NEA Literature Fellowships

Margot Singer

Back to NEA Literature Fellowships
(2006 - Prose)

From the short story "Lila's Story"

Palestine 1941

So you could say that they survived, but they were not survivors, not exactly, not in the new sense of the word. They were never in the camps. They never had to hide out in a gentile's barn or forage in the forest with the partisans. They were not displaced persons - not officially, anyway - even though they were among the refugees, the dispossessed. They were immigrants, among the lucky ones. Lila had packed their belongings in trunks and crates: a wooden angel that had hung over her boys' crib for luck, an oil painting of the Weinerwald, her dolls, her gilt-edged dinner service for sixteen, a Gallé table lamp, their goose-down quilts, the bedroom set her parents gave them when they were married, several reels of eighteen-millimeter film containing footage of ski trips to Kitzbühel and Zürs, her jewelry, her silverware engraved with her initials, a box of loose photographs, thirty-two Moser crystal goblets - and they set sail for Haifa, as if they were going on a holiday. They were Europeans, not exactly Zionists, but there was no escaping being Jews. Now they were yekkes, German-speaking Jews, with their poor Hebrew and assimilated Prussian ways. They were always punctual, drank Kaffe mit Schlag in the merkaz cafés, kept their jackets on even in the stifling summer heat. The old Russian socialists, who'd been in Palestine for generations, made fun of the yekkes, of their stiffness and bewilderment and fear. Everyone was talking about the new Jews, the pioneers, which all their children would doubtless be. The posters showed blond, blue-eyed, snub-nosed kibbutzniks grinning in the sun. The yekkes had never seen Jews like these before. These boys and girls had sun-bronzed skin and calloused hands. They worked the land. They would fight back. They would show the world.


Lila's story

Things were different by us, back home. We were Jewish but we were not religious, do you understand? We had many wonderful friends. In the winter, we went skiing - in those days, you climbed up and passed the night in a hut, then skied down the next day - and ice skating in the park. We went mushroom picking in the forest in the spring. When I first knew your grandfather, he took me on his motorbike. He told me that once he'd lost a girlfriend off the back - he found her later, of course, back at her parents' house, but as you can imagine she refused to speak to him. Later, he got a sidecar, and we used to say that when we had a baby we would put it in the sidecar in a basket, tied on with a bow! Of course, we never did. By then we had a car.


The married man

The last time I saw my grandmother, just over a year ago, she was in a nursing home and my grandfather had been dead for more than five years. I sat on the only chair and she sat on the single bed. She smoothed her knotty hands over her skirt, a girlish gesture. Her shoulders curved forward and the skin hung in wrinkled folds along her neck. But her faded gray-green eyes were clear. "Do you ever wish you'd married him?" she asked. We were talking about my ex-boyfriend. "No," I said, although I wasn't sure. How could you be? He was married to someone else now and had a child. "You don't have to get married," my grandmother said. "I just wouldn't want you to end up old and all alone." Israelis marry young; at thirty-three, I know she thought that I was over the hill. Although it's possible, of course, that she was just thinking about herself. There was a sweater folded by her pillow, a gray V-neck that had been my grandfather's, and that, she told me, still retained a faint trace of his smell. "I speak with him every night," she said. By all accounts, my grandparents loved each other well. As long as I knew them, they called each other by the same pet name - mükki, mükki - as if they were reciprocals of one another, two parts of the same whole.

"Lila's Story" first appeared in Shenandoah.

Margot Singer's fiction and creative nonfiction have appeared in numerous journals, including Shenandoah, AGNI, The North American Review, The Western Humanities Review, Third Coast, and Ascent. She won the 2004 Thomas H. Carter Prize for the Essay and has been nominated for several Pushcart Prizes. She earned a PhD in Creative Writing from the University of Utah, and currently lives in Granville, Ohio, where she is an Assistant Professor in the English Department at Denison University.

Photo courtesy of the author

Author's Statement

I am thrilled and honored to receive this fellowship from the NEA. In the eleven months between the time I applied and the time I received the call to say I'd received a grant, I'd moved from Salt Lake City to a small college town in central Ohio, and was relieved that the NEA was able to track me down at my new address! "Lila's Story" grew out of my fascination with questions of memory, fictionality and identity, braiding a personal narrative with my memories of my grandmother and an invented narrative about her life. It is part of my collection of linked stories, The Pale of Settlement, which explores the boundary-crossings that both unsettle and define identity for women, Israelis, and secular Jews. Now that I'm teaching full time, the NEA fellowship will allow me to take a semester off to pursue new projects: a collection of creative nonfiction, Secret Agent Man, on the theme of secrecy, as well as (hopefully!) a novel. I am deeply grateful for this precious gift of time.