A couple of years ago, I sent my parents a chapter from the manuscript of a memoir I’d written. I couldn’t not send it, though I waited—partly out of cowardice and partly to prevent them from claiming a bigger editorial role than I could tolerate—until the copyediting stage, when it was too late to make substantive changes. While working on the book I’d been able to suppress any anxiety over what my family might think or feel about it, but once it was finished I remembered (you really do forget) that those it describes are not merely characters in a story but people in my life. And then, suddenly, everything I’d written about them was available for preorder.
The memoir, which sprang from my attempt to reclaim property owned by my great-grandfather in Poland, was hardly a lurid tell-all. On the contrary: it was polite, restrained. The chapter in question was really the only one I felt nervous about, because in it I mentioned a falling-out and subsequent legal fight among my father and his siblings. On first reading my parents were, as I’d feared, hurt, embarrassed, betrayed, blindsided—but after some difficult conversations, we agreed that I could address their concerns by deleting a couple of sentences, altering a handful of words, and changing the names of my uncle and aunt, a gesture my parents felt would go a long way in demonstrating that my intentions weren’t to harm or disparage. This last request created an unexpected wrinkle—in the event that anyone sued me for libel, I would no longer be able to invoke the standard defense that it was all true—but I was fine with it, and the publisher’s lawyers, given how vague my account of the dispute had now become, eventually gave the go-ahead. So my father’s brother became “Hershel,” his sister became “Leah,” peace was restored, and the knot in my stomach loosened. But a few months later when I received the galleys, my mother read the sensitive section in context and wondered if Leah might after all have preferred to appear under her real name. I said it wasn’t too late to depseudonymize her if that was what she wanted, so my mother called Leah and read her the chapter over the phone.
Leah, my mother reported back, was livid. Beyond annoyed or disappointed—she was furious, hoarse with anger. She doesn’t understand, my mother said, why you even have to publish the book. The problem, it emerged, didn’t have to do with how I’d portrayed Leah, who was barely mentioned—she got a couple of lines of dialogue and no description, as in literally not a single descriptive word—but with how I’d portrayed her mother, Bubby, my grandmother. Or more specifically—because Bubby was also barely in the book—how I’d portrayed Bubby’s sofa, and how that portayal, in turn, implicated Bubby.
What it came down to was a throwaway line, a quip, in a paragraph describing the shiva after Bubby died, in 2005, while the family rift was still very much ongoing. The scene had stayed with me all these years, and I included it in the chapter because it was strange and tragic and funny, and so poignantly captured the tension between the siblings: three adult children, two of them not talking to the third, stuck on the same sofa for a full week as they received well-wishers. To quote the offending paragraph in full:
When my grandmother died, my father, uncle, and aunt had to sit shiva together. They sat side by side on Bubby’s green velvet sofa, minus the plastic cover (if Bubby weren’t dead she’d die) and minus the cushions—those in mourning must sit low, close to the ground—looking calm, projecting an air of composure and normalcy, but it was palpably abnormal and awkward: each sibling-faction was pretending the other didn’t exist. My father sat in the middle with Hershel to his immediate left, but there might as well have been a hundred-foot wall separating them. The room, the crowd, the array of folding chairs, the conversation divided along this fault line. Visitors offered condolences twice. Once to Hershel, to whom they’d relate a memory or sentiment about Bubby, then say the verse traditionally offered as a valediction to a mourner; and then slide over to my aunt and father, to whom they’d repeat the memory or sentiment, and say the verse again.
This, Leah said, was a lie—there had never been a plastic cover on that sofa, and my assertion that there had been was disrespectful, defamatory, a mockery, an insult to Bubby’s memory.
Really? I asked. This? Yes, this, my mother said. If you leave that line in, Leah might never speak to you again.
I protested that I hadn’t made it up, I really did remember a plastic cover on the green velvet sofa, and it wasn’t some faint childhood memory—I was twenty years old when Bubby died; I’d lived nearly my entire life one block from her house, visiting often—besides, this was my story, not Leah’s. If she felt she had to set the record straight, let her write her own memoir, but in my memoir my memory is what matters. In any case, what I’d written was at worst teasing; even if it wasn’t true, it was hardly defamatory. These arguments fell on deaf ears. Leah insists there was no plastic cover, my mother said, that what you’ve written is a lie—there’s nothing else to talk about, your memory is wrong, you have to take it out.
Now, I’ll admit that on the subject of Bubby’s home decor, Leah had more credibility, or let’s say a better vantage, than I did. As Bubby’s youngest child, she had grown up in that house; indeed, she had been the one to inherit and to discard that very sofa. Her sheer conviction that the sofa had never been covered carried weight, no question. At the same time, confidence is hardly conclusive. People often misremember details they’d swear to on their mother’s grave. Plus, Leah was obviously invested in her conception of her mother as someone who wouldn’t and didn’t cover the sofa.
Still, maybe my memory was wrong? It had been three years since I’d written the first draft of that chapter, and after reading and rewriting it who knows how many times, I could no longer be totally sure whether I was remembering an actual plastic cover or merely my own description of it; past a certain point, the recalling and recording process grows more circular, the line between remembering and recounting more porous. It was not impossible that reading and rereading what I’d written about Bubby’s sofa had warped my memory of Bubby’s sofa; maybe I’d allowed what I hoped was the truth—because clearly I liked the line, I thought it was funny—to become what I remembered as the truth.
I called my eldest sister, Reva, who is nine years older than I am and whose memory of Bubby’s home would presumably be that much more reliable. I asked if she could recall the green velvet sofa in Bubby’s living room, and whether it was covered. Without hesitation Reva said it was. I asked if she was certain; she said she was 100 percent certain; I told her Leah was 100 percent certain that it wasn’t covered; Reva did not waver.
My mother didn’t outright reject my sister’s claim but nonetheless insisted it was immaterial. Between Reva’s memory and Leah’s, my mother said, the latter is more authoritative. On this point I agreed. Yet even though, in a strict historical sense, one of them had to be wrong, both Leah and Reva were, I contended, solid witnesses. The real question at hand wasn’t whether Bubby’s sofa had been covered but whether I had sufficiently substantiated my claim that it had. My book wasn’t journalism. A memoirist must be honest, of course: she should not fabricate, but nor should she be responsible for sifting through every competing version of events; while her story must be true, it need not and in fact cannot aspire to a purely objective truth.
Leah was unpersuaded. To her this was a question of objective truth, of factual history: she believed (she would say she knew) that she was correct and that what I’d written was an uncomplicated falsehood. I disagreed—at the very least it was a complicated falsehood—but I respected her stance. It was principled and antiwriterly and did not care for rhetorical contrivances, for distinctions between supposed types of truth. What’s true is true.
I set out to survey everyone else in the family. My thinking was that if some critical number remembered that the sofa was covered, then I could argue the case on Leah’s terms, i.e., establish that what I remembered was (more) objectively true. But there was no consensus: no one seemed confident in either direction.
Yet something else emerged. Although no one could remember whether there was a plastic cover on the sofa, everyone remembered plastic covers on the dining room chairs.
What does that matter? asked my mother, advocating for Leah. You didn’t write about chairs, you wrote about the sofa. Of course it matters, I said. This is not about the sofa per se, it’s about Bubby, about whether or not what I wrote mischaracterizes her or, as Leah contends, defames her person. Now, given that there’s unaminous agreement that Bubby covered the chairs—not even Leah disputes this—isn’t it accurate, or at least not inaccurate, to say that Bubby was the sort of person who covered the furniture? No, my mother said, it’s totally different. It’s totally different? I asked. A sofa is not a chair, my mother said. But suppose, I said, that Bubby had in fact covered her sofa, and I wrote what I wrote but said, incorrectly, that the sofa was red rather than green. Would you then claim that what I’d written was dishonest or misleading? Of course not—getting an incidental detail wrong wouldn’t negate the larger truth. It’s not the same, my mother said, not at all the same, a difference of color is not a difference, but when it comes to slipcovers, a sofa is not a chair and a chair is not a sofa: what a covered sofa conveys is very different, i.e., the type of person who covers chairs is not or at least not necessarily the type who covers the sofa. The danger of a dining room chair getting dirty is much more pronounced. People don’t eat on the sofa. Of course people eat on the sofa, I said. Well, my mother said, they’re not supposed to.
The next day, my mother emailed me an old photograph she’d dug up. It was of her and my father, newly engaged, sitting on the green velvet sofa. There was no plastic cover. Case closed, my mother said. I won’t dispute that it’s telling, I replied, but by no means is this conclusive. Firstly, the seat cushions are not visible: the sofa was a chesterfield, a tricky shape as far as slipcovers are concerned, and it isn’t at all impossible that only the cushions, not the back, were covered. Secondly, it might very well be the case that the sofa was usually covered but was uncovered on the day the photo was taken: if there was ever an occasion for a woman who covered her sofa to uncover her sofa it would be this one, i.e., welcoming her soon-to-be daughter-in-law into her home.
My mother, tireless, turned up more photographs:
These were from Purim, 1986, from the seudah, easily the messiest, most rambunctious meal on the Jewish calendar—everyone is in costume and doling out candy; it’s a mitzvah to eat, a mitzvah to get drunk; there are a steady stream of guests, invited and otherwise, and constant eruptions of singing and dancing—and they made clear that there was no plastic cover on any part of the sofa. And if the sofa wasn’t covered on Purim, my mother contended, then it was never covered. I conceded that this argument, while not definitive, was pretty compelling.
I then realized that I was sitting on potentially crucial evidence of my own. One of the more personal chapters in my book recounts the experience of watching, alone and then again with my family, a few hours’ worth of previously neglected home videos I’d had digitized from a box of Super 8s my mother had given me. With the sofa controversy in full bloom, I watched the footage a third time, scrutinizing the furniture for that telltale shine.
The green velvet sofa itself made only a single appearance, at my parents’ engagement party, and here, as in the photographs, it was not covered. But two other clips were, I thought, extremely relevant.
The first, a banal domestic scene, takes place in the living room of the house my grandparents lived in before moving to the one I remembered. My grandfather makes himself comfortable; my father, about eleven years old, plays the piano while Leah, nine years younger, runs around being adorable.
The first piece of furniture that comes into view, the ottoman, appears to be covered, though the footage is so grainy that you can’t tell for sure, but then there’s the armchair, which is indisputably covered—it’s evident as soon as my grandfather sits down to read the newspaper. The camera pans to the other side of the room, revealing a sofa, and when baby Leah puts her hand on the cushion, it’s so conspicuously covered that, even though the film is silent, you can just about hear the crinkle.
The second clip, from my father’s bar mitzvah, shows my father and uncle teasing and tickling Leah on a sofa that is dramatically, flagrantly covered.
Technically, there was no smoking gun—neither of these was the green velvet sofa I’d maligned in the book—but I’d found a vivid form of validation: clearly Bubby, at least sometime prior to 1986, was the sort of person who covered not just the dining-room chairs but the sofa as well. (Also established, deliciously, was Leah’s firsthand experience of her mother’s sofa-covering.) Still, you could argue that this made my characterization even worse, more defamatory, because if Bubby had in fact made a decision to stop covering her sofa—to no longer be a person who covered her sofa—then maybe I was trampling that, insisting on a version of Bubby that she herself had disavowed.
All of which raises the fundamental question here: What does it even mean to cover your sofa? What was the nature of the defamation being alleged?
The answer would seem to be fairly straightforward. Sofa-covering demonstrates a distinctly un-American variety of materialism, of accumulationism: we deride those who care too much about protecting stuff that doesn’t merit protection. If you’re wealthy enough to purchase expensive furniture, you’re wealthy enough to use it without a prophylactic; and if you can only afford cheap furniture, don’t you dare pretend it’s not cheap. A plastic-covered sofa signals a stereotype that is, on the whole, derogatory, albeit in a harmless, even cute kind of way. It’s very immigrant-ish: meek, apprehensive, out of touch, unchill, uptight.
This doesn’t not describe my grandmother. She was a Polish immigrant, a Holocaust survivor, who lived a long, full life in North America but never lost that not-from-here-ness. Her English was fine but far from perfect; she had a thick accent, and you could hear in her voice her hesitation, her bottomless anxiety, which to us was an inextricable, maybe even essential, part of her foreignness; there was about her a permanent discomfort, a palpable unease. She was exceedingly overprotective, besieged by worry and fear. She’d fret when one of her grandchildren or even one of her adult children left her house to walk the one (very safe) block home. When we’d tell her we were traveling to a country she considered unsafe—which was most countries—she’d tearfully plead for us to reconsider. She’d weep if we didn’t finish the food on our plates. She was in so many ways a heimish Jewish grandmother, a bubbe, very much the type—since we’re talking types—to cover her sofa. (Needless to say, many of her friends, also Polish immigrants, also Holocaust survivors, also very much the type, covered their sofas.) What I’m saying is that the stereotype fits.
And yet it fails, utterly, to capture my grandmother. Not because it’s false, but because it’s incomplete, myopic, superficial—and is therefore false. Even if it’s factual it isn’t honest. It’s a caricature, not a portrait; it’s flat, uninteresting, lazy.
In fact this entire inquiry has been lazy and circumscribed. The question of whether or not my grandmother covered her sofa is really not much more than a convoluted postulation of the stereotype—all it does is ask if the joke applies, without any care or even curiosity extended toward her character or experiences. If I’m going to interrogate my grandmother’s home-decorating decisions, to do so responsibly and honorably, then context matters, personal history matters. I first have to at least try to appreciate what those decisions might have represented to her.
I never had this sort of conversation with my grandmother—our interactions were loving and solicitous but unrevealing; she didn’t talk about her past and we, her children and grandchildren, didn’t press—but still, some broad truths are discernible. Earlier, when I mentioned that my grandmother was a Holocaust survivor, I didn’t elaborate, I said it only to illustrate a type—it was very nearly an aesthetic description—but now let’s slow down, consider what that might mean with respect to her sense of home. I don’t know the particulars of what she went through in the war but I do know, have always known, that the loss she suffered was close to absolute. Nearly every person she knew, including her parents and eight of her nine siblings—gone. Every object, every keepsake—gone. Her home, the home of everyone she knew—gone. My point is not to make her an object of pity. I only mean to highlight the magnitude of loss she experienced, at a formative age (she was sixteen years old when World War II broke out), in order to begin to recognize, in some limited way, what “home”—the “museum of the soul … archive of its experiences,” as Mario Praz has written—was to my grandmother, what it stood for, what it never could be. My grandparents’ homes after the war, first in New York and then in Toronto, were where they escaped to, where they began anew. They were places of refuge, literally and symbolically, even if any sense of security, of belonging, was—must have been—fragile, fraught.
That puts my grandmother’s protectiveness in context, I think. It wasn’t simply neurosis, idiosyncrasy, an old-person thing, a leftover habit from a previous era. Her home was her domain, where she had some sense of control, where everyone could be accounted for. (All three of Bubby’s children raised their own children, it bears mentioning, within a two-block radius of her house.) I have almost no memories of Bubby outside the home; it’s hard even to imagine her anywhere else.
It’s tempting to project, to make metaphor—Bubby covered the sofa, Bubby stopped covering the sofa—but I don’t know. I don’t know what it means, what it doesn’t mean, only that it touches on something bigger. Maybe after my grandfather’s death she could let go, she no longer felt not-at-home, that last tether had been severed: it’s a story of adaptation (or of resignation?). Or maybe she could let go, she no longer cared, after the one person in her life who understood what she had been through was gone: it’s a story of abandonment. At that Purim seudah in 1986 I was eleven months old; I don’t remember it. Still, it’s easy to imagine the ruckus, the food, the shrieking, the joy. All her children and grandchildren, who’ve never known anything but love and safety and security, together in her home, protected.
I took out the sentence, by the way—I gave in. I don’t think I was wrong in what I wrote, or at least I think I was within my rights. I don’t think I misrepresented, but it wasn’t her, it wasn’t enough.
Menachem Kaiser’s book Plunder: A Memoir of Family Property and Nazi Treasure was included in the New York Times “Critics’ Top Books of 2021” and won the 2022 Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature.