Portland Oregon history
Meet Mindy (Halleck) Meyers
Sometimes we open a wound not to watch it bleed, but to allow it to heal.
I just returned from a writer’s retreat wherein I was asked why I don’t write about the story seeds of the novel I’m currently crafting. That question opened a wound I didn’t realize I had. Bear with me ….
First, I’ll start with why I will now write under a pen name, a Nom de plume, or literary double, however you coin the term, it’s my new/old name. I’ll be writing under my mother’s name, Meyers, for many reasons. But the one HUGE reason is to honor my grandfather Frank Meyers who wanted to be a published author but never was. And the other, to honor my Jewish roots, denied to us because in the 1930s grandpa (non-religious) moved my mom and her siblings from the south to the west coast and immediately put them in Catholic schools. He also allowed my Irish/Scottish grandma to take them to Baptist churches: determined that his children would not experience the discrimination he did. His own father was murdered in front of him in New York, simply for his name. Meyers. So, I staunchly take the moniker and move it forward, in a time when our country seems to want to move backward.
Why does this matter now? The holocaust should never be forgotten. I’ve just completed one novel with a holocaust survivor as a protagonist and am now working on my next novel which––though not a war or holocaust story––is populated with holocaust survivor stories. Clearly, the holocaust may not be my story to tell, but I had a ringside seat to its aftermath. And it is in that 1950s and 1960s aftermath where my story seeds took root.
Last week at that writer’s retreat, a New York agent questioned my name, and then asked if I was a non-Jewish author writing unauthentically about the Jewish experience. I explained that though I grew up in a Christian household, my biological father was Jewish, and my mother’s father (Grandpa Frank’s) mother and father were Jewish. She asked what their family name was. I told her, and she exclaimed, I can sell a Mindy Meyers writing stories about victims of the holocaust. It rhymes, and it suits the stories you’re telling. Besides you have genealogy.
At first, I recoiled at the idea of a marketing platform based on something I thought I wasn’t. And deeper yet, genealogy is a wound of mine. Being born under the shadow of scandal, the feeling of being ‘illegitimate’ has always bloodied the waters. So, that night, I returned to my hotel room and cried, deeply, irrationally, as if mourning the departed or resurrecting a scarred over wound.
Then, about 3:00 am I realized the reverse was true; Mindy Meyers is who I’ve been all along. It was the first name on my birth certificate, before dad rushed in and married mom to give me legitimacy.
Heck, even at the Oregonian Newspaper in the 1950s, where grandpa worked, I had a name tag that read, Mindy ‘Minnie Mouse’ Meyers––Minnie Mouse was my very official nickname. So, making a LONG story short, Minnie Mouse is reclaiming her identity. Mindy Meyers is now my Nom de plume.
That was the first step toward telling my long-held stories. I’ll be blogging about them in the coming months. For now, I’ll share that in the early 1960s, when I was nine years old, I worked with my dad at his shoe repair shop in northwest Portland. I stood on a milk cate at the 1940s cash register, took in money and gave change. I was the official greeter, purveyor of cookies and tea for ladies who waited for dad’s popular 5-minute-heels, and I held down the fort when dad took a smoke break.
Dad’s shoe repair was in a building long rumored to be haunted. To nine-year-old me, it was a place of magic and mystical beings. At that time PDX was very international, multi-cultural, and filled with politics and fear of strangers, Nazis hiding in the shadows. There were Hasidic Jews with long black side curls called Payos, thick black beards and black hats, such a contrast to my ex-Air Force dad with his short hair and clean shaved face. There were palm-reading Gypsies, and the infamous King of the Gypsies who walked about the city with two large men behind him (bodyguards). He’d bring dad a cigar and have a laugh while those men waited at the door, keeping anyone else from entering. And then, the very cranky Rabbi who liked arguing with Dad about politics. And SO many other colorful people.
Occasionally it was my job to deliver shoes to a few of the customers who lived across the street in the (then) Nortonia Hotel. One was a woman who I thought was very shy. I’d knock on the door, listen as she unlocked seven locks, then crack the door open to where I could see only her eye and half her face. “Who are you?” she asked every time. “Oskar’s daughter,” I’d hold up the brown paper bag. “I have your shoes.” She’d quickly shut the door. I’d wait. She’d return with a fresh baked raspberry Rugelach cookie. To this day my favorite. She’d hand me the cookie that smelled of sweet burnt sugar and warm raspberry––through the narrow passage of the barely opened door. And then she’d say, “Sit, child eats’ das cookie while I inspect das shoes.” I would slide down the wall, sit on the floor and eat my cookie. She never looked at the shoes. Instead, she smiled the saddest smile I’d ever seen, while she watched me eat. When I finished, she handed me a napkin, “Vwipe face. Now hurry child, go to your papa, tell him all is goot. Do not talks to das strangers. Go now, hurry.” I’d rush down the hall while behind me the sounds of a bolting door, clanking chains, and the locking of seven locks echoed against my fleeing footsteps.
There were five women, holocaust survivors who lived in those apartments. My dad explained to nine-year-old me, that someone had hurt them in the war, and now they were a little frightened of people, and that they were lonely, so to spend time with them. Be kind, he’d said. Listen to their stories. So, I did.
As a child I grew to believe that like dad’s building, these people were haunted.
Now that hotel is the lovely Mark Spencer Hotel where I stay when I’m in Portland. To me, it’s a sacred place. I feel these women there. And I am comforted by their presence. I always grab a Rugalach at a local bakery to take to my room where despite the beautiful furnishings, I sit on the floor leaning against a wall, eating and remembering. Who’s haunted now ….
In the coming stories, blog posts, and novels, I honor these people who imprinted so deeply on nine through seventeen-year-old me, that they have become my ghosts, the spirits who walk with me. I’m honored to create stories around the essence of who they were to this child now woman who aches with their sorrow, and yet smiles when remembering their unique humor. In bringing them out of the shadows, I’m giving them an identity, while at the same time, reclaiming mine. In honoring them, through my storytelling, I am healing an old wound, mine and theirs.