Peripatetic, itinerant, eclectic musings about books, politics, history, language, culture, and anything else that interests me.
The Leopard Hat: A Daughter’s Story, by Valerie Steiker, Random House, 2002
Tolstoy’s novel, Anna Karenina, famously opens with the sentence, “All happy families are alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”
Of course, statements like that almost always work better as novel openers than as reliable guideposts for getting through life. Valerie Steiker — whose poignant, engaging memoir, The Leopard Hat: A Daughter’s Story, came out in 2002 — would probably be the first to agree.
Steiker grew up in a supremely happy family, although her mother’s childhood was anything but secure or stable. Gisèle Neiman, born in Belgium in 1932, was a child of 10 or 11 when the Nazis began rounding up Jewish families and deporting them to extermination camps in Eastern Europe. Gisèle’s father, after several lucky escapes, was captured by the Gestapo and sent to Auschwitz, which he did not survive. Gisèle and her mother went into hiding, moving frequently from one hiding place to another, several times narrowly eluding arrest. They made it to liberation, but the terror, constant danger, threat and at times reality of betrayal, and physical suffering of the two years they were in hiding left permanent psychic wounds.
But this only serves to increase a reader’s sense of admiration at the extraordinary élan that the Gisèle Neiman who became Valerie Steiker’s mother brought to everything she did, including the job of raising her two daughters. The author’s childhood was like a magic carpet ride that went on and on. She and her sister grew up in an Upper East Side home in a world of books, art, and all the intellectual broadening that global travel and the best private schools could provide — as well as the certain, unshakeable knowledge that they were cherished and adored by a mother and father whose own relationship was the stuff of storybook romance. Gisèle raised her two daughters to be bold, independent, and unafraid, and to understand the world as she did — as a place filled with adventure, beauty, and joyful experience.
If this were all there was to The Leopard Hat, it would hardly be the amazing story that it is. What gives the book its dramatic force is the shattering of the Steiker family’s lives caused by Gisèle’s death from breast cancer when Valerie was a 19-year-old junior at Harvard, and her sister Stephanie still in high school. In one fell stroke, the world became a place that no longer made sense, because the person who had defined that world for Valerie was no longer in it. For her, objective reality and the unique sensibility her mother brought to bear upon that reality, were essentially synonymous. And of course there was no way she could prepare for the blow of realizing this, because she could not know it until the blow had fallen.
In The Leopard Hat, Valerie Steiker writes, 15 years later, about the emotional and psychological journey she had to take toward re-fashioning the world, and her life in the world, as Gisèle Neiman’s daughter, grown-up, but no longer having the comforting, loving filter of Gisèle’s physical presence to confirm and support her perceptions.
The structure of the book is non-linear. Steiker goes back and forth in time. She moves from her mother’s childhood during the Holocaust and even farther back, to her mother’s mother’s parents, and their family history, to the year she spent in Paris after she finished college and then back to her childhood and the time when her mother was ill. She uses layering and overlapping techniques, both temporally and laterally, returning to events and time periods from earlier in the book, filling in blanks we didn’t know were there.
In a sense, the entire book is a metaphor for the way all of us revisit long ago times of our lives with understandings we didn’t have at the time, or recent events that we realize when we’re no longer in the moment meant something other, or more than, or less than, we had thought at the time.
So it was for Steiker. Although she lived the events she writes about in chronological order, beginning to end, as we all do in this particular space-time continuum, she didn’t understand their meaning that way. As the circumstances of her life evolved, and filled in more of the context for her memories, she found that those memories were not always as she remembered them.
One example of this, among many in the book, occurs after Valerie’s father has a fatal heart attack (about five years after her mother’s death). Valerie and her sister, Stephanie, are going through her parents’ possessions in the apartment they had lived in all their lives, deciding what to throw away and what to keep, and the author finds a little note in her own seven-year-old handwriting, to her mother. Paraphrasing (because I returned the book to the library) the note , addressed to Valerie’s mother, tells her that Valerie wants her to always have a note waiting for her, when she comes home from school, in a place Valerie will see it — a “note of love,” I think was the way she put it. And so her mother did, and every day when Valerie came home from school, there was a note telling her how much she was loved and cherished. But Valerie’s memory of this lovely ritual did not include the note that she had written. Of course, this does not in the least diminish the beauty of the memory, or change what getting a note of love every day told Valerie — that she was deeply and unconditionally loved and cherished. But it does change the memory. And the fact that she initiated this fondly remembered tradition — not her mother, as she had always thought — has its own meaning, and its own message. Her mother did not single-handedly create the author’s world for her. When Steiker was a child, her mother was the central person in her life, and the shape and color and name and meaning of everything she saw and felt and did came from her mother. But — it turns out — not really. And what she came to realize — after many years and vast oceans of pain — was more or less what Dorothy had learned by the end of The Wizard of Oz: that her heart’s desire, which she thought she had lost, was there all along. She didn’t need the Wizard or the Scarecrow or the Tin Man or the Cowardly Lion to give her the directions home. She had that knowledge inside her the entire time.