What My Mother Would Say about Children Separated from their Parents: Notes from Another Time of War and Trauma

evelynemontessorieuropeToday, June 19th, would have been my mother’s 98th birthday and I know if she were alive to see it, she’d be horrified by what her adopted country is doing to Mexican, Central American and other immigrant families. As a mother of six children and a long-time Montessori pre-school teacher, she would take issue with the particularly cruel and inhumane impact that Trump’s policies are inflicting on children who are separated from their parents. During World War II, my mother was a young woman of nearly twenty living in the then-recently occupied part of France. She had completed high school and had just returned from a year abroad in England where she had been trying to improve her English. The Nazis had just invaded and my mother, struggling for a sense of the world, her adulthood, and way to grapple with the rapidly-changing country occupied by fascist Germany, was a bit rudderless. Both of her brothers enlisted in the army–her older brother Robert, who would later be captured and forced to live in a prisoner of war camp until he escaped, and her younger brother Jacques would die in a fatal tank accident within the first weeks of his assignment in Morocco. My mother, like many other French women would stay behind and help the country function, and would try in whatever way they could to sustain some semblance of normalcy. She later told me that she and her parents who had fled their native Dijon for their summer home near Macon outside the control of the Vichy government, had little news of her brothers, and it took months to receive the news of her younger brother’s death in Morocco.

My mother never talked much about the war, she didn’t want to–it was painful for her to remember and she’d often say, shrugging her shoulders, “I don’t remember.” But what she did tell me was something I remember today as I mark her birthday. She, like so many others who are either refusing to help the US government and ICE and border police, or those who are trying to find a way to comfort these children, felt compelled to do something to help traumatized children survive one of the worst imaginable events in their lives. My mother, without a full awareness of what was taking place in her country, found a job with a Protestant French relief agency that was helpingJewish children who were separated from their parents being sent to concentration camps. My mother’s job was to help these children get smuggled into “safe houses” and to families where they could find safety as their parents were taken from them to face their certain death. My mother described this in the least heroic way I could imagine. She told me that though these children were afraid, terrified, really, and that they cried, they were resilient and brave too. Many of them understood that they had to struggle to survive and even had the blessing of their parents to go live with another family. My mother’s most vivid description of this experience was of the faces of these children. To her this was not unforgettable. Later in her life when I understood the gravity of the situation she lived through, and perhaps, her reluctance to recount those memories, I asked her, “what you did, that was true humanity, what made you do it?” She was humble then as she was her whole life, and said only, “it was a job, I did it and only later understood the danger to them and to me.” My mother worked for several years placing these young children aged from 4-15 in homes where French families agreed to house and host these now-orphans in their transition away from their parents who were shipped off to be killed. No one knew exactly what to tell these children; what their fates held. She told me of the terror of their faces and the impossible questions they asked when the did speak. About a year or two before she died, I pressed her for more details and got very little. When I said, “what you did was heroic,” she simply answered, “this wasn’t heroism, it’s just what I did. This is what anybody would do.”

My mother would later come to this country, seeking refuge and a chance to work with the Chicago Montessori Lab (she had also received her Montessori credential from Maria Montessori directly in France in the later years of the war), and woud become an “accidental immigrant”. She left France, in part, I believe because the war had devastating effects on her and her family, and she thought the US might be a place to begin again. She did not fully grasp what she had been through, I believe, because she experienced the trauma of war in many ways–not the least of which was visited upon her by the work she did with those young children who lost their parents. She would be horrified, I know, to see what her adopted country was doing today to families seeking those same opportunities in this country, looking to find a similar refuge from violence and devastation, and, to “begin again.” I believe she’d be deeply disappointed in this country and this administration and the willfully inhuman and mean-spirited policies we are promoting all over the globe and at home. Tonight, I light a candle for her and for her work trying to help children survive the trauma of being separated from their parents. I think of her, and I think of those other mothers, who felt and feel helpless to protect their children from states and governments that behave in ways that are counter to everything my two immigrant parents (ironically both having survived war and occupation in their respective France and Iran) believed in when they became citizens of the United States.

Mr. Spock and the Beginning of Seeing Myself

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LLAP, Mr. Spock.

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Thank you Leonard Nimoy. Son of Ukrainian Orthodox Jews who taught me how to navigate some of my complex identity.

Thank you Mr. Spock. Thank you Leonard Nimoy. You are one and the same to me, really. I will miss your voice and serious demeanor, your depth of vision as a man and an actor, but more so, as someone who straddled the centuries, and helped me straddle my own sense of time and place. I guess I feel sentimental about the Star Trek series because for people of my generation (born in the early sixties and raised in the seventies), that show took risks and embodied the change that loomed on the horizon of American culture and society. Seeing a black woman communications officer, Lieutenant Uhura, seeing the Japanese Sulu, even hearing the voice of a female computer, helped me see that my life would be different than my parents, but especially my mother’s. More than all the risky roles Gene Roddenberry helped to realize in the original series, it was Mr. Spock with whom I felt the deepest connection and the most identification. Yes, he was a man, and of course, I was drawn to his mysteriousness, his intellectual prowess, his good looks, and  his eagerness not to cave in to human emotion (although I still hold my emotions dear, and I might even be accused of being possessing “female irrationality”), and yes, I always had a crush on him when other girls and women went for Kirk. Never, ever did I feel anything for Kirk. Beyond being a womanizer and desperate for female attention, he struck me as arrogant and cocky. Spock on the other hand, evoked a kind of quiet dignity, a desire to be in the world, but also a recognition that he did not fully belong. I identified with him, even as a young girl.

It was only much later in my life, when I actively sought to understand my immigrant parents, my immigrant father, born in France, raised in Iran, and immigrated to the US, that I began to see something of Spock in my dad too. He had that same commanding intellect, that same desire for logic, but also the same love of questions. But Spock did remind me of myself. I really tried to grasp what a half-Vulcan, half-human person might be struggling with; his cultural angst, his sense of loyalty, his anxiety about belonging to both and neither culture and having to prove himself to the Federation. I could not help seeing traces of my own life in his. I too was the product of two cultures, two parents who migrated from elsewhere who were raising their children in a third culture. Back then, there as NO vocabulary or appreciation for bicultural and biracial identity. These terms did not yet exist in my childhood. We were still consider mongrels, freaks, and half-breeds (in the negative sense) and identifying with either nationality seemed a perilous kind of social ostracization to bring on oneself. Seeing Mr. Spock on the black and white screen of our TV as a girl of 9 or 10, (who knows if it was reruns or the real thing or both?), I began to entertain the possibility that what I was, like Spock, was unique and different, and maybe might one day even be a badge of honor.

I saw the power in a character like Spock. I saw his adaptability, his insight, his “do-rageh” (in Persian this means, “two-veined” –as in two bloods run through me), perspective as something that made him smart and sophisticated, and maybe even a little cutting-edge. I also saw in him the vulnerability of someone who was straddling two cultures (his earthling mother’s and his Vulcan father’s in a third world aboard the Starship Enterprise). He made the best of his alienation and his discomfort, and he found both appreciation and humor for the perspective he wielded. Yes, Mr. Spock helped me understand myself a little better and made me feel that living on the edge of cultures, living with the sense of ill-ease, of not belonging had its own vision and benefits. I often felt that while the series made him more Vulcan, inside he was much more about the process of embracing all his influences–human, Vulcan, Federation, exilic, traveler, scientist, questioner, and about negotiating and maybe even fooling people into assuming he was much more simple than he really was. I saw in Spock, and in Nimoy’s portrayal of him, someone who understood and felt compassion for the complexity of navigating more than one culture and being able to offer a kind of leadership and intellect that we still so desperately need today.

Thanks to Leonard Nimoy, and to his wonderful rich, complex Spock character, I later found some of the words to launch me on my own journey to embrace my heritage as an Iranian-French-American child. Though it was just a seed, it was a seed of representation that I will never forget. It helped me see myself somewhere in the popular culture of the United States, as someone who did not wholly have to fit in, but yet had something to offer to others. It began on the TV screen, and I hope it will live on in my son who also embodies several cultures.

Thank you Leonard Nimoy for bringing your own immigrant sensibilities to this role and for making me feel a little more half-human than not. And for offering me one of the first representations of my bicultural identity. You were a good egg and a wonderful Spock, Mr. Nimoy. Live Long and Prosper.

 

 

For Baba-On the 10th Anniversary of Your Passing

My Baba, about a year before he died (2004).

My Baba, about a year before he died (2004).

the day we decided, your withering
body told us it was time
to shut down the machine
that sustained your breath
and let the silence
of dying fill the room
with new questions

we knew it was all you wanted–
to live or die
there was no in-between–
you wanted the light
to stream in and the
voices to sing

there would be no suffering
no question of pain
it was a life, a good
run of days, years
and your only regret

not living to 100
to see what was
on the other side
to test the animal
and the beautiful
machine of your body
so that you could

tell someone, anyone:
these days, each one
countable, certain
definite.
Like nothing else.
PMK 2/5/15

In the Ether

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she crowds her mind with the tired headlines
cold war in one place, hot ones elsewhere
how a message from one person can irk
and evoke such hostility from someone
she knows and barely knows.

she’s begun to see the “connectedness”
as a fiction, like the ether of this net
and she dreams of her garden
and the water needed to keep it alive.