In second grade that week, our homework assignment was to find out who we were. Where we'd come from, where our parents and grandparents had come from.
The Italian kids, the Irish kids, the Polish kids in the class, they all knew their roots. They knew their parents' and their grandparents' stories. It was part of them, part of who they were.
I had no stories. I asked my mother. She stood over the kitchen counter, her hands covered in flour, rolling out dough for tiny meat pies called kreplach.
We came from nowhere, she answered, never looking up. I knew I was pushing it, engaging my mother in conversation while she cooked. She wanted to be alone in the kitchen. She hated when people sat on the stools at the counter and started chatting. (People always mistook them for an invitation.)
Well, we had to come from somewhere. It's for school, our social studies assignment. My mother sighs. Not a resigned sigh. An exasperated sigh.
A Why are you bothering me in the kitchen sigh. She cuts the dough into triangles, and carefully places the meat and onion on it. She gives me an answer, finally. We're Jews. We come from everywhere and nowhere.
She folds the dough over the meat and onion mixture and pinches the edges with her fingers. I am nervous. My teacher wants a country. I tell my mother, my teacher wants a country, not a religion. Like Italy, or Poland or something.
I feel my mother's anger rising. I am bothering her in the kitchen, and I know she considers this homework assignment bordering closely on "family business." I have been trained since I could talk, not to tell family business. I know better than to keep asking. The smell of the kreplach in the oven is making my mouth water. This is my favorite thing my mother makes.
I try one more angle. When Grandma and Grandpa came to America, where did they come from? She knows I am asking about her parents. My father's side of the family is a mystery. She tells me they came from all over. That they were driven out of Poland and Lithuania and Russia. That they didn't have a country to call their own. She tells me to wash my hands. Dinner will be ready soon.
The next day I hand in a piece of notebook paper with an answer I know is not true.
My father is from Italy, and my mother is from England.
My father loves Italy, so I let him come from there. My mother is an Anglophile. She buys cookies, crackers and all sorts of teas from England. So I let her come from there.
I lie for my mother, who came from nowhere.