would supposedly fit the three of them. Only Gram weighed 165 pounds for her 5’4” frame, and Lauren was a size three at the time and felt like she had several flour sacks draped across her body.
Today, after getting dressed for the office, Lauren goes downstairs and puts on a pot of decaf coffee, the only kind that doesn’t make her heart flutter. She sits at the breakfast room table and glances over the news in the local paper, reading headlines in her small town like, “Governor Says Consolidation of Schools Coming with a sub-headline below, “Only Way Out of State’s Budget Crisis” and “City Board Disagrees on Development of Park at City Lake.” She stares blankly at the printed words before her. Lately, Lauren’s been drawn to Jewish culture and even become obsessed by it she’d say. Her interest paralleled, she supposed, the beginning of THE DREAM some years back. The university where Lauren worked as an administrative assistant, no longer a secretary, hosted Jewish writer Chaim Potok as a guest for a writers series in 1994. All of the English professors and many townspeople read his most well-known novels in preparation for his visit, The Chosen, The Promise, and My Name is Asher Lev. Always a voracious reader, a trait inherited from her Mama who spent hours in the bed, Lauren made sure she went out and bought the books as well. One of the statements she remembers, that he repeated several times during his visit at the college, is “in the particular, we find the universal.” She, like Miniver Cheever, had “thought and thought and thought” about that statement. She finally concluded that in relationship to his novels, it meant that, even though the reading audience may not be Jewish, the themes apply to all of humanity—third personal plural. Like Danny, Reuven, and Asher, it seemed like Lauren had been searching all her life for who she is and who she still was to become. What she didn’t often do though was search for who she was—her history.
She started thinking more about searching for herself; after all, she was middle-aged (many would say “way beyond middle-aged), and she was already way behind in progressing naturally through her developmental ages. The age of rebellion should have ended in her twenties, and she should have settled into her BOOP period, Becoming One’s Own Person. She had read lots of self-help books in developmental psychology. Yet here she was—often still angry at others, especially in her church and college. She often displayed impatience with her male colleagues on the staff who seemed unaware that a women’s movement had affected American society. “Joe, please don’t call us women girls!” She’d chastise at the diversity committee meeting. “What if we went around calling you guys who have doctoral degrees boys!” she’d whine.
Almost by accident, she got an invitation to visit a Jewish university in the Chicago area. She went there to learn about their computer advising system for students. She remembers being somewhat shocked to realize men and women were educated separately rather than in a co-ed environment. It reminded her of her childhood in southern Arkansas during the 1950’s when the Negroes were subjugated to the white population; “separate but equal” was a common cliché that she had often reacted to even as a teenager, but she could not explain why. She thought, “I guess within me I knew as an American the Declaration of Independence had long ago declared us all equal but yet we still were not—either Negroes or women.” As a child Lauren often got strange looks both from her Southern classmates and their parents when asked, “Who do you think was the greatest President?” Her response was always, “Abraham Lincoln because he freed the slaves.” During the trip to the Jewish university, she also had reacted to the strict dress code for women—no bare arms could be shown—and the fact that, when the kosher dinner was served, the men only stood to pray repetitively while the women just chatted and waited until the prayers were over.
In 1998, Lauren received an announcement about a Modern Jewish Literature conference in Perth, Australia . Since Chaim Potok had visited her university, she decided to write a paper, really just a pretend paper since she wasn’t a professor, on the concept of “the other” in The Chosen once more using Danny and Reuven as examples of those not only being marginalized and excluded from the larger Ango culture but also by the Hassidic Jewish culture as well.
By the spring of 2000, she had become so interested in Jewish culture that she found herself teaching a continuing education class in Magnolia (she had a handful of little old ladies with white hair) in Modern Jewish Literature featuring those Jewish greats as Woody Allen, Bernard Malamud, Saul Bellow, and Wendy Wasserstein, in addition to a few Australian writers she had become familiar with while dreaming about flying to Australia for that conference—Sandra Goldbloom and Abraham Biderman.
Yet, periodically the old dream still came—with new details even more startling:
They make love and then fall asleep quickly in the barn-like quarters in the war front. Hannah can hear the bombs still falling and exploding outside the window, which is broken into several pieces. He arises from the crudely-made bed in a house only peasants could live in. He takes his pants from the wooden chair beside the bed and puts them on, followed by his jacket. Hannah notices the uniform is German with several medals attached to the left front of the coat. She looks down at the floor and sees two children sleeping still at the foot of the bed on a dirty mat which she had hastily spread underneath them the night before. She whispers to them quietly, “Get up; we have to go again,” as he goes out the front door of the one-room house. He throws a few coins on the crude wooden table beside the door.
Lauren decides she has procrastinated enough and must get out the door soon for work when the front door swings open (people in small Southern towns still don’t lock their doors at night). Ann Carolyn walks into the kitchen and pours herself a cup of coffee.
“Just wanted to drop by and see if we can go to the mall tonight after work,” she announces as she hangs around the breakfast table and sees the doodling Lauren has been unconsciously making as she thought about her dream—planes in the sky, bombs falling, and a stick mother with two stick children. “Just stop it, Lauren, get a grip. You’ve got to quit obsessing over this stupid dream. People are going to think you’ve lost your mind. Be rational, would you? Do you even truly know a Jewish person either now or in the past?”
“Well,” Lauren said after a period of silence, “Remember those two Jew boys in Magnolia in high school? You know the ones whose parents had that department store on the square? What were their names . . . oh, now I remember, Levi and Daniel Goldstein. Remember those funny little skull caps they wore on their heads sometimes?”
“You’re impossible!” was Ann Carolyn’s only response. She then returned to her initial question, “Do you want to go to the mall tonight or not?”
The sisters agreed upon the time and place, and Ann Carolyn left just as quickly as she had come into the room, coffee cup in her hand half drunk at this point.
Her sister probably wants to check out what Lauren wants for her birthday, she begins to think; after all her birthday is coming soon—on November 5. Lauren and Ann Carolyn were both born during the war to her mother and father, who by the way did not have to go to the war because of an injury he received when he was kicked by a cow as a young teenager. Her mother had always said, “I wish Jim had gone to the war. It might have matured him.” Lauren begins thinking about what happened on the day she was born, not just what happened in America, but what was going on during the war in Europe. Maybe she can write a short story about her Daddy going to the war and being a hero. She could see the plot details already in her mind: young married man forms camaraderie with his war buddies, big siege with the enemy, surprises everyone by his dauntless courage in grabbing a grenade before it explodes, loses a leg, comes home a real man. She decides to do an internet search when she gets to the office and look for some war details since she knew so little about the war. Unconsciously, again she returns in her mind to the Hannah story as she boots up the computer in her office:
Hannah is back in the fields swarming with light planes dropping bombs like marbles from an unseen hand through smoke-covered skies. The oil smells begin to choke her, and she coughs into her handkerchief with the sign of David embroidered upon it while she covers her nose. She looks up to see only one small fighter plane coming directly toward her and the two children who grasp her hands tightly and begin screaming, “Mama, mama, mama. Hen, hen, hen.”
Lauren now enters her password “Bellow,” and selects “Internet Explorer.” After selecting Yahoo as a search engine, she puts in “November 5, 1944” for fun just to see what happened on her birthday some fifty-seven years ago. Since she gets so many hits with such a generic date, she adds the words “World War II” for an Advanced Search. Immediately, she sees before her on the computer screen several items of interest: a “World in Flames” photographic image including one Cpl. Carlton Chapman, a machine gunner in an M-4 tank, peering out of his armored vehicle; an “After Action Report” by an anonymous World War II soldier, which speaks of bad food, weak tea, and dreadful company; a love letter signed by a Berts to his Honey and their boys back home in which he promises to give Honey everything she deserves and that “one of these days this will all be behind us,” and a Danish announcement which seemingly refers to 6000 people being arrested upon their return to wherever by the Gestapo. Lauren is ready to give up and begin her day’s work, which is stacked into a neat pile beside her computer when— she sees it on the screen before her: the record of bombing missions. She anxiously scrolls as quickly as possible through the eleven-page document until she gets to November 5, 1944, where she reads, “Another ‘double header’ was flown on 5 November. One formation, led by Major Donovan, attacked the Florisdorf Oil Refinery at Vienna, Austria. Again the bombing was done by the pathfinder method and again the results were unobserved. Of the twenty-five single engine enemy fights, which made one pass at the formation between Lake Balaton and the target, one was destroyed, one probably destroyed, and four damaged. Damage due to flak over the target was extremely light for the Vienna area.”
All she can focus and refocus on are the words before her which she finds herself whispering repeatedly under her breath, “results [of the bombing] were unobserved” . . . “results [of the bombing] were unobserved” . . . “results [of the bombing] were unobserved.” She can’t wait to see Ann Carolyn after work.
*The name “hen” is the Hebrew word for “mercy.” It is also the diminutive name for “Hannah.”
(photo by Amanda Waits)