The summer Trump rose to the epicenter of political spectacle, the garden grew thick with tomatoes ripening late into September, and I decided I wanted to have a baby.
Standing at the kitchen sink admiring the depth of color in the heirloom fruit the size of my fist I wondered if a German woman, in the early fall of 1931, had chosen to cultivate life, had grown tomatoes, as she watched in powerless horror as a madman rose to power. A generation later and from deep within the safety of American Democracy we learned that it was all her fault, that she by her silence allowed Hitler’s rise, allowed the genocide that followed.
I rinsed the tomato and watched the water bead and drip off its skin, shaking off the last drops.
In the borderlands of Ciudad Juarez/El Paso during the fall of 2004, my friends and I piled into minivans and pickup trucks and bumped along the unpaved roads of southern New Mexico handing out flyers for the Kerry campaign and registering voters in remote neighborhoods where a wrong turn meant a dead-end at a barbed wire fence beyond which a desert stretched to the horizon. Our Juarense “moms” laughed at our insistence on watching the debates, available on the American stations that drifted over checkpoints to Mexican TVs. They teased us over our moral outrage, called us naive and muy seria, as they reminded us that politicians say and do whatever they want. They kindly suggested we shake off our funeral-like post-election gloom and enjoy the life in front of us; we marveled at their laughter, and behind their backs we decided it must be some kind of coping strategy honed by centuries of political powerlessness.
I bit into the tomato I had grown in my own dirt, and as the juice dripped down my face and hands, I realized I had had very little to do with its growth, with its existence and perfection. It was the first moment that I’ve ever felt that I could actually grow, create, a little human being. I ate the rest of that perfect tomato standing in front of the sink.
The thought of bringing a child into this uncertain world seems selfish, and growing tomatoes and baking fresh fruit pies seems less than relevant. In mid-summer, when the tomatoes were barely more than buds on their stems, I wrote a facebook post about hope and despair and how to keep going. It read, “Well, we’ve been mourning hate crimes for a week, and at this point is pretty much certain that Donald Trump is the harbinger of the apocalypse, but surprise, it turns out I’m damn good at making pie.” It included pictures of the pie-in-process, and alluded to celebrating Father’s Day the next day, and got four times the number of “likes” than anything I typically post.
Did the German housewife, with Jewish friends and queer neighbors (though she didn’t pry), who thought differences made life interesting, and who imagined Hitler as a snake in her garden and fantasized smashing his head in with a shovel should he slither nearby, did she put her concerns aside to make a pie for her father just six months before Hitler ballooned from Chancellor to Fuhrer? Did that pie bring her a bit of joy amid the doom?
“While she was making pie we were being pushed into ghettos, killed in the gas chambers,” my sixth grade teacher would have said.
“While she was making pie, we were being targeted, called terrorists, shot in the streets,” they will say about me.
In elementary school I did a social studies project entitled, “Why Do We Study the Holocaust?” and learned, after interviewing local survivors and teachers, that the answer was unanimously “Because we can never let anything like it happen again.” If we study it, we can stop it, my teachers said. If we vote, we can stop it, my parents said. If we speak up, we can stop it, my friends said. But can we? I can hear the sighs of the Juarense mothers, see their heads shaking. No m’ija. She holds up a mirror. It is we who have cloaked ourselves in a coping strategy that’s beginning to fray.
I was raised on the poetry of Martin Neimoller: First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out — Because I was not a Socialist. They they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out — Because I was not a Trade Unionist. Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out — Because I was not a Jew. Then they came for me — and there was no one left to speak for me. Beyond being a cautionary tale, the poem reflects and reinforces an assumption about individual power I never noticed until this year’s presidential campaign: the assumption that individuals are capable of stopping evil.
Tonight, independent journalists are on their way to North Dakota courts to face charges of inciting riots, body cameras document racial bias and manslaughter, the Republican nominee for President mocks allegations of sexual assault, and reporters covering the campaign have to exit Trump rallies flanked by police in riot gear so as not to be attacked by angry mobs of his supporters. I am beginning to think I’ve had the wrong answer all these years.
Maybe we teach about the Holocaust year after year because we need to to tell ourselves a version of the story in which we honest, freedom-loving civilians have the power to prevent such horror.
Maybe believing in poems like Martin Neimoller’s, believing that the German housewife could have stopped gardening and started screaming and that it would have made a difference, believing that we good Americans are in control of our democracy, helps us believe that evil won’t strike again.
Maybe gardening, and pie, and babies help ease the pain of powerlessness.