There were the scissors that my grandmother somehow remembered to bring with her as she fled. She could hear the rumble of destruction in the distance. She could see the cloud of smoke that was the Nazi murder of her family and neighbors. Without forethought, she made the decision to run ahead, carrying with her the scissors and, despite the blossoms of spring, a winter coat.
In the seasons that followed, which piled into years, she kept on walking, from Poland to Uzbekistan, and then back again. Although she was a teenager, her body could barely sustain the 2,600-mile trek. Her legs would swell, and sores covered her trunk. She nourished herself with stolen potatoes, expertly hidden in the lining of her dress. When she came into the occasional possession of grains of rice, she saved them as if they were precious metals.
For decades, she said nothing about her escape. Then she gathered the courage to recite the story to her grandchildren, and she found that it fortified her against her nightmares. Narrating her life provided a sense of meaning to the improbability and pain of survival.
By the time I reached fifth grade, the scissors and the coat had become the foundational tale of my family’s existence. The small Jewish woman who turned her basement into a well-stocked bunker filled with enough bags of flour and boxes of Rice Krispies to withstand the next catastrophe emerged as our superhero. Her life was a testament to cunning, courage, and contingency. When I think about the scissors and the coat, it’s hard not to also think of the mountain of worn shoes at the Holocaust Memorial Museum, or the television clip that pauses to show the eyes of the child migrant. It’s hard not to think about the bare margin that separates survival from death, the decision made in a flicker that accounts for existence.