I had not seen a person with numbers for years.  I had almost forgotten they existed.

            Even though our new Los Angeles neighborhood is residential, it is bordered by commercial streets.  For reasons unclear to J and me, we seem to have five fabric stores within a two-block radius, and there are three nail salons visible from the corner at the end of our street.  Nonetheless, many of the businesses are incredibly useful, and we can walk to the pharmacy, the bank, a Coldstone Creamery, a burger joint that has been around so long it is a Los Angeles fixture, and a fantastic children’s bookstore.  We can also walk to the mall in under two minutes.

            This is one of those mid-level malls that has a Gymboree play center, a Motherhood Maternity, and a Payless.  No fancy men’s clothing stores, but a Macy’s on one end and a Nordstrom on the other, so I guess we could get fancy things if we knew what to do with them.  There is a soft-play area in the food court, so on a hot day kids can let off some steam before purchasing a hot dog on a stick.

            I was there with only Zachary (almost four) one afternoon, a rare luxury because J had the day off and he was watching Trouble (2).  We were checking out a new store where children (and I suppose adults) can make their own books and then have them turned into hard-covers or board books.  Since Zach spends the better part of every afternoon in his room making books, I thought this would be a lovely place for us to spend some time alone together.

            It turned out to be more lovely time than I had bargained for.  No one can rush my son when he has a job to do, and the task at hand apparently required a good deal of attention to detail.  I was concerned we would be there around the time they started polishing the floors at the end of the night.

            But, Zach finally finished, and we left the store in a very good mood.  He has been almost impossible with me lately, perhaps due to the complete lack of control he feels.  I am guessing that feeling comes from either the transatlantic move, the second move to a new house, the entirely new school and then the new class within that school a few months later, his father working absurd hours, his mother pregnant, or the guys endlessly finishing the work on our back garage.  Since Mommy is the Complaints Department, he is perfect in school and then maniacal when he gets home.  Hence, the afternoon of special time.

            We had a stroller with us, so we headed for the elevators, first having to go up and then down to get a spot inside.  Up on the top floor, by the food court and the soft play area, an elderly woman stepped partway in.  She held the doors open and called for someone to come.  We waited.  And waited.  And I started to get annoyed because she was holding us up for someone who was taking his sweet time.

            It turned out to be her husband, a man in his eighties or early nineties, who clearly had needed to sit on a bench until the elevator came.  He slowly made his way over with a cane and finally we were on our way down.

            He smiled at Zachary, who smiled back.  Noting our double stroller, he asked, “Do you have a brother?”

            “Yes,” Zach replied.

            “Where is he?”

            “He’s at home with my Daddy.”

            “And show him where your sister is,” I told Zach, who obligingly pointed to my belly. 

            And, just as the man said something else to my almost-four-year-old about the wealth of siblings he seems to have, I noticed it.  His arm.  Six numbers, starting with 111.  I froze momentarily, catching my breath.  It was a little like when I see celebrities and start talking to them before I realize who they are.  Somehow, I felt like I should have known, like I was wrong to be talking to him without acknowledging who he was.

            There are fewer and fewer survivors.  They are getting older and dying.  This man would have been in his mid-twenties when the last of the camps were liberated, younger than I am now.  He had lived an entire lifetime since then, with a wife and probably children and perhaps great-grandchildren.  He had worked in jobs and read newspapers and bought socks and retired and learned a new language.  Those numbers on his arm, they are just one part of his history, despite all they represent.

            He walks around with those numbers on his arm, but he is not defined by them.  He has conversations with small children in elevators. 

            I walked out and wanted to sob, partly because I was struck by how lucky we are, no matter how stressed I am, and partly because I have rivers of hormones racing through my veins.  But also, partly, because I could not speak to him about it, could not bring myself to define him by the same number they had once used to define him.  I wanted to show him I knew, but that was not my place.

            I stepped out into the sunlight and called J to let him know we were on our way.

            “Did you make it to the grocery store?” I asked.

            “Yep.  And we saw Tori Spelling in the bread aisle,” he replied.  


Edited to add: You might want to read this post that joins in this conversation.

22 responses to “Numbers

  1. ah. this gave me chills, Emily.

  2. oh God. Just holding my breath in for a moment.

  3. the crazy juxtaposition of how we identify and value people…who in the end, it is too easy to forget, live lives and are just people.

    i don’t know how to broach and honour someone’s history, either, not a history that powerful, that fraught. and yet i feel compelled to, and felt that same torn-ness reading this.

    someday, it may seem unreal to Zachary that an old, old man with concentration camp numbers on his arm spoke to him in an elevator…they will all be gone then. i am glad you wrote this down for him.

  4. I work with seniors, many of whom are survivors. I consider it a gift to be involved in their lives, to hear the history, to be a witness. It’s powerful stuff.

  5. Wow. I would feel the same way, like I wanted him to know I knew, but then you just can’t say anything.

  6. Wow. What an amazing feeling.

  7. I have goosebumps.

    It always amazing me that when you meet a stranger you have no idea the life that they are leading (have lead). All their struggles, hardships, and victories. You could be standing next to the most amazing person and not even know it.

  8. Oh, Em. This was just breathtaking.

    And the ending? Made me laugh out loud. It was the perfect tension-breaker to your poignant post.

    Tori Spelling in the bread aisle. Classic.

  9. Oh wow. I’d rather have your experience than see Tori Spelling. Just… wow.

  10. My grandmother had numbers. I never got used to them. I never stopped seeing them. They were very loud.

    She’s gone now and with her, the stories.

  11. Emily– this is a beautiful and powerful post. And it sums up LA perfectly. Well done, as always.

  12. Wow. What a post – I loved it. Gave me the chills.

  13. What a contradiction– to want to acknowledge what he went through, without assuming too much familiarity, yet not wanting to let the “numbers” define who he is, as they were once intended to do. This was a powerful post and gives me a lot to think about.

  14. Wow. Haunting.

  15. Em,
    this was gripping. i’ve only seen one or two people with numbers in my life, both seared in my brain. the way you wrote this was really something.

  16. A friend posted a link to this post; it’s the first time I’ve seen your blog. I was so touched. Thank you for the reminder, and for sharing your life.

  17. Parenting is exhausting. Moving is the pits. Holding it together by yourself is draining and depressing. But those glimpses in life that remind us that everyone has his/her own share of heartaches are one of those huge life lessons about compassion and perspective.

    The juxaposition of the survivor who is kind to children awaiting an elevator and Tori Spelling browsing carbs is brilliant.

  18. What a powerful story. You leave me with so much to think about.

  19. That was amazing, and so powerfully written. I don’t have a comment to leave really, but you have left me full of emotion.

  20. Have you been to the Museum of Tolerance? We are thinking of taking Violet next week, she just finished reading a book written by a man who was put into a labor camp around the age of 12 or so. He spoke at my Jr. High when I was in Jr. High, and my parents had the book at their house and she picked it up (Don’t fence me in). I don’t know if he is still alive now, that was quite a while ago that he spoke. Since we in are California for another week, we are thinking that the Museum might be worth a trip.

  21. I know it was meant to be serious but nothing is more true than this quote: “…perfect in school and then maniacal when he gets home…” . Ha!

  22. This made my breath catch in my throat.