Years ago, when she was around my current age, my mother went to Mexico and was robbed.  She had just been granted American citizenship, so it was very important that she was able to find her papers.  The story has been passed down to me since puberty, as a word of caution for a woman entering the world: freedom is a risk.

The week I was undocumented was relatively uneventful by comparison. After my things were stolen, I couldn’t purchase alcohol. I couldn’t go out to any nightclubs. My laptop and wallet contained everything that represented who I was. I tried to count how many pieces of writing and pictures and art I lost on my laptop, but I couldn’t remember. I’m a Millennial. I barely remember anything on my own. I’ve had my own laptop since I was eighteen years old and have relied on it in myriad ways to house and hold my memories.

Everyone in my family is used to loss, so I always felt as though I was prepared for bad things when they happened. My brother and I were always taught that we were survivors, but secretly I always worried that if survival of the fittest was the dominant rule, I was far too sensitive to truly thrive in a world that often seemed sinister, foreboding, and cruel.

The story of my grandparents’ journey from Poland to Cuba to Florida to New York to Washington DC is important to my family, so important that you can see it inscribed on both of their graves. The story of how my grandfather lost his parents to the Holocaust and built a life in Cuba only to eventually escape the dangers of Communism were recounted at his funeral and again at my grandmother’s. I’ve always been annoyed at how readily my grandparents were defined by the places they grew up and the places they went to, either as an extension of choice or as a demonstration of the way that some of our biggest decisions are beyond our control. I never felt that the places I lived defined me, but as I grow older I’ve become increasingly interested in collecting tangible proof as evidence of the fading world. The things I remember from my childhood are vague; my memories from adolescence and adulthood seem so tinged with nostalgia that I wonder if they were only imagined. Concrete evidence of the past means that my memories are not fragile, invisible things that drift aimlessly in my mind, except when I purposefully try and hold onto them.

 

My parents brought me my birth certificate in a plain manila envelope when my things were stolen. In the kitchen, my mother told me that even after they rebuilt their lives in the U.S., my grandparents eventually lost everything all over again when they lost their fabric store, La Marqueta, which burned to the ground in Spanish Harlem. Grandpa was always a small, skinny man, but in times of stress he shrank even more. In two weeks he lost twenty pounds. His guayabera hung off his arms like sheets of loose-leaf paper.

My mother and aunt both fight about who actually has the memory of seeing missiles dragged across the streets of Havana outside their window in 1962. And my father claims that growing up he had only one toy: a single ball to play with, though my mother claims he exaggerates. His father drove a truck and his mother was a manicurist. He and his brothers and sisters all slept in one bedroom when they were kids, all six poor New York Jews. His mother died in her thirties, a fact he never talks about, but still exists because I’ve seen her picture, a small black and white in a tiny pink frame. When I was five or six I found out my dad had lost his mom when he was only eleven. When I first learned this fact eleven seemed so old, a very mature, responsible age for someone to be. Today, eleven is so young I can only remember myself at that age in fragments and shadows. They say that every seven years your cells are completely new, so really eleven is more than two people ago for me.

My parents have been together since they were eighteen, married at twenty-four and had their first baby (me!) when they were thirty-one. That is just three years older than I am now, and the idea that my parents were parents around my age is sobering since having a baby seems like the scariest, most challenging thing in the world.

When I first started writing nonfiction, I didn’t know what to write about my family. Everyone told me the memories were so important that I was scared of fucking it up. My teachers told me my loyalty should be to my writing and my family would understand, no matter what I wrote, but I still think that’s strange and somewhat terrible advice because I need to be loyal first and foremost to the people with whom I grew up. Maybe it’s cultural. Throughout my life, my American friends have never quite understood the necessity of a daily phone call, the need to say, “I love you” even after having a huge fight. We don’t trust that we will say these things tomorrow.

After my grandmother died, I realized that her generation is gone completely. It isn’t gone like my laptop that can be replaced a million times over or even gone like my stories and pictures and stuff on my laptop because I am still young enough to make new memories. It’s gone gone, vanished forever.

A few months ago, a few weeks after my grandmother died, I was almost hit by a car crossing the street in Dupont Circle. The driver skidded to a halt and mouthed, “I’m so sorry” before speeding away. If I had died that day I would have been sixty years younger than my grandmother at her death and thirty-three years younger than my own parents, who are still alive today.  That split second the driver stopped was exhilarating at the most basic level.  Later, I laughed when recounting the story. In America, we expect survival, as if survival is a right. I expect that, too, even though I shouldn’t, even though I know it isn’t something I was born to count on.

 

My grandmother and grandfather are both dead by the time my mother sits with me at the kitchen table in my apartment, a few days after my laptop is stolen, and she tells me the story I’ve heard a million times before, about how she left Cuba with her mother and father and sister and how they came to this country with nothing at all. My mother has always been melodramatic and speaks of survival as if more than luck is involved in the process of clinging to life. In the United States, I buy a brand new laptop within a week of my loss. When I open my new computer it is sleek and modern and empty. The screen saver is pre-designed. Not a single word I have ever written is to be found here. For a moment I wonder if I could actually recreate my entire self over the course of the next few days, as if I never was a writer, as if I never lived where I lived or knew the people I knew, as if I were as malleable and free as a person without a history.

 

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ARIELLE BERNSTEIN is a writer living in Washington, DC. She teaches writing at American University and also freelances. Her work has been published in The Millions, The Rumpus, St. Petersburg Review, South Loop Review, The Ilanot Review and Press Play (Indie Wire). She has been listed three times as a finalist in Glimmer Train short story contests . She is currently writing her first book. She is Associate Book Reviews Editor at The Nervous Breakdown.

6 responses to “The Fading World”

  1. Karen Knauff says:

    Very powerful! And what an interesting thought, to be able to start all over again in a medium as forgiving and multifaceted as a laptop…I wonder what my computer says about me. Goes to show that impermanence will always prevail – a prominent wisdom that is illuminated to me time and time again when my family says if I come home with a tattoo, they’ll take it off with a potato peeler. I always look forward to your essays, Arielle! Keep at it!

    • Arielle Bernstein says:

      Thanks so much for your thoughtful comments, Karen! I think the desire for permanence is still very much a part of how we interact with the world. And that image of a potato peeler ripping off a tattoo will permanently be imbedded in my brain!!

  2. zoe zolbrod says:

    “When I first started writing nonfiction, I didn’t know what to write about my family. Everyone told me the memories were so important that I was scared of fucking it up. My teachers told me my loyalty should be to my writing and my family would understand, no matter what I wrote, but I still think that’s strange and somewhat terrible advice because I need to be loyal first and foremost to the people with whom I grew up.” Interesting perspective about the way our culture influences or view of writing, and it resonates so nicely with your last line.

    • Arielle Bernstein says:

      Thanks for your feedback, Zoe! Have you gotten similar advice when writing? Do you agree it is an American attitude? Or have you had different experiences?

      • zoe zolbrod says:

        I don’t think I’ve gotten this advice directly, in that I’ve never heard it in a workshop or anything like that (though I’ve never taken a workshop or class in nonfiction). But I’ve gathered it, through reading probably. The “Writers Braver than Me” series on The Rumpus explores the tensions inherent in writing about one’s family. Maybe check that out.

  3. Lovely piece, Arielle! I love the image of you being two people plus the age your father was when his mother died, the idea that our cells are replaced every seven years. I like how you link these ideas with losing your computer and cells of your identity.

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