Aug 29, 2016
When I was a child, probably aged 9, I moved with my parents and little sister into a two-family house in Pittsburg, Pennsylvania. It was an extended household, extended family kind of situation.
There was a family downstairs. The family, as almost everybody in the neighbourhood was and we were, were Jewish. And they were Holocaust survivors, as were half to two-thirds of the neighbourhood where I grew up. As is true in chilldhood, what’s a given is simply natural to you. It’s only when you look back “Oh, that was quite an extreme or different kind of experience than most other people have.”
I grew up right at the end of WW2, knowing so many people in the neighbourhood who had survived the Nazis and the concentration camps, hiding and running for their lives for years. The woman who lived downstairs, in particular, she had two sons. So I was kind of the daughter she never had. And I became her confidante. I was a shy introverted girl, so I was happy to come home from school and to have somebody to cocoon with.
She would be downstairs baking. My mother was working at that time, which was kind of unusual for that generation. But you know, the woman downstairs was kind of the mother figure when I came home. She would bake and we would sit at her kitchen table and she would tell me story after story after story about what she had endured in Poland and her family, some of whom survived, some of them didn’t.
And later in my life, I came to understand that, on the one hand, hearing at such a young age, all that she, and so many others in the neighbourhood where I grew up, went through was traumatic and probably inappropriate, on a certain level, for a young child, to be holding that experience and narrative.
On the other hand, because I was facing somebody who had survived and was such resilient and thriving person, it helped me understand at the same time, in a kind of unconscious way that imprinted on me the notion that you could go through the most harrowing kinds of ordeals and come through intact. Somehow, with your dignity intact, with your love of life intact. It wasn’t that she didn’t continue to suffer and didn’t continue to need ongoing treatment all her life. Nobody comes through unscathed. But something in her, I could feel immediately, was kind of beyond harm. And that was kind of an important thing for me to bear witness to as a small child.
Later in life, as I began to write, because I’ve been a novelist for most of my working life, and a teacher of fiction writers, primarily, and now memoirists, that notion of bearing witness was something I realise I learnt from her. The power of it, the necessity of it. Also the way in which it gave me faith in something in myself that would be sustained no matter what life might ask me to meet or the suffering I would go through.
So she came to mind immediately when you said do you have a story. And she was the storyteller too. That’s the other thing she modelled for me too. She told story after story after story.
After telling this story, Joyce reflects on what it means to her. She talks about the notion of bearing witness and about resilience.
To bear witness means to just make the time to listen to someone else’s story and to see that as a task and a goal and an activity in and of itself. Because there’s some way in which we nourish each other when we make room in our lives to hear what the other has experienced. That’s a kind of relaxed time. In order to really bear witness to another, you have to be there not just with your ears, but open heartedly. You have to be willing to be vulnerable, to be impacted.
I think she was particularly important to me as kind of an example of somebody who had a certain kind of emotional stamina. My parents were somewhat fearful people and I myself was kind of an introverted, easily anxious child. So it was a gift for me to spend daily time in the presence of somebody who had been through more horror than I could possibly have imagined surviving. Something in her had survived, had thrived in spite of what she had been through. It’s probably a human thing.
[Suffering] is necessarily going to destroy you or break you. It may actually show you resources in yourself that you didn’t know you had. And there are ways to support yourself and other people, formally and informally, to be able to turn a light for people onto their own strengths that are sometimes out of sight, taken for granted, not really celebrated.
I was a listener from an early age and found quite a bit of solace from the quality of her voice. It almost didn’t matter what she would have been telling me. There was something about the way she spoke. There was a kindness and presence in her voice. It was quite nourishing.
Having come so early to the knowledge of what human beings can do to each other in this world has made me very attuned to the notion of human rights and civil rights. That’s an area of life I’ve been very active in as an adult. I’ve always seen [her storytelling] only as a gift.
Joyce also talks about the values that this story reveals
I value the intimate realm of life. A kind of one on one building of trust between people. That would be primary. The relationship was primary, for me. And then of course, what it taught me about the need to be active on behalf of the human rights of others. Because rights are being attacked in all sorts of ways all over the planet, at any given time, and to be awake to that and to see where and how I can be responsive. Another thing that’s important to me from that relationship is that she made time to be with me. Something about adults making time to be with children. Granted, she was getting something. But she was giving me something quite valuable. There was no sense these encounters were rushed. It was really a kind of precious time, I think, for both of us.
I experienced her as being kind of indomitable. This was not going to break her. The kinds of things that she went through, one could hear them and imagine “I would not come out of that hole,” or “I would not come out of that sane.” But she did. With a kind of love of life and a wish to make a family, and work that she loved. So I learnt something. Not just about strength, but a woman’s strength. A capacity to not shut down, no matter what.
She’s been quite an inspiration for a lot of my writing, both in terms of content and also kind of a spirit of story making that’s been absorbed from her.
I’ve been thinking for a long time that at this stage of my life I’d really like to write a memoir and I’d like to write it as the history of that house. There was a lot that got lived out in that house, for her family and my family, and a third floor where people came and went. I’m interested in the cosmology of that house, and the house itself.
[It’s important to] not to underestimate the power of offering your own story and giving the time to hear the story of another at any stage of life. It’s life-giving and life-saving. In some ways, it’s one of the ways in which we are uniquely human. [It’s important] not to lose that in the world of soundbites and headlines and visuals, just the sheer pace of life, particularly urban life.