“Granny told the German soldiers, ‘get out of here! This is not your house!’ And they left! She shooed them right out the door. I’ll never forget that.”
My new friend, who I’ll call Genie, lived an extraordinary life as a Holocaust survivor from Warsaw, Poland. So did her granny. As I listen to Genie describe her granny’s response when German soldiers invaded their house, I look at the picture of the infamous “granny,” and see an ordinary-looking elderly woman.
Well, maybe not quite ordinary. Genie’s grandmother is cute. Her eyes peer intensely through rectangular glasses and her mouth…her mouth says it all. Her thin lips are set in a determined, no-nonsense line. You know not to cross her! And amazingly, those German soldiers decided it wasn’t worth messing with this granny. While the rest of the family looked on in horror (or hid, in the case of Genie’s mother), this little granny told those German soldiers off. Forget those sausages in the kitchen! It wasn’t worth it, so they just left.
Genie makes sense of her life through the eyes of her family: her mom, her daddy, her granny, and her older sister, Mary. Every story she tells me relates somehow to these family members — her people. She learned how to be strong from her granny and her older sister, Mary, who was a nurse. So when Mary tragically died after the family took refuge in the United States, Genie did her best to step up to the plate. And when her parents and grandmother had passed, too, Genie was left to fend for herself against the world.
After all she’d been through, Genie didn’t have much reason to trust anyone — except her family. So once her loved ones were buried together in a local cemetery, Genie lived on for the sake of her cats. And for the sake of her dear Polish friend, who I’ll call Gerald, and his son, who I’ll refer to as Ross.
Gerald loved Genie. This was obvious to me, as he bustled into Genie’s room, bearing carefully cut sausages, small pieces of buttered bread, and pickles. Ross would do pretty much anything for Genie, too. Even if it meant calling all over the Boston area to find her the most comfortable briefs. Genie was helpless, yes, but she had made a couple of friends, thanks to her generosity. When her neighbor, Gerald, lost all his family only to then be thrown to the curb by an unsympathetic landlord, he went to Genie for help. And she took him in, Gerald and his son. They’ve lived together ever since, Gerald and Genie — although Genie assures me that they were never “intimate.”
If you watched Genie and her cats, however, you would see something touchingly intimate. Her favorites are “Rusty” and “Goldie.” I must have somehow sensed how important these cats were to Genie when I first visited her because I remember how my doting on her cats eventually won me a place in Genie’s heart. That was an honor.
So when Genie passed, suddenly and without warning, I felt a throb of sadness. I would miss her, I knew. I would miss listening to her stories of surviving a period of history that, for most of us, is horrifying on a strictly theoretical level. I would miss playing Chopin for her, using youtube on my phone. She was raised on Chopin, and like many Polish people, she absolutely adored him.
And I would miss witnessing the love between this woman and her cats. How would these cats survive their grief?
When I first paid a bereavement visit to Gerald and Ross, I found the cats cuddling on Genie’s pajamas, which Gerald had kindly placed on her bed for them. Meanwhile, Gerald, Ross, and I talked about God, their less-than-savory experiences of the Catholic church, and about Genie.
“She’s the best person I ever knew,” Gerald told me. Ross and I both ended up in tears as we quietly listened to one of Genie’s favorite pieces by Chopin, the “Spring Waltz.”
The next time I visited, however, Ross was halfway around the world on a European vacation. Gerald showed me the beautiful corner shelf he had arranged beside Genie’s bed. On it was a little green box with Genie’s ashes, along with candles, pictures of Genie’s parents and granny, and beautiful flowers Gerald had picked and arranged from his garden.
And the cats? Rusty lay quietly on a table at the foot of Genie’s bed, and Goldie was nowhere to be seen. That is, until Gerald pointed her out, where she lay curled up in a corner of the room.
“It’s the strangest thing,” Gerald explained. “Ever since the ashes were brought into the room, the cats have refused to lie on Genie’s bed anymore. It’s like they know she’s here.” It’s a strange thing, we agree, but not particularly surprising, considering how cats often inexplicably sense and know things.
Thinking about how much these cats (whose ages suggest they should have died long ago) must miss their mistress, I approach Rusty and begin stroking his head and back.
“I’m so sorry you’ve lost Genie,” I tell him. “You must miss her so much!” Rusty soaks up the attention like he hasn’t been touched in years. Meanwhile, Chopin plays in the background — Gerald’s tribute to Genie, day and night.
But my purpose there was to care for the humans, right? So I straighten up and turn to walk back to my stool, where Gerald sits.
Then I feel something. Something — someone — has reached out and grabbed my dress. I turn, and my heart melts. One of Rusty’s front paws is stretched out to detain me, one claw hooked in the back of my dress.
Apparently, I’m not going anywhere until Rusty gets his bereavement care. So, I carefully loosen my dress from his claw and kneel down again. As I stroke his old, bony body, Goldie emerges from her corner for her fair share of my time. Both cats were so loved by Genie…but (and don’t you dare tell Rusty this) Goldie and Genie were like sisters. A couple weeks earlier, I had watched as Goldie arched her neck and placed her forehead ever so gently against Genie’s face. They loved each other deeply, plain and simple.
To our surprise, Gerald and I watch as Goldie then climbs on Genie’s bed once again. But she quickly steps off it, and strategically onto my stool. Goldie soaks up my care just as enthusiastically as Rusty, rubbing her head against my body over and over, as I stand beside what’s now “Goldie’s stool.” Gerald tells me the cats must remember me visiting their beloved Genie.
Before heading down the street to find my green Toyota, I give Gerald a little hug. After all, he’s lonely. The Holocaust has a way of preventing its victims from trusting others, such as neighbors and other would-be friends to Gerald.
I walk down the sidewalk for a block or two, and somehow, I feel his eyes following me. So I turn, and sure enough, there he stands, one hand resting on the picket fence. I raise my arm, and he does the same. Until next time, friend! Take good care of the cats.