Refusing to Call Polka Dots “Stripes”

I just posted this on Facebook in response to being asked if I “dared” to call something by a term which clearly defines what it is.

Of course I “dared”. Here’s my post:

I feel no obligation to defend my use of a term that apparently offends some people. If you are wearing a blouse covered in polka dots, I’m not going to comment on your lovely plaid shirt. I call ’em like I see ’em.

Still, I’m going to tell you a story, and if you bother to read it, you will better understand my perspective.

On my last trip from Denver to Wyoming, I took public transportation from my home to the airport. This included a bus and two light-rail trains.

When I got to the first light rail station, I was a little dismayed. From across the road, it appeared that I would have to climb several stairs–with a suitcase. Imagine my relief when I discovered there was an elevator.

When I got to the actual stop, there were others there waiting for the train to Union Station. Among them were two elegantly-dressed older women.

I’m 59, so when I say older, you can correctly assume that I mean OLDER. Like, late 80s to 90s older. Perfectly groomed hair, long cloth coats, pillbox hats–elegant with a capitol E.

When the train arrived, the women embraced and I realized that only one of them would be boarding the train. I got on first and took a seat near the door, curious to see which one it would be.

It was the little one.

Okay, they were both small, but this woman was tiny. She reminded me a bit of my “Little Grandma”, my paternal grandmother, who was a very large presence in a tiny package. She looked nothing like her, but the size was right.

I smiled at her.

The train was far from full; she could have sat anywhere. She came to me and asked if I would mind having a companion for the ride. I immediately moved my bag so she could sit down.

When asked if conversation was possible, I stowed my Kindle and agreed at once.

Then she said something to me that was at once both odd and oddly familiar: “My mother once told me, if you must discuss your problems, talk to a friendly stranger. You don’t know them; they don’t know you; even if they later tell, you are nothing more than an anecdote, and no one will be the wiser.”

I have heard similar words many times over the years, but never had I heard them so eloquently phrased. I often feel that I am a magnet who attracts people who need to spill secrets, vent emotions or simply share their thoughts.

“I am a friendly stranger,” I told her.

“I have been feeling quite blue lately,” she said.

“Do you know why?” I asked.

“Oh, yes,” she said. “I am feeling sorry for the generations.”

“I’m sorry?”

She smiled at me, and it was quite simply the saddest smile I can ever remember seeing. “America has slipped away,” she said. “America saved me, and now that world is gone. I never would have dreamed that I would see an America that harbored concentration camps.”

Now, you know me well enough to know that I have some opinions about that myself, but I did not contribute to this conversation, except to nod at her encouragingly so she would continue talking.

She pushed back the sleeve of her white cloth coat, revealing a tattoo. Tears came to her eyes–and to mine. “My sister and I were separated from our parents,” she told me. “We never saw them again.”

She went on to tell me that all they could ever do was assume that their parents were taken to an extermination camp and killed. They were never able to confirm this.

She told me I had a lovely smile, then thrust her false teeth at me and clicked them back into place. “I lost many teeth in the camp,” she said. “The food was very poor–an old woman there told us we were fed what was deemed not good enough for the hogs, and I’m sure she was right! Poor food is very bad for your teeth. What few I had left were lost soon enough after the war.”

She and her sister slept on the floor, sharing a threadbare blanket that wasn’t quite big enough cover them both, even though they got thinner and thinner each day. They lost hair and teeth. In the first days they cried a great deal, but soon enough it seemed that crying required too much energy.

Everyone was required to work, work, work, and day after day, people died. No one seemed to care, except that the body would have to be removed. No one wanted that task, least of all the armed guards, and often little children were forced to drag a body to the yard.

“No one cared?” I asked. I know my eyes were wide. This was hard to hear.

“The guards were many times angry to lose a worker. The people…we said things like, ‘Oh, how lucky for Avram’. Or, ‘good for Helene. They are at peace; they suffer no more.’ And the body would go, but there was no burial. No one was allowed to sit ‘Shiva’. Everyone was back to work.”

“We came to America in 1947, my sister and I. We’d worked very hard and we had a distant cousin here who took us in. Oh, how I did bless America for a new chance, a new life!” Her little face shone with the memories. I could imagine the joy of arriving in a new land, hopeful and excited for a chance at something better.

“We were still young, not yet 20. But my sister, she was frail. She was older, and she had made it her mission to take care of me. She saved some of her food to give me more. She kept me warm. She tried to do all her own work, plus some of mine.” Now her face was sad, her eyes downcast.

I was afraid to ask, but I did it anyway: “What happened to her?”

“She got tuberculosis. She died before her 21st birthday.” A heavy sigh. “I miss her still.”

“I’m sure,” I agreed.

We arrived at Union Station, where I had assumed she’d get off. Instead, she was met by her great-grandson. He was going to the airport with her, and assured her that his wife and daughter were already there with all the luggage checked in. He asked if she had had a nice visit with her old friend, and she assured him that she had.

We made our way around the station to the airport rail, and I assumed that she would go with her grandson, but she waved him away and sat with me again. The young man smiled at me, went to sit a few seats away from us and pulled out a book to read.

I felt a great deal of affection for that man.

“This country was good to me,” the old woman continued, taking up her story as if there had been no interruption. “I worked hard. I studied the language.”

(She pronounced it langwich. I found that charming. I don’t know why.)

“I took classes, and I became a citizen of these great United States in 1955. I have voted in every election since.” She raised her chin proudly.

“This is not the same country I swore my allegiance to all those years ago.” She looked me in the eye. “Does that offend you?”

“Yes,” I said. “Not because you have said it–because it is true.”

“It is true. Perhaps it has never been the same country. I was an old woman when I first learned that Japanese Americans were held in captivity during the war. In concentration camps on American soil! Oh, the shame of it!”

She shook her head. I admired the sky-blue pillbox hat. I remembered a woman who attended church every Sunday in my hometown, and how I was more interested to see what she would be wearing to Mass than I was in the service itself. Such class.

Finally, she looked up at me. “I was dismayed when I learned of the treatment of the Japanese families, but I was so sure that lessons were learned and it would never be allowed to happen again.”

I agreed with her. Of course I did!

“Concentration Camps! All those innocent children!” she cried. “The shame of it!”

I put my arm around her. She didn’t cry, but she did rest her head on my shoulder.

As we got nearer to the airport, she sat up straight and smiled at me. Her dentures were brilliantly white and so well-fitting I never would have suspected if she hadn’t shoved them out at me. I took a couple of pictures of the distant mountains and showed them to her. I told her I was going home to take care of my folks and she told me I was a good girl.

She was probably 30 years my senior–she can call me a good girl if she wants to.

Of course, I quickly lost track of her once we said goodbye at the airport. DIA is huge, and I have no idea where she was going.

The point of this story–at least for me–is that if someone who knows first hand what a concentration camp is clearly states to me that the “detention centers” are concentration camps, who do you think I’m going to believe?

One thought on “Refusing to Call Polka Dots “Stripes”

  1. Pingback: Remembering Every Day – Penz-o-Paula

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