Chelsea Beach 1946, by Renee Fisher
I am huge. My face is round and puffy. My ankles are swollen. My breasts, generous under normal circumstances, are almost comical in their inflated condition. My belly, while large, is of lesser protrusion than my breasts. This gives me a look, not so much of pregnancy, as of advancing years. I am twenty-four years old and I appear matronly. I look in the mirror and shut my eyes in disbelief. I have become my own mother and grandmother. I am three generations in one flowered smock, a two-legged family tree.
I was married a mere 14 months ago, in a size four gown of heavy white parachute silk. The fabric created to bring soldiers safely to the ground, now brought me toward Harry, the man I married. Newly returned from the war, handsome in a khaki uniform. For the last three years, Harry existed only of letters that described unfamiliar and exotic places, letters written at one moment in time and arriving long after. They took on a slow-motion quality. They verged on being worthy of my mistrust.
While I reread the letters from Harry, my father reread letters from his brother in Pinsk, letters that had stopped abruptly in 1941. My uncle’s last communication with my father consisted of a letter and a photo. The letter is written in Yiddish, a language I can follow when spoken but cannot read. My father translated for me. It is filled with the thoughts of people who do not consider death a possibility in their lives.
The photo is 5X7, sepia in color, printed on heavy, stiff paper. The three of them. My uncle and aunt, the small boy standing in between. My uncle, dark, small-boned and narrow-shouldered like all the men in our family. My aunt, plump, in a way that I normally would have dismissed. Now I look more closely, note the puffiness in her face and in the hand that rests on the boy’s shoulder. In other photos of her, she is delicate. I now must consider this new possibility: an unborn child?
And last, the boy. Small and dark. Features so delicate as to be feminine. He stares at the camera in a solemn, respectful manner. He reveals nothing. Each time I look at the photo, I silently warn him to flee, to hide, to avoid his fate. But he is braver than I am. He remains where he is and stares impassively back at me. Escape for him means getting out of his stiff woolen suit and dress shoes.
So my Harry returned from the war and the dead stayed behind. I needed to get pregnant immediately. I know that I cannot give birth to six million, yet I sometimes succumb to an urgency I cannot explain. Several months after discovering I was pregnant, Harry suggested that we go away, a welcome home gift for him and a last vacation we would have before the baby would be born. I have chosen a place that feels larger than me, Atlantic City. I feel reduced to a more normal size, seated on this huge beach and standing at the edge of the ocean.
Here, in the sun, I arrange my considerable bulk in a striped wooden beach chair. Harry is in the ocean. The photo of my uncle and his family is in my beach bag. I have taken to carrying it around with me. I cannot say why. I pull the photo out and hold it on my lap. I do not even glance at it. Do I believe I can give these people in death what they could not have in life, this glorious sun and sand and feeling of total freedom? Of course not. Do I believe I will produce a child who will compensate for the loss of the small boy who looks at me with such intensity out of his sepia eyes? No. He is a product of his parents, just as my child will be a product of Harry and me.
Then why do I carry the photo? Simply because I am selfish for my child. The deaths of my uncle and his family have deprived me of giving to my child all that should have been mine to give. The loss is as simple as the absence of a casual remark on a summer day, “Look, he (or she) has cousin Nathan’s smile (or walk or dimple or sense of humor).
Harry is coming out of the ocean. I watch him approach, wet, dark and broad-shouldered. I know that he will put his arms around me and ask “How are my girls doing?” He believes the baby will be a girl. He considers no other possibility. I will pretend to be outraged and will push him away. He will laugh and kiss the top of my head.
Before Harry reaches my chair, I gently put the photo away, out of danger from errant beads of water sliding off young, muscular arms. I watch the photo as it disappears, my young cousin’s eyes forever open and expectant as he slides back into the darkness of my beach bag.