I was talking with a friend about WWII and suddenly I was hit by a vivid memory. I remember being six-years-old and outside with my next-door neighbour, Mr. Gravitis, who was like a grandfather to me. For a moment, the sun seemed brighter on his tanned forearm, where I noticed there were numbers tattooed. Something in me, even then, knew not to say anything. My odd inkling felt incongruent with the brilliant heat of a summer day.
Of course as soon as I got home, I asked my parents why one of my favourite people had numbers on his arm. I don’t remember the answer. Imagine having to try to explain THAT to your child. Shudder.
Since that talk with my friend, I’ve talked with my dad. I had him put some more light on the hazy survivor story I had for both Mr. Gravitis and his wife. I knew they had both been in concentration camps and had re-united after the war. What were the chances? What was their nationality? Were they Jewish?
They weren’t. They were Latvian. They were prisoners of war and, thankfully, survived. They both returned to their town when they were freed and that’s how they were re-united. Robert and Irma.
My dad said that after Bob died, Irma opened up. She spoke of the war, of being taken prisoner, and of her mom not wanting her to go with the man who ultimately was her husband for more than 50 years. My dad said he wishes he had been able to record her – her outpouring.
The whole time I lived beside them, she was in the shadows for me. She sometimes said “Hi,” but would always leave me alone with Bob. She was inside if we were out in his fabulous garden. Or, if we were inside, she’d be in another room.
I remember my parents making vague references to something Bob had say – that Irma had not wanted children because of their past. I guess or rather, hope, I helped fill some void. He treated me like a grand-daughter. He gave me his time. And he spoiled me with hand-picked bouquets and European chocolates.
But one of the sweetest things I received was actually given to me by Irma. You see, I was already living away from my parents, in Toronto, when Mr. Gravitis died. Because that was fifteen or so years ago, I only remember being sad. I think I returned for the funeral. I do know that the next time I was at my parents’ place, I went with my mom to visit Irma and see how she was doing.
That day she stepped out of the shadows. She talked more with me than she had my whole life. Like my dad, I wish I remembered her stories. All I recall is being kind of shocked and uncomfortable, and really sad to be in Bob’s home without him.
Before I left, she said she knew Bob would want me to have something he had given her. That’s how I came to treasure a beautiful pearl necklace and earrings, along with the memories – both the hazy and the bright ones.