The woman climbed slowly into the front seat of the cab, assisted by her daughter. When she was settled, the daughter went back into the bar to find the rest of their party. The woman was very small, and bent almost double by age, she seemed even tinier, a faery gnome in a blue knit sweater. She held a brown leather purse on her lap in gnarled hands, and white hair poofed out around her ears. When she spoke, she tilted her head to the side and up, so that one eye peered up at me, milky blue, like a very old eagle. We spoke of commonplace things; my job, Portland, the weather. I was bored, watching the rearview mirror for sign of her daugher and the other passengers. The meter ticked on. She asked where I was from, and I gave my speech about Seattle. I sensed the routine questions that usually came next: Do you like Portland better than Seattle? Are you scared being a female cab driver? What are you REALLY doing with your life? and felt the dread and anger and boredom of these questions, answered hundreds of times in the eight years I have been driving. She had a faint accent, possibly Eastern European, and I asked where she was from, hoping to shift focus from me. She stopped for a moment, then turned her head and looked up at me, her eye sharp. I looked back. She turned her head forward and spoke into her hands.
“I am from Lithuania, but when the Powers that Be gave my country to the Russians, they sent many of my family members to the work camps in Siberia, and they died, of cold or of hunger.” She waved her hands in the air as she said ‘Powers that Be’, then placed her hands back in her lap and looked up at me again, gauging my reaction.
I said, “Oh my god, I’m so sorry.” I think maybe I touched her shoulder. She went on.
“We packed everything we could into one suitcase, and fled to Germany. It was good there, but then the war started. My older brother was drafted into the army and we did not know if he was alive or dead.” The eye turned up again and met mine.
“Was your brother drafted into the German army?” I asked, a bit hesitantly.
There was a pause.
“Yes. We were living in Germany and he was drafted and there was nothing we could do.”
I processed the information that her brother was forced to fight with the Nazis. She watched me process and then I smiled at her. “So your brother survived, and found you after the war?”
“Yes. It must only have been the power of our prayers, because my brother came home to us.”
We sat for a moment, and then she repeated, “The power of our prayers.”
She told me that the family then had to flee to Western Europe, when the war ended. I asked her how old she was. She was born in 1932. We were quiet for another moment, both of us staring at her hands, curled around the brown strap of leather.
I asked, “Does it bother you to talk about this?” She looked up at me and smiled slightly.
“No. For a long time, I did not talk about it, but now I want people to know. I want them to remember. People do not like to hear about it but they need to remember.” I sensed a question or an accusation in her voice. I touched her shoulder again.
“Thank you for telling me your stories. For some reason lately, I’ve been reading and watching everything I can get my hands on about the wars. There’s something that I want to know and I’m not sure what it is. Thank you for telling me all of this. I want to remember.” She stared up at me as I said this, her face very serious. When I was finished she smiled again, and nodded her head into her lap. The meter was at $8.10 and still there was no sight of her daughter. I asked her if she’d met her husband in America.
“Yes, I met him here. We had three daughters. He just died two years ago.” Nothing on her face changed as she said this, but I felt a deep sadness and resignation coming from her, and a loneliness. I imagined all the sadness in her life, all that weight bending her forward. And yet, that smile.
“My husband had a hard life. His family had to escape to Germany, and then he was taken prisoner by the French. He didn’t have much food, and he… he got very sick, as a prisoner.” She stuttered a bit, trying to convey this sickness, this starvation, the force of half a world’s rage and agony taken out on a body, the impact of that, the waves and ripples that run out from one moment in time into an entire life, coloring everything long after the Powers that Be settled into ‘peace’. She looked at me again, helpless to explain, and I put my hand on my heart and said “Oh…”, the air in the car very still and silent as we sat looking at each other, inches apart. I had so much to say and it was all completely insignificant.
The door behind her opened suddenly and her daughter began talking to her in a low tone, in the sharp, gutteral language of their homeland. The other people couldn’t be found. The daughter was sorry. She asked if they had to pay. The meter was at $11.50. I’d been in the car with the woman for 20 minutes. I reluctantly said yes, and the old woman began to look through her purse for money. I told her $10 would be fine. She gave me two fives and looked for more money to tip me. I stopped her with a hand on her elbow. “Really, ten is enough. It was really nice talking to you.” Small words, I couldn’t find the right ones. We had a moment, my own green eyes to her milky blue ones, and then she nodded and got out, her daughter trying to hustle her away. She stopped and turned and said, “It was very nice talking to you also.” We clasped hands and I asked her name. Her hand was small and warm and felt like the root of a tree and the leather of her purse and the strength of a tiny bird.
“It was very nice to meet you Maya. Thank you, very much.”
We smiled. Her daughter tried to pull her away again and she stopped and turned and said to me, “May God bless you and keep you safe. God bless you.”
“God bless you also Maya. Goodbye…!” And then the door shut and they were gone and I was alone in a cab full of ghosts.
*The title of this blog is from a song called Holland, 1945 by Neutral Milk Hotel.