We were sitting at a picnic table at a park in Lake George, NY having taken a break in the long drive from our home in Brooklyn to Montreal, Canada to visit my paternal grandmother whose admission to the U.S. had been denied at Idlewild airport due to visa problems. My father drove his powerful new Rocket 88, two tone “Champagne gold” and ivory ’58 Oldsmobile. It had quilted upholstery sheathed in plastic that made sucking sounds as we lifted our bare legs.
We chattered in the sunshine.
Suddenly I noticed a gray-haired couple at a nearby table.
They wore suits and seemed oddly out of place at the lakeside spot.
They stared at us. We stared at them.
I don’t know who spoke first, probably my father.
One word, then two.
They seemed to be measuring us, as we were them.
Finally, the ice was broken.
My father said something in German. They answered in German. A few more words were exchanged. The woman said something about my sister’s and my blonde hair. An inquiry. A recognition. And then we knew. They were also Jews.
“We thought you were SS!” the woman said to my father. “We were looking under your arm for a tattoo!”
In our family of Holocaust survivors, there were certain words that provoked immediate reaction.
“De Daitche”, The Germans. And “SS”, The Nazi killers.
Although I was a child and had not been told about the war, I knew what my family and their friends meant about when they used those words. These were the names of the enemy, the people who had tried to kill the Jews.
Though fully American, identifying with television cowboys and cowgirls, I had a foot in two words, the lost world of my parents and the surging, new world of mid-century America. My childhood was a struggle to respect their histories while attempting create ones of my own.
But then, at that moment, in bucolic Lake George, NY, it was clear which world predominated as two families, united by the power of memory, shared a sense of wonder at life.