Sari Boren’s essays have been published in Copper Nickel, Lilith Magazine, Alimentum, Hobart, and Pangyrus, among others. She teaches creative nonfiction at Grub Street and co-manages Boston’s Four Stories reading series. Sari is also a museum exhibit developer who’s written exhibit text for dozens of museums across the country. Read more at: sariboren.com
Boren's nonfiction, “Something Like That. Like Nothing,” was originally published in The Southeast Review Volume 33.2.
Something Like That. Like Nothing.
I’m taking Laura Ingalls down the home appliance aisle in Macy’s. She runs her hands across every shiny gadget on the shelves, poking at buttons and pulling on levers, her two tight braids bouncing against the shoulders of her pale blue gingham dress. Laura follows me as I walk past the toasters and crock pots, the cuffs of my Lee overalls dragging along the floor. I stop in front of an avocado-green blender.
“There’s a blade at the bottom, see?” I point. “It whirls around really, really fast.”
I’m the expert. I’m a couple of years older than Laura, who’s eleven. “You put liquids in, and ice cream, and you make drinks,” I explain.
Laura nudges me aside.
I see my imaginary friend Laura as the Little House on the Prairie television character played by Melissa Gilbert, fair and freckled, her teeth growing in crooked, her blue and white dress worn from over-washing. She wiggles the glass canister trying to figure out how to pull it off its base.
“What kind of drinks?” Laura asks. She pops the lid off the blender and peers inside.
I tuck the hem of my favorite pink and orange striped rugby shirt back into my overalls.
“Drinks you mix up,” I say. “Like milkshakes and smoothies.” I’m going to have to explain what a smoothie is.
“You shouldn’t have cut off your braids,” Laura says, out of nowhere. Like she doesn’t want me to tell her about smoothies. Like maybe she’s sick of being the one who doesn’t know the things I know. She shakes her head to make her braids swing.
“I told you. I couldn’t braid my own hair at sleep-away camp, remember?” I say. “I had to keep asking the counselor for help.”
When I’d cut off my braids, my thick, curly hair sprang up into an afro. My dad tells me how much he misses my long hair. I don’t look so much like his sister anymore.
“And those overalls are stupid,” Laura says, even though I’ve told her it’s what all the girls wear at my junior high. “I do chores in a dress. You don’t even have real chores.”
Laura does this sometimes. To show me that even though I know more than she does, I don’t know everything. But then she asks me, after all, what’s in a smoothie, and I explain it all to her.
Through my junior high and high school years we follow her questions into the World Book encyclopedia, from one gold-stamped volume to another. After I graduate college we huddle in the bedroom of my small apartment, Laura still in her gingham and braids, and me now rocking my on-trend big hair, sprawled on the bed in black leggings and an oversized hot pink shirt. I try to explain computers and semiconductors but I’m stymied by my poor grasp of electronics beyond simple circuits, so we examine my pantry instead, and I have to read the bottle’s fine print to explain hoisin sauce.
I am Laura Ingalls’ personal tour guide and interpreter to the twentieth century. I plowed through the entire series of Little House books when I was ten or eleven years old, and sometime thereafter, Laura showed up in my child’s mind, asking questions.
I tell her about Pac-Man and plastic surgery, burritos and in-vitro fertilization and the space shuttle. And what about iPods? iPods! When I get my first iPod for my fortieth birthday I can barely explain it to my parents. Late one night in the kitchen, after the Passover dishes have been washed and put away, I sit around the heavy wooden table with my mom, dad, and grandmother while they play with the iPod and we drink tea. The house is dark after all the cousins, aunts, and uncles have left, and my father has walked through the empty rooms switching off the lights, except for the one hanging over the table.
“Ten thousand songs?” my mom asks. “How do they all fit in there?”
My mom was born in a small town in eastern Poland, which, when we visited ten years earlier in 1994, still had horse-drawn carts sharing the road with cars. And outhouses with old engineering magazines as toilet paper.
My mother’s mother, ninety-two years old and hard of hearing, sticks the buds in her ears and smiles as I crank up the volume. I hand the iPod to my dad. He turns the white and silver brick over and over in his hands. “Do you have ten thousand songs?” he asks. “When I was a boy”— this was in Warsaw before World War II—“I made a crystal radio. There
was an actual crystal.”
Of course he made a radio. This was the man who hadn’t finished high school because of the war, but who reads each monthly issue of Scientific American when it arrives at our New Jersey home and taught me tricks from the puzzle pages. He cooked stolen potatoes in Auschwitz by rigging a metal bucket with wires to boil salted water through electrolysis. A radio was nothing.
The predecessor to the iPod was the CD player, right? I feel that if I can draw a line for Laura from wireless telegraph to a crystal radio to a transistor radio to a Walkman to a CD player, I can show her how the world got from there to here.
I explain to her that wireless telegraph transmits only simple electrical signals, requiring the Morse code of dots and dashes, but travels such great distances that when the most famous luxury cruise ship in the world sinks one night in the North Atlantic the whole world knows the next day.
Thirty years later an announcer breaks into the radio broadcast of a football game between the New York Giants and the Brooklyn Dodgers. Japanese pilots have bombed the Pearl Harbor naval base in Hawaii. It’s new to the ear, Pearl Harbor, to listeners’ mental map of America, and here it is in their living rooms.
My past is her future and I’m tugging her forward. I’m laying down the breadcrumbs. I pull us sideways a bit, away from broadcast to the recording industry. I describe a diamond-tipped phonograph needle scratching through the microscopic grooves in a record album and my Walkman heads hissing along the magnetic tape of a cassette. I know Laura loves her Pa’s late-night fiddle playing after supper, so I tell her to imagine a symphony playing in her little prairie house, reverberating off the roughly hewn wood planks. Or a parade. An Italian opera.
When I have new information, I pick up a conversation where we left off, as if Laura were sitting there, weeks or years later, waiting for me to describe the shift from analog to digital, from tapes to CDs.
But some things I can’t explain.
The predecessor to wireless radio, what was that? Wireless was a huge leap of time and space, of communication beyond immediate physical presence. That takes an entire Greyhound bus ride from Boston to New York, talking in my head to Laura, and I still don’t get it right.
Now I’m a museum exhibit developer. Many times each year I reduce the complete story of a remarkable person’s life to one-hundred-word chunks of museum text. I’ve recounted, in a series of brief paragraphs paired with child-friendly illustrations, the typical daily routines of an entire Woodland Indian nation that flourished before the era of Christ. I’ve captioned historic images of ships and factories; battles and bedrooms; famous individuals and those only identified, like the frontier soldiers deployed in the “Indian Wars” posing with their dusty boots propped up on West Texas boulders, by the company they keep and the people they kill; citizens free and named; people enslaved and unknown.
My job is one few people think about or even know about. Someone has to help a museum tease out the compelling theme in an exhibit that keeps visitors interested, as they read standing up, while their children tug at them to fish out a juice box from an overloaded diaper bag. The museum typically comes up with the exhibit title, to hang over the entrance, and I create the exhibit theme or subtext, which isn’t always explicitly written in the exhibit text. Title and theme, text and subtext, like so:
The Battle of Bunker Hill: Why Do We Commemorate a Battle We Lost?
The Shot Heard ‘Round the World: Were the Rebellious British Colonists Patriots or Traitors?
Slave Cabins on a Maryland Plantation: Why Design Slave Cabins in the Charming French Ferme Ornée Style? Because We Don’t Want to Ruin the Landscape with Ratty Looking Buildings, But the Sight of Enslaved People Laboring for Our Wealth Doesn’t Disturb Our View One Bit.
To be clear, I’m not a designer; I can’t draw a straight line. I’m not a curator devoted to minute expertise. God knows I haven’t the patience for it. I’m an interpreter, a professional dilettante. I’m also a visitor advocate, protecting visitors from the museum staff’s understandable inclination to tell the entire story, bolstered by exhaustive documentation and a tyranny of details that settle upon a visitor’s spirit like a suffocating down comforter stuffed with particulates of time, place, laws, and relations both atomic and familial.
The key is to include illuminating details rather than an exhaustive accounting. That’s what I try to do—to find the story in the chaos of history. At least, that’s what I do as long as it’s other people’s stories. Not my own, or my family’s.
I begin interpreting for Laura twenty years before I take up the task professionally. Eleven-year-old Laura doesn’t know any Jews, doesn’t know from dreidels or bagels.
“What kind of name is Sari?” she asks.
Laura and I are in… oh, who knows where we are. On the school bus, leaning against the fogged-over window one wintry afternoon, or sitting on the curb watching the neighbors play wiffle ball; here I am, and here is Laura.
“I’m named after my grandmother Sara,” I tell Laura. “Jewish people name their kids after dead relatives.”
“She died before you were born,” Laura says. “Yes.”
“Who else?” she asks.
“Mina, my middle name, was Dad’s sister. My brother Jonathan is named after Mom’s dad Joseph, and his middle name, Israel, is for Dad’s father.
“How’d they die?” Laura asks.
I follow the arc of the wiffle ball smacked into a yard. “In a war,” I say.
“His mother and sister too?” Laura asks. “Did soldiers come to the house? Or was it…?”
I remember that Laura’s mother Caroline was afraid of Indian raids. “Something like that.”
“Like what?” Laura asks.
I could tell her about the typhoid epidemic in the Warsaw ghetto and the gallows at the Ukrainian prison. About months hiding in a hole dug
under a pig sty.
“Like what?” I say. “I don’t know. Like nothing.”
I’m not a big fan of timelines in exhibits, but I understand why visitors like them. They unspool history in an orderly way. Was the Battle of Bunker Hill fought before or after the Battle at Concord’s North Bridge? Which countries did the Nazis invade after they met Poland’s horses with tanks in 1939? There is cause and effect in a telling, in a history. But the problem with timelines is that causation can’t always be marked as a distinct point; it can hover beyond the neat graphing of a linear chronology.
With those caveats out of the way, I do think a timeline might help this story.
1964: I’m born.
Mid-1970s: Elementary school. I read the Little House books. I watch the TV show. Laura arrives in my life.
I read my way through the entire children’s section in the local library, including every fictional tale set during the Holocaust, so that I’m granted special permission for an adult library card when I’m ten. For show-and-tell at Hebrew school I tape photos to an album I make from stapled green construction paper. The black and white photos, developed from film my dad took off a Nazi soldier after liberation, show piles of dead bodies at a concentration camp.
1978: The mini-series Holocaust is broadcast over four nights. I’m thirteen. The Asbury Park Press interviews and photographs my family as we watch Holocaust on TV.
1993: I’m twenty-nine years old. The movie Schindler’s List is released. An hour before I’m supposed to meet my friends at the movie theater, I back out.
2004: My father publishes his Holocaust memoir. I can’t read past page fifty. I’m forty years old. I start writing an essay about how I can’t read my father’s book. In the process of writing, of rummaging through my memories, I remember Laura.
There are two events I can’t place along the timeline. First, when did Laura vanish? And second, when did I learn about the Holocaust?
I ask my mother: How old was I when you told me? When did I know? She answers: Always.
I don’t actually remember having that conversation with Laura about my relatives. When I remember Laura, I feel the absence of the Holocaust. My memories with her feel brisk and clear, wide open, like the Kansas prairie.
Because in all those years that I interpreted the world for Laura I never told her about the Holocaust. Where would I begin? With the thirteenth-century King Boleslav of Poland who invited those clever Jews to his backwards country? With the blood libel, a favored refrain sung from church pulpits? The Protocols of Zion? I know the Ingalls survived their own horrors: the Civil War, drought, and locusts. Still, what is the origin, the predecessor to the Holocaust that would bring meaning to my interpretation, that would make Laura slap her forehead and respond, “Oh yes, of course, the Holocaust. I get it now.”
People do this: explain the Holocaust. They write books. They build museums. They organize the Holocaust by chronology or geography. They have team meetings to select photos and artifacts.
I do this too, but for other people’s stories. I’ve had conversations with clients about which of two nineteenth-century photos showing the whip scars on an enslaved man’s back we should put in their exhibit.
A person with a job like mine wrote the introductory panel for the US Holocaust Museum. An introductory panel should transition the visitors from the perspective of their current lives to the perspective of the story about to be told. Set the stage. Reveal the theme. Text and subtext, like so:
The Holocaust: Better That Your Enemies Should Not Be as Efficient as the Germans
The Holocaust: When the Numbers Get Too Big to Understand, Don’t Bother Trying
The Holocaust: Jew or Gentile: What Would You Have Done?
The Holocaust: Would You Have Survived?
The Holocaust: How Do You Live When Everyone You Love Has Been Murdered?
What a determined little creature I was, single-handedly holding back the Nazis in my mind. The pictures I saw and the stories I heard in bits and pieces about concentration camps and liquidations and hidden children were like the stories in the Little House books, their sorrows and heroics admirable yet unimaginable. The stories happened over there, and back in history, and didn’t make me cry the way reading Black Beauty did. My father and mother’s family members, the ones my brother and I are named after—Sara, Mina, Joseph, and Israel—were less real to me than Laura Ingalls.
I could look at photos of dozens of dead bodies stacked in mounds— those original prints from the war my dad kept on a shelf in the guest room closet—I could tape those photos to green construction paper and feel nothing. I could page through the history books that filled a shelf in our den, looking at the photos of Jewish children being marched to their deaths at gunpoint and feel only mild curiosity and a slight tug of sadness.
I can’t do that anymore. This year at Passover I made myself look over the Holocaust books in my mom’s study. She was planning to pare down her book collection and I felt I should retrieve a few, for research. Not that I want a single one of those books in my house, but I have this idea that if I write about the Holocaust I should have reference books, that my efforts require an academic approach of some kind.
I flip through a one-volume encyclopedia of the Holocaust and stop at a photo of a naked man curled up on his right side in a shallow hole. He wasn’t old, maybe in his thirties, with dark hair and a cropped beard. It’s hard to tell his age since he was already dead. The caption explains how the Nazis, for sport, made him lie inside a hole dug into the winter ground until he froze to death.
I turn the page but I can’t get that man out of my head. Or the cold. Or his desperation. I start to feel desperate myself, sitting on my mom’s gray-striped couch, the closed book in my lap.
Where did his mind go, as he felt the sharp wind against his bare skin and the ground’s damp cold worming around his limbs. When numbness smothered his trembling, and dread crept into its place.
What about my grandfather or my uncle?
Did each of them, lying in a hole or shoved beneath a noose or crammed into a boxcar, wonder, how is this possible, that this is my death? That the line of my life ends here?
I could say that I never told Laura about the Holocaust because I was protecting her. I was keeping the tyranny of details from smothering her the way my parents couldn’t keep them from me. That would be a tidy interpretation, crafted with professional remove and the distance afforded by time and my adult perspective.
Or I could say that Laura protected me. She let me burrow away from the terrible stories to obsess over the particulars of histories that weren’t my own—my framed, boxed-up explanations of how the world got from there to here, my exhibits-in-training.
Here I am, and here is Laura.
But then Laura left me alone, left me with these research books I don’t want to read and the movies I can no longer watch, with the faces of murdered relatives floating like moons against the dark backgrounds of aging photographs.
And yet. What if Laura never left me; what if I didn’t grow up and abandon Laura?
Maybe Laura was waiting for me on the edge of an uncertain place. I picture her in an open prairie sitting on the rim of an old well, the stone damp under her hands as she looks down the hole. She’s swinging her wool-stockinged legs from under the skirt of her dress, kicking them out over the darkness that has no end. She glances over her shoulder at me as I circle the well at a safe distance, incessantly reciting how radios begat iPods and samovars begat Starbucks, and years on, how the Battle of Bunker Hill was a victory within a defeat, battle begetting battle—and I see how Laura's impatience with me, my impatience with myself— for here I am and here she is, always, together—was not for her lack of understanding, but for mine.
I can't take the events in the lives of my mother and father, grandparents, aunts and uncles, what they lived through and what they didn't, and string them in a sequence like beads on a cord. I can't make something soothing in its arrangement, a necklace I can display in a case. There is no reassuring order to impose on the disorder of their lives.