Writing became a way of breathing life into the girl on the cover of The Sweetness, a novel inspired by my family’s complicated history. I learned about her one dark December afternoon while visiting my elderly aunt in her studio apartment in Brooklyn—where she’d lived for nearly fifty years.
It was on one of these visits when she brought a round cookie tin from the hall closet and placed it on the oilcloth. Hoping for cookies, I pried open the lid only to find it stuffed with tattered documents. I riffled through them as if seeking the Crackerjacks prize, finally selecting an envelope yellowed with time—a telegram from Riga—addressed to my grandfather from relatives announcing the birth of their baby, Rosha. The year, 1931.
A sepia photo slipped out revealing a child, perhaps five. I stared at that photo for a long time, glancing at my aunt whose eyes welled. There was another of my grandmother riding in a horse and buggy alongside a woman with the same little girl. My grandmother looked like a sophisticated traveler out of her element—all these photos were taken during my grandparents’ last trip to Europe, before Hitler’s rise to power. It was on that same trip that my grandfather had urged Rosha’s parents to join the rest of the family who’d already immigrated to the States and owned a knitwear business in New York. But it was nearly impossible for them to get visas and so they stayed.
When my aunt asked me to keep the tin with her documents, I felt as though she’d handed over the keys to my family’s mysterious past. I had many questions, but to push would have upset her. I remember her saying these words: “I should have stayed. I never should have come here.”
“But if you had,” I answered, “you might have been killed.”
And then she said the strangest thing.
“So what,” she said, “so what!” looking more like a belligerent teen than a 95-year-old woman. It was as if her 80 years in America had been nothing more than scattered seed—seed that never took root. I never forgot how she looked—such sorrow etched across her face. And soon after she died, I began writing a story, Rosha’s story, which I alternated with one I’d nearly completed. And it was through the merging of two parallel tales that a theme became clear:
At the end of her life, my aunt had to face all the choices she’d made, each haunting regret that evolved from merely surviving. And it was through the writing of The Sweetness that I came to understand the reasons why.
Sande Boritz Berger is reading from her debut novel, The Sweetness (She Writes Press), at Canio’s Books in Sag Harbor (290 Main Street) this Saturday, April 18 at 5 p.m. The Sweetness was nominated for The Sophie Brody Award by the ALA and is a 2014 Foreward Reviews INDIE FAB Finalist. The book is now available in bookstores, libraries, and online.
For more info, visit sandeboritzberger.com.