At home, when I was young, we never celebrated Christmas. We were Jewish, although my mother considered it a contentious term. She had a horror of religion in general and of Jewish notables — that handful of survivors in our native Den Bosch — in particular. We were Jewish, but in an unconventional way. My father went to synagogue on Saturdays and kept more or less to the traditions, but for my mother, who had been raised in poverty, God, if he existed at all, as she invariably added in a conspiratorial tone (my father was not allowed to know she held such revolutionary ideas), was essentially an opponent. She had no time for a God who created hunger, disease and suffering. For her, a God who had allowed her mother and brothers and sisters to be gassed in Poland was not much of a God.
A few years before she died, we met for Christmas dinner at a restaurant in a village near Den Bosch. She used to hate the Christmas season; often she spent it alone at home, her children away elsewhere (I was in Los Angeles much of the time), but because the whole world celebrated Christmas, she decided in her old age and out of sheer desperation to participate for once. The dinner was at one of those stuffy places and not particularly good, but it had been my mother's idea so I pretended it was delicious.
My mother joked about it as she sat there, leaning slightly forward as she ate, using only a fork, no knife, and evidently unfamiliar with correct etiquette and table manners. She looked radiant, as she always did when surrounded by her children.
Afterwards, we went to her house, and I waited quietly for the right moment to leave. I didn't know that one day she would no longer be there — well, yes, I knew, but I couldn't imagine it — and so I gave in to the profound discomfort that my youth and the place in which I had grown up evoked, instead of suppressing it, just to please her.
Since my memory records experiences more or less consciously, I associate my youth in that beautiful city with a profound sadness. I had experienced no tragic events there myself, but it seemed as if the disasters that had struck the families of both my parents had put the city off limits. Whenever I visited my mother (too rarely, too briefly), I wanted to turn my back on that dark city as soon as I could, and so too on her. But she always, always asked, as I put my coat on before getting into my car (in those years before her death I drove a Jaguar XJ6, in which she proudly let me drive her round the nearby streets, past her neighbours who stared open-mouthed as she passed by), whether I had enough money for petrol.
Each time, when I wasn't looking, she would put some money in my pocket. It became a ritual. When she asked about money for petrol, I would reply that I was fine. Then she would tell me to check my pockets. I would say that I had no money there. "I'll look," she would say, then she would put her hand in my pocket and with a broad smile pull out a hundred guilder note. "You're richer than you thought," she would say, and I would look surprised and hug and kiss her. Above all, I was not to say that it was she who had put the money in my pocket.
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