As the child of parents who survived the Holocaust, the notion of loss was integral to our family dynamic. I grew up without ever seeing a photograph of my maternal grandparents or of my mother’s oldest brother. After they survived the Transnistria Death March, they were taken to Obadovka, a ghetto in the Ukraine. Two-thirds of the Jews died en route. Most of those who survived ultimately died of disease and starvation; brutality was a constant presence. Early on, I knew that my mother’s losses defined her. My late father, a German Jew, lost his connection to the country and the culture he had loved and was forced to flee Leipzig, together with the rest of his family. His oldest brother died in concentration camp, unable to slip through the Nazi machine. My father managed to escape and fought with two different armies, Romania and Russia, eager to defeat the Nazis. My parents’ story is not uncommon among those who survived the Holocaust. However, what always caused me to marvel at them and at the countless other survivors was their will to live and their ability to still love and know joy. In many ways, I am also a survivor, a Second Generation survivor. It has shaped how I understand and handle loss.
Learning how to live with the absence of much loved people is analogous to a gaping hole that you learn to walk around, ever careful not to fall in and be swept away by the grief. I continue to be mindful of that hole when I miss the people I have lost. From time-to-time, that hole beckons, but I force myself not to yield. Everyone knows what happens if you are stranded in a snowstorm and fall asleep. We have to push on. Still, I hold the people I have lost close to my heart and speak of them often. I strive to keep them alive by recounting stories and sharing memories. As the years pass, I do not miss any of them any less, but I do not allow myself to fall asleep in a snowdrift.
Loss is invariably synonymous with death. We euphemistically murmur, “I’m so sorry for your loss” countless times as the years pass. And undoubtedly, death is always a loss even when the death is a blessing. I have known much loss through death, and even when I finally welcomed its arrival after my mother’s protracted illness, the loss was, and continues to be, profound. My father died when I was twenty-six. His death was sudden and traumatic. My family was irrevocably devastated, and almost thirty years later, we continue to recover. I have also lost dear friends, most notably my friend Bette. I dedicated my novel Willing Spirits to her, as well as to her daughter Polly, who died several years later at the impossibly young age of twenty-three when she succumbed to an asthma attack. These losses were particularly hard for me. Bette was only fifty when she died. She was my self-appointed older sister. I was sixteen to her thirty when we met, and I consistently deferred to her wisdom without question. Of course, as the years passed and the age difference narrowed, I periodically doubted her, but invariably she was always right. The loss of her presence in my life left me adrift for a long while. Polly’s death was unspeakably tragic, one that continues to plague me, making me wonder if there was anything I could have done to prevent her untimely end. That loss was especially life altering, as it always is when someone so young dies.
There are, however, other losses that can be as harrowing as death—betrayal and divorce come to mind, though there are others. I have written a great deal about the consequences of betrayal. In the aftermath of a betrayal, the sense of loss can be overwhelming. When the person we love and trust betrays us, the grief is incomprehensible. Some of the characters in my novels, Willing Spirits and The Sinner’s Guide to Confession have been betrayed by men they loved, and others have betrayed men they loved. Some of these women have gone through the anguish that comes with a divorce.
The losses incurred by divorce and betrayal are not easily surmountable, but I believe that the way we meet the challenges of these losses shapes how we move through the rest of our lives.
Loss and change—we can count on both. They are certainties that demand our attention, but not our preoccupation. And while there is no right way to grieve, and no time limit on how long we should grieve after the loss of a loved one or the humiliation of a betrayal, the key is to move on. The women in my novels know many types of losses. Some have been widowed; others abandoned, and still others have lost parents. However, perhaps the most overwhelming loss belongs to Ellen in A Sinner’s Guide to Confession. At fifteen, she is forced to give up her baby girl. Ellen spends her entire life grieving the loss of her baby, a loss that is compounded by her inability to conceive again and her beloved husband’s betrayal. Yet, Ellen moves forward, and the novel’s conclusion reaffirms that nothing is stronger than the human spirit, not even loss.
Sinners Guide to Confession – Kaye and Barbara are longtime friends, now in their fifties. Ellen, who is several years younger, develops a friendship with the other two women years later, solidifying this close-knit group. The three women are inseparable, yet each nurtures a secret that she keeps from the others.
Willing Spirits – Jane Hoffman and Gwen Baker, both teachers and in their forties, have a friendship that helps them endure. Years after Gwen is abandoned and left to raise two sons alone, she finds herself in love with a married man. After Jane is humiliated by her husband’s infidelity and Gwen must face her own uncertain path, the two women turn to each other. Now, as each is tested by personal crisis; Jane and Gwen face new challenges—as mothers, as daughters, as lovers. And in the process, they will learn unexpected truths about their friendship—and themselves.
Phyllis Schieber The first great irony of my life was that I was born in a Catholic hospital. My parents, survivors of the Holocaust, had settled in the South Bronx among other new immigrants. .In the mid-fifties, my family moved to Washington Heights. The area offered scenic views of the Hudson River and the Palisades, as well as access to Fort Tryon Park and the mysteries of the Cloisters. Her first novel, Strictly Personal, for young adults, was published by Fawcett-Juniper. The Sinner’s Guide to Confession, was released by Berkley Putnam and in March 2008, Berkley Putnam issued the first paperback publication of Willing Spirits.
Join us on the Sinners Guide to Confession and Willing Spirits virtual tour. To learn more about the tour, visit http://bookpromotionservices.com/2010/05/04/phyllis-schieber-blog-outreach/. You can also learn more about Phyllis Schieber and her books at http://www.phyllisschieber.wordpress.com.