Memoir | Grief and the Lemon Tree

By | Feb 23, 2023

I am surprised by the depth of my grieving. Not even when my mother passed away, twenty six years ago, had I experienced a grief as I am experiencing now, after the recent death of my dear father, Amram Deutsch.

I cannot stop crying. I cry as I write. I cry as I work. I cry as I talk. I cry in front of others. I cry in the privacy of my room. The crying has become simply overwhelming.

I was not allowed to cry growing up. There was no tolerance for it. I was the first born, growing up in a Holocaust survivors’ home, and I was made to feel ashamed and embarrassed if I cried about anything! “What have you got to cry about! You have shoes, a home, food….” and I learned, early on, that any crying on my part would only cause my parents’ aggravation. It was my responsibility to keep any and all aggravation, anxiety, depression, sadness or anger, at bay—at the expense of my own emotional development as a child. There was no room or place for my emotions—no energy for them to be acknowledged, believed or recognized—all my parents wanted was a “happy daughter.” They were busy surviving. And I was trying to survive being a survivors’ daughter.

I became an adult at birth. As my father would say, proudly. and in all seriousness, as if this was a good thing: “Mindele, you were already grown up and independent at a year and a half, wandering around Bergen-Belsen.” -the Displaced Persons camp in which I was born.

My father was ninety-six, when he read Helen Epstein’s classic Children of the Holocaust, after which he called me and said he had read the book in amazement and can now understand what my life must have been like. When he read the book I had written, in 2021, AFTER: The Obligation of Beauty, he said “Mindele, you got it right.” Not a “what are you talking about!” which could very well have been the reaction.

Since my father’s death, I seem to be crying all the time. It has become clear to me that it is not just the loss of my father that I am grieving; I am grieving for the life I have spent as a survivors’ daughter. A life without a childhood. A life where I seemed to live for someone else. That life has now closed. It is no longer as it was. It is not pity, for myself, that I am feeling. It is a genuine deep grieving that I am not sure I will ever fully understand. Yet, here it is.

The writer and psychologist Dina Wardi, in her book Memorial Candles, writes that in each survivors’ family there is one child who is the designated memorial candle. I clearly was that in my home. Am I now the real memorial candle, now that my father died? It does not feel like that. It feels more like the flame I carried my entire life died out and I am left in total darkness. How do I live for “my self”? what does that even mean….Of course I am grieving the loss of my father, but where is all this deep crying come from….

It is clear I am not just grieving for my father. I am grieving for the child I could never be, for the weight of having lived this Holocaust survivors’ daughter’s life.

I cry from having carried the historic weight, the burden , the often unbearable responsibility of the fulfillment of  someone else’s happiness. I cry for the impossibility of living a life trying to make a mother and father “happy.” And proud. God only knows. Am I crying from the relief that it’s over or from the genuine pain I have carried? Probably both are contributing to this unbearable grief.

My husband claims, rightly so, that it is as if there was a “protective scab on your heart that got torn off , and all the grief you lived with as a survivors’ daughter has broken through.”

It is, however, because I am a survivors’ daughter, that I do not let myself sit in my grief. I do not, in fact, collapse. I am a painter and a writer—and I could trust that soon enough there would be a place I could turn these tears into marks or words. I would, indeed, find a place in which to cry, and where I could turn the tears into something outside myself. A place in which to put these tears.

A few weeks ago, after getting up from Shiva for my father,  and at the very start of the “year of mourning,” as is the Jewish tradition,  I returned to the studio. I started to paint. I am, and was, totally surprised by what I was painting: I started painting lemon trees, using yellows I had never used before. In over forty years of painting, the yellow tubes were always the ones left unused.

I am not a figurative painter. I work in abstract, expressive mark making. The work usually tells me what’s going on inside my self.  The work always comes from my heart. My mind is not engaged. Only my heart. And there it was: my first day back and I was painting lemon trees. I do not work with any preconceived idea and I continue to be surprised by what surfaces in the work. I guess I should not have been as surprised as I was that lemon trees showed up in the work.

My parents lived in the same house in Los Angeles for over sixty years. My father’s favorite place to sit was under his lemon tree, in the backyard. He also loved giving lemons away in his Jewish orthodox neighborhood. By the time of his death, he had shared his lemons with three generations of families. In fact, in his memory, and in his honor, I planted a fresh lemon tree, last week, in my small Jerusalem garden. I will now go buy a chair and sit under my own tree, as my father did his.

In looking for support during this very emotional time, I have started to see a very wise doctor,  who claims I have not cried enough in my lifetime. I guess I am making up for lost time. And, as he also said: “one cannot go back and rewrite the beginning, yet, one can still write one’s ending.”

It is my hope, in fact, to be writing and painting from a happy place. In the meantime I paint lemon trees. And I continue to cry.

9 thoughts on “Memoir | Grief and the Lemon Tree

  1. Jack Rasmussen says:

    This is so moving, Mindy. I grieve with you, even as I see how beautiful your paintings have become.

  2. Beautiful piece Mindy and lemon trees are such a rich response for nowm May your father’s memory be for a blessing

  3. Lisa Courtney says:

    Beautiful tribute to grief, growth and continuity

  4. Simone Greenberg says:

    Dear Mindy,

    Your words touch one’s heart. Having known your father all I can say is that you are a lot like like him. You have a big heart and an unusual ability to touch people and inspire. I hope you keep creating beauty. With love, Simone

  5. Jane Carter Pomerantz says:

    Thank you to Mindy for sharing this incredible story.

  6. Toni Mehler says:

    Dear Ms. Weisel:
    I am also the daughter of Holocaust survivors.
    I often pictured myself as a trapeze artist when I was a child. A real one, in a circus, dressed in skin-tight outfits bedecked in sequins, performing death-defying feats of courage, the palms of my hands white and powdery. It wasn’t the overactive imagination of a little girl. I really was an acrobat. I soared among awful secrets that waited for me like trustworthy circus performers, arms outstretched on their small parapets high above the ground.
    Sometimes I fell.
    And my parents told me I had nothing to cry about.
    So I empathize with your tears. And I also know they will water the lemon tree that you, like I, inherited. It will grow. And one day, not too far in the future, will give you fruit. And shade. I promise.
    Warmest best wishes,

  7. Rosemary Weiss says:

    I too am a child of survivors and I didn’t know but was the memorial candle in the family. To this day, I’m 75, I feel I raised myself. For some reason, my mother selected me as her confident and it was a horrible burden. When she was angry or depressed, I was always her target. My sister has no memory of being treated this way.

    But over the years I had 2 husbands and a wonderful son and now incredible grandsons and lots of friends. A full life

  8. Oh Mindy,
    This is so poignant, beautiful and mysterious. I don’t have the words to describe my emotional response. I will need to reread your writing, and just sit with it. May your sitting under the lemon tree bring you a peace and joy, that you might not have ever felt before.
    Be well. Thank you for sharing.
    Much love,

  9. Mary Haskins says:

    When life gives you lemons,….make lemonaide!
    Love, Mary Haskins

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