Category Archives: History

Relics: Artifacts My Daughter Doesn’t Know How to Use

Trigger warning: I’m going to refer to some racially offensive language (and high fat content foods) in here.

“Why does every show start with the stuff we JUST WATCHED on the last show?” Vivi asked me in frustration. She was several episodes deep into the Transformers.

“Well, sweetie,” I chuckled, “back in the OLDEN DAYS before Netflix, TV shows only came on once a week or once a day, so they did that to remind you what had happened last time.”

In a world of binge-watching streaming video and On Demand cable TV, my daughter has never needed the “On our last episode…” recap to pick up the thread of a show. We had discovered a relic.

  1. an object surviving from an earlier time, especially one of historical or sentimental interest.
  2. an object, custom, or belief that has survived from an earlier time but is now outmoded.

She is growing up in a different kind of life, a life where recaps are “now outmoded.”

This has not been lost on my family. I remember when she was about 3 and we were all sitting around the dining room table at Daddy and Gay’s house. Her Uncle James looked at Vivi across the table and blurted, “That child does not know how to eat a drumstick.”

Every head turned to witness Vivi gripping her fried chicken leg by the meaty end while she gnawed for purchase on the bony little knobbly end. My firstborn, not one generation removed from walking out into the backyard to procure a chicken for the frying pan, didn’t know which end of the drumstick was the handle.

Daddy was aghast. “Don’t you feed this baby CHICKEN?”

I rotated the drumstick in her hand and Vivi bit into the meat like she had struck gold. “Of course I do! It just…doesn’t have any bones in it.” I bake chicken breasts or chicken tenders or chicken nuggets. I don’t cook non-specific chicken parts chicken. I don’t fry it. And I sure as hell don’t cut it up.

Daddy set his own drumstick down on the edge of his plate. “How do you make STOCK if you don’t have a carcass???” I didn’t have the heart to tell him that I don’t make stock, I don’t own Crisco, and I have never in my life cooked a dumpling. And as God is my witness, I will never be hungry enough to mess with giblets.

That night taught me that drumsticks, a staple of my life, might be a relic for my daughter. An object of purely sentimental interest.

She figured out the business end of a drumstick.

She eventually figured out the business end of a drumstick.

So many things that are normal to me don’t really make sense to her. The other night we were out of body wash at bath time. I handed her a bar of $8 goat’s milk and honey soap that I get special for myself from the farmer’s market. This child who is in the gifted program at school did not even know how to work up bubbles with a bar of soap–all she could do was stare at it and chase after it every time it slipped out of her hand. She sat there in the tub with her Mr. Bubble, Kidz 2-in-1 Shampoo, a pink sponge…and a relic.

Photographic evidence of how little my children know about bar soap.

Photographic evidence of how little my children understand bar soap.

Remember that story from last summer when she was away at camp and I couldn’t wait to get a letter? Then when it arrived I realized that I had never taught my daughter how to use an envelope, so an unsealed envelope was all I received? She has two different email accounts in fourth grade and takes coding classes but doesn’t know that you have to lick the envelope to make it hold the letter inside. Envelopes are from an earlier time.



My kids don’t know what a phone book is, much less how you can use the Atlanta Yellow Pages as a booster seat when you are eating fried chicken around your Grandmama Eunice’s Sunday table (but you better wash those hands first and use SOAP).

Relics. I get sad when I consider how differently my children are growing up. We had it pretty good, what with the drumsticks and the rotary phones and the weekly episodes and the Ivory soap that was so pure it floats.

But it’s not all wistful memorializing of my glorious past that she won’t ever experience. Some relics are signs that we are making real progress.

Like the day Vivi and I went to a Sunday afternoon showing of Hidden Figures. We had seen the preview at Moana so she recognized the early scene of the three women repairing their broken down car. Vivi leaned over to me in the dark and whispered, “Three neh-GRO women chasing a white police officer…”

From "Hidden Figures"

From “Hidden Figures”

I didn’t understand her at first and said, “Huh?” with one eye still on the screen.

“Remember when the lady says ‘Three neg-ROW women chasing a policeman…'”

“Oh right!” I laughed quietly with her and nodded. She went back to watching the movie while I had to put my hand on my heart and catch my breath for a second.

My Georgia-born-and-raised daughter doesn’t know how to pronounce “Negro.” That word is a relic to her.

I read somewhere that you shouldn’t make fun of a person who mispronounces a word because it means that they learned it by reading instead of by hearing it. I’m sure Vivi has read “Negro” in books, but she’s never heard it in conversation while sitting around her grandmama’s table at Sunday lunch.

By the time I was her age, I had heard enough to distinguish the difference between Negro, n*gger, nigra, black, colored, redbone, high yellow, and blue gum. And that was from listening to mostly nice people talk.

We didn’t say n*gger in my family, not even in the older generations. Only coarse people used that word. My grandparents said “colored” or “nigra.” After my wedding to Fartbuster, I blanched when my grandmother–a self-taught painter–recounted a delightful conversation about painting she had had with “that nigra art professor” at the reception. “His name is VINCENT!” I scolded her. Grandmama didn’t understand why I was getting worked up. Mom reminded me that, for their era, using “nigra” was polite.

Not good enough for me. I lived in the modern world and their terms were relics. The world changed around them, yet they held on to their words. My beloved great aunt even coined an adjectival form: when I bought my first car, she said, “I wouldn’t buy a red car. It’s too nigra-ish.”

The one and only time I got my mouth washed out–speaking of soap–involved these n-words. Coming home from school one day when I was 5 or 6, one of the older boys dared me to say n*gger. I didn’t do it then, but once we got home, I said the word within earshot of Quicker, who looked after us. My memory of the event may be hazy, but my memory of the taste of Ivory soap is 99 44100% Pure, because my mama soaped up a blue wash cloth and had me sit there and suck on it until I had learned my lesson.

I did learn my lesson that day. Flash forward 40-something years to that dark theater, where my daughter puts the accent on the wrong syllable of Negro. I felt something move, something shift across generations. One word. It’s such a small thing, but it gives me hope.


We All Do

Was anyone surprised that Trump turned his first press conference as PEOTUS into a rally, complete with staffers paid to cheer, more bluster than fact, half-baked plans for avoiding a kleptocracy, and shouting hashtags over questions he didn’t like?

Yeah, me neither. He’s a one trick pony–that P.T. Barnum show that he’s relied on to get this far is the only way he knows how to interface with anything even close to public scrutiny. It’s a master class in abnormal psychology, or maybe just staying on brand.

I compare that carnival sideshow with President Barack Hussein Obama’s farewell address the night before and can only shake my head at the disparity. Elegance, eloquence, grace, intellect, wit, generosity, and gratitude–we were lucky to have a leader with all those qualities for eight years.

Today, I read a tweet (because that’s where America is going to happen now, right?) in regards to the Trumpertantrums. The young person lamented, “But who’s going to stand up to him?”

A crystal thought rang into my mind like a small bell of a memory: “We all do.”

I’m borrowing those words from Bill Bryson, one of the most entertaining travel writers in the history of passports. In his book Neither Here Nor There: Travels in Europe, tells a story about visiting the Netherlands when he was a young man. He witnessed the great love the Dutch felt for their Queen Beatrix, and how she enjoyed spending as much time as she could out and about. It was her habit to walk freely around the city, running errands and greeting her fellow citizens.  When Bryson, the young American, heard this, he remarked, “But who protects her?”  His Dutch friend laughed at the question and replied, “We all do!”

Who protects her? We all do.

President Obama mentioned citizens–the American “We the people”–in his address:

So regardless of the station that we occupy, we all have to try harder. We all have to start with the premise that each of our fellow citizens loves this country just as much as we do; that they value hard work and family just like we do; that their children are just as curious and hopeful and worthy of love as our own.


But protecting our way of life, that’s not just the job of our military. Democracy can buckle when we give in to fear. So, just as we, as citizens, must remain vigilant against external aggression, we must guard against a weakening of the values that make us who we are.


It falls to each of us to be those those anxious, jealous guardians of our democracy; to embrace the joyous task we’ve been given to continually try to improve this great nation of ours. Because for all our outward differences, we, in fact, all share the same proud title, the most important office in a democracy: Citizen. Citizen.


My fellow Americans, it has been the honor of my life to serve you. I won’t stop. In fact, I will be right there with you, as a citizen, for all my remaining days. But for now, whether you are young or whether you’re young at heart, I do have one final ask of you as your President — the same thing I asked when you took a chance on me eight years ago. I’m asking you to believe. Not in my ability to bring about change — but in yours.

Who protects American values? We all do. Who defends the Constitution? We all do. Who demands justice and equal protection under law? We all do. Who has the ability to bring about change? We all do.

Who holds the most important office in a democracy? We all do. We the people.

Our job description is on file in HR.

Our job description is on file in HR.

So on Friday, January 20, at 12:00 noon, I want you to hold your right hand in the air and repeat a little twist on the Oath that is encoded in  Article II, Section One, Clause 8 of the United States Constitution:

“I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will faithfully execute the Office of Citizen of the United States, and will to the best of my ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.”


Then let’s get to work.

And right before I hit the Publish button on this post, I saw this cool project from artists Shepard Fairey, Jessica Sabogal, and Ernesto Yerena:

We the People: public art for the inauguration and beyond


We the people are greater than fear, defend dignity, and protect each other. We the indivisible. We the resilient.

Household Spirits

“Mommy, I’m having that anxious feeling again.” Vivi and Pengy curled up on the couch next to me, ten minutes past bedtime. I stretched her legs over mine so i could rest my hand on her knee.

“What’s got you feeling anxious?”

“I’m scared of ghosts.”

Roman statue

Roman statue

I gave her a skeptical look. “Are ghosts real?”

“No…I know, but Myca was talking about maybe Biscuits is a ghost cat. Like there’s this cat spirit and it lives in the woods until it decides to come out and haunt a family…”

Biscuits heard her name and promptly hopped up on the couch with us. I tucked a long curl behind Vivi’s ear. “Honey, if you know ghosts aren’t real, it doesn’t really make much sense to get worked up thinking about them.”

“I just can’t stop thinking about them. They might hurt us.”

“OK. Well, if you are going to think about ghosts that might want to be hurtful, then why don’t you also think about the ghosts who are on our team?”

She twisted up her face and gave me a sideways look.

“So let’s say there is some kind of life after this one and there are some ghosts that linger on. If that’s the case, then the spirits that want to take care of us hang around us too?” She was thinking about it. “Like Papa. You’d have Papa on your team of friendly ghosts.”

“And he’d be…” She threw her voice down into a gentle growl. “…you better get in here!”

“Right! When you were a little baby, there was one night when I was so anxious that I couldn’t sleep. I remember leaning over your crib and wishing I could quit worrying and go to sleep. So I summoned my protector spirits and asked them to sit on the roof of the house and watch over us.”

She lit up. And I did too.

“I imagined my Pop on one corner, and my Grandmama Eunice on another corner and Daddy’s daddy–the first Carlos Jose–was out there, and I imagined Richard right up on top of the roof because he wasn’t afraid of heights. Now we’ve got Papa up there too, watching out for us.”

Vivi shook herself back into worrying and stuck her finger in her mouth. “But how could they keep us safe from mean ghosts?”

“Papa was a really good shot when he was young. He won riflery medals. And he was strong! He could throw a cow to the ground with a rope and his bare hands.”

She caught the tail of the story and held on. “What about your grandmama?”

“Oh, well she was a gentle lady but she would not tolerate any foolishness. And if you messed up, she made you pick your own switch. Do you know what that means?”

“Like you had to spank YOURSELF?”

“No, you had to go out to the yard and break off a switch and then she would spank your bootie with it.”

“What about your Pop?”

“Pop wasn’t a fighter that I know of, but he chewed tobacco…”

“So he could SPIT AT THEM!”


G walked into the den. I asked him, “Hey, Daddo. What would your father do to protect us if he was a friendly ghost?”

“Oh, my father, he was a pretty laid back guy.”

“Right, but if someone threatened you?”

“He’d get his father’s Beretta from the war.”

Vivi hooted at the idea of all these fiercely friendly ghosts hanging out on the roof.  “What about Richard?”

“I always pictured him right up on top of the roof, sitting lookout. Richard knew a lot about how to take care of himself. He knew how to fight…”

“Like karate chops?”

“Not exactly, but, well, just stuff. He wouldn’t let anybody get in this house.”

It took a few more minutes, but eventually we sent her off to bed with no more worries about ghosts in the night.

Our talk got me thinking the Roman belief in household spirits. The lares domestici were the spirits of family ancestors who watched over the home and hearth. Each lare protected a specific physical spot (for example, a 1961 ranch house with a little girl trying to avoid her bedtime).

If the family moved, they took their lares with them. The lares sat out on the table during meals. They received offerings on important days and they witnessed family events like marriages. Remember, in the movie “Gladiator,” those small carved figures that Maximus carried with him in a little leather pouch? Those were his lares.

Roman bust

Roman bust

On that night several years ago, when I couldn’t imagine a way to let myself rest now that I was responsible for a tiny sleeping wonder of a child, I called upon my lares domestici. Pop, who smelled of Levi Garrett and I can hear his smooth fingertips glide over the pages of a Louis L’amour novel while he guards his corner of the roof. Grandmama Eunice, dressed for church in a purple pantsuit with her purse on her lap, keeping watch over her corner with a Sunday school teacher’s all-seeing and all-loving gaze. Carlos Jose the First, quietly singing a lullaby in Portuguese and watching over the dark backyard where the hummingbirds sleep. Richard sitting watch on the crest of the low shingled roof, never in need of sleep, never daydreaming.

Now I see Papa sitting beside him. Telling stories, talking politics, enjoying each other’s company. Keeping watch until morning.

When my child finds herself wandering off into the frightening dark maybes of the world, I call her back and remind her that there is more good, more protection, more fierce and unfailing love around her.


Your Name Is Your Shield

At my nephew’s Jackson’s graduation last week, the valedictorian–Ivan Alejandro Lopez Castillo–thanked one in particular.

“Mrs. Prothro always called me by my full name.”

The young man had thousands of people listening, and he used that stage to thank a teacher for calling him by the name his parents gave him. Born in Mexico, an immigrant to America, there’s no guessing how many names he’s been called. We can be casual about learning foreign names. Anunziata becomes Nancy because it’s just…easier.

His story reminded me of a day 25 years ago when I was calling the roll on the first day of ENG101 at Auburn. “Srinivas Pochana?” A lanky young man who had folded himself into a desk in the front row raised his hand slightly and nodded.

“Did I say your name correctly?”

“You can call me Tom.”

“Do you prefer Tom or Srinivas?”

He laughed softly. “I grew up in Alabama–I’m used to being called Tom.”

I think of Richard’s grandfather Jack, who was given the surname Grayson by a bureaucrat because it was “more American” than his Russian Jewish family name.

We show respect to one another when we learn each other’s names. I knew Grandmama Irene had accepted Gennaro into the family when she said, “What a minute…it’s not Geronimo….I think of that old movie star Ray Navarro and then I put the G on there….Gennaro!”

Names matter. Learn to pronounce them. Ask what they mean. Ask how your new friend was given that name.

Honor names. If Tiara become Terrence, honor Terrence’s name. His father does, why shouldn’t you?

If we can learn how to pronounce Tchaikovsky, Monet, and Kardashian, we can learn to pronounce Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.

I’m all for nicknames and endearments among friends and family. My grandfather called me Punkin Snooter, Miss Priss, or sometimes Lucretia because he said I looked like his mama. He called my cousin Pat by his middle name, Luke, to the point that someone at our family reunion once asked about the twins, Pat and Luke. He himself was named Meredith Gaither Mathews by his own parents but went by Dick. My sister, his first grandchild, was given his name. My brother is Samuel Joseph after our father, Samuel Fuller and his father, Milton Joseph. Joe passed along Samuel to his first son and Joseph to his second. We like family names.




With all this thinking about names, I started watching the reimagined “Roots” tonight on the History Channel. It’s tough to watch but deeply worth it. No fact in it was a surprise. Every story of the slave trade takes us back over the history but this one tells the story with such excruciatingly relatable detail that the story of Kunta Kinte breathed for me. He was a young man in the trading city of Juffure (in Gambia), a man whose father taught him to ride a horse and whose mother sang to him at night. A man who prayed when he felt lost. A young man with a history and a duty to his family. A young man whose family connections got him taken captive and sold as a slave by a family his father had angered a generation before.

Even when Kunta Kinte is enslaved in Virginia, and dubbed “Toby” by the lady of the house, he insists on his own name. It’s not a spoiler (since the original miniseries has been around almost 40 years and 50% of Americans who owned a TV watched the original) to say that even when he is whipped and the overseer screams, “Say your name so you know what you are!” Kunta Kinte will not surrender his name.

Because as his father had told him under the stars back home, “You are Kunta Kinte, son of Amoro Kinte….your name is your spirit. Your name is your shield.”

Our names, and the family they connect us to, are our key to connection and our shield against being lost.

rufus mccrary family

We inherit so much along with our names. This is a photograph of my grandfather’s grandfather, Rufus C McCrary, and his family. Rufus fought for the Confederacy at Gettysburg and was one of the few members of his unit who survived. When this photograph was taken, his eldest daughter Lucretia was already married and away. In 1902, Lucretia gave birth to her youngest boy, Dick, would one day have a girl, Janice, who would one day have a girl, Ashley…whose grandfather told her she looked like Lucretia. Whose father fought in the Civil War.

It’s all that close. Still.

Mrs. Talmadge’s Backyard

Instead of walking down the sidewalk to my office, like I used to do, I’ve recently taken to cutting through Mrs. Talmadges’s backyard in the morning and afternoon. That’s not as rude as it sounds, because Mrs. Talmadge lived past 100 and died a few years back. The house has been empty for a while, but it’s owned by the hospital so I’m not trespassing.

More than a hundred years ago, Prince Avenue stretched for a mile with grand mansions rising on either side of the street. These days, the few old homes that survived have become the Suntrust bank, a doctor’s office, an event facility, the UGA president’s home, a fraternity house. A few decades back, our hospital acquired the Talmadge properties–after all, we’d been neighbors since 1919. Mrs. Talmadge enjoyed a “life estate” which gave her the right to live in her home for the rest of her years.


So over the years, the hospital campus grew up on the land around her white-columned Greek Revival home. The Julius Talmadge mansion next door to hers became the outpatient surgery center, with a modern surgery facility built off the back of the house. Our parking deck rose in the back corner of her yard, past the pecan trees. The hospital grounds crew pruned her azaleas and kept the grass cut just how she liked it. I can smell the perfume from the massive tea olives that flank  Mrs. Talmadge’s front walkway as I walk through the doctors’ parking lot on the way to the cafeteria. The driveway to the Human Resources Building shares a row of irises, daffodils, crocuses and hyacinths with Mrs. Talmadge’s front yard.

And we were good neighbors for all those years. No employee EVER cut through Mrs. Talmadge’s property while she was alive. That would have just been tacky. I kept up that tradition for years myself. But now that the lady of the house is gone, the house sits quietly as the hospital bustles around it. And the backyard has been pulling at my heart this spring.

Gardens are planted to be admired, and Mrs. Talmadge’s garden feels lonely. Stuck there behind the empty house and the parking deck, it’s still doing what it’s always done–blooming, growing, showing off–and it deserves some admiration.



I come from a long line of people who plant gardens. So one morning when the grass wasn’t too wet with dew, I cut across Mrs. Talmadge’s backyard and I’ve been doing it ever since. Every morning, there’s something new to discover. In the afternoons, I run my hand across the warm red brick of the basement wall and I tell the house “Hey there, I see you.”

There’s a set of worn concrete steps that seem to lead to nowhere, but I can see they once made it easy to navigate a little terrace where the back driveway looped around the house from the porte cochere. Next to the steps, there’s an antique rose. Not the kind we’ve overbred for hardy hybrids with big showy blooms. This is an older gentlewoman, with delicate branches and soft red flowers in the summer that smell like roses are supposed to smell, not like the kind you buy chilled at the grocery store.



Under the dogwood trees, white Star-of-Bethlehem peek out from their deep green shoots. I spy violets in the grass, dark purple and white, and I cross my fingers that the grounds crew won’t cut them too soon now that the grass is greening up with spring.



And y’all–this morning, the air was filled with the smell of wisteria. Look at this astonishing specimen:



A vine that has found its way into the air, by leaning on a tree (I think it’s an oak but I’m not sure what variety). How many years did it take for these two to grow together, leaning on each other?

Old places, that have become what they are from the work of many hands over the span of many years–there’s so much to find in them.

Thank you, Mrs. Talmadge, for this garden and this reminder of how things grow. Leaning on each other, making space, keeping on even when there’s no one around to admire the splendor.

An American Soldier

Sometimes, the best part of traveling is getting to see your own country through the eyes of another people. Like that time I was standing on the back of a boat going down the Mosel River in Germany and struck up a conversation with a local man. He said, “Yes! I’ve been to your country–ORLANDO!” Or the time in Greece when I asked for lunch “to go” and Richard and I shared a good laugh over how Americans like to walk and eat, walk and eat, whereas the Greeks would never think of disrupting a leisurely meal. Or on my first trip to France, when I had been advised to claim that I was a Canadian…but when asked where I was from in Canada, I couldn’t remember what part of Canada spoke French so I hemmed and hawed then said, “Um, Edmonton?” The young Arab hotel keeper laughed at me and whispered, “You are American!”

One of my favorite memories of learning about being an American while abroad happened in Luxembourg. That country LOVES America. Why? Because WWII, that’s why. While wandering around the city, Richard laughed and pointed to the map. We were on a street called “Boulevard F-D Roosevelt.” Neat, huh? Grand Duchess Charlotte and FDR were great supporters of each other during the war, and it was American troops that liberated Luxembourg from the Nazis. Over 5000 Americans are buried in Luxembourg, under our flag.

12th Armored Division soldier with captured Germans, 1945.

12th Armored Division soldier with captured Germans, 1945.

On the ride into the city, the train stopped in Bastogne and other towns I had heard of from the black and white war movies my parents watched. Richard and I pieced together our recollection of WWII history–the Battle of the Bulge, the Ardennes Forest. All that history had happened right there. I looked out the window at the trees along the track and wondered if they were all new trees, grown back in the last 60 years.

The Museum of the City of Luxembourg tells their story of World War Two in room after room after room. The exhibit is arranged chronologically, so that you get a growing sense of what the people of Luxembourg experienced. I remember a wedding dress made from a silk parachute. A flyer that, when folded the correct way, revealed a caricature of Hitler. Handmade flags, painted in red, white and blue to welcome the American liberators.

One object in that museum taught me a priceless lesson about being an American. I wish I had taken a picture of it, but photography wasn’t allowed. And I can’t find it on the internet, at least not the exact sight I saw.

In the exhibit about liberation, one entire wall was taken up by a larger than life sized photo of an American GI lifting a little blonde girl up on his shoulder as they both beamed with joy. She waved a handmade American flag. His helmet looked like it was about to slide off his head. The emotion of the photograph brought me to tears–the victorious joy, the relief of freedom, the letting go of some fear–all of that was rolled up in this one moment captured by the camera. The photo was entitled, “An American Soldier, Luxembourg 1945.”

GIs at the Battle of the Bulge.

GIs at the Battle of the Bulge.

I felt such pride for my country, what my ancestors had done to free the people of Europe after that horrible war. But the picture also made me feel grief for what my ancestors had done to the people of America, because the American soldier in the photo was black.

That girl in the photo smiled with every ounce of her being. He was there to save her. He was An American Soldier and everything was going to be OK because of him.

That American soldier in the photo joined up and crossed the ocean and fought his way through all those towns I had heard about in all those war movies. That American soldier fought in a segregated unit, because the American military wasn’t desegregated until 1948. Actually, that’s not true. During the Battle of the Bulge in the Ardennes forest, troops were desegregated for the first time–out of necessity. Units were being torn up so fast that the color lines fell by the roadside and all the Americans fought together. Counteroffensive in the Ardennes Forest, 1944.

In Luxembourg, that man was an American Soldier and was celebrated like a conquering hero. Then he came home, to America, where he had to fight to be treated like a man.

That’s what I learned about my America in Luxembourg. A snapshot for Black History Month.


For Anne, Who Was Still Growing

For Holocaust Remembrance Day, I stood in the cool and cluttered pantry of my house. I took a few breaths and thought myself back thirteen years to the first time I visited Amsterdam. Then I took this picture of the doorframe:

Always growing.

Always growing.

What does my dinged up pantry molding have to do with Remembrance?

If you’ve been to Amsterdam, I hope you’ve been to the Anne Frank House. If you haven’t made it there yet, I hope you will go someday. Take a virtual tour.  Read The Diary of a Young Girl.

Richard and I went on a snowy morning. Both of us were so moved by the experience that we couldn’t really speak. When you step behind the bookcase and climb into the Secret Annex to occupy the same space where eight people hid from the Nazis, you can’t help but understand the horror of that time. The floorboards creak. The blacked out windows still let in the sound of the church bell a few blocks away. The walls are covered with magazine pictures of Anne and Margot’s favorite actresses. And on one wall, their father Otto drew lines on the wallpaper to show how much the girls were growing.

Anne and Margot Frank growth lines on wall.

Anne on the left, Margot on the right


Anne grew 13 centimeters while they were hiding.

At the Imperial War Museum in London, I watched raw film footage taken by the British when they liberated the death camps and had to use bulldozers to bury the dead. In Prague, I walked through empty synagogues that have become museums because the Jews who built them are gone. I told the story of one in “Doris and the Dragon.” In Paris, I crept down a flight of cold cement stairs to the river bank where boats were loaded with Jews for deportation. I’ve stood in a cattle car and tried to imagine when it was filled with terrified families. I’ve read the statistics and the history and the memoir, but nothing brought the story of the Holocaust home to me like these narrow pen marks on a wall.

I can hear “6 million Jews were killed in the Holocaust” and believe it, but not comprehend it. When I look at those marks climbing the wall and know that Anne was still growing, still becoming who she was meant to be…I understand that because my wall looks the same. We so often try to learn history from the big numbers down, but I learn so much more when I start from the one–the one life.

Every single one of the six million had a life. A mama who reminded them to shush now and then and a papa who marveled as they grew. A first kiss. An annoying sibling. A dream of becoming something in the world. A story to live.