Michigan, March 12th. At the teak desk in her living room, the grandmother writes to her granddaughter:
Thank you for the flowers! The petals are the exact color blue. I will have Sable take a picture. For dinner we are having roast duck. Also soup, potatoes, asparagus, and the chocolate cake. Don’t worry, we have two ducks!
The flowers, blue hydrangeas, are a gift for her birthday. Big, plump periwinkle clusters, like outrageous pompoms. The vase arrived with a shiny pink ribbon tied round in a bow, but the grandmother found it inelegant and removed it.
Her daughter, Lea, is already in the kitchen. There are the two ducks to roast, plus the vat of soup to start simmering, not to mention the side dishes for Sable, her grandson’s wife. A vegetarian.
Having completed her letter, the grandmother rises from her desk. With the aid of a cane fashioned after a stalk of bamboo, she makes her way to the narrow, fluorescent-lit kitchen, where Lea is arranging the ducks side by side on the broiler pan. No heads or feet, just the cold plump bodies, firm and slick. The grandmother stands at the kitchen doorway to watch her daughter truss the stubby legs with twine. She likes to make certain everything is prepared the right way.
In an under-heated dance studio in New York City, a retired ballerina stretches her leg from passé into développé. Over her thin leotard she wears loose sweatpants and a little bolero-style knit sweater tied in a knot at her breastbone. “Not quite so high,” she explains, her leg fully outstretched, toes pointing at the air in their tight leather slippers. It feels good, the strong reach of her leg, the arch of her foot, muscles extended in a single, focused intention.
The young star she is coaching, a dancer with her hair in a high blonde ponytail, repeats the movement. Too eager. Her effort is visible, beads of sweat crowning her forehead, her leg jabbing the air rather than piercing it. The combination she is learning—choreographed a quarter century before her birth and intensely difficult—has not been danced in three decades.
The retired ballerina’s name is Brynn. She is sixty-eight years old and works in Houston as a consultant to the Ballet. Off to NYC, and into distant memory, she wrote last night to registered fans on her blog, while waiting for her flight to New York.
She has promised her doctor to do nothing that will in any way strain her bad knee.
The two trussed ducks are slid into the oven. The grandmother secretly worries two won’t be enough. She has this same worry every year. The fact that there are always leftovers in no way eradicates the residual hunger cautioning her to worry once again.
Clinging to her cane, she tugs open the refrigerator door and peers at the crowded shelves, searching for the turkey scraps for the soup. Wings (just the tips, less expensive) and a neck.
Lea says, “Let me get those,” and lifts the styrofoam trays, ferries them to the sink, rinses the cold, slick turkey parts under the faucet. In the stock pot, wedges of parsnip and carrot sizzle against sweating layers of a quartered onion. With a wooden spoon, the grandmother nudges the vegetables to the edges of the pot, to make room for the turkey parts. Lea drops the neck and wings in and lets them splutter for a bit, then covers everything with water and sets the lid partially across top. The grandmother turns the flame higher.
In a laboratory a few miles northeast of Los Angeles, two research associates are beginning the day’s work. It’s 9:30 AM. The study is at an early stage, data collection, simple, repetitive.
The first subject to arrive is a twenty-seven-year-old girl. “Woman” the first researcher—also a woman—grumbles to her colleague, a man, who sees nothing demeaning in referring to women as girls.
“It’s infantilizing,” the female researcher explains.
Her colleague explains that he would never use the word girl for anyone who isn’t actually young. For women too old to be girls, he prefers the term ladies.
Practicing the deep, full breaths she has been advised to engage in such moments, the female researcher heads down the hallway to the room where she will collect the girl’s data. Before entering, she taps a quip into her smartphone, about men who call women girls. As much as her Twitter account is a diversion, it is also a record of her daily thoughts, activities and news. To not record something would mean, she believes, to lose it.
The solo the young blonde star is to learn was choreographed in 1969, in protest against the Vietnam War. All wars, the choreographer later clarified, and told of his mother’s beloved blue-eyed brother, who died in a labor camp.
The dance, “Forced March,” was first performed on a sweltering July evening at the Jacob’s Pillow Festival in Massachusetts. In the Times the next day, a critic wrote of Brynn’s “dignified carriage giving way to fury and heartbreak” and of the way she “seemed to radiate perseverance in the face of infinite pain.”
Photographs from that date show a young, round-cheeked Brynn in a black leotard with a thin white belt at her waist, the expression on her unlined face resolute. Though brief, the dance required prodigious strength; by the end, the floor of the stage was wet from her perspiration. For the entire fourteen minutes that she was dancing, she was worried her pancake makeup would run.
From that night forward, each time she performed it, she told herself it was her very last dance. She felt it her duty to use up everything she had, sweat pasting her leotard to her skin, veins pulsing, bruises emerging on her knees where she sometimes fell too hard. Just a limp wet rag, that was how she felt by the end. It was a wonderfully satisfying feeling.
“I looked online,” says the young star. They are taking a break, drinking water from big plastic bottles emblazoned with the company’s logo. “I guess it’s true no one ever filmed it. I wonder why. I found lots of recordings of you, but none of this one.”
“As much as her Twitter account is a diversion, it is also a record of her daily thoughts, activities and news. To not record something would mean, she believes, to lose it.”
The grandmother’s other guests have begun to arrive. First her son, Benjie, and now her grandson Dave, his 6-month-old baby, and his wife, Sable, the vegetarian.
Everyone is cooing at the baby—an oblivious creature packed into a car basket. Dave and Sable used to live on the east coast but with the baby moved back to Michigan to be closer to family. As the grandmother is embraced by Sable, her cheeks soft and cool, Dave sets down the manifold bags that accompany the baby on even the shortest of travels.
Already Sable is complimenting the grandmother’s fine color, how lovely she looks. Somehow her flattery always seems genuine. In fact, the grandmother has always found herself fascinated by Sable—her easy manner, calm and untroubled, that air of steady contentment. Even now, a new mother, Sable appears relaxed about the baby and seems to have gotten enough sleep (which Lea always claims to find suspicious but the grandmother secretly admires).
“Happy Birthday,” Benjie is saying. He holds out the gift he has brought: a glazed ceramic pot containing a bright blue hydrangea.
The research associates are collecting data concerning a gene connected to the regulation of stress hormones.
That is all they have been told. They do not yet know that their subjects have come to this study via archives begun twenty years ago. They do not know that the archives, founded by a famous film director, are video testimonies recorded for an institute now located here at the university. The testimonies describe starvation, brutality, and death. They speak of life in ghettos, in hiding, in camps. In forests, in alleys, on the run.
Instead of archived videos, the laboratory researchers read swabs of DNA. The institute began collecting samples in an effort to reconnect dispersed families and identify bodily remains. But the researchers have been employing the samples toward a different end: an ongoing study of intergenerational effects of extreme trauma. Specifically, that the stresses of the Holocaust have altered the DNA not only of Holocaust victims but also of their descendants.
“Epigenetic inheritance” is the term. Environmentally-caused modifications of genetic material, via chemical tags that attach themselves to DNA. In previous studies, Jewish Holocaust survivors and their offspring were proven to share the same epigenetic tags, while the control group (Jewish families living outside of Europe during the war) did not.
This new study will test the theory that epigenetic tags are passed not only to children but to grandchildren.
The blue of the second hydrangea—the one from her son—is very close to that of the first but slightly more violet. The petals, bright and absurdly healthy, could be leaves from some oversized blue clover, or the wings of a strange blue butterfly.
The grandmother has her son set the planter on the teak desk. Meanwhile, atop the round glass coffee table, the bouquet from her granddaughter in California makes a sort of altered reflection, periwinkle blossoms spilling luxuriously over the lip of the vase.
The plant from her son has a small white tag dangling over the edge of the ceramic pot: Hydrangea written in looping script. The grandmother leans closer to read the tag.
Hydrangeas require plenty of light and daily watering.
A hydrangea is a symbolic way to say “Thank you for understanding.”
She looks over to the coffee table, at the vase bursting with hydrangea blossoms. Those periwinkle ones, from her granddaughter, are the right ones.
Brynn massages the area around her bad knee. So far, so good. She just needs to remember to ice it when she gets back to the hotel.
For a few years, the “Forced March” solo was her signature piece, created for her when she was not yet twenty. Danced for the first minutes in silence, with live drumming gradually layered in, the piece begins slowly, meditatively, building to a frenzy and then ultimately calming itself. Among the photographs on her website is one of a young, fearless Brynn hurtling herself across the stage while a stern-faced drummer plays impassively behind her.
It was flattering, an honor, to have a dance made for her, even if she had also been fending off the choreographer’s advances for some time. After she left the company for a troupe in San Francisco, the dance was retired from the repertoire and never performed again. When the choreographer died, a few years ago, Brynn spoke lovingly, if with carefully chosen words, at his memorial.
Her work with this new star is part of a project to archive “lost” dances. It began as an Internet campaign and has since received national attention. Brynn finds the online platform—GoFundMe— crass. It seems these days anyone can ask for money for anything and, astonishingly, receive it.
Once revived, Brynn’s piece will be publicly performed, recorded, and added to an electronic archive. Dances long forgotten, the GoFundMe page explained, will exist once again, recalled, performed, and shared into perpetuity.
“In the kitchen, the two ducks are roasting, grease dripping into the pan. The salad has been assembled but not dressed. The potatoes await mashing, and the asparagus still needs to be sautéed.”
“I will explain,” the grandmother tells Sable, who has not yet heard the story. Leaning closer on the sofa, she tells her about her first love, whom she last saw in 1939.
Mihail, brother of her friend Ana. He had the most beautiful eyes! But it was not until she was sixteen, she tells Sable, that he finally took notice of her. It happened at a dance. There were weekend dances back then, everyone would go. A favorite song had started up, and out of a sense of duty—it seemed—Mihail asked her to join him. Moving together, their bodies warm and full of life, she glimpsed a change in his face, some new softness, or perhaps simply attention. He was, she realized, seeing her anew. After that, he was always walking her home, loping along beside her, carrying her books, and, in the dark of the cinema, warming her hands in his, trembling when he dared lean in to kiss her.
When the war came, the grandmother and her family fled to the countryside, while Mihail and Ana and their parents hid in town. It did not matter; in the end, all of them were sent to the camps—but the grandmother escaped!
On the run, hiding in safe houses, in abandoned homes, miserable places she has blocked from memory. Entire weeks, months, erased from mental record.
Even when she gave her testimony to the Institute, she found she could not account for great swaths of time. That troubled her. It made it seem those painful stretches never existed.
She tells Sable some of what she remembers—far away, now, perhaps, from what she meant to explain. There was a courtyard where she found herself alone, a searing hunger in her stomach, no strength left. No last surge of energy to move forward, to make a decision, to save her own life by shoving one raw inflamed foot in front of the other.
Looking at the rusted gate to the courtyard, thinking that if she looked long enough, her father would appear and tell her what to do.
The hunger, she tells Sable, is what she has never forgotten. That was something she tried to convey during her testimony—how even after many decades, the hunger has never gone away.
. . . causing physiological mutations, including increased chances of stress disorders such as anxiety, anorexia, and addiction. In this manner, the epigenetic effects of history are passed inter-generationally through the body . . . .
In the kitchen, the two ducks are roasting, grease dripping into the pan. The salad has been assembled but not dressed. The potatoes await mashing, and the asparagus still needs to be sautéed. For Sable there is also a lentil burger slowly shriveling in the toaster oven.
Lea adds a ladle of broth to a small saucepot of simmering water. Next comes a dusting of her mother’s signature ingredient, which the grandmother considers a spice though really it is MSG. Lea cracks an egg into a bowl, shakes some salt at it, and briskly scrambles the egg with a fork. She sifts a tablespoon of farina into the bowl and stirs. Too runny. She adds more farina, stirs again. The trick is not to add too much, or the dumplings won’t hold together.
When the mixture looks about right—a sticky yellow paste— Lea lightly drags the tines of the fork across the top. The indented lines remain briefly visible, then start to fill in.
That’s how you know it’s the right consistency, her mother taught her many years ago, in this very same kitchen, when Lea was a little girl. Guiding her hand, dragging the fork.
The motion of another hand, of another girl, in a drafty kitchen in Brașov. Young Ana, sister of Mihail, showing her friend how to test the găluşcă: “Just pull the fork through, until it leaves a mark, like this.”
“Like this,” Brynn tells the young dancer. She lowers herself into a wide plié—slowly, careful with her knee—while her arms push above her head, palms flat and wide, as if trying to push away the sky. Fascia stretching, ligaments tightening. “Muscle memory”—though for Brynn the emotions, too, return, how it felt to be young, knowing her choreographer was in love with her, and that she did not need to love him back, that it was enough to dance for him, to be beautiful and follow his direction with her body.
“To Brynn this lapse is just one more reminder that what once seemed to matter greatly can be so quickly forgotten. The very point of the piece, the choreographer told her, was its brief flicker amid the indifference of war.”
No matter that she had not yet lost a loved one, had not, yet, known what it meant to be bereft. Her body seemed to know, and carried her to those bleak places.
That is why there are no recordings of the dance. No one seems to remember this—that the choreographer forbade it. To Brynn this lapse is just one more reminder that what once seemed to matter greatly can be so quickly forgotten. The very point of the piece, the choreographer told her, was its brief flicker amid the indifference of war. Like the brevity of life, Brynn always thought. Ephemeral. Lost. Now, though, its loss seems a mistake. She is here to bring it back.
We could not risk looking as if we were going on a journey, the survivor says on the videotape from 1996. That is why I have no photographs or family keepsakes. We had to leave everything behind.
For the Institute, that same survivor left behind a buccal swab of her DNA. Which is how, nearly two decades later, subject 1207B—the “girl”—came to be asked to participate in the study here at the university, and why she has stopped by this air-conditioned room, missing her morning tae kwon do class, to answer a detailed questionnaire and open her healthy, strong-jawed mouth wide for the research associate, who leans forward and rubs a sterile swab inside the girl’s cheek.
“So you see, I have no pictures of him,” the grandmother explains to Sable, nudging herself toward the edge of the sofa to pose for her photo. “But to this day, I have never met anyone with such beautiful eyes.”
She leans forward, toward the coffee table, bringing her face closer to the flowers—the bouquet sent by her granddaughter. Sable is leaning back, cellphone raised. “Say cheese!”
When Sable shows her the image, the grandmother nods approval. And with another push of a button, the picture flies off to a cellphone in California.
“That is the reason,” the grandmother tells Sable, “they bring me these flowers. These ones here, they are the exact color of his eyes.”
Brynn tries to be exact. To describe precisely, for the young dancer, the movements her own body can no longer enact.
While there are various dance notation techniques, the GoFundMe page states, few choreographers or dance historians know these “languages” (Labanotation, Benesh Movement Notation, Eshkol-Wachman Notation, Dancewriting) sufficiently to record or translate. There is no substitute for seeing movements in their full combination, expressed by the body as originally intended. This is why funding these archives is so important.
They have come to the most difficult section. Down on her knees, then leaping to the sky. Spinning and spinning and spinning, into the indifferent, expanding universe.
“Lead with the hip first, yes, but, no. . . .” Frustrating, these failed attempts to describe things her body can no longer oblige. Shapes she can no longer make, compromised gestures carving the air. What she wants to explain is beyond language.
So she stops, just briefly, to think. She is deciding what to do. Then she begins, again, to move.
In Palo Alto, the first of the day’s subjects has been set free. If she hurries she might make the next tae kwon do class. Or maybe she should skip class and study for her Latin exam.
As soon as she has left the lab, she checks her cellphone, where she finds a text from her sister-in-law. With a photograph.
i love this! she taps back. Just seeing it makes her smile. With a quick push of a button, she displays it on her Instagram account. My bunica, she types, 91 years old today!
By evening, two hundred and ninety people will have seen the photograph of her grandmother with the periwinkle bouquet. Ninety-seven of them will have “liked” the exact color of Mihail’s eyes.
Knee popped, Brynn writes to the fans on her blog. She is typing on her iPad in her casual, pokey way, sitting in a firm-cushioned chair in her doctor’s waiting room, her bad leg fully, painfully, outstretched. The flight home was tricky, with her leg sticking out into the aisle, annoying everyone. Not to mention the long awkward car ride home, and the depressing drive here today, propped like an invalid in the back seat of her friend’s sedan, and then having to use the cane again, like some old lady.
She thinks for a moment, then resumes her typing. And yes my dears, it was worth it.
From the latest issue of Consequence Magazine. Used with permission of Consequence Magazine. Copyright © 2018 by Daphne Kalotay.