The Lost Wifeby Alyson Richman
A rapturous novel of first love in a time of war-from the celebrated author of The Rhythm of Memory and The Last Van Gogh.
In pre-war Prague, the dreams of two young lovers are shattered when they are separated by the Nazi invasion. Then, decades later, thousands of miles away in New York, there's an inescapable glance of recognition between/b>/i>/i>… See more details below
A rapturous novel of first love in a time of war-from the celebrated author of The Rhythm of Memory and The Last Van Gogh.
In pre-war Prague, the dreams of two young lovers are shattered when they are separated by the Nazi invasion. Then, decades later, thousands of miles away in New York, there's an inescapable glance of recognition between two strangers...
Providence is giving Lenka and Josef one more chance. From the glamorous ease of life in Prague before the Occupation, to the horrors of Nazi Europe, The Lost Wife explores the power of first love, the resilience of the human spirit- and the strength of memory.
"Staggeringly evocative, romantic, heart-rending, sensual and beautifully written... may very well be the Sophie's Choice of this generation." — John Lescroart, New York Times bestselling author
"Daringly constructed, this moving novel begins at the end and then, in a fully-realized circle through the most traumatic event of the 20th century, returns you there in a way that makes your heart leap." — Loring Mandel, Emmy-winning playwright and author of Conspiracy
"A love story wrapped in tragedy and survival, I read The Lost Wife in one sitting. Tense, emotional and fulfilling: a great achievement by Alyson Richman." — Martin Fletcher, Winner of the Jewish National Book Award and NBC Special News
- Penguin Publishing Group
- Publication date:
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- Product dimensions:
- 5.30(w) x 7.90(h) x 1.00(d)
- Age Range:
- 18 Years
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Table of Contents
CHAPTER 1 - New York City 2000
CHAPTER 2 - New York City 2000
THE LOST WIFE: Readers Guide
Questions for Discussion
Special Preview of THE GARDEN OF LETTERS
PRAISE FOR THE WORKS OF ALYSON RICHMAN
The Lost Wife
“Daringly constructed, this moving novel begins at the end, and then, in a fully realized circle through the most traumatic events of the twentieth century, returns you there in a way that makes your heart leap. Richman writes with the clarity and softness of freshly fallen snow.”
two-time Emmy Award–winning playwright of Conspiracy
The Last Van Gogh
“The Last Van Gogh is a balanced symphony . . . Richman’s style is gentle and sober. With clear, undulating prose.... it is as evocative as one of Van Gogh’s paintings. Richman proves she can travel through time to re-create the past.”
—En Route Magazine
“The Last Van Gogh paints an intricate portrait of a woman’s life at the end of the nineteenth century . . . it is a powerful and poignant love story.”
“[A] beautiful book.”
“An engrossing examination of the prisons people create for themselves and the way they accustom themselves to suffering until liberation seems as painful as captivity. This is an ambitious exploration of political and personal struggles.”
“A heart-wrenching story of loss and love in the lives of people affected by war and political upheaval . . . [marked by] sharp resonance.”
“Places an Ayn Rand lens on societal ethics against personal loyalty and safety . . . deep, thought-provoking, philosophical questions on the needs of an individual and a family against the demands of deadly leadership and a nation.”
—Midwest Book Review
The Mask Carver’s Son
“Recalls Arthur Golden’s Memoirs of a Geisha . . . Her sense of Japanese culture is subtle and nuanced.”
—San Francisco Examiner & Chronicle
“This reverent, formal and ambitious first novel boasts a glossy surface and convincing period detail.”
“Richman has successfully drawn upon her historical research and her own experience . . . filled with historical detail and strong characterization.”
“A meticulous profile of a man struggling against his native culture, his family, and his own sense of responsibility.”
—The New York Times Book Review
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This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental. The publisher does not have any control over and does not assume any responsibility for author or third-party websites or their content.
Copyright © 2011 by Alyson Richman
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Berkley trade paperback edition: September 2011
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
ISBN : 978-1-101-55254-4
To Charlotte, Zachary, Stephen,
and my parents with love.
With special thanks to the Book Revue.
I am my beloved and my beloved is mine
SONG OF SOLOMON 6:3
New York City 2000
He dressed deliberately for the occasion, his suit pressed and his shoes shined. While shaving, he turned each cheek carefully to the mirror to ensure he hadn’t missed a single whisker. Earlier that afternoon, he had even bought a lemon-scented pomade to smooth his few remaining curls.
He had only one grandson, one grandchild for that matter, and had been looking forward to this wedding for months now. And although he had met the bride only a few times, he liked her from the first. She was bright and charming, quick to laugh, and possessed a certain old-world elegance. He hadn’t realized what a rare quality that was until he sat there now staring at her, his grandson clasping her hand.
Even now, as he walked into the restaurant for the rehearsal dinner, he felt as though, seeing the young girl, he had been swept back into another time. He watched as some of the other guests unconsciously touched their throats because the girl’s neck, stretching out from her velvet dress, was so beautiful and long that she looked like she had been cut out from a Klimt painting. Her hair was swept up into a loose chignon, and two little jeweled butterflies with sparkling antennae rested right above her left ear, giving the appearance that these winged creatures had just landed on her red hair.
His grandson had inherited his dark, unruly curls. A study in contrast to his bride-to-be, he fidgeted nervously, while she seemed to glide into the room. He looked like he would be more comfortable with a book between his hands than holding a flute of champagne. But there was an ease that flowed between them, a balance that made them appear perfectly suited for each other. Both of them were smart, highly educated second-generation Americans. Their voices lacked even the faintest traces of the accents that had laced their grandparents’ English. The New York Times wedding announcement that Sunday morning would read:
Eleanor Tanz married Jason Baum last night at the Rainbow Room in Manhattan. The rabbi Stephen Schwartz officiated. The bride, 26, graduated from Amherst College and is currently employed in the decorative arts department of Christie’s, the auction house. The bride’s father, Dr. Jeremy Tanz, is an oncologist at Memorial Sloan-Kettering hospital in Manhattan. Her mother, Elisa Tanz, works as an occupational therapist with the New York City public schools. The groom, 28, a graduate of Brown University and Yale Law School, is currently an associate at Cahill Gordon & Reindel LLP. His father, Benjamin Baum, was until recently an attorney at Cravath, Swaine & Moore LLP in New York City. The groom’s mother, Rebekkah Baum, is a retired schoolteacher. The couple was introduced by mutual friends.
At the head table, the lone living grandparent from each side was introduced to each other for the first time. Again, the groom’s grandfather felt himself being swept away by the image of the woman before him. She was decades older then her granddaughter, but there was something familiar about her. He felt it immediately, from the moment he first saw her eyes.
“I know you from somewhere,” he finally managed to say, although he felt as though he were now speaking to a ghost, not a woman he had just met. His body was responding in some visceral manner that he didn’t quite understand. He regretted drinking that second glass of wine. His stomach was turning over on itself. He could hardly breathe.
“You must be mistaken,” she said politely. She did not want to appear rude, but she, too, had been looking forward to her granddaughter’s wedding for months and didn’t want to be distracted from the evening’s festivities. As she saw the girl navigating the crowd, the many cheeks turning to her to be kissed and the envelopes being pressed into her and Jason’s hands, she had to pinch herself to make sure that she really was still alive to witness it all.
But this old man next to her would not give up.
“I definitely think I know you from somewhere,” he repeated.
She turned and now showed her face even more clearly to him. The feathered skin. Her silver hair. Her ice-blue eyes.
But it was the shadow of something dark blue beneath the transparent material of her sleeve that caused shivers to run through his old veins.
“Your sleeve . . .” His finger was shaking as it reached to touch the silk.
Her face twitched as he touched her wrist, her discomfort registering over her face.
“Your sleeve, may I?” He knew he was being rude.
She looked straight at him.
“May I see your arm?” he said again. “Please.” This time his voice sounded almost desperate.
She was now staring at him, her eyes now locked to his. As if in a trance, she pushed up her sleeve. There on her forearm, next to a small brown birthmark, were six tattooed numbers.
“Do you remember me now?” he asked, trembling.
She looked at him again, as if giving weight and bone to a ghost.
“Lenka, it’s me,” he said. “Josef. Your husband.”
New York City 2000
She had slid the painting out of its cardboard tube the night before, flattening it like an old map. For over sixty years she had taken it with her wherever she went. First hidden in an old suitcase, then rolled into a metal cylinder and buried under floorboards, eventually pushed behind several boxes in a crowded closet.
The painting was created with thin black and red strokes. A kinetic energy shone through each line, the artist working to capture the scene as quickly as possible.
She had always felt it too sacred to be displayed, as if the mere exposure to light and air or, perhaps worse, the stares of visitors would be too much for its delicate skin. So it remained in an airtight box, locked away like Lenka’s thoughts. Weeks before, while lying in bed, she decided that the painting would be her wedding gift to her granddaughter and her groom.
When the Vltava freezes, it turns the color of an oyster shell. As a child, I watched men rescue swans trapped within its frozen current, cutting them out with ice picks to free their webbed feet.
I was born Lenka Josefina Maizel, the eldest daughter of a glass dealer in Prague. We lived on the Smetanovo nábřeži embankment, in a rambling apartment with a wall of windows overlooking the river and bridge. There were red velvet walls and gilded mirrors, a parlor with carved furniture, and a beautiful mother who smelled like lily of the valley all year long. I still return to my childhood like it was a dream. Palačinka served with apricot jam, cups of hot cocoa, and ice skating on the Vltava. My hair piled underneath a fox hat when it snowed.
We saw our reflections everywhere: in the mirrors, the windows, the river down below, and in the transparent curve of Father’s glasswares. Mother had a special closet lined with glasses for every occasion. There were champagne flutes that had been etched with delicate flowers, special wine goblets with gilded rims and frosted stems, even rubycolored water glasses that reflected pink light when held up to the sun.
My father was a man who loved beauty and beautiful things, and believed his profession created both using a chemistry of perfect proportions. One needed more than sand and quartz to create glass. One needed fire and breath as well. “A glassblower is both a lover and a life giver,” he once told a room filled with dinner guests. He lifted one of the water glasses from our dinner table. “Next time you drink from one of your goblets, think of the lips that created the subtle, elegant shape which you now sip from, and how many mistakes were shattered and recycled to make a perfect set of twelve.”
He would have every guest enraptured as he twisted the goblet to the light. But he had not meant to be a salesman or a spectacle that evening. He truly loved how an artisan could create an object that was simultaneously strong and fragile, transparent, yet capable of reflecting color. He believed there was beauty in both the flattest surface of glass and those rippled with soft waves.
His business took him all over Europe, but he always walked through our front door the same way he left. His shirt white and crisp, his neck smelling of cedar and clove.
“Milačku,” he would say in Czech as he grasped Mother’s waist between two thick hands. “Love.”
“Lasko Moje,” she would answer as their lips touched. “My love.”
Even after a decade of marriage, Father remained beguiled by her. Many times, he returned home with presents bought solely because they reminded him of her. A miniature cloisonné bird with intricately enameled feathers might appear by her wineglass, or a small locket with seed pearls in a velvet box might be placed on her pillow. My favorite was a wooden radio with a brilliant sunburst design radiating from its center that he surprised Mother with after a trip to Vienna.
If I were to close my eyes during the first five years of my life, I could see Father’s hand on that radio dial. The wisps of black hair on his fingers as they adjusted the tuner to find one of the few stations that featured jazz, an exotic and invigorating sound that was just beginning to be broadcast over our airwaves in 1924.
I can see his head turning to smile at us, his arm extending to my mother and me. I can feel the warmth of his cheek as he lifts me and brings my legs around his waist, his other free hand turning mother into a spin.
I can smell the scent of spiced wine wafting from delicate cups on a cold January night. Outside, the tall windows of our apartment are covered in frost, but inside it is warm as toast. Long fingers of orange candlelight flicker across the faces of men and women who have crowded into the parlor to hear a string quartet Father has invited to play for the evening. There is the sight of mother in the center, her long white arms reaching for a small canapé. A new bracelet at her wrist. A kiss from Father. And me peering from my bedroom, a voyeur to their glamour and ease.
There are quiet nights, too. The three of us nestled around a small card table. Chopin on the record player. Mother fanning her cards so only I can see. A smile curled at her lips. Father feigning a frown as he allows my mother to win.
At night, I am tucked in by a mother who tells me to close my eyes. “Imagine the color of water,” she whispers into my ear. Other nights, she suggests the color of ice. On another, the color of snow. I fall asleep to the thoughts of those shades shifting and turning in the light. I teach myself to imagine the varying degrees of blue, the delicate threads of lavender, or the palest dust of white. And in doing so, my dreams are seeded in the mystery of change.
Lucie arrived one morning holding a letter. She held the envelope out to Father, and he read it aloud to my mother. The girl has no previous experience as a nanny, his colleague had written. But she has natural talent with children and she is beyond trustworthy.
My first memory of Lucie is that she looked far younger than her eighteen years. Almost childlike, her body seemed lost in her long coat and dress. But when she first knelt down to greet me, I was immediately struck by the warmth flowing through her outstretched hand. Every morning when she arrived at our door, she brought with her the faint scent of cinnamon and nutmeg, as if she had been baked freshly that morning and delivered warm and fragrant—a delectable package that was impossible to turn away.
Lucie was no great beauty. She was like an architect’s straight edge, all lines and angles. Her hard cheekbones looked as though they had been hammered with a chisel; her eyes were large and black, her lips tiny and thin. But like a dark forest nymph stolen from the pages of an old-fashioned fairy tale, Lucie possessed her own unique magic. After only a few days of working for my family, we all became enchanted by her. When she told a story, her fingers worked the air, like a harpist plucking imaginary strings. When there were chores to be done, she hummed songs that she had heard her own mother sing.
Lucie was treated not as a servant by my parents, but as a member of our extended family. She took all her meals with us, sitting around the large dining-room table that always had too much food. And although we did not keep kosher, we still never drank milk when we ate a dish that had meat. Lucie made the mistake her first week of work of pouring me a glass of milk with my beef goulash, and Mother must have told her afterward that we didn’t mix the two, for I never remember her making the mistake again.
My world became less sheltered and certainly more fun after Lucie’s arrival. She taught me things like how to trap a tree frog or how to fish from one of the bridges off the Vltava. She was a master storyteller, creating a cast of characters from the various people we’d meet during our day. The man who sold us ice cream by the clock in Old Town Square might appear that night at bedtime as a wizard. A woman, from whom we bought apples at the market, might later emerge as an aging princess who had never recovered from a broken heart.
I have often wondered if it was Lucie or my mother who first discovered that I had a talent for drawing. In my memory, it is Mother handing me my first set of colored pencils and it is Lucie, later on, who buys me my first set of paints.
I know it was Lucie who first began taking me to the park with my sketchpad and tin of pencils. She would stretch out a blanket near the little pond where boys sailed their paper boats, and lie on her back and watch the clouds as I drew page after page.
In the beginning, I drew little animals. Rabbits. Squirrels. A redbreasted bird. But soon I was attempting to draw Lucie, then a man reading a newspaper. Later on I began more ambitious subjects, like a mother pushing a pram. None of these first sketches were any good. But just like any young child who is first learning to draw, I taught myself by doing it over and over again. My observations eventually began to connect with my hand.
After hours outside of drawing, Lucie would roll up my sketches and bring them home to our apartment. Mother would ask how we had spent our day and Lucie would take the sketches she loved best and tack them up on the kitchen wall. My mother would carefully look at my work and then wrap me in her arms. I must have been close to six the first time I heard her say: “Lenka, you know I was the same way at your age—I always had a pencil and piece of paper in my hands.” That was the first time I ever heard my mother draw a comparison between us, and I can tell you, as a child, whose dark hair and pale eyes resembled more her father then her elegant mother, the thrill of the two of us sharing something struck me straight to my heart.
That first winter Lucie was with us, Mother wanted to come up with a gift that showed her gratitude. I remember her discussing it with Father. “Do what you think is best, Milačku,” he had said absentmindedly while reading the newspaper. He always gave her free rein when giving gifts, but she always felt she needed to ask permission before she did anything. In the end, she had a beautiful capelet made for Lucie in blue wool with velvet trim. I can still see Lucie’s face when she first opened the package—she was hesitant to accept it at first—almost embarrassed by the extravagance.
“Lenka has one coming, too,” Mother said gently. “What a handsome pair you’ll make skating on the Vltava.”
That evening, Mother caught me watching Lucie from my window as she walked off in the direction of the tram.
“I suppose I will have to order a cape for you tomorrow,” she said, touching my shoulder.
We both smiled, watching Lucie, her body seeming inches taller, as she stepped elegantly into the night.
Although our home was always filled with the melody of clinking glasses and the colors of my drawings, there was also a quiet but palpable sadness within our walls. When Lucie left each evening, and the cook packed up her bag, our spacious apartment seemed too large for our little threesome. The extra room next to mine became filled with packages, baskets, and stacks of old books. Even my old crib and pram were silently pushed into a corner, draped with a long white sheet, like two old ghosts, forgotten and misplaced.
There were stretches of days, whole patches of time, when I remember seeing only Lucie. My mother would take almost all of her meals in her bedroom and, when she did appear, she would look bloated and puffy. Her face showed clear signs that she’d been crying. My father would come home and quietly ask the maid about her. He would glance at the tray outside of her room with the plate of untouched food—the cup and saucer with the tea that had grown cold—and look desperate to bring the light back into his darkened house.
I remember Lucie instructing me not to question these episodes. She’d arrive earlier than usual in the morning and would try to distract me with a few things she had brought from home. Some days she’d pull from her basket a photograph of herself when she was six years old, beside a pony. Other times she’d bring a string of glass beads and braid it into my hair like a garland of twisted ivy. She’d tie a sash of blue silk around my dress and we’d imagine I was a princess who ruled over a kingdom where everyone had to whisper. The only sound we allowed ourselves was the rustle of our skirts as we twirled around the room.
At night, there would be visits from the family doctor, who’d gently close the door of Mother’s room and rest his hand on Father’s shoulder, talking to him in hushed tones. I would watch them, failing to discern what ailment my mother could possibly have that would prevent her from appearing during the day.
As I grew older, it became clearer that these shadows in my childhood were my parents’ difficulties in conceiving another child. We tiptoed around conversations of families where there were many children and I learned not to ask for a brother or sister, for on those few times I did, it had only brought my mother to tears.
Something in our household changed after my seventh birthday. Mother spent weeks with what seemed like a touch of a stomach ailment and then, suddenly, the color in her cheeks returned. In the weeks that followed, she stopped wearing the slim-fitting skirts and jackets that were in vogue, opting for ones that were more loose and flowing. She grew peaceful and her movements became slower and more cautious. But it wasn’t until her belly became gently rounder that she and Papa announced they were to have another baby.
One would have thought that Mother and Father would, after all these years, have celebrated at the announcement that I was to have a baby brother or sister. But they treaded upon the subject with great caution, fearing that any display of excitement or joy could undermine the health of the pregnancy.
This, of course, was a Jewish custom, the fear of bringing a curse on one’s good fortune. Lucie was confused by this at first. Every time she tried to bring up the subject of the pregnancy, my mother would not answer her directly.
“How beautiful and healthy you look,” she’d say to Mother.
To which Mother would just smile and nod her head.
“They say if you crave cheese, you’re having a girl,” said Lucie. “And if you crave meat, it will be a boy.”
Again, only a smile and a nod from Mother.
Lucie even offered to help prepare the nursery in advance, to which my mother finally had to explain her hesitation to do anything until the baby actually arrived.
“We appreciate all your good wishes and offers to help,” Mother explained, gently. “But we don’t want to bring any attention to the baby’s birth, just yet.”
Lucie’s face seemed to immediately register what Mother was saying.
“There are people who believe the same thing in the countryside,” she said, as if suddenly Mother’s behavior finally made sense.
Still, Lucie tried ways to express her joy at my parents’ good news without directly mentioning it. When the lilacs were in bloom that spring, she’d arrive with fistfuls of the fragrant branches, the stems carefully wrapped in strips of wet muslin, and arrange them in vases around the apartment. I remember watching Mother, with her increasingly rounded stomach, walking between each room smiling, as if their perfume had put her into a trance.
Sometimes Lucie would come with a basketful of dark bread that her mother had baked and leave it on the kitchen counter with a jar of homemade honey.
But it wasn’t until the baby was born that her most beautiful gift appeared.
My sister Marta was born at sundown. The doctor came into the living room where Father and I sat on the sofa, and Lucie on one of the red velvet tufted chairs.
“You have another beautiful daughter,” he said to my father.
Father clasped his hands and rushed toward the bedroom. Lucie took his place on the sofa and took my hand.
“So you have a sister now,” she said quietly. “What a gift.”
We waited until Papa said I could come in and see them.
He came back a few minutes later and told us we could both come and see the two of them.
“Lenka, come meet your baby sister.”
Lucie gave me a little push, an unnecessary gesture, as I could have leaped from my chair. All I wanted to do was run into my mother’s room and kiss both her and the new baby.
“Lenka”—my mother looked up from the bundle in her arms and smiled at me in the doorway—“come.” She patted her hand on the bed with one free hand while holding the tightly swaddled baby in her other arm.
I was in awe of the sight of them, but I remember a little pang of jealousy striking my heart when I leaned in and saw the tufts of red hair on my sister’s infant head.
“Congratulations!” Lucie said as she came in and kissed Mother on both her cheeks.
A few minutes later she returned, carrying a stack of embroidered linens. The edges were trimmed in a scallop of looping pink thread.
“I had hidden them in the closet,” Lucie said. “I embroidered one set in pink, and one in blue, just in case.”
My mother laughed. “You think of everything, Lucie,” she said as Lucie set the linens on the night table.
“I’ll let you and Lenka have a few moments with the baby.” She smiled and gave me a pat on my head.
I gazed at my new sister. She was Mother in miniature form. The small rounded chin, the milky green eyes, and the same hair.
My reaction, however, was not what I had anticipated. Tears filled my eyes. I felt a tightening in my throat. Even my heart felt as though someone had thrust their hand inside my chest and was gripping it with all their strength. All I could think of was that I was to be replaced—forgotten—and that all of my parents’ attention would now be directed at this little creature with its angelic face and tiny, reaching hands.
Of course this was not the reality, but the fear still gripped me. And I suppose that is why in the first few months of Marta’s life, I clung so closely to Lucie.
Slowly, I grew to see that Marta’s arrival did not mean I would be replaced. I was soon holding her in my arms. I read her my favorite books and sang her the same songs that had lulled me to sleep.
I also discovered my new sister was the perfect model for my ambitious attempts at portraiture. I used Marta’s first milestones as my inspiration. I started with her sleeping in her pram, and then moved on to her crawling at the beach during summertime. I loved to draw her in pastel. The soft blending of the pigments made it easy to create the roundness of her cheeks, and the length of her growing limbs.
I loved to paint her as well. Marta’s skin was the opaque white of heavy cream, and her hair the deep red of paprika. Those features, which had presented themselves at birth, grew even more pronounced as her baby fat melted away. Marta had the same high forehead as Mother—along with her small straight nose and upturned mouth. As I watched Marta grow before me, it was almost as if I was able to witness my mother’s own transformation from infancy into girlhood.
Marta became more independent with each passing day. Lucie no longer had to get on bended knee to help her with her shoes or constantly change her because she had stained her dress. Her once-chubby body grew long, and her desire to express her own opinion grew as well.
But as Marta grew older, our relationship began to change. She was no longer a little doll that I could dress and pretend to be in charge of. We were rivals not just for my parents’ attention, but also for Lucie’s. And even though there were more than seven years between us, we still would bicker and Marta would often throw tantrums when she did not get her own way.
Still, once Marta turned eight, there was one thing that we had in common that we both loved to discuss more than anything else: Lucie’s love life. After we returned from school, we could spend hours trying to find out if she had a boyfriend. I would pry into who had given her the small gold necklace that suddenly appeared around her neck, or the new silk scarf she tucked underneath the collar of her capelet. And Marta would ask if he was handsome and rich, before bursting into tears and begging Lucie to promise that no matter what—she’d never leave us.
In the autumn of 1934, Lucie announced that she was getting married to a young man by the name of Petr whom she had known since childhood and who now had a job as a clerk at a pharmacy near her parents’ house in Kalin. Mother took the news as if it was her own daughter announcing her engagement.
When Lucie arrived for work the next day, Mother and the seamstress, Gizela, were already waiting for her with a dozen bolts of white silk propped against the walls.
“We’re making you a wedding dress,” Mother announced. “I will hear no words of refusal.”
“Get undressed, down to your slip and corset,” Gizela ordered.
She withdrew three pins from her pincushion and began wrapping the measuring tape, first around Lucie’s bustline, then her waist, and finally her hips.
Lucie trembled as she stood silently in her underclothes.
“Really, this isn’t necessary at all. I’ll wear the dress my sisters wore. Petr doesn’t care if it’s worn or stained!”
“We will not hear of such a thing!” my mother said, shaking her head. She walked over to Lucie, who was quickly getting dressed. Her kiss reminded me of the way she kissed Marta and me.
Lucie wore her family’s lace veil, a simple covering that fell just to her collarbone. Her garland was made from daisies and wild roses. Her bouquet was a mixture of asters and yellow leaves. She walked down the aisle on her father’s arm, the black ringlets of her hair artfully arranged beneath her headpiece, her gaze looking firmly ahead.
We all wept when they exchanged their vows. Petr was as young as Lucie, no more than twenty-five, and I felt giddy for both of them. There was a beauty in how physically opposite they were. He was so much taller than she, with broad, flat features and a head full of blond hair. I noticed how large his hands were when they reached out to lift Lucie’s veil, and how tiny her face was when he lifted her chin. His kiss was light and thoughtful, so quiet and gentle. I saw Mother take Papa’s hand in hers and smile at him as if remembering their wedding day.
They left the church for the reception at her parents’ home. It was a rustic farmhouse with exposed beams and a red tile roof. There were crooked apple trees and fragrant pear trees already in bloom in the garden. A white tent had been erected, the poles wrapped with thick yellow ribbon. On a small, makeshift stand, four men sat playing the polka.
It was the first time I had been to Lucie’s childhood home. She had been with my family for years, yet I knew little of her life outside of the one she shared with us. We were united as tightly as a family, but it was always within our apartment or the city of Prague as the backdrop. Now, for the first time, we were seeing Lucie in her surroundings, with her family and her friends. From the corner of the garden, I gazed at the faces of her sisters and saw how they resembled each other. The small features, the narrow chin, and the high, straight bones in their cheeks and jaw. Lucie and her father were the only ones with black hair, as the rest of the family was fair and blond. They were a loud, noisy bunch compared to us. There were large pitchers of Moravian beer and slivovice—a homemade plum spirit. There were platters of rustic farm food like sauerkraut and sausages, and the traditional dumpling stew.
Marta and I were clapping and laughing with everyone as a circle formed around Lucie and Petr. We could hear the cheers for the ceremonial plate to be smashed. It was a Czech tradition, not so different from the Jewish one of the groom’s breaking a glass. Unlike the Jewish ritual, though, which symbolized our people’s years of sadness, the Czech one was meant to show the unity of the newly wedded couple. After the plate was broken, Petr was given a broom and Lucie a dustpan, and together they cleaned it up to show their future together.
Lucie only stayed with us a year after she got married. She became pregnant in March, and the daily trip to Prague became too exhausting for her. By this time, Marta was nine years old and I was sending out applications to art school. But we missed her greatly. She would still come to visit at least once a month, her belly popping through the blue velvet cape from Mother that she still dutifully wore. She was round like a little dumpling, her cheeks rosy and her hair glossier than ever.
“If I have a girl, I will call her Eliška, after you,” she told my mother. The two of them were now united in that secret sisterhood of mothers, with Marta and me looking on from the outside.
As Lucie’s body changed from her pregnancy, mine finally began changing as well. I had been holding my breath for some time waiting for my body to catch up with the other girls in school—all who seemed to develop before me. That autumn I spent increasingly more time in front of the mirror. I stared at my reflection; the image of the little girl was receding, while a woman’s face and body were coming to the surface. My face, once cushioned with baby fat, was now thinner and more angular, while my body was softer and more curvaceous. In what seemed like a final coup d’état over my body, my breasts seemed to grow several inches overnight and I soon discovered I could no longer close the buttons on some of my blouses.
Part of me wanted to give in to all these changes, overhauling my appearance completely. I came home one day with a fashion magazine and pointed to a photograph of Greta Garbo. “Please, Mama,” I begged. “Let me bob my hair!” I was rushing to be grown up, my head filled with the idea that I could transform into an American movie star overnight. Mother placed down her teacup and took the magazine from me. She smiled. “Keep your braids a little longer, Lenka,” she said, her voice tinged with wistfulness. “It’s taken you years to get your hair this long.”
And so my braids stayed. My mother, however, came to welcome some of the modern trends coming into Prague. She loved the new style of wide-legged trousers, a full blouse peeking out from a high, nipped waist. She bought these fashions for both herself and me, and even had Gizela, her seamstress, make several pairs of pants for us from a pattern book she ordered from Paris.
Unfortunately, my closetful of new, modern clothes failed to alter my perception of myself. I still felt as though I was trapped in a state of awkwardness. I wanted to be more confident and more feminine, but instead I only felt unattractive and insecure. My body seemed completely foreign to me now. For years, I had stared at a girl with braids and a body that seemed like it was cut from a paperdoll book. Now, with the changes of adolescence, I was more self-conscious about how I moved—even how I used my hands to express myself. An arm might now graze my breast when it earlier could move freely in front of me. Even my hips seemed to get in the way when I thought I could squeeze between two chairs.
I tried to focus my attention on my portfolio for art school. This was something that was tangible and something in which I had confidence. In my last year at high school, I had progressed from simple watercolors and pastels to a love of oil paint. When I was not doing homework, I spent my time painting or drawing. Our living room was full of the framed portraits I had done over the years. The small sketches I had done of an infant Marta were now replaced with a large portrait I painted of her in the white dress and pale blue sash she had worn to Lucie’s wedding.
I hoped my portraits could express more than just the appearance of my subject, but their thoughts as well. The hands, the eyes, and the position of the body were like the instruments of a clock, and I only needed to orchestrate them in such a way so as to portray my subject’s inner life. I imagined myself as El Greco, arranging my father in the large recess of his intricately carved chair, the red velvet seat a striking contrast to his black suit. I painted his hands, with the blue ribbons of his veins, the carefully manicured nails, and his laced fingers gently resting on his lap. I painted the blue green of his eyes, reflecting the light. The blackness of his mustache, resting above two closed, pensive lips. My mother, too, offered to sit for me.
Mother’s name, Eliška, when abbreviated to Liska, meant “fox,” and was a nickname my father called her lovingly. I thought of that as I painted her. I asked her to pose in a simple housedress, made of white starched cotton with an eyelet neck and trim on the sleeves. It was the way I loved her most, without her typically powdered face or her elegant wardrobe. My mother, simple and natural. Her pale skin, once revealed, was slightly freckled, like speckles of oatmeal floating in a bowl of milk.
She was always quiet after she studied one of my completed paintings. As if she wanted to say something, but instead held back.
She never spoke of her own time in art school, and certainly there was an air of mystery surrounding her former life as a student. She never displayed the paintings she had done before her marriage. I knew where they were because I had stumbled upon them around the time that Mother first announced she was pregnant with Marta. Lucie and I had gone to the storage cage in the bottom of our apartment building to look for a pump for my bicycle. Each apartment had a small locker, and Mother had given us the key for ours. I had never been down to the basement, and it was like a dark cave filled with everyone’s misbegotten things. We passed old furniture draped in heavy white cloth, leather trunks, and boxes stacked to the ceiling.
Lucie took the key and opened our locker. Papa’s bike was there, along with labeled boxes of china and even more boxes of glasses. We found the pump. It sat next to at least a dozen canvases that rested against the wall, covered by a white sheet.
I remember Lucie moving them cautiously. “I think these are your mother’s,” she said, whispering even though we were the only ones in the basement. Her fingers worked gently to separate each painting so we could both see the images.
Mother’s paintings shocked me. They were not elegant, meticulous reproductions of great masters, or sweet, bucolic landscapes of the Czech countryside. They were sensual and dark, with palettes of plum and deep amber. There was one of a woman reclining on a divan, her pale arm resting behind her head and a naked torso with two rosy nipples and a blanket draped carefully across two crossed legs.
I later wondered about these paintings. The bohemian woman who painted them before she became a wife and mother was not my mother who was running her household upstairs. I tried to revise my image of her, imagining her as a young art student and in the arms of Father when they first met, and wondered if that part of her had disappeared completely, or whether it occasionally resurfaced when Marta and I were fast asleep.
Lucie never mentioned these paintings again. But years later—when I desperately tried to create a full and accurate picture of my mother—I would return to them. For the contrast of the woman and her paintings was impossible to erase from my mind.
I was accepted to Prague’s Academy of Art in 1936, when I was seventeen years old. I walked to school every morning with my sketchpad underneath my arm and a wooden box filled with oil paints and sable-haired brushes. There were fifteen students in my class, and although there were five girls in total, I quickly became friends with two girls, Věruška and Elsa. Both girls were Jewish and we shared many of the same friends from our grade school years. A few weeks into our first semester, Věruška invited me to her house for Shabbat. I knew little about her family except that her father and grandfather were both doctors, and her older brother Josef was now at university.
Josef. I still can see him so clearly. He arrived home that night wet, his curly black hair slick from the rain, and his large green eyes the color of weathered copper. I was standing in the hallway when he first arrived, the maid just slipping my coat from my shoulders. He had come through the front door just as I was heading toward the living room.
“Josef,” he said, smiling, as he put down his book bag and handed his coat to the maid. He then extended his hand to me and I took it, his broad fingers wrapping around mine.
I managed to utter my name and smile at him. But I was battling my constant shyness, and his confidence and good looks had rendered me mute.
“Lenka, there you are!” Věruška chimed as she bolted into the hallway. She had changed from the clothes I had seen her wearing in class that afternoon into a beautiful burgundy dress. She threw her arms over me and kissed me.
“I see you’ve met my brother.” She went over and pinched Josef’s cheek.
I was blushing.
“Věruška.” He laughed and swatted her away. “Go tell Mother and Father I’ll be there in a moment.”
Věruška nodded, and I followed her down the hallway to a large living room where her parents were deep in discussion.
The Kohns’ apartment was not unlike ours, with its antique red velvet walls, the dark brown wooden rafters, and large glass French doors. But there was a somber quality to the household that unsettled me.
My eyes scanned the parlor. Around the perimeter of the room there was evidence of the family’s scholarly life. Large medical journals in heavy bindings were stocked on the shelves along with other collections of leather-bound books. Framed diplomas from Charles University and a certificate of commendation from the Czech Medical Association hung on the walls. An imposing, large grandfather clock chimed to sound the hour, and a baby grand piano sat in the corner of the room. On the sofa, Věruška’s mother sat with a piece of needlepoint on her lap. Short and round, Mrs. Kohn wore simple dresses that hid her soft, plump physique. A small pair of reading glasses dangled over her large breasts, and her hair was wrapped plainly and practically in a bun at the nape of her neck.
Věruška’s father also seemed to wholly contrast with mine. Whereas my father’s eyes emanated warmth, Dr. Jacob Kohn’s were clinical. When he first looked up from his book, it was clear he was surveying whoever stood before him.
“Lenka Maizel,” I introduced myself. My eyes fell to Dr. Kohn’s two perfectly white hands, the nails meticulously filed and clean, as they unclasped and he stood up to greet me.
“Thank you for joining us this evening,” he said, his voice tight with restraint. I knew from my mother that Dr. Kohn was a distinguished obstetrician in the community. “My wife, Anna . . .” He touched her shoulder gently with his hand.
Věruška’s mother smiled and extended her hand to me. “We’re happy to share Shabbat with you, Lenka.” Her voice was formal and exact.
“Thank you. Thank you for inviting me.”
Dr. Kohn nodded and gestured for me to sit down.
Věruška was her bubbly self and plopped down on one of the deep, red sofas. Quietly smoothing my dress over my legs, I sat down beside her.
“So you are studying art with our Ruška,” her mother said.
“I am. And I am in good company. Your Věruška is the great talent of our class.”
Both Dr. and Mrs. Kohn smiled.
“I’m sure you’re being too modest, Lenka,” I heard a soft, low voice say from behind me. It was Josef, who had walked in and was now standing behind his sister and me.
“It is a noble trait, modesty,” Dr. Kohn added. He folded his hands.
“No, it’s true. Věruška has the best eye in our class.” I patted her on her leg. “We’re all jealous of her.”
“How can that be?” Josef asked bemused.
“Oh, make him stop, Mama,” Věruška protested. “He’s twenty years old and still taunting me!”
Josef and I locked eyes. He smiled. My face reddened. And suddenly for the first time in my life, I felt I could barely breathe.
That night over dinner, I could hardly eat a morsel. My appetite had completely vanished and I felt terribly self-conscious with every movement I made at the table. Josef sat to the left of his father, his large shoulders extending past the back of his chair. I am too shy to meet his gaze. My eyes focus on his hands. My own mother’s hands were smooth but strong. Father’s were large and covered in a thin veil of hair. Josef’s hands were unlike the small white hands of Dr. Kohn. They had the musculature one sees in a statue—the wide dorsal, the ribbon of pronounced veins, and the thick strong fingers.
I watched the hands of the Kohn family closely, as if each pair reflected the emotions running through the room. There was a tension during the dinner that was unmistakable. When Dr. Kohn asked his son about his classes, Josef gripped his knife and fork even tighter. His knuckles stiffened, the veins grew even more pronounced. He answered his father succinctly, without any detail, never once taking his gaze off his plate.
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