By Alice Herb
I’ve spent the last few years trying to write a memoir. This has not been an ego trip but rather a tale of my ultimate survival. It’s probably why so many people have urged me to write it. But it is no easy task. Approaching my tenth decade I can only lament that this is an “extra” survival story. But I will not tease you along any further. Instead, let me tell you how it has been going and is continuing. I spent several years thinking about writing a memoir but did not sit down and seriously consider it until three or four years ago.
Many years ago, I was asked to speak to a women’s media group about how I had achieved success. Considering myself much less than successful, I changed the talk to how I got to where I am (or was then.) At that long ago talk at a smoky midtown New York City bar cum restaurant, my sad story brought howls of laughter. As I left this unquestionably SUCCESSful talk, I couldn’t help but think that Mom was right – laugh and the whole world laughs with you. Cry and you cry alone. Tears didn’t do much to help me along the way but humor saw me through much of the time. But it has not seen me through the writing of my life.
Writing is a lonely occupation. While I can mostly see the absurdity of life, recounting the painful aspects on the page did not prepare me for the roiling stomach and dry mouth I have felt as the buried memories started to come up. And I can’t cover that up with humor.
Perhaps the most surprising clear memory has been Kristallnacht (Chrystal Night), a horror scene in Vienna for Jews in November of 1938 when I was 5 ½ years old. That was a mass round-up of Jews and my father was to be one of them. I screamed so loud and long, that the Nazis left to calm me down and never came back. We left Vienna three months later for the United States. Since both I and both of my parents were safe, I always felt that I had been a Holocaust “light” survivor and that I had no right to complain given the massacres that followed. Yet when I started writing about that day, I started having flashbacks and nightmares that my therapist clearly identified as the consequences of that experience and the fear and anxiety that had followed since. That was a revelation I never expected.
Moving along, recalling the injustice of my (and two others) being denied entry into the premier NYC public junior high school in New York City (verified by our Harlem elementary school teacher – a stern Irish woman imposing strict academic standards) made me angry once again and highlighted my indifference to the educational system. Clearly, this was not as life-threatening as the Holocaust experience but it was nonetheless traumatic. I have not forgotten it and it strongly influenced my view of the “fairness” of the educational system.
But then the truly serious, personal events followed as I continued recalling and writing. I was married at 18 to the love of my life and within two months he was a lieutenant serving in Korea. The year he was gone was a jumble for me, and as I started to write about it, I would get up to pour a cup of coffee and walk around a bit and feel the bitter taste in my mouth as I remembered the fear and tension waiting for his mail back then. With every doorbell ring, I had imagined service officers coming to tell me he was wounded or dead.
In between all that, I had some pretty big highs and my spirit soared as I recounted how madly in love I was; how incredible it was to marry that man; the pleasure of my gaining admission to law school and graduating. And the joy of giving birth to two beautiful boys who were so precocious, funny, and a handful. Those stupendously wonderful events, I realized, perhaps gave me the strength to carry on.
I have to interject here that a lot of this was in my head before I actually started writing. I was thinking about my life and contemplating the memoir but had not started yet. Several years later, I willed myself to stop thinking about the memoir and to just do it. Pain and suffering be damned.
Moving back and forth between the highs and lows of my life has been a hard road. I had been warned that I would probably suffer a lot looking back on all I had lived through. I instinctively knew that but didn’t really expect such emotional backslides when delving into my history. When I got to the point when my first husband had his first heart attack, I could scarcely breathe. I felt I was back at age 31, trying to seem outwardly calm but inwardly in an absolute panic. I somehow experienced again the daily visits to the hospital that eventually resulted in his coming home, and the anxiety and panic that I felt for an entire year expecting that at any moment, he could collapse and be gone. Unfortunately, 18 months later that’s exactly what happened and all those feelings of disbelief, terror and despair followed me around in the present. I could not write a single word but instead, I did a lot of puzzles to distract me.
As I finally regained my equilibrium, I continued on and managed to recall some good times and wrote quickly and easily, delighting in the good moods I experienced. But then I had to confront the terrible years when my older son was sinking into drug addiction. The memory of the nights I sat on a windowsill willing my son to come home, having almost no sleep but going to work the next day nonetheless, came roaring back. Those prior days I chain smoked and drank endless cups of coffee. The rank smell of the dead cigarettes wafted before me as I tried to write about it and I once again found it incredibly difficult to soldier on. Unfortunately, my son did die when I least expected it. Recalling that, I didn’t write again for quite a while, as I remembered one family member after another had died each subsequent year, culminating in the death of my second husband and my father within 10 months of each other. Recalling those years, I ran from the story of my life, figuring that I must be the direct descendent of Attila the Hun and was atoning for every one of his sins. So I always found excuses to avoid working on the memoir.
But once again I decided that I had come this far, so I was not going to waste what I had already done. I came alive again wanting to write about my younger son’s graduation from law school. His marriage and the birth of my beautiful beloved granddaughter. I was just getting back to some disciplined writing when I encountered the memory of my mother dying quite suddenly. But by then I had begun to be accustomed to reliving the good and the bad and took an upward swing again when I got to the point in my story when my beloved, delightful grandson was born. I really did think that I had finally seen the end of the tragedies and even nasty outcomes, and I could finally actually finish the memoir and inject some humor into this sad tale.
My optimism was not rewarded. Once I got started writing again, I was committed but then, in real-time, my only sibling, my brother, became seriously ill, as did my grandson. My ability to carry on with the memoir came to a pathetic low. Miraculously, both not only survived but recovered, for which I am humbly thankful.
I am now coming to the end of the saga and my memoir. I am in the midst of editing for accuracy and to see what I have left out. I also need to write a conclusion or an epilogue, if you will, since the drama in my life continues.
Am I glad that I embarked on this perilous journey? Absolutely. I had to get it out so that I could look at whatever future I have and understand that I have survived so many impossible situations that, even now, I am confident that I can face whatever comes at me. In the end, even though it has been a steep climb to survival, I have lived to the hilt and have had a varied and exciting life. And perhaps others who will read my memoir will find the strength to live their own dramas and survive.
Alice Herb is a retired attorney, journalist, and bioethics consultant. Having reached the age of 85+, she’s more than ready to share her experiences and opinions with agebuzz readers. Want to comment on something she’s said? She welcomes your feedback at [email protected]
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