The Visit

By Haven Lindsey  in  blog  on  12.22.2022

Of all those moments and all those experiences and all those days, months, and years, I never remember a time when I was angry with Justin. I was often confused, frustrated, and convinced I had ruined him by saying or doing the wrong thing. I was angry at others and our higher-than-thou-keep-poor-people-in-their-place system with that whole ‘no kid left behind’ crap as kids were being left behind, and the school administrators with their demeaning attitudes and hateful, ignorant words about poor kids. The more I learned about our flawed, yet well-marketed system, I was angry at them. I was not angry at Justin.

Except for that one time.

I got angry at Justin. Frustration and confusion blended together – boiled actually. For a moment my anger had been redirected – away from the asinine system full of talking heads and toward Justin. I was upset with him yet I didn’t outwardly voice it. My anger was mine, not his. But, I recognized it was real and I knew it was valid. I owned the anger that had entered my mind space. I wanted to explode and yell at him, “how can you not care about this?” but of course, I didn’t. That would have been harmful. I had a young, mutable mind at my disposal. I wanted to do the right thing, but what?

I don’t know what compelled me to do what I did. I didn’t hesitate. I don’t know where the words came from but they came, and they came quickly, and I turned my anger into something I am deeply proud of. It may be the best thing I’ve ever done.

In his sophomore year of high school, Justin was making straight A’s and at times he was a bit cocky about it, which I loved. I didn’t encourage him to be a jerk but I supported his budding confidence. He had gone from a malnourished middle-school dropout to outperforming the rich kids who had every well-financed New England advantage.

Justin’s assignment was to read a book and write a report on it which was nothing new. He was good at these. He loved to read and he wrote with a rawness that while seldom polished, was always compelling. Yet, he was treating this particular assignment about some random girl who lived and died decades ago as just an every-other-day thing he had to do. “I’ll get to it,” he told me. He wasn’t interested in it. He didn’t care about it. And something deep inside of me that I do not understand angered me to my core. He was treating this like Tom Sawyer. This wasn’t anything close to Tom Sawyer. This was Anne Frank.

It meant nothing to him and it meant everything to me.

I didn’t want to “sell” him on caring about this assignment. I wanted him to understand the history enough to care on his own. I wanted him to respect how easily humans can be manipulated to hate other humans. I wanted him to respect those awful possibilities. I wanted him to be brave enough to learn about this horrible history and to have an informed opinion. This was not just another book report.

Rather than pretend to be Martian Woman or encourage him to tick the boxes of the assignment I did something altogether different. For the first time in my life, I called a local Jewish temple. I talked to a Rabbi. I explained the situation. I expressed my concern. I don’t know what the Rabbi heard in my voice but he said he would help. The next day he called and gave me the name of an elderly couple who lived nearby. They were Holocaust survivors and they were willing to meet with Justin and me. In their home.

That weekend we pulled up in front of a well-maintained home in a modest blue-collar section of town. We walked up to the door and I rang the bell. The couple met us at the door and invited us into their tidy living room. It was quaint and the furniture, which somehow seemed small to me, was covered with dainty doilies. There was a crystal candy dish filled with hard candies. There was a crocheted Afghan folded neatly across the back of the sofa where Justin and I sat. The room was spotless.

I spoke first and thanked them for having us. There was a silence surrounding us but it wasn’t awkward – rather, it felt respectful, almost like we were in a museum or a place of worship. If the couple knew of my frustration and concern that Justin did not care about this assignment, they never showed it. I explained with pride in my voice that Justin was a great student who had an assignment and wanted to learn more. If I were a lawyer in a courtroom, it would have been a leading statement. I set the tone and Justin followed.

One of the first things the man did was roll up his sleeve and show us his tattoo. The one he received when he was in Auschwitz. He walked over to us and told us to touch it and all those years later, his voice broke as he explained what it felt like standing in the line, cold and hungry, Nazi soldiers yelling at him in a language he didn’t understand, waiting his turn to be labeled in their system. With tears in his eyes, he talked about being separated from his parents, “they were separated from me, they both went left and I was told to go right.” “What do you mean?,” Justin asked having not yet read a word of his assignment due in two days. “Son, the people in line who were told to go left were gassed in an incinerator. They died right away. I was about your age. I was the only one in my family who survived.” At that moment, I do not remember saying another word. The three of them talked. The tone was somber and serious yet at the same time, there was a lightness about it. There was a sense of success – after all, they had won, and Hitler had lost. The light within them transferred to Justin. It was hard to hear their story. All four of us cried, every one of us used the tissues sitting on the dust-free, shiny coffee table.

We spent a few hours and as we got up to leave, the boy I was raising who had walked into the house was not the same one who was walking out. He grew that day in front of my eyes. It was a little bit like watching one of those fast-motioned videos of a flower blossoming.

As we walked out, I approached the small, elderly woman and hugged her, and expressed my gratitude. She turned ever so slightly and whispered in my ear, “It takes a village.” They made a difference that day and we all felt it.

As I pulled away from the house Justin was quiet. I said nothing pretending to be solely focused on navigating the traffic-free side street. I wanted him to have time to think and absorb what we had just experienced. Something had changed within me too. I needed the quiet time too. I learned that day that humans can choose to fill themselves with hate or with love – it’s up to them. It’s up to us. As I turned onto the main road, continuing to act as though I was in downtown Manhattan merging into traffic that wasn’t there, Justin, who had not uttered a word since walking off their porch, said to me in almost in a whisper, “can we stop at CVS on the way home? I want to buy them a thank you card.” I nodded, tears of something rolling down my face – love, gratitude, success, awe – I wasn’t sure. I swallowed heavily and managed to say, “Of course, Kiddo, that’s a great idea,” without my voice breaking.

I pulled into the CVS parking lot and Justin got out, “wait here, I want to go in by myself.” I sat in the car, trying not to cry yet eventually yanking napkins from the glovebox to dry my tears and blow my nose. I wanted to jump and shout and high-five the world but this wasn’t about me. I was witnessing seeds of knowledge blossoming into compassion in record time and clearly, that requires tissues or in my case, long-forgotten napkins shoved in a glovebox.

Justin mailed the couple a card and one to me too – the only piece of mail he ever sent me – words full of gratitude and of understanding. He devoured The Diary of Anne Frank not once, but twice that weekend. He received an A+ on his book report with acknowledgment from his teacher that it was the best in the class. The thing is, I didn’t care about the grade – I cared that Justin cared.

The first words Justin ever said to me were, “I don’t know.” Today, I sit remembering that experience – of intercepting the football that Justin had thrown in the air on that fateful 19-degree day, which eventually led to sitting face-to-face with two survivors of Hitler’s evil manifesto to ‘Make Germany Great Again’.

In a few months, I will be traveling to Eastern Europe to visit, honor, and pay homage to some of those concentration camps. I’ve asked myself why I am so compelled – called – to go when there are so many other fun, adventurous, easy, relaxing places to visit and my response is, “I don’t know.” I’m not the kid tossing the football in the air on a bitterly cold winter’s day, but my response is the same. “I don’t know.”

In time, we learned why Justin’s response to any question was, “I don’t know” and in time, I’ll learn why I’ve chosen to spend my birthday at the site of one of the most evil, destructive, inhumane places man has ever created. And, at the site where humanity ultimately survived. Love is stronger than hate. It has always been so and it will always be. We get to choose what we want: to be filled with hate or to be filled with love.

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