Woman In The World: Passing, A Family Tradition

“My little girl is here!”

My grandmother is lying in bed (bone cradling cloth), her room barren apart from the mattress, a roku TV and some jewelry on a nightstand. My sister and I hover, looking over her, specters of family made manifest before sharp but dying eyes. Emily looks at me, confused as to who she is referring. Does she see me for myself? Do illusions of “difference” fade as one approaches death? Does subconscious truth speak itself through the near clairvoyant sight of one who walks towards the end (which is, of course, always a beginning). In the waking twilight of not here nor there, do you finally see life as it really is. Do you finally see yourself.

We watch as the nurse proceeds to lift grandma Rose from her foam cocoon, forcing her to uncurl her spine from its seashell position. The arrival of family beckons a return to life-on-land. And I can’t help but feel guilty, ripping her from the oceanic womb: the sweet, dark waves of stasis, of oblivion. Emily and I watch the newborn cradle the banister that leads into the living room; a long, white hallway with plain walls, empty shelves and chairs wrapped in plastic. The windows are empty too, empty of sight, boarded up in response to the apartment building’s ongoing attempt to save itself; save its concrete body from death and decay. The cave moves forward as its citizens move back.

Like all conversations with my grandmother there is a circular logic, a pattern that emerges where stories from “the past” precede and follow small talk of the present. Round 1: Hiding or, The Holocaust.

My grandmother grew up in Transylvania, is ethnically Hungarian, and while Transylvania’s spatial borders have remained a constant, its national boundaries shifted in the 20th century; Czechoslovakia (now defunct) morphing into Romania after her departure. Her passport says she was born in a country that no longer exists; the humor of this absence, this lack of origin is not lost on me. Nor is the production of ghosts at play in the machinery of the state, the body politic at odds with itself.

Whenever my grandmother recounts her time spent in Europe during The Holocaust and Hitler’s rise to power, a major theme that emerges is that of hiding, or passing as gentile. Usually she mentions how she was forced to hide as a catholic schoolgirl so she would not be taken to the camps. I imagined a school filled with loving liberal teachers, committed to saving her from the Nazi Gaze. Today though opens with a story of passing on a train. She recalls sitting next to a man on a train-to-somewhere else when two Nazi Guards entered the passenger car, scouring the seats for Jews (and other deplorables). Her pulse was racing; blood elevated to the rhythm of a cage-in-waiting. When the guards came near her, asking the passengers for their documentation (proof of their non-jewery), the man sitting next her, an older Aryan gentleman, gave his own and upon receiving this they walked away. The guards assumed that the man was her father, since Rose was physically goy enough to pass as family; as loved.

The next anecdote involves other Jews in hiding. The details are vague, but through stuttered repetition and an ambiguous accent, I gather that she knew a Jewish family in Budapest who were able to gain papers that erased their Jewish Status. They were able to escape the eyes of the state, live their lives in public while others vanished; moved out to the unseen, an outside that stayed within, an abyss mapped in wire where citizens became cattle became dust. They grew weary though in absence of other Jews (others like them), worn down by the isolation that comes from playing someone else. Suffocated by this drama of the hidden, they left for Australia, never to return. For what would they return to? This country was not their country. These people were not their people. These bodies were not their bodies. This is the history of Jews I think, a return to life enacted by escape; wandering at home with itself. Round 2: Now or, The Present.

After offering us cookies my grandmother proceeds to ask how my sister does her hair, and where she got her shoes, and if I’ve made friends (“met boys”) at school. And I can’t help but yearn for a world, a life where my grandmother asks me these things as well; questions the logistics of my own femininity. I then remember my father telling me that after seeing me a few months ago, Rose commented on the length of my hair and said I looked “pretty.” Paranoia begins to grow, as I wonder if her speech now acts as a cage, pasting the past onto the present, securing Emily as female and me as something else. On the border of not here nor there, melancholy lingers.

I also remember my father telling me his recent discovery that Rose did not in fact hide as a catholic schoolgirl. This was a false narrative she told throughout my life, or rather a false memory. In actuality Rose went to Budapest in 1944 to hide as a gentile (my father commented that “her nose wasn’t too big, she had a chance”). At once tragic and hilarious: the myth of being-seen. In fact, far from acting as a progressive haven for Jewish children, the catholic school she attended was rife with bigotry. She was taunted and teased for not being gentile, and because she had to attend school during Shabbos, kids from her own community shunned her as well, mocking her failed Judaism. On the border of not here nor there, melancholy lingers.

In Eastern Europe during the 19th and 20th century, a method called Numerus Clausus (“closed number”) was used to limit the number of Jews that could attend certain schools, or enter certain professions. But because institutions need talent, my grandmother (who had good grades) was one of the few Jews allowed to attend her catholic school. The State gave her entry into its world, but not without reminder that she wasn’t really there, that she wasn’t really them. I wonder then if the false memory of being-seen as Catholic, serves as a bandage for the wound of not being-seen at all.

In this moment I feel close to young Rose. I connect with her need to be recognized, to be seen as real before a world that says she isn’t. A state that said,  “you do not exist!” or you do, but you shouldn’t (not as you are, not here, not now).

I also think of Transylvania and the figure of The Vampire that haunts a homeland that never was her home. In The War of Desire and Technology at the Close of the Mechanical Age, Sandy Stone compares vampires to cyborgs, figures that “are boundary creatures, not only human/machine but creatures of cultural interstice as well”, creatures who inhabit “the boundaries of death and life, temporality and eternity…gay and straight, man and woman, good and evil” (178). Vampires, like Ghosts, are not dead or alive, or rather they are dead and alive, simultaneously. Their presence is not only on a boundary (or rather the boundary itself), but they spread their ontology, infecting stable subjects with the disease of being two, and also neither. Vampires are a multitude; therefore they are nothing. Europe acted as a Vampire on my grandmother, robbing her of the ability to be anything. Not Jew or gentile, she created a space for herself in a world that wanted her dead. An ambiguous position of being seen just enough, to not be seen at all.

I am one year into hormone therapy, laser hair removal and electrolysis. My name is legally changed, my birth certificate (site of origin) and passport (site of wandering) both read as female. The lower third of my face has rounded out, morphing from square to half-moon. My hair extends just beyond my chin, my cheeks have grown, lifting my eyes and widening my face, positioning my nose as Jewish but more delicate. My backside has shifted from a wall into a wave, my chest (like water) moves beyond itself. I still have a ways to go but when accompanied by proper pitch and attire, for the most part, I pass as female. I pass as that which the world says I’m not, or never will be, or wasn’t. The effort to be pass, to be seen (as woman, or Christian, or anything else) is always inevitably, an effort to hide, to be lost, to be unknown. Yes I am a woman but in the eyes of this world, I am myself only through the erasure of someone else.

I say goodbye to my grandmother and hail a cab home. I tell the driver my address who then asks,

‘In Brooklyn right miss?’

‘Yes’

‘Oh you are a girl yes?’

‘Yes’

‘Yes, sorry it’s just sometimes at night you can’t always tell.’

We cross the bridge in silence, stars mask the river, and for the moment I am seen, in the darkness, I am hidden.

Words: Michelle Present, Images: Nina Zhong