On her 70th birthday last month, Florence Grende read from her newly published memoir, The Butcher’s Daughter, at the prestigious San Miguel Literary Sala, a nonprofit that supports the literary life here in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico.
Twenty years in the crafting, Florence’s book is a sparklingly fresh, spare, and stunning account – filled with rich, sensory detail — of growing up as a daughter of Holocaust survivors, a childhood marked by an ever-present atmosphere of guilt, rage, and silence. It is also the story of assimilation – a young girl’s heroic (and at times humorous) efforts to fit into the post-World War II American experience, while still preserving the family’s traditional Eastern European Jewish culture.
As a young girl, Florence was in love with books and captivated by Westerns on TV. As she recounts in this evocative scene:
“Each Sunday evening Roy Rogers, the King of the Cowboys, and Dale Evans, the Queen of the Cowgirls, have lessons to teach. Along with their formulaic plot lines, they offer tantalizing bits of instruction on assimilation. Each episode ends when Roy and Dale ride their horses into the foreground of the screen singing the program’s theme, “Happy Trails…” These words are the essence of America to me. Be happy, keep smiling. … The message could not be clearer or more exotic. This then is what America is about.”
Florence’s parents met while hiding from the Nazis deep in the forests of Poland. Her father was a brave guerilla fighter (though young Florence has her doubts, since she can see no evidence of his gorilla fur). At his butcher shop in the Bronx, this large, formidable man manages to charm his female customers when selling them juicy cuts of beef:
“’Your lips you’ll lick,’ he tells them, saving his complaints for home.”
At home the mood was far more ominous and somber, and Florence’s honesty about it all is staggeringly unsentimental:
“Framed photographs of the dead lined our bedroom walls. In drawers, uneven stacks of photos spilled out of lopsided shoeboxes, becoming sacred objects that were kept and wept over. Death became something to play with. …
“Sepia-colored frayed photographs of aunts, uncles, grandparents, cousins, staring wide-eyed. Remember me, don’t ever forget, the beloved, martyred dead whispered into every corner of my soul. I often dreamt of them, countless numbers in rags, surrounding me, a rootless chorus, demanding to be let in, to claim a space to call home. They took up so much room. God, how I hated them.”
Over lunch recently here in San Miguel, Florence told me more about her book’s backstory and the evolution of her craft: At the age of 60 she pursued an MFA in creative nonfiction writing at the University of Southern Maine, using this memoir-in-progress as her thesis.
“I had fantastic mentors in grad school, who encouraged my writing style and my voice,” she told me. “One mentor in particular said my writing was ‘very restrained’ and taught me how powerful restraint can be. Restraint respects the intelligence of your reader. You whisper, you don’t shout.”
When we spoke about the benefits of writing one’s memoirs at a later stage in life, Florence told me, “I don’t think I could have written this when I was younger, because I now have a totally different perspective. I see my parents as three-dimensional people now. I have much more compassion for them than I could have had when I was younger.”
And how does she feel about the book?
“I feel very good about it,” she admitted. “It’s one of the best things I’ve ever done. I think this is what I was meant to do.”
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The Butcher’s Daughter: A Memoir is available on Amazon.com in paperback or Kindle editions as well as on Goodreads.com.