I have always known what it means to be a character in someone else’s story. My birth was marked by an asterisk in Maus.* As I emerged into the fluorescent lights of St. Vincent’s Hospital in the Village (it seems strange, to use “I” for that self I cannot remember), some other part of me fell through my father’s black tear of ink on the page. Or rather, not one page, not one asterisk, but hundreds of thousands in books being opened for the first time, being printed for the first time, even now. And later, in other strips and other stories, there I was, at four, at fourteen, my stretched face drawn straight from my high school ID card photo.
“How’s Nadja’s book going?” an acquaintance of my mother’s asked her once, while I was sitting next to her. “Has it been published yet?”
It had not. At that point, I had been working on it, on and off, for nearly six years. My father told people about my project with pride. My mother resented him for it. She became angry when anyone asked her about it. “It has nothing to do with me,” she told me when I asked why. “It’s your book. I have to think about it as being about someone else, some other girl who shares my name.”
“Not yet,” my mother said to her inquiring friend. “It’s a little like being on death row, awaiting my lethal injection.” They laughed.
“Is that how you really feel?” I asked her later. “Death row?”
“Oh, mais chaton!” she said. “They treat people very well on death row. Last meals and all that.”
“Having a writer in the family is like having a murderer in the family,” my father told me wryly, and often, in reference to both himself and me. My mother had told me that even in the hospital she refused to let the nurses take me from her arms. Each time they tried to slip me from her grasp—so you can sleep—her eyes snapped open. I can’t sleep without her. She checked herself out of the hospital the day after I was born and never put me down. But I could not remember a time when I was small enough for my mother to carry. I didn’t know how it felt to be aloft in her arms. Was that me any more real than the versions drawn and printed?
My paternal grandparents were a book. I learned to know them only in its pages. My father had closed away a painful part of his past and left it there for us, for anyone, to find. It wasn’t until I read Maus at fourteen that I discovered that his mother had killed herself. I was sitting on the carpet in a corner of my bedroom, the house strangely quiet, each of us behind our own closed doors. I was so absorbed that I had sunk to the floor. This is the grandmother I never had, I thought. Here she was, in a book so many other people had read before me. My father’s grief howled from the page, uncut by time. The anger and pain was as raw and unfiltered as it had been in 1972. I hadn’t told him I was reading the book now. I hadn’t planned to read it. I had tried several times before and slammed the pages shut.
“Would Anja have liked me, do you think?” I asked him very quietly that night as we set the table for dinner. I watched his eyes: the surprise, the rising well of tears.
“She would have loved you,” he said. He looked away and back again. “She would have loved you.”
Each time I asked my parents the origin of my name there was a different story: It worked in both languages; I’d been named for the title of a book by André Breton; they’d met an Italian tour guide whose name they had liked. But my favorite was that I’d been given the name of my father’s mother, Anja, recombined.
I had had once, in an impossible past, a sprawling family tree of Spiegelmans so dense I could have disappeared in its shade. Sometimes when I believed in magic, or wondered, as I often did, why I had been chosen for this unfairly charmed life, it was this: that crowd of Eastern European Jewish faces who hovered near me, nameless, with mouths and eyebrows like mine, hair like mine, with so much spilled blood concentrated into my own. There were so many of them and so few descendants to watch over. The one I saw most clearly was Anja, whose face I knew from a single photograph, whom my father had loved and almost never mentioned. Sometimes in moments of deep crisis, I asked her for guidance. I knew she stayed closest. I thought of her often, that grandmother I’d never had.
* * * *
In January of 2012, my mother and I went to France, just the two of us. My mother had arranged the trip so that she and I could spend two days in Paris before continuing on to the town of Angoulême, where we would meet my father.
In the past, I would have packed bags of nuts in my suitcase to preempt fights with my mother over food, would have made a list in my notebook of the hurtful things she might say to me, to preempt their sting. But now my notebook contained only our flight numbers and travel times. When we got to our Paris apartment, a studio in the heart of the city that my mother had purchased a decade before, I made us dinner while she plugged in her laptop and worked.
The next day, she leapt out of the bed we shared, crackling with nervous energy. I heard her on the phone with my grandmother, apologizing in a voice that sounded young. I heard Josée’s muffled scolding on the other end of the line. It was two in the afternoon, and we’d been due for lunch on the houseboat at noon. I got out of bed and tried on four different outfits, trying to smooth away my stomach with my hands. I counted the months since I had last seen my grandmother, August to February, and wondered if I had gained weight in that time. I had. My mother took a shower, then angrily reminded me we were late. We ran outside to hail a cab. I noticed my mother’s lipstick was perfectly applied.
“But aren’t you ravishing!” Josée said to my mother when we arrived. “As slim as ever.” She looked me up and down but said nothing.
We removed our shoes in the entryway. “You’ll catch a cold with your bare feet,” Josée said. “Here Françoise, I bought these especially for you.” She produced a pair of elegant soft white slippers. “Nadja, you can wear these,” she said, handing me a pair of floppy gray booties with pom-poms on the back. The houseboat was difficult to heat, and it was cold. Josée had spent a rough winter, battling floods. She moved stiffly.
My mother and I immediately set to work in the kitchen. She handed me a baguette and I sliced it. She pulled out a basket and I found a napkin with which to line it.
“You see!” Josée said, laughing, as she watched us. “Daughters are good for something, after all.”
“When did you first realize that?” my mother asked good-naturedly, as Josée poured herself a glass of wine.
“When I got old and sick,” Josée said. “When I was thirty, a friend told me we have children so that they’ll take care of us one day, and I laughed at him. Children are so much more fun when they’re young! But you’ll see, as you get older, that it’s nice to have someone to lean on. It could be anyone really, a secretary or a housekeeper even, but it’s that much more comfortable when it’s someone you know well.” There was an undercurrent of resentment in Josée’s tone, but my mother laughed easily, a casual smile in place.
Six months earlier, during a family trip to Paris in August, my mother had received an emergency phone call from Josée. She said she had just fallen and broken her hip. Normally she would have called one of her other daughters, but since my mother was here, perhaps she could come? My mother, brother, and I jumped into a cab. On the way to the houseboat, we puzzled aloud. Why had Josée called my mother instead of an ambulance? How would we get her off the boat? But when we arrived, Josée was standing at the top of her stairs, packed and ready to go. She managed to climb into the taxi and directed the driver to a clinic she liked. “Madame,” the doctor told my anxious mother, “if your mother has a broken hip she should be in a hospital, not here.” But Josée insisted she did not want to go to the hospital, and eventually she was assigned a room. She gave a sigh of relief as we hoisted her onto the bed. “It’s very comfortable here,” she told us. That evening, X-rays were finally taken. In hushed tones in the hallway, the doctor informed my mother that there was absolutely nothing wrong with Josée’s hip—in fact, there was nothing wrong with her at all.
But my mother knew that something was wrong, even if not medically. Josée did not often ask for her help. What was she trying to communicate? My mother thought she knew what it was: Josée was too old to live on the houseboat alone and too proud to admit it. The winter chill and damp cut straight through her.
My mother had worriedly discussed solutions with everyone in the family. Sylvie and Andrée felt Josée should enter an assisted-living facility. My mother recoiled at the suggestion. Instead, my mother mused, Josée could sell the houseboat and buy herself a comfortable apartment. Josée brushed the suggestion aside.
“Of course she can’t sell the houseboat,” I said. “It’s her life’s work. It’s her chef d’oeuvre.” It was unclear who Josée would be without the boat. It was how I explained her to my friends—the Jacuzzi, the table that rose out of the floor with a remote control. It was how she introduced herself to strangers: “I live on a boat.”
Perhaps she could afford to keep the boat and rent herself an apartment, my mother suggested. This, too, Josée shrugged off.
“Of course she can’t rent,” my brother said. “Renting is temporary. It means admitting that she’ll die.”
Eventually, my mother decided that she would buy Josée an apartment. My mother was proud that she had earned her living well enough to do so, but she knew that Josée’s own pride was a delicate thing. She framed it carefully. She told Josée that she would like to buy an apartment for my brother and me, which Josée would furnish and live in. To this Josée agreed. She chose an apartment a ten-minute drive from the houseboat. She referred to it as “Nadja’s apartment” and complained often of the work involved in renovating it. In the years following, she would continue to spend a great deal of time on the houseboat, in constant motion, frequently dining and sleeping there. But in winter months, she would marvel over the apartment’s central heat.
Now Josée would show my mother the apartment for the first time. But as it was still under construction, she’d prepared lunch for us on the houseboat first. As soon as we sat down to eat, Josée began complaining about Jean-Claude, Sylvie’s husband. Jean-Claude was a mild-mannered, diffident man with an array of food allergies. He took up very little space in a room and seemed to me difficult to dislike with any vehemence. But Josée’s affections were cyclical, and loving one of her two Parisian daughters meant fighting with the other. On that day, Andrée was in, Sylvie was out, and Jean-Claude was taking the brunt of Josée’s displeasure.
“But you know, I was very impressed with Jean-Claude once,” my mother said, and I knew exactly which story she was about to tell. She had told it many times.
One afternoon, when my cousin was young, he had fallen into the Seine. Jean-Claude had jumped right in to save him.
“He didn’t even take off his coat!” my mother said, as she always did. “It was quite heroic. I was very impressed with him!”
“Mais non!” Josée scoffed. “The boy was clinging to a buoy raft. Jean-Claude jumped right down onto it and split his kid’s lip open. Some hero!”
This was the first time I’d heard that version of the story. I looked at the two women; neither wavered. I’d been there that day, ten or eleven years old, standing on the deck of the boat. I strained to remember. I tried to see my cousin’s lip, the blood dripping into murky water, but I remembered the moment as if in a movie, from behind a roving camera. I even saw myself standing there. I’d inhabited my mother’s memory and lost my own.
There was a beat of strained silence. My mother shrugged and changed the topic. I knew she would continue to tell the story just as she always had.
“Nadja, I’m glad you’re here,” my grandmother said, turning decisively to me. “I’ve been meaning to talk to you.”
My body tensed. With startling clarity, I knew what was coming. I’d been too busy sucking in my stomach to anticipate it. Now I saw that Josée had planned for this all along. “When I first read what you said in that book I felt sick!” she exclaimed. “Sick to the bottom of my heart. And I have been sick sick sick ever since.” I stayed silent and looked at her calmly. I felt myself exit my body, the way I often did when faced with anger.
My father was in France to promote the French edition of MetaMaus, a book about the making of Maus. I’d been interviewed for the book, and in response to a question about my own relationship to the Holocaust, I had replied, “There’s also my French side of the family, and what they were doing during the war. My great-grandmother got caught up with this Italian who had dealings with the Nazis, and when he died she was blamed for what he’d done, so she was in jail for being a Nazi sympathizer. Which was a very indirect way of being involved, but there’s still this conflicting sense of my ancestry. Victims and perpetrators both.”
Josée had received the French edition in December. She’d found the reference to her mother immediately and been distraught. My mother had mentioned Josée’s displeasure to me only in passing, but I knew that my comment had provoked tension between them. Now Josée had the opportunity to confront me about it herself.
“And on top of it all, it’s not even true,” she said now.
“How is it not true?” I asked. My mother had told me Mina’s story when I was eight years old. She’d heard it directly from Mina herself. I wrote it up for a fourth-grade project. I titled it “My Great-Grandmother, My Hero” in marker on the cover and bound it with yarn. Later my mother told me that she had gulped when she’d seen my project alongside the others in my classroom. She wondered if perhaps she’d told me a few things prematurely. But it was a story I felt I had always known, and one I was proud of.
In the French edition, my quote reads, “Lorsqu’il est mort, elle a été tenue pour responsable de ce qu’il avait fait et jetée en prison comme sympathisante nazie.” This translates back as “After he died, she was held responsible for what he’d done, and thrown in jail for being a Nazi sympathizer.” It was the word “thrown” (which I had not used in English) that gave Josée the most trouble.
“She wasn’t thrown in jail!” she said vehemently. “She was put in jail! She wasn’t even put in jail. She was imprisoned! How could you publish these lies?” What was this about, I wondered coolly. Was it easier for Josée to get angry than to thank my mother for buying her an apartment? Was she jealous of the attention my long-dead paternal grandparents had received? Or was this simply a manifestation of the general French attitude toward World War II, which made discussion of anything but the Resistance taboo? I began to feel the stirrings of my own anger. I defended myself. I told her I was not ashamed of Mina’s story. I told Josée I was proud of it, proud of how my great-grandmother had lived her life so far outside of society’s rules for women. “What if my friends read this?” Josée asked. “I cannot see my friends anymore. I’m embarrassed to leave my house.”
“But Nadja,” my mother cut in, in a conciliatory voice that crept under my skin, “listen to what Josée is telling you.”
“I’m listening,” I said testily. “And trying to respond.”
“She only wants to tell you more about Mina’s story,” my mother said.
“No I don’t,” Josée said. “Not if she’s going to twist it all into lies.”
“Really, at the heart of it, we can all agree,” my mother said. “We all loved Mina.”
Josée snorted angrily. “If this is how she shows love . . .”
“I’m sorry I hurt you,” I said stiffly. “That was never my intention.” Josée’s blue eyes turned sharp and cold as icicles. “The only blessing is that Mina is no longer alive to see this,” she said. “Just go ahead and forget your mother’s side of the family entirely. You never had a great-grandmother! Erase her from your mind. If this is how you remember her, it’s best you don’t remember her at all.”
I sighed and sat in silence for a moment. Then I stood.
“I’m leaving,” I announced. “I’m sorry that I hurt you. I don’t know what else I can say.” Leaving was the way my father ended (and often won) arguments. It seemed to me both a mature and an effective thing to do. I went to put on my shoes. My mother stopped me on the wood stairs that led from the belly of the boat to the drawbridge.
“Don’t go,” she said. She spoke quietly, though she’d closed the foyer door behind her. “Why not?” I asked. “It’s fine. I just don’t want to listen to this.”
“Just . . . please don’t go,” she said. I stood perfectly still, waiting. She sighed and said, “Don’t force me to choose between my mother and my daughter.”
“Oh,” I said, turning. “You don’t have to choose. Stay. I know how to get home.”
“But why are you leaving?” my mother asked. “What is it that’s making you so angry?” The question caught me off guard. I sat down on the steps as if I had been pushed. “I just want a grandmother who sees me,” I blurted, surprised by the sob that rose up in my throat and nearly escaped.
“You’re not going to be the one to change her,” my mother said.
“I don’t want to change her,” I replied, shaking my head to clear it. I rose again to leave. “I just don’t want to eat lunch with her.”
Josée stepped out into the stairwell. She looked me in the eyes, her face gentle now.
“I love you, you know,” she said softly. My breath caught. I had never once considered that possibility.
“But you’ve hurt me so deeply, oh if only you knew how badly you’ve hurt me!” She burst into tears. I’d never seen her cry before, but there was something strange about how familiar it felt, as if I’d always known how it would be. I went back inside.
Josée dried her tears.
“You’ve disgraced my mother’s memory,” she told me. “I’m so ashamed.” I shifted uncomfortably in my seat. My mother got up to go to the bathroom. I watched her leave, eyes wide and anxious. I wanted to ask her to stay but knew how weak that would make me look. Josée shuffled around the kitchen, rinsing dishes and putting things away, as she continued explaining to me how wrong I had been.
I dug through my purse and pulled out my red notebook. I began to write down everything Josée was saying. I wrote, as always, in English, translating her words in my head as soon as they were spoken, and so, as usual, none of my quotes were exact. I wrote: “I know it’s useful to you to have your whole life in perfect balance. But I hate to break it to you, girl—no one in this family was a Nazi.”
I wrote: “They didn’t have dealings with the Nazis. They occasionally traded goods with the Nazis.”
Josée saw me writing and became calmer. She began dictating to me, speaking slowly, glancing over my shoulder to the paper. She sat down across from me.
“Those were the happiest years of my life,” she said softly. I glanced up at her. For an instant her eyes allowed me into their depths. I was struck by the feeling that this, at last, was true. But it contradicted everything I thought I knew about her past.
“Beppo, the Italian . . . he was the only father I ever really knew,” she said, and was about to say more when my mother re-entered the room.
“So! Let’s go see Nadja’s apartment!” my mother said cheerily. She clapped her hands together, picked up her coat. Josée and I shared a look. The broken moment shimmered in the air between us. We gathered our things and followed my mother out. I put a hand on Josée’s shoulder.
“I would,” I said quietly, just to her. “I would like to hear the whole story.” She jerked away from me, shrugging off my touch. But her anger felt halfhearted now. Something had opened between us.
“Nadja will be happy in this new apartment, I think,” Josée said as we drove over in the car.
“Yes,” I said. “Thank you.”
“It’s very conveniently located,” she said.
“Is it near the subway?” I asked.
“No,” she said. “But I never take the subway anymore.”
My mother had been baffled when Josée sent her the listing. The apartment Josée had chosen was the opposite of the houseboat in every way. The houseboat was open water and open skies, new rules made only to be broken, Josée’s distinctive taste in every detail. Close as it was, the new apartment was in the heart of the staid upper-class suburb of Neuilly. Boxy concrete balconies climbed the building’s façade. Heavy glass double doors in the lobby instilled a sense of hush. There was a small clean elevator, a concierge, plain brown doormats in front of each door. It felt like a building for an old woman with well-coiffed gray hair and a small white dog, the kind who might carry school photos of her grandchildren in her wallet. It was difficult to imagine Josée living here.
Josée was proud of the space. She showed us the electric metal blinds that descended like storefront grates, the same kind Paul had had in his bachelor pad years ago. She demonstrated the modern light switches she’d had installed, panels of touch-sensitive concentric circles that proved impossible to control. She showed us the luxurious tiled shower, with its sliding mirrored door.
“The shower is mirrored on the inside as well,” she said mischievously.
I stepped out onto the balcony. In the distance, a toy-sized Eiffel Tower marked the skyline, the way it seemed to from nearly every vantage point in Paris. Close by and yet out of sight, I could hear a playground. How strange that the sound of children playing was so universal, I thought, uninflected by language or culture.
Josée joined me. “I used to attend the school next door,” she told me.
“When you were how old?” I asked.
“Oh, I don’t know,” she said. “Until I was six? And then of course there was the war.” I nodded, realizing how little I knew of her life.
“Do you keep good memories of it?”
“Oh, only,” she said. “I only keep good memories of everything.” She went back inside, but I stood there a moment longer. A little girl’s high-pitched shriek sliced through the still air.
* * * *
On the plane back to New York, my mother repeated a negative comment Josée had made about one of her sisters.
“Poor thing,” my mother said, but I could hear the guilty delight that danced under her words.
“Well, but,” I said, “Josée was a bit rude to you as well.”
“What do you mean?” There was the hint of a challenge, the beginnings of a defiant smile.
“When she said daughters were good for something after all, though it may as well be a secretary or a housekeeper. Don’t you think she meant that to hurt you? I mean, after everything you’ve done?”
“Oh, Nadja!” my mother said. “You’re still stuck in your black-and-white phase of good and evil. The world is more complicated than that.”
I became defensive. “It’s not that I care whether Josée is good or evil in any objective sense,” I said. “It’s just about whether or not I can love her, or even whether I have to. She’s only ever been cold to me, and so cruel to you.”
“Well, what about Josée’s own mother?” my mother said. “Mina was cruel to Josée, you know. Can you forgive her?”
*Nadja Mouly Spiegelman.
From I’M SUPPOSED TO PROTECT YOU FROM ALL THIS. Used with permission of Riverhead Books. Copyright © 2016 by Nadja Spiegelman.