“I come from a hot Yiddish mess of a family,” said Judy Batalion at a recent book talk in Boston sponsored by the Jewish Women’s Archive. That family, particularly Batalion’s unnamed mother, is front and center in her pitch perfect memoir, “White Walls: A Memoir About Motherhood, Daughterhood and the Mess in Between.”
The physical “mess” of the title – one that was amassed between Batalion’s daughterhood and motherhood – was accumulated one rotting tuna fish can at a time by her hoarder and Holocaust survivor mother. Batalion also refers to the emotional mess points of her crowded and secretive childhood, during which her mother sank deeper and deeper into depression and suicidal fantasies
At the onset of the Second World War, Batalion’s grandparents fled war-torn Warsaw for the labor camps of Siberia. Her grandmother Zelda gave birth to Batalion’s mother alone in a makeshift hospital in Kirgizia.] This was 1945. The family eventually made their way through Europe to settle in the post-Holocaust community of Montreal. Batalion grew up there in the 1980s and 1990s, attending a Workmen’s Circle school where she learned to speak Yiddish alongside the grandchildren of other survivors. Mostly brought up by her fierce and loving Bubbie Zelda, who was also a hoarder. Batalion observes that, Zelda “was not the kind of Holocaust survivor who suppressed her memories or pretended it never happened.”
It wasn’t until years later, after she graduated from Harvard and earned her Ph.D. in art history at the Courtald Institute in London, that Batalion connected her maternal family’s hoarding with their experiences in the Holocaust. “My mother was a refugee before she knew what a home was and that schism never quite healed,” Batalion observed. “Her piles blocked me from her literally and emotionally “
White Walls began as a writing workshop assignment to write “a humiliation essay.” Batalion recalls that the exercise was her first foray into personal writing. “I had never written this way before,” she noted. The essay, which was eventually published in Salon, was followed over the years by other memoir pieces featured in the New York Times, Cosmopolitan, and Redbook. Just as Batalion was poised to “work on the mess of my childhood, life and art totally intertwined. In 2011, I found myself unexpectedly pregnant and as it turns out it was great for book structure.”
In the memoir Batalion tells her coming-of-age story and her present day story of motherhood in alternating sections. “Writing the book I came to empathize with my mother and the objects she held onto. It was as if she were hanging on to memories of having a daughter.” Batalion gave birth to her own daughter in 2012 and named her Zelda after her beloved grandmother. “Me and her, me and Bubbie, Zelda and Zelda, we were all of us eternal reflected images,” writes Batalion.
Baby Zelda was a blank slate to Batalion – the successor to the white walls, which Batalion insisted on in her adult living spaces. In London, Batalion wrote her doctoral thesis on domestic representations in art and worked in a British museum displaying artifacts of the home. Batalion came to admire her workplace’s “cool conceptualism, sophisticated internationalism, detached intellectualism. I loved the value placed on each individual object, the scent of flowers and citrus. ‘Curator’ was the least Yiddish word I knew and I wanted in.”
Her time in London continued to be one of exploration during which she refined a stand-up comedy routine. After one particularly tough night on stage she realized that not only was her Jewishness misunderstood in England, but her family was also still very much with her. “I went to the mirror to see what the world saw, and found the Holocaust, Bubbie, my whole history, wrapped in my DNA, weaved into my skin cells, in my under-eye bags and dark, wanting brown pupils. I found everything I’d run away from appear right there, highlighting my every inch.”
Along the way fate kindly intervened and Batalion met her future husband Jon, a British Jew, who as it turns out also grew up with a hoarder mother. It’s a karmic moment for Batalion who is both confused and impressed that Jon is unfazed by his mother’s kosher turkeys competing for space in the freezer or dining room tables stacked on top of one another.
But ultimately space is a complex issue for Batalion. She writes, “How could I, who came from such a pathologically messy home, with no blue print for normalcy, make one? How the hell was I supposed to become a mother?”
In conversation, Batalion, who now lives in New York City, admits that her “confusion of being a mother is tied into my confusion over my dysfunctional childhood. How do I become a functional adult? I’m also so self-conscious about my mothering. I don’t want my daughters to read this memoir when they are older. For me, it comes down to reinventing motherhood.”
When Batalion gave her mother the memoir to read she first reacted to it as a piece of literature. “Since the memoir came out she rereads it all the time. It’s a living project for my mother.” For Batalion, the book is not the end of the story. “I would write the whole book again if I could because it helped me to understand my mother and my mothering.”