I have written about my legs so often that I think it’s time to name them: Gypsy and Thief. This is what I called them because, like all four of my Russian grandparents, they walked out of Africa, crossed deserts and seas, stole the fat dates that hung down from trees like ripe brown nipples, moved up the Russian steppes and eventually down into Odessa and Polynya, digging toes into fertile earth, planting, bearing children, burying husbands.
Gypsy and Thief knew when to run and where to hide. Always there was a need for both. Because to survive we had to be one step ahead, to negotiate, to bend the truth, to leave the game with the winnings tucked deep inside a boot. Because that is the way of the nomad, the wanderer, the one who never settles, who grabs what’s needed and ducks into shadow.
These are my ancestors. I look down at my legs and I see them. I see the broad feet planted on the earth, a flag of defiance, toes burrowing, each one a stake in the ground. This is mine, come closer and I’ll shoot you.
This is the ancestral legacy I was fed along with pureed apricots and Passover kugel, loosely referred to as the Family Brain. It looks for advantage, sees cracks, openings that no one else sees, opportunities before they become a fad. This is my mother’s brain, and her mother’s, some of my cousin’s but not all, my brother’s, my daughter’s and mine.
We have it, we use it, we try to keep a low profile.
When I was a kid, I could steal anything not nailed down; at that time candy was what I wanted. But later, clothes, jewelry, LPs. I’d go into a store with an empty suitcase, fill it, zip it back up and walk out like the Queen of Romania. Survival takes confidence.
When my daughter was a year old we walked through a department store and behind my back, on my back, she was lifting jewelry off the mannequins and squirreling it down her diaper. Survival takes confidence. We returned it all with a gypsy’s smile.
It’s hard traveling with my husband because he’s a dreamer, but I watch and see how the lines are moving at the ticket counter, which assistant is more likely to bump us up to better seats if I tell her about my broken foot. Okay so it broke five years ago but I don’t need her to know that. Richard rolls his eyes; he’s honest. Appalled, embarrassed. He does not keep an eye out for the moment to push, to use an elbow to get ahead.
But I carry the memory of pogroms, of the knock on the door, of the flashlight, the sound of wood shattering as the door splintered. I carry the memory of jumping from the second story window, landing on my legs, grabbing what I could, saying Now Thief, now Gypsy. It’s time. Let’s run.
You need not leave your room. Remain seated at your table and listen. You need not even listen; simply wait. You need not even wait; just be quiet, still, and solitary. The world will freely offer itself to you to be unmasked. It has no choice; it will roll in ecstasy at your feet.
Franz Kafka, 1883 – 1924