I imagine I am sitting in the kitchen of a deep-Brooklyn apartment with my great-grandmother. Her back is to me; she is stirring a pot on a stove that is older than I am. She has pains in her feet and her back and she tells me so. What on earth do you have to complain about?, she asks me. She is brusque but she is kind, too. Okay, I say. I’ll describe it to you.
It is three o’clock in the afternoon, in the fall of 2020, and I am standing at the edge of an ocean.
The first thing you would notice if you were here with me is that it feels too quiet. Except for a few intrepid surfers — dots on the horizon — hardly anyone is around, and those who are keep silent, in reverence or in terror. No one makes eye contact. There are no birds calling, and even the roar of the ocean waves seems dampened, as though I am watching this day play out in a movie. I have to keep reminding myself that I am here.
The second thing you would notice is that it is dark. It’s often foggy in this neighborhood, but today, the sun hasn’t risen. Today, the one constant anyone believes in any more — the sun will always rise — has been proven false. The sky is a brownish red, an apocalyptic shade. Later, meteorologists will say there is smoke somewhere high up in the atmosphere; even though we cannot smell it, it blocks out all the light. But it will take them time to figure this out. Right now, even the newscasters are staring speechless into the maw of an unfamiliar evil.
Today, we are all animals living on a dying planet, clinging as desperately as animals ever have to the beat of our hearts, the stretch of our skin over our bones. Today I feel fragile in a way I never have before.
When my great-grandmother was a teenager, Hitler invaded her home country of Poland. She escaped by marrying a distant relative in exchange for passage to the United States. Both of her parents and fourteen of her fifteen siblings were killed. Growing up, I often tried to imagine the desperation of her survival. How incomprehensible, to have life and death reduced to their component parts. How inconceivable to go on living after everything that made her was stripped away.
As a child, I felt some pride at this history, but mostly I tried to distance myself from the vulnerability of it. I thought she was brave, and I thought I had nothing in common with her. I lived every moment of my life in California like it was mine and mine alone. I played soccer and challenged boys to foot races and climbed trees. I didn’t feel brave because nothing had ever threatened me. I didn’t see remembrance — as it was sold to me by the reform-Reform Judaism I grew up within — as valuable. I wanted to imagine myself as having sprung up directly out of earth, along with the sourgrass and calla lilies and nasturtiums that dotted the California hillsides where I ran. I refused the bitter herbs, the prayer. I would prostrate myself to nothing. I would have kicked the Pharaoh in his shitty little shins.
Once, in a Joshua Tree campground, just before dawn, I saw five planets strung across the sky in a curve so perfect I suddenly understood how our planet is hung in the solar system, how I am balanced on it.
I wouldn’t have expected that climate change would be what made me feel connected to my ancestors, but over the past couple of years, California has burned out of control. The place I thought I could always come back to (is that what makes a home?) is not the same. The trees I climbed are ringed with black, or they have been incinerated completely. I know that in my lifetime I will lose the place that made me. This feels like losing the path forward, but of course that path has only ever existed in my imagination. Planning for the future is a privilege given to those who feel so secure they can let their minds wander from the present.
My great-grandmother settled in Brooklyn and worked as a seamstress to sponsor other refugees. Her children grew up marred by her pain but intact, relatively. I don’t know how she pulled the will to survive out of the center of herself, but as I get older I know that will — that swelling wave cresting toward survival — is the only thing worth praying to.
Jews are practical. Don’t complain, my great grandmother tells me. She tastes whatever is in the pot. She salts it. And then she heaves a sigh and sits in a wooden chair. She shuts her eyes and crosses her hands over her stomach.
Big Basin is burned and Echo Summit is burned and the north side of the Bear Valley trail in Pt. Reyes is striped and charred. I am beginning to feel rootless, and still, my loss doesn’t approach hers. Don’t complain. So you weren’t born into a time that’s as simple as you hoped. What are you going to do about it? In real life, I never met her.
Once, in a Joshua Tree campground, just before dawn, I saw five planets strung across the sky in a curve so perfect I suddenly understood how our planet is hung in the solar system, how I am balanced on it. I saw how human lives flicker into existence and then go out, each a match struck in complete darkness.
When I let myself really consider what’s happening to our world, I feel so afraid that the cavern within me seems so deep it’s bottomless, so dark it’s lightless. All I will ever have is here on this earth, this flaming rock, this miraculous accident. I can’t do anything about it, I wish I could tell my great-grandmother.
I imagine she’d laugh at me, because young people have thought the world is ending in every generation, and then I think she’d try to feed me something disgusting like tongue or liver, something that’s been boiled for so long that the windows in the apartment where we’re sitting during this imagined conversation are fogged up with an almost solid film of meat and steam. Puh puh puh, she’d say. She’d pinch my cheek, or hit me on the back of the head just hard enough that I know she loves me.
She never would have let me get away with spitting out the bitter herbs.
Naomi Krupitsky was born in Berkeley, California, and attended NYU’s Gallatin School of Individualized Study. She lives in San Francisco, but calls many places home. The Family is her first novel.