Lee Carson
Lee Carson

The Worse That Threatens

I made no move to turn on the oven or the space heater to warm our apartment. This was part of my morning custom, but partaking in custom could not possibly matter. So we sat there, freezing.

When my child woke up, I told her the news. My husband fetched a bowl four seconds before I vomited. Then I brushed my teeth and brushed her hair into braids—“blue ribbons for Hillary, Mama.” I pulled on sweatpants and we wandered down our front steps to walk our daughter to school.

My husband clutched my hand to hold me upright as we proceeded south in the steady drizzle. My child ran to catch up with her best friend; they giggled and hugged, and this sight—along with the vision of morning commuters who were showered and perfumed and coherent in their comportment, still obeying laws of outward conduct, following social mores—confounded me.

Children congregated in the school-yard and their teacher called out for them to line up for class.

I sat on a wet bench and watched the kindergarten ducklings march one by one into the building.

What could they possibly learn today?

 

A few weeks after the election, on a pearl gray morning, I walked back down to my daughter’s school, clutching a picture book. I was to read to a class of twenty-four children, and for the occasion I had chosen a book called The Tiger Who Came to Tea. I hoped the book would hold charm for them, as it always had for me, but I had other motivations.

The Tiger Who Came to Tea was written and illustrated by Judith Kerr. Kerr was born in Berlin in 1925 to Jewish intellectuals. Her mother composed music and her father wrote essays and theatre reviews. He was an outspoken critic of Hitler, and when the Nazis began to consolidate power in 1933, the family fled their house and their happy, middle-class life. After being tipped off by a friend to the impending seizure of their passports, they boarded a train for Switzerland just a few days before the Nazis arrived at their doorstep. A week later, their possessions were confiscated and all of Alfred Kerr’s books were burned in the street, along with those of Einstein—a close friend of his—and many other Jewish thinkers and writers.

The Kerr family soon moved to Paris and eventually to London—after America refused them entry—where they narrowly survived the Blitz. Their “adventures” are chronicled in Kerr’s war trilogy for young adults, the first book of which is called When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit. In the books, she recounts their lives as refugees: their good fortune, her parents’ sense of adventure, but also their hardships and the erosion of her parents’ sanity. They saved their children, who went on to live full and happy lives, but they themselves were never able to assimilate, to lose their accents, to rebuild the artistic life they had, by necessity, abandoned. They remained “foreigners” even after the war and their return to Germany, isolated by so many years of displacement and grief-stricken at all they had lost. Because the couple possessed neither legacy nor momentum, they could never return to their former selves. Both attempted suicide in their later years, her father succeeded and her mother was hospitalized for a time.

Is there any way to make sense of such tragedy, of such sacrifice? How could Kerr contend with these realities: her narrow escape from certain deportation to a concentration camp and the disintegration of her parents—once glamorous and admired? You cannot make emotional sense of the ravages of a fascist government, of course. The human brain cannot imagine the full measure of human grief, nor hold all the many injustices of the world. It is simply too much to conceptualize. But by writing, you can in some measure gain control of a reality that as a whole is unfathomable. By writing, you can break down pieces of the story and process them one at a time.

Kerr wrote; she drew as well. The Tiger Who Came to Tea was her first effort, and it was published to great success in 1968.

 

Here’s what happens in The Tiger Who Came to Tea: One day a little girl named Sophie and her mother are having tea in the kitchen when there’s a ring at the door. They ponder who it might be, rejecting the usual suspects. It isn’t the boy from the grocer because it isn’t the right day, and it can’t be the milkman because he’s already been. It can’t be Daddy, they decide, as he has his key.

They open the door, and there stands an enormous tiger, who asks to join them, as he’s “very hungry.” Sophie’s mother admits him immediately, and the tiger promptly eats through their whole food supply.

Sophie’s mummy said: Would you like a sandwich? But the tiger didn’t take just one sandwich. He took all the sandwiches on the plate and swallowed them in one big mouthful. OWP.” And so on. He even drinks all the water in the tap. Once he has drained their resources, he leaves as suddenly as he arrived: “Thank you for my nice tea,” he says. “I think I’d better go now.”

Despite the tiger’s pillaging and indifference to his hosts, the illustrations depict a little girl instantly enamored of the intruder. She strokes his tail while he laps up their water, she gazes at him lovingly, chin in hands, while he plunders their supply closet. Sophie is smitten. How has the tiger managed this psychological tyranny? How does an invader persuade you to sit quietly, even admiringly, while he steals from you?

When Daddy arrives and is briefed on the terror that has reigned in his absence, he suggests that they make a special night of it, dining out at a café. There is more than a hint of joyful transgression in this response: We see Sophie ambling down a London street in her nightgown after dark, taking in the glittering shop windows long past her bedtime, and dining on chips and ice cream. They have turned domestic calamity into a lark; Kerr is surely giving a nod to her own parents’ talent for infusing their life as refugees with a sense of adventure.

Still, Kerr rejects the notion that The Tiger Who Came to Tea has sinister undertones or that her tiger is a stand-in for the Nazis who invaded her home and gutted it just after her family’s escape. She says it was merely a bedtime story for her daughter, who loved to visit the tigers at the zoo.

 

The class had many questions after I read the story. Was it a good tiger or a bad one? Why didn’t Sophie and her mother shout at the tiger when he stole their food? Was it stealing if he was invited in? At the book’s end, Sophie and her mummy buy a tin of tiger food in case he should come back, but, we are told, he never did. The class puzzled over whether that was a sad or happy thing.

All their questions were good questions. I wished I had the answers. And that was how, in this brief visitation with a class of young children—by using a picture book to lend shape and coherence to my pain—I began to work through my election turmoil. The feeling was akin to the untethered sensation of a homesick child, or the acute grief set off by a romantic breakup. It stretched over my sleep, as though a burlap sack were blotting out the stars, the sky, the night air. I awoke in hopelessness and managed my day one task at a time. I stood in my kitchen one evening, stirring spaghetti sauce in a pot. My daughter was drawing a picture at the dining room table, and while engaged in her task, she sang.

This land is your land.
This land is my land.
From California.
To the New York Islands.

Each day was a struggle to hide my tears and remember I had a child to raise. We sat side by side at our corner bodega after school. My daughter admired the first flurries of snow, as Bing Crosby poured out through tinny speakers.

She gulped hot chocolate and waved at friends walking up the block. I stared at her dully, trying to locate our spot on the map. Could it really be Christmastime, were people really marching down the street with trees, taking them up front stoops and draping them against fireplaces or propping them up in corners? It seemed a hollow pageant, even a dangerous one. While we arranged bright ribbons on freshly cut spruce trees, a storm was gathering that could not be shut out by front doors. I shrank, horrified, at the unseemly juxtaposition.

 

By early December, my distress had not dissipated—my husband said that I sounded like a teakettle each morning. I wailed under the covers, but still, my child detected me. I could hear my husband saying, “Mommy is okay, she’s just turned into a teakettle for a few minutes!” Clearly, I needed some help.

I began making a daily pilgrimage to our local bookshop. The tradition had actually begun on election night, when I wandered—dazed—to the most familiar and cozy place I knew of, longing for the narcotic haze of freshly printed pulp. In my subsequent trips, I began to seek something more than relief: I was trying to make the world—so violently torn apart and upended—sit, to quote Fitzgerald, “at a kind of moral attention.” I looked for books about fear, about battles, about foes. I needed primers on the big concepts: right and wrong, decency, courage. I sought not only to process my grief, but to find a precedent for it.

It is well known that Robert Kennedy turned to Greek mythology to emotionally survive his brother’s assassination. In moments of both personal and national crisis, when we are faltering and crumbling, we need a bulwark. He found courage in Edith Hamilton who, in describing the purpose of this ancient form of storytelling, wrote: “When the world is storm-driven and the bad that happens and the worse that threatens are so urgent as to shut out everything else from view, then we need to know all the strong fortresses of the spirit which men have built through the ages.”

I found myself seeking answers in more quotidian literature. I had begun with a picture book, and it had inspired a quest for more words and images that could help me find this “fortress of the spirit.” Without one, I was defenseless against whatever oppression lay in wait.

 

My daughter sprang from the bed the other day and shouted, “Turn it off! We can’t look at him!” I’d finally turned the television on for the first time in weeks, even though I knew a political show would likely run a clip of him. And there he was: the tiger. My daughter had watched me rush to switch off the picture for a whole year. She had learned from me to endow a two-dimensional image with power. She had learned—from me—to be afraid.

Judith Kerr draws scenes of cozy domesticity shot through with streaks of surrealism. “Look at the tiger who came to tea,” Kerr once said. “It’s not really a tiger at all.” And it isn’t—it’s more like an overgrown, floppy orange cat with a devilish grin. Kerr can draw realistically; but that’s not where her vision took her.

I took my daughter in my arms. I told her that although Mommy had been crying a lot, we would no longer be afraid of the tiger. How could we be afraid, I continued, of such a silly man, of a man who makes no sense when he speaks and doesn’t understand anything about being a grownup? I picked up some juice from this; when we comfort our children we are usually reassuring ourselves, of course. So, we played a game: My husband and my daughter and I took turns making fun of him. My five-year-old’s impression was hands-down the best. By swinging her arms and making faces—for at least that moment—she dispatched him, imprisoning him in the land of farce.

 

My mother telephoned the other night. She suffers from dementia; her short-term memory does not exceed a few seconds. I often feel it is a great waste of time to chat with her. The conversation will be forgotten instantly, the words exchanged will be of no solace to her even ten seconds after we hang up the phone. I’m often impatient with her—the Alice-in-Wonderland loops of conversation can be exhausting.

But last night I was long on compassion, as I have been since November 8th, when the world’s axis tilted and the chairs slid off the deck of our collective boat. Everyone deserves a comfortable place to sit, regardless of whether there’s reward in offering a seat—I must not allow myself to decide that my efforts with her are only valuable if she remembers them. I can offer my love without condition, that my world will sit “at moral attention.” I will get no receipt for my time; my mother will have no memory that marks the occasion for her. When battling indifference such compensations must not be considered, and never more have I felt the need to battle indifference in any form.

“Do you have five minutes?” my mother asked.

My daughter had to be bathed, the dishes had to be done, the house was a mess, and bedtime was going to be late if I tarried.

“Of course, Mom,” I said.

“I’m lonely and I’m frightened that you aren’t coming, that you aren’t still here,” she said.

Reality is fragile for people who suffer from dementia: They never stand on solid ground because they have no memory of their pasts or insight into their futures. In the last weeks, I have grown intimate with the primal fear of not knowing what the future holds and equally aware of how one can lose touch quickly with even the recent past when the future is threatening. Perhaps I understand a bit better the darkness my mother has navigated for nearly a decade.

My daughter was laughing loudly in our living room, so, cradling the phone, I moved into her bedroom to hear my mother better. Absently, my fingers wandered the books in her small library. While my mother chatted, I plucked a pretty picture book called Emma’s Poem from the shelf.

“Mom, do you remember Emma Lazarus? She wrote the poem in the voice of the Statue of Liberty? The poem that’s on the plaque inside the statue? Schoolchildren recite it.”

“Of course I remember her.”

She didn’t—not anymore—but no matter.

“She was Jewish.” (I knew my mother would like that.)

“Oh!”

“Here, let me read you some of this picture book about her.”

“But I can’t see the pictures over the phone.”

“The words will summon the pictures, Mom.”

And so I read from Emma’s Poem, by Linda Glaser. I read it like an incantation. I sat on my child’s bed and recited the last few lines as I gazed into the blackness of night outside the window, as though the words might light up the street and offer solace to the whole world and not just to my mother.

Despite the hemorrhage that destroyed most of her memory, a few etchings have remained on the coiled folds of my mother’s once formidable brain. Still, I was surprised when she interrupted my recitation and murmured over the phone line:

Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!

 

I live on a quiet street. It is narrow and filled with faded brownstones and worn sidewalks. People say our street looks like one in a picture book. I walk home in early evening, as the December sun drops off. Christmas lights sparkle in the windows; tiny trees with hopeful red bows sit on most stoops. On these twilight walks I hear the chatter of schoolchildren and the murmur of tired parents discussing plans for dinner.

When the blackness of winter descends, small signs of ordinary life are especially pleasing. People use the decorative rituals of Christmas as if to wave at their neighbors and call out, “We are still here!” The human race resists obliteration; our spirits are not so easily destroyed.

 

Was it a good tiger or a bad tiger? This was what the children asked me, seeking moral clarification.

“I don’t know, do you think it is good or bad to ask yourself in and then eat all the food?” I replied.

The morning I read to the class, I stood fidgeting in the bathroom for several minutes first, removing and restoring a pin that had been affixed to my blouse every time I left the apartment. It was a Hillary Clinton campaign button, featuring a photo of her speaking for The Children’s Defense Fund. Since the election, wearing the pin had become a ritual; it allowed me to walk down the street with a straight back. Part of the narrative of an election is that someone lost, and that all those who supported that someone lost, too. Announcing publicly that I stood in opposition to the “winner” was my first act of resistance. It was the only way I could cast off a surprising feeling akin to shame and to look people in the eye. When I wore the pin, the ground beneath me felt more solid.

Yesterday the man who runs the fruit stand near my home nodded at my pin as he bagged my grapes. “I like Hillary. She is a nice person,” he said. We smiled at each other.

On the way home I stopped at a magazine stand, run by a recent immigrant. I asked if he had the December Vogue—the one that featured Michelle Obama on its cover. “Last one,” he said, and handed it to me. “And what will happen now?” he asked.

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