Some experiences stay with you.
Not just for minutes or hours.
But days and even weeks.
Like a heavy meal, they take a long time to digest.
Like a 1000-piece puzzle, they require patience to understand the underlying pattern.
Yesterday’s meeting between Ava Kadishson Schieber and Craig Townsend was one such experience.
Ava is a Holocaust survivor born in the former Yugoslavia who made it through by pretending that she was deaf and mute for four years.
After the war she escaped the clutches of Tito’s Communist regime and emigrated to Israel, where she married, had three children and was a renowned set designer for an improvisational theater company.
From her earliest years she has been an artist.
Earlier this decade Northwestern University Press published her book Soundless War, a collection of stories, poems and drawings that render some of her experiences before, during and after the Second World War.
Among many other things, Ava knows about survival and she knows about building lives from scratch.
He and I met last year during a project I was working on about children with incarcerated parents. Craig was attending a re-entry summit at which I was reporting.
He gave me his wife’s name and his family’s telephone number.
I gave him a business card.
About a week later a handwritten letter in tight neat cursive letters arrived.
It was from Craig.
I answered and our correspondence began.
Craig is a recovering drug addict who has been incarcerated before.
His girls are 12 and 14. Each has her own personality and memories of life before and after his first incarceration.
Craig wrote often to them while he was away for close to three years for a crime he committed that he says was driven by his addiction.
He called, too.
I interviewed the daughters last summer, close to a year before his return.
The older daughter said, in essence, “I don’t know how I feel about only having a year to figure out how I feel about his coming home.”
She and the younger daughter both said they did not read the letters he sent – a point the mother, who was born in Serbia and came to the country with her parents when she was 5 years old, confirmed.
But when I visited the three of them a couple of weeks ago, the day before he returned, their voices and their hearts thick with emotion, both girls made it clear that the letters had mattered, that the message of love and connection and fatherhood he had sent had been received, if not read.
During our correspondence I initially sent Craig a copy of a blog post I had written about Ava and her book.
He was struck by her wisdom and her strength.
At Dunreith’s suggestion, I sent him Ava’s book.
He devoured it in one sitting and shared its contents with other inmates.
In each of his subsequent letters he extended his good wishes to Ava.
He eventually promoted Ava above my family, telling me to send her his regards ahead of the ones he conveyed to Dunreith and Aidan.
Craig got out from Vandalia Correctional Center about two weeks ago.
We saw each other for the first time in close to a year about a week after that.
One of the first things he asked about was meeting Ava.
Yesterday, it happened.
Craig and his wife came together, bringing Ava a dozen yellow roses. He put on a blue polo shirt outside her building on Lake Shore Drive.
They entered. And greeted each other in Serbian. And hugged. And sat. And talked.
The five of us – Dunreith, Ava, Craig, his wife and I – spent about three hours together in her living room. Craig and his wife sat with Ava on her soft white sofa, while Dunreith reclined in a chair and I hopped around taking pictures.
Craig instantly told Ava how remarkable she was and how much inspiration she had given him.
For a while we talked about parenting, about trying to give children the value and limits and love that they need, how the times are harder now than they were for young people coming up, and about how we do our best and hope that they have enough.
Over time, the conversation grew deeper.
Craig and his wife talked about some of the struggles with his daughters he has had since his return.
Together we named some of the dynamics we thought were at play in the situation.
These ranged from kids’ natural inclination to pull away at that age to our having an idea of where and when and how we want them. We discussed the difference in his daughters, memories of the good times before he was arrested and the bad times after he returned the first time, about their fear that it will be repeated, their desire for connection and their possible mistrust of his calmer, more centered, more patient self.
We said how it’s hard but necessary for us both to be big as adults while still sharing our hurts.
“He did not waste his time there,” Ava said later.
Craig’s wife talked about the Serbian traditions she wanted to uphold, but the pain she felt at her community’s initial rejection of Craig because he was not Serbian and is black.
She talked about bringing her older daughter to the Serbian church in which her mother was active and how the community did not accept the baby.
“There was nothing wrong with you, there was something wrong with how they responded,” Ava said, touching the younger woman’s knee gently.
Craig’s wife cried.
We talked and talked and made plans next time to go to RoseAngeli’s, Ava’s favorite restaurant, where she is treated with adulation bordering on utter reverence. We will bring our children and spend time together as families.
Eventually, Craig and Marjana left to go to a birthday celebration for her father’s 67th birthday.
Craig continues to look for work, to re-forge connections with his wife and to try to rebuild his relationship with his daughters.
I wrote after the first time I saw him that I did not know what would happen to him.
I still don’t.
But I know what I’m hoping for.
And I know I’m glad that the daughter of Serbian immigrants, her husband who speaks five languages and was just released from prison, my lovely Dunreith and I gathered in the home of a indescribably wise and generous spirit, her artwork and the encyclopedias she read while in hiding all around us.
I do know that the meeting brought together many strands of my life – our family’s history of the Holocaust, my sharing my life with Dunreith, my love of being with elders, my belief in social justice, the possibility of redemption, the challenges of parenthood and the bone-deep love for our children – all in one emotion-drenched afternoon.
We shared being with each other and we all knew something meaningful had happened, even if we couldn’t pinpoint exactly what.
The experience is still with me and will be for a long time to come.
This I know for sure.