Have you ever heard anyone play a viola d'amore? If you play it right-if you can play it the way Uncle Rudi sometimes could-you can feel the sounds echo in the back of your throat. I don't think I ever really told you about my uncle Rudi. He could make extraordinary music. You play the row of strings on top just as you would a violin, but the second row of strings underneath catches and resonates the sounds. The strings underneath are called sympathetic strings and they are tuned in unison with the playing strings. The viola d'amore used to be in great demand in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, but now hardly anybody has ever heard of it. It makes a sweet, tender sound, and at night, that sound feels as old as loss. I have heard this little wooden thing fill up a whole hall. It is a beautiful instrument, even in disrepair, and I am glad you have given it to me while I can still see.
Before you, before your father, I had another life. Sometimes I feel as though I were another person altogether. You are right. You have a right to know about the viola d'amore, about my other world, because now I know that what had to do with me does have something to do with you.
In his Spiritual Exercises, St. Ignatius wants you to go through all the memories that helped shape you. His questions are a lot like yours-he pesters you about your past. I have told you there wasn't much to the life I left behind in Vienna. Still, you pressed me. You wanted the stories. You wanted my memories. I often thought that if I told you everything, I would somehow lose it all over again, and these scraps of memories are really all I have left of a place that is now gone. They are my inheritance and they are my own.
You know by now that I am going blind, and as my eyesight diminishes, I find my memory disappearing as well. I have heard it said that you need only close your eyes in order to remember, but I have always found it far more helpful to see. When I look at you, I can recall the yellow house where we once lived much more readily than if I shut my eyes and tried. That yellow house is a vision and a memory I do not look forward to losing.
My story of loss may be no good to hear about. I know a woman with a better story than mine. She stayed and hid people from the Nazis in her apartment. She saved lives. You would 0probably prefer her as a mother. Me? What have I ever accomplished? I can't say that I witnessed anything important, and I can't say that I forgive. You don't start by finding God in the ugly unless you're Anne Frank. I did not lose everything and everybody all at once, but bit by bit and one by one, as though I were being conditioned to live alone.
I am the only one left. It is freeing in a way. And if someone ever asks you what your mother's maiden name is, leave out the Engel. They all say the same thing anyway: "Engel. Isn't that Jewish?"
I want to be careful here. You are not Jewish. I am not Jewish, and, in his heart, your grandfather was not Jewish. To me, this is not denial. This is fact. You will see. You be the judge.
Your great-great-grandfather Joseph wrote his memoirs. I know because I saw them once on my father's desk in Vienna, and periodically, my father would tell me what was in them-how Joseph had gotten wealthy in less than forty years; taken his gardener from Pécs, Hungary, to Vienna, Austria; and camped out in the empty shell of the Hofzeile, claiming it for his own, which was at the time the Hungarian way of obtaining property. Joseph wrote it all down in Hungarian, beginning with his birth. He ended his story with the granting of our family's nobility in 1886, followed by the words: "I love life, don't fear death."
My father wrote the story of his life in German. But it wasn't really his life in that book. He told little about who he was or who we were. He wrote lists-how often he spoke with Sigmund Freud, how many times he met with Ezra Pound. I write my memories in English. We each claim a different language.
In Vienna, they called me Genevieve. You should hear the way they say it there-as though my name were a song. Here, in the United States, I am Jenny. This is not the story of my life. This is the story of my soul. This is who I came to be-your mother-the last of the Engel de Bazsis.
Copyright 2003 by Margaret McMullan