Absence is the worst of ills.

- Jean de La Fontaine, The two Doves


It is June of 1990, and my wife, Elsa, and I are driving along a winding rural road toward Venasques, a small village on a spur of Mont Ventoux, the mountain towering above the town of Carpentras in French Provence. The valley below turns bluish toward the far edge. Here and there, rocks and aromatic scrub have yielded tomeager patches of cherry trees. In the furnace of summer, scents of wild lavender and thyme blend with the relentless chirp of the cicadas. As a child, I knew by heart La Fontaine’s fable of the cicada and the ant. It started with something like:

                                    Cicada, having sung her song
                                    All summer long,
                                    Found herself without a crumb
                                    When winter winds did come.

Although it has been forty-six years since my last visit, I still remember this narrow road winding up and down on the edge of the hills, as, laboring along the protective row of cypresses, an old bus was taking my mother and me to Venasques on June4, 1944. My mother had finally surrendered to the pressing advice of the Steltzers, our friends and fellow Jews, and had decided to seek refuge from the German Gestapo and the French Militia. I have forgotten the bus driver and the other passengers, but I remember my sense of relief. After two years of fear, my mother was taking me to a safe place.

German military trucks and foot patrols had filled the streets back in our village of Le Pontet, but the road to Venasques was quiet and seemed almost asleep. There were no black limousines like the ones that brought the Gestapo men who regularly visited Monsieur Gros, our neighbor. I was no longer afraid of the Germans and their French helpers. We had finally left our hostile neighborhood behind, and here, in the mountains, there would be no more bombings by the Allied planes.

I remember well that hot day in 1944. Our destination was a cherry farm tucked away in the hills of Venasques. When the bus stopped outside the village, a young boy was waiting to take us to the farm on mule-drawn cart. He invited us to climb up next to him on the front seat, so close to the mule that I got goose bumps. Contrary to most of the children from my village, who were destined for farm work, this was my first trip on a cart. On the way to the farm, as we left the asphalt for a gravel road, the mule suddenly bolted. Without hesitation, the young boy leaped on her back and then pulled himself toward her head. As for me, overcome by panic and barely daring to open my eyes, I had clung to my mother’s left arm. Wrapping his legs firmly around the mule’s neck, the boy seized her leather head strap with one hand, while he jammed the fingers of his other hand into her nostrils. Then, to my astonishment, he released his legs and slid off, hanging in midair from the head of the runaway animal! The mule immediately decided to trade her fury for a lighter grip on her nostrils and quickly came to a halt. Instantly, the boy had become my hero. In my panic, I had planted my nails in my mother’s left arm.

At the farm, we rejoined the Steltzers, who had preceded us into hiding by a few days. Like them, my mother was expected to work, picking cherries in exchange for room and board for the two of us. We would share our lodging with the Steltzers and sleep in a shack in the back of the cherry orchard. I remember the small bedroom with a single window carved into the thick concrete wall, the blinding sunlight that entered the room through the slanted shadow. I remember, too, the ticks in the bed. They did not seem to bother my mother, although she had been horrified when she had found ticks in our bed at home two years earlier. More than that was needed to spoil our sense of security at the cherry farm. 

I went with my mother to seethe cherry trees on the rocky slope, and for the first time in my life, I picked cherries straight from the tree. I made a wish, as was customarily done before eating the first fruit of the season. Since one had to eat carefully, however, to avoid the worms, I had developed a ritual. Holding the stem and slowly rotating the cherry a full turn, I inspected the skin in the bright sunlight for the slightest imperfection that signaled a guest inside. In those days, one did not throw away fruit with worms, but rather ate the cherry around the intruder. If the skin was perfect (this did not happen often), one could enjoy the entire cherry at once. To this day, I instinctively inspect and turn each cherry a full turn before eating it, although no worm can survive modern pesticides. 

That afternoon, I indulged in as many cherries as my stomach could hold, and I recall my fascination for the sap that had burst out of the bark and begun to harden on its way down the trunk. I could scrape it off and shape it between my fingers. It gave off a particular sweet aroma that I remember to this day.

The next morning, I awoke to the sound of an argument outside our bedroom. My eyes blinded by the bright summer sunlight, I recognized Madame Steltzer’s shrieking voice and her foreign accent. "You can leave your things at the store; they can wait, "she scolded my mother. "If a misfortune were to happen to you, what would become of the child?" Several times earlier, my mother had received this warning from friends. Like others, Madame Steltzer did not use explicit language because she felt it held the power to precipitate a tragedy. She counted on the ambiguity of the word "misfortune" to confuse bad luck. Unconvinced, my mother took her own counsel and decided to go back to our store in Le Pontet anyway. Probably shaken by Madame Steltzer’s argument, however, she suggested that I stay at the farm until her return. 

Absorbed by the new surroundings and filled with admiration for the heroic boy who had stopped the runaway mule, to her surprise, I agreed to wait for her at the farm. She had never left me alone overnight before, and every time she had tried to do so, I had vehemently refused. But this day was different. The boy stood next to me when my mother left, because she had suggested that he take care of me in her absence. I felt torn between my pride in being his friend and my sadness at seeing her leave. As soon as she was gone, however, I worried and cried. I was not yet eight years old, and she was all I had. 

She was to return the next day, but she never did. Instead, she fell into the hands of the Nazis and disappeared from my life. I am alive today because, instead of accompanying her, I chose to stay with the boy who was stronger than the enraged mule. Because of him, I also feel a lingering sense of loss. I do not remember his face, and I do not remember his name. I have no memory either of the day my mother was supposed to return to the cherry farm. But I do remember many of the days of nurturing that preceded that day in June 1944, and I have never forgotten the few merciful people who protected me from the worst.

For a long time, I kept these memories to myself, hidden behind a wall of silence. Although my story remained alive in me, I did not have the courage to confront the facts and talk to those who had been its witnesses. Secure that I could retrieve the past just for the asking, I kept it locked inside. But, as time went by, I started forgetting the things I once knew. Entire fragments of my past drifted away in the stream of time; surprisingly, though, other pieces remained etched in my memory with the precision of a laser beam, regardless of how essential — or unimportant — they may have been. It is the terror of complete oblivion, the death of my memories, that brought me to Venasques, trying to remember.

Now, standing in the middle of a cherry orchard on that hot summer day in 1990, my memories fail me. Maybe it was all a dream. Having searched all around, I cannot find the exact place where my mother and I separated forever. I cannot locate among the familiar trees the place where I was standing when her image began to dissipate. I cannot remember her last look, her face, her last words, her last hug. I just remember her walking away from me, disappearing into the distance. She was wearing her bright taffeta dress with big white buttons. I watch her turn beyond the old portal and walk away forever. It is this sight of her that I came to recover after so many years. Her last loving attention to me was to use a safety pin to mend a tear in the pocket of my summer shirt. I remember fingering the safety pin after she left, holding on to it as if she were hanging on to the other end.

In this cherry orchard, I began my trip back in time, determined to break through the forty-six-year wall of silence surrounding my mother. Fearful of losing her memory, I decided to tell her story. Now, I had to find out what had happened to her. I also needed to locate the people who had helped me survive and pay them my tribute at last.

Months of relentless writing triggered a whirl of emotions. I found myself crying — and smiling — at my memories, and I could not break away. Like the variegated handkerchiefs in a magic trick, one memory wove into the next in an endless stream of colors. The recollection of one special moment unleashed an entire rainbow.

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