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"Your Great Uncle Mott died in a Nazi work camp," my mother tells me. It's my 30th birthday, and in my mother's fashion there is a party atmosphere. I'm wearing a gold-paper crown, there are streamers, those little party horns. And a dinner of Hawaiian pork chops, a cake, champagne. I wonder why she has waited until my 30th birthday--the age when Jesus set out to redeem humanity-- to tell me this. "We just never talk about it," she says, pouring more wine. I think about the Holocaust movies I saw at school, 4th grade, 6th grade, and every year after. Sobbing for the people who died and the cruelty, but also for myself because my family came from Germany. If she'd told me before, I wouldn't have felt like a Nazi, I said. Searched the faces of cinematic SS officers for family resemblance, thought I caught a glimpse of an uncle, worried about the relatives my parents never mentioned. They who talked so often about the War- but always Stateside. My father's service, air raid sirens, blackout curtains, food rationing. "You were always tender-hearted," my mother says, and I wonder what that has to do with keeping secrets. When I'm 35, she tells me we're not 100% German. This is in a Hungarian restaurant, and she recognizes the dishes because her mother made them. "Where do you think you and I got our cheekbones ?" she says. "My mother." "I thought your mother was German." Well, Mom tells me, Austro-Hungarian, she spoke German. When I'm 40 my brother begins a family tree. Traces my mother's lineage back to Hungary. Some drunken uncles who tried to raise silkworms, and my grandmother leaving with a wealthy family, working as an au pair. In the manner of all old timey family trees, names appear and reappear. "Saved," my mother said. But other names fall away--Old Testament names like Esther and Ruth replaced with the names of Saints. Maria, Anna, Christine. I think I spot a surname-- lost in marriage to one of my mother's uncles. Glassman. Then another. Hoffman. Jewish names. I wonder about my mother's maiden name. Keller. German name, yes. But also Ashkenazi, like the others. And I wonder when I'll be old enough for her to tell me.
Bio: Joan Hawkins is a writer and spoken word performer, who focuses mainly on creative memoir. Her poetry and prose have appeared in Avalanches of Poetry, Fevers of the Mind, the Performing Arts Journal, Plath Profiles, and Sand.
Two poems are forthcoming in a special poetry issue of The Ryder Magazine. She and Kalynn Brower have co-edited an anthology called Trigger Warnings, which contains one of Joan’s stories; it’s currently under consideration by Indiana University Press. “My Writing Teacher” comes from a manuscript in progress– School and Suicide.
Joan lives in Bloomington, IN with her cat Izzy Isou. She is currently the Chair of the Writers Guild at Bloomington.