“And then my father told me, ‘It’s time to feed the pigs,’ and I knew it was time to take the leftover food from the Nazi soldiers and go downstairs to the basement where the Jewish families were living in our café.”
Those words have been etched in my memory from the time I was a little boy, a story told time and time again when my Mom was a pre-teen girl in World War II in Scheveningen, a little coastal town in Holland. My grandparents ran a café and during the occupation of the Netherlands, the occupying German soldiers took over their café. My Swiss grandmother sang German songs to them, and I remember her saying, “They were just boys and they wanted to be home with their Muttis, too, so I tried to offer them some comfort.”
Meanwhile, my mom watched her Jewish piano teacher and his family divided up at gunpoint and pushed onto different trucks going different directions. Slowly, the Jewish families in the neighborhood simply disappeared, and my mother never knew what happened to them. Some of them ended up in their basement. They stayed there a few days, a few weeks, and eventually they were gone in the middle of the night, and my mother (and my Oma) never knew where they went from their basement. My grandfather never said, and told them it was for the best that they not know. She never saw any of them ever again, but she later found out that many were safe.
At 15, my Mom was sent to a farm in the free territory of Holland where she pretended to be a daughter during the Hunger Winter of 1944. She wrote it all in a diary. For years she told those stories to school children at my sister’s classes that she taught, and she brought the few pictures and the actual diary she wrote.
My mom, Rosamunda De Mos Szymanski, died on June 1, 2014 at the age of 84. If anything is fitting for a tribute or memory of her, it is that she was a survivor of so many things.
As a child, she survived the war and a father who was married three times. She survived a botched abortion done by a farmer in France and had to be fed raw horse meat to stay alive. She survived a tough marriage, a bout with alcoholism, and even kicked smoking cigarettes which she said “Must be as hard as giving up heroin” (not that she knew). She survived trying times with me, liking both my girlfriends and boyfriends, and eventually came to the March on Washington in 1993 that was the biggest march ever for GLBT rights. She wore a shirt reading, "My son is Bi, I don't ask why" and I wore a shirt reading, "My Mom is straight, but she don't hate."
When I was 6 we had a devastating fire that destroyed the two-story brownstone in Brooklyn where we were living. My mom tried to save us by throwing a flaming greasy pan out a window, but it fell over her and she was severely burned. She was told she never would regain the use of her right arm again, and sustained a series of grafts on her stomach, legs, arm and head. She worked her arm until she could move it again, and she ended up being a great tennis player—even later embarrassing us by calling us to say she won a tennis competition at a nudist colony!
She beat uterine cancer, she became an American citizen, she survived a few car crashes. She once had a boyfriend (in later years after divorcing my Dad) with a guy who became a bank robber and was gunned down on live TV, and had a whole other family!
We lived in Germany, Holland, Baltimore, New York, Dallas, Hawaii, Florida, all following my Dad’s civilian job for the Army-Air Force Exchange Service. She loved Hawaii, taking up hula and even learning the language. She was a crazy red-head, who kept her hair unnatural shades of Lucille Ball-red and in various stages of curly or pouffy or short.
She loved visiting, and eventually living, in California. She attended the school shows and the community events in Studio City, Hollywood and Burbank, and eventually had a stroke and lived for the past seven years at a local nursing home.
Over this past week, as she was getting worse in health, I’d go hold her hand and read Facebook messages to her from the computer. My friend Richard, who sings Tin Pan Alley music, came over to sing “Second Hand Rose” to her. When we visited his show (even when she was in her wheelchair), he always made a point to sing that to her. We also read jokes that she kept in a folder. She could never tell a joke very well—it was more funny to hear them in her accent and how she mispronounced words—but she wrote them down when she heard them, or typed them out, and they were all in this folder. Many of them were rather blue, but Richard and I took turns reading them to her. Even the hospice helper there commented about how nasty they were. I think mom enjoyed it.
My sister Michele, a middle school teacher, was called when it looked like it was the end, and despite waiting and staying there, Rose seemed to want to hang on. Her grandkids whom she loved so much, Dante and Donovan, already said good-bye, as did my partner John, and I stroked her snow-white hair and told her it was OK to go.
But, she waited until moments after any family was out of the room to leave this world. It seems like the “surrounded by friends and family” is often only how it happens in the movies, and the reality is that many times people wait until their loved ones are gone to slip away alone.
Anyway, Mom was a survivor. She insisted on being buried in the same window-box with my Dad in a columbarium in Hollywood Forever Cemetery and insisted that “You move your father to the back, and my urn with the roses is up front.” She is buried across from a friend of mine, Gary, who was known for doing amazing drag performer at the Queen Mary in Studio City.
My Mom once invited Gary to stay for dinner and called him “fatso” in a loving way, but he was insulted and retorted with, “At least I’m going to out-live you, bitch.” Well, he didn’t. Gary died last year, and now he’s interred across the columbarium from where my Mom will be and they can throw teasing insults across the way from each other for all eternity.
Today, after making burial arrangements for Rose, I visited my Dad, who is pictured riding the Griffith Park Merry-Go-Round and told him that “Rose is going to be with you soon.”
I “borrowed” a wilting rose from a nearby grave and used my gum to stick it to Dad’s crypt as a reminder that his Rose will soon be with him again. I think she'd have liked the gesture. There was nothing second hand about her, she was a one-of-a-kind survivor. And her memories will survive in us.
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