For the 26th week of the 52 Books in 52 Weeks challenge, I chose All That Matters by Jan Goldstein. I enjoyed this book; and read it in a couple of days. Although it was rather predictable, it was a very moving story of the relationship between a granddaughter and grandmother.
The story centers around a 23 year old suicidal woman (Jennifer) who finds happiness and purpose in life with the help of her grandmother, a Holocaust survivor.
At the beginning of the book, Jennifer thinks there is little to live for: her mother is dead, her Hollywood-producer father is busy with his picturesque new family, and her boyfriend has dropped her. She attempts to take her life, but ends up being released into the care of her grandmother, Gittel "Gabby" Zuckerman.
Gabby takes Jennifer back with her to New York with the hope of helping Jennifer. It is not so much Jennifer's story that is fascinating, but rather Gabby's story of surviving the Holocaust that is the most engaging part of the book.
As the author notes at the beginning of the book, "When I was a young boy my father's first cousin, Fania Ingber, shared with me the story of how she survived the Nazis: hiding in the forest as a young girl and later in the attic of a righteous woman for two years. Those details help form the character of Gabby. Through her I humbly pay tribute to all the survivors, the Fanias of the world, each with his or her own indomitable spirit."
Keeping this in mind, when Gabby finally shares her story with Jennifer during a trip they take to Maine, it is captivating to read - even if it's fiction. Gabby said that after witnessing her parents and sister murdered by the Nazis that she didn't have the will to live. She was found wandering in the open by a woman who had frequented her father's shop (he was a tailor).
The woman (Mrs. Pulaski) screamed at her, "'Foolish girl, don't you see it is not for you to throw away what your family was so desperate to have? You must choose life. You must live for those who had no choice."
She described how she hid in Mrs. Pulaski's attic: "During the day I would cling to the slanted walls. This way my feet would not touch down on the floorboard." (This was important because Mrs. Pulaski was a seamstress who had customers who came to her home and any noise from the attic might alert others that she was hiding someone...a crime punishable by death.)
Gabby continued, "Hanging on, I would feel my knuckles turn white with pain. Many times they became so numb I could not feel them again for several hours." She lived this way for a very long time as a teenager, and eventually broke down crying one night as Mrs. Pulaski comforted her.
Mrs. Pulaski said, "There are times when it seems everything good in life has been taken from us...Now is such a time. But I promise you, little one, if you open your eyes, your heart, you will find there are still gifts waiting for you each day."
She encouraged Gabby to try to find at least one good thing each day - a dream, a bright yellow butterfly sunning itself, a glimpse of sunlight through the crack in the roof, a memory of her mother's cooking, the sound of rain, and so forth.
After sharing her story with Jennifer, Gabby told her, "There is a gift waiting for you each day...If you're willing to see it, hear it, even feel it, it's there."
It was on the trip to Maine that this story was shared. In addition, Gabby and Jennifer visited several places that sounded interesting including the Norman Rockwell Museum.
There were paintings there that were based on a speech given by President Franklin Roosevelt outlining the Four Freedoms to which every human being was entitled:
-> Freedom from want
-> Freedom of worship
-> Freedom of speech and expression
-> Freedom from fear
As I read (and re-read) these Four Freedoms, I thought of the last book I read (Another Place at the Table) which focused on the United States' foster care system, and the challenges that the children in it have faced in their young lives. I thought that some of these core freedoms - freedom from fear, wants, speech/expression - were violated in many of the cases shared in that book.
All That Matters is also the second book that I've recently read that encouraged one of the main characters to keep a journal. Gabby gave Jennifer a journal and said, "The pages are empty. They wait for you to fill them, to tell about the gifts you will find each day....
"Maybe, when you are going through a difficult time - and such days are part of the challenge we get to face in living - you will take out this book and read what you have already written. It will remind you that while there is darkness, you also have good, beauty, light, and rich memories to cling to."
Gabby writes a message to Jennifer in her journal: "To my greatest gift, my granddaughter - Listen for me in your heart, that is where I choose now to live...for that is my heaven. Love, Nana."
All That Matters is a story about the will to survive - on several different levels and with different characters. It is a good reminder that each person has their own challenges...and, sometimes, the difficulties we face are small compared to ones others have had to deal with in their lives.
The book also serves to underscore the importance of looking for at least one thing each day that is a gift...something positive that helps you get through the day.