Only recently did all the pieces come together so that now I can say that mom was Jewish with Jewish parents and grandparents. She dissed Hitler and the Nazis all the time, but with a venom that the usual non-Jewish reductio ad Hitlerum crowd simply does not possess for lack of personal consequences.
Both mom and dad were protective of me, though I think for wildly different reasons. For dad, I think it was because he wanted me to follow in his footsteps on the one hand and didn’t want me to repeat his mistakes on the other. Diversely, mom understood that I would have been in the Nazi camps three times over:
- I’m her son, and therefore Jewish: off to the camps.
- I have an awful hereditary lack of an enzyme whose horrific consequences ending in death for about a third of patients (without medicines only developed in the 1970s) would have had me put down in the camps for that reason alone. No hereditary illness people allowed to live. Combine that with being Jewish and…
- I was born a bit crippley, having a sideways curvature of the spine that I try to hide. Frumpy shirts help. But it’s still enough to get mocked by the more cruel among us if I don’t bother putting in the required effort. I also have a somewhat twisted left-leg, which I also, to my detriment, try to hide. I once ended up on crutches for months not that many years ago, having developed a rather severe radial fracture in the left Tibia because of trying to walk “normal” instead of the way the leg and foot necessitated. Sometimes people ask me about a particular limp, which is more or less pronounced or able to be hidden depending on the day. This crippleyness was already enough to be thrown into the ovens under Hitler, but combine that with the hereditary thing and then the Jewishness as well, and I would top all the lists for the next one to be put down.
I’ve written of this before, that is, the tension between correcting problems that can be corrected and not letting people find out those problems lest the more eugenic minded use me as an example of what to do in view of a “solution” to their own fears.
I’m guessing I had exactly what the little Forrest Gump character had as a kid, that is, special red orthopedic boots with rearranged insides. See the GIF above and this picture of me below. Those are my boots with me on the left. That wasn’t my jacket, which was borrowed just for the picture. Even then I was trying to look “normal” with both feet out straight, which took work to accomplish. It’s my left leg, trailing, that’s messed up:
Dad was taking the picture. I remember that morning well – some 56 years later as I write this. But what about all the bars and such like Forrest Gump, you ask?
One day my mom brought home something special for me, but didn’t tell me what it was. When I wasn’t looking, she simply put a really large paper bag with a big box in it next to the bedroom of my brother and me. For some reason, perhaps from the loving but too solicitous tone of voice she used in telling me to go ahead and look in the package, I was apprehensive, which developed into a sinking feeling that all was not well. I asked permission to sit down near the top of the steps next to the bedroom door. I received an affirmative answer, but had failed in the ulterior motive of my quest to have her peek around the corner and up the stairs to give me even more reassurance. I left some space in front of me to take the package out of the bag and spread out its mysterious contents. But I was now so apprehensive that I just sat there for a minute, unsure of what to do. “You don’t have to open it,” she offered. Then, after a minute: “Did you open it yet?” “Not yet,” said I. She then added again that I didn’t have to open it and that she could just bring it back to where she got it, especially if I didn’t like it. My heart sank all the more as I took everything out of the package.
There were some very special shoes, boots really, which fit right over my ankles, and were reddish brown. I put them on. They fit perfectly, although they felt strange when walking in them. They had multi-level “saddles”, if you will, meant to realign my rather malformed heels. I remembered having been measured for them. At this stage, I didn’t even know how to tie the laces, so young was I. That knowledge would come along quickly enough. But I didn’t know quite what to do with the metal bars which went along the sides of the legs. I guess they were meant to twist my feet and legs around since one foot wanted to be perpendicular to the other.
I remember the whole scene in the orthopedic surgeon’s office quite a while before this, with him warning against the protestations of my mother that if I didn’t wear them, I would have real difficulty walking when I grew older. “He’s going to walk like a duck,” he said, imitating the waddling of a duck with some sarcasm, “you know, all pigeon toed,” he said, placing his feet wildly perpendicular one to to other. “No!” said my mom, all alarmed, but finally gave in to ordering the shoes.
The bars went back in and stayed in the box and I never saw them again. Some forty years later, when an orthopedic surgeon was discussing with me an upcoming surgery on the more twisted leg after it had been totally shattered in an accident, I asked if he could just kind of twist it about so that it would heal a bit straighter. “No,” he said, “the muscles and tendons that you still have wouldn’t know what to do. You would be worse off. Just rejoice in the way God made you.” He was right, of course. A few years later the spiral fracture mentioned above occurred what with the muscles and tendons working way too hard to have the leg walk straight when it actually couldn’t possibly do so. If I have to walk any great distance, my limping becomes exaggerated, even for days at a time, so much so that one of the Vatican Gendarmes, in seeing me walk below the Apostolic Palace in Vatican City, imitated my limping with great lurching steps I couldn’t possibly accomplish. Always good for a laugh, these guys.“You won’t have to wear them forever, just for a while, that’s all,” said my mom in a gentle voice from downstairs, not in view. She couldn’t bear seeing the expression on my face as I realized that I was a cripple of sorts and hadn’t even known about it. Little kids don’t notice such things. I placed the bars along my leg but couldn’t figure out the round bits and how they wrapped under the boots. Clanga-d-bang metallic sounds were abundant. “I don’t know how to put the bars on,” I said. “Just leave the bars in the box… You don’t have to put those on… Just try out the boots,” she said with gentle encouragement. And so, I was able to kick off the bars even before I put them on.
To the point: All this made me think that my mom and I did the wrong thing back in the early 1960s when I was just a tiny little kid, leaving the bars in the box as we did. She just couldn’t bring herself to let it be known that I needed a bit of extra help. She had had an extremely tough life, having some physical difficulties herself, and was scared to death by the Holocaust, and knew that I was her little Jewish boy and a bit of a cripple, and so indicated for the camps many times over.
Mind you, by the time I was trying on those boots and getting confused by the bars, those death camps were closed for some eighteen years and were in places far, far away. Not long enough a time, of course, and never far enough away. She did the right thing for me even when everyone else said it was the wrong thing. Thanks, mom, for loving me.
By the way and just to say, Nazis abound, also back in the day. The German immigrants who built the Cathedral in Saint Cloud, MN, used the buttressing architecture to point to the artistic designs they made with the brickwork highlighting the Swastikas they made on the Cathedral itself, all over the place. After I had made complaints about it, meetings were had, the result of which is that they wanted to keep the Swastikas so as to protect their heritage. It’s never in the distant past. It’s never far away enough. They say they’ve been removed a few years ago. Some? All? “They say” “pre-Nazi”. Pfft. The immigrants came about 150 years ago. So, 1870s. The German Nationalist party (Nazis for short) was long in existence. They were ramping up. The Nazi Swastika reverses the flow of nature, going against everything.
Thanks, mom, for loving me.