Woven at the CenterKatie Lee Ellison
On my last visit to my parents’ house before I stopped going home, I sat at the edge of my childhood bed and used my feet to measure the width of a red swastika on the floor. Woven at the center of a mostly white rug, the symbol’s outer edges met at the edge of my little toes. On the mattress where I used to fool around with my lanky, blonde high school boyfriend, I imagined filling the negative space between the swastika’s crooked arms with more red to create an almost-circle. I considered what I had on hand that could stain red. My blood, I thought, like when I was eleven and marked our living room couch after sitting for what I knew was too long, because I didn’t want to think about the blood coming from between my legs or the ways my body needed tending. So I bled onto the white cushions watching the safely plotted lives of characters flashing through our 13-inch TV.
My final trip home was Thanksgiving weekend. Before the guests arrived, my mother rolled up the rug from under my old bed like any other lie, and leaned it in the closet next to my old Jessica McClintock glittered prom dress.
“We don’t want anyone getting the wrong idea,” she said about my father’s rug, smirking and with a tone that implied an obligatory complicity—hers or mine or both, I didn’t know.
My mother hid the rug from our old neighbors with whom I used to run in the grass and flick roly-polies; my sister’s godparents and godsister whom we’d seen for every Easter, Thanksgiving, and Christmas since she was born; and Oliver, who worked with my parents before I was born. My father defended himself.
“It’s Native,” he said to me. “Navajo I think.”
I’ve read the swastika represents many things in Navajo culture, including healing, well-being, and auspiciousness. I remember afternoons my father listened to recordings of Lakota chants, bulged his eyes, and said the music made him feel wild. I was a little girl when he listened on our old stereo, yelling and bouncing in imitation of a ceremony he may or may not have ever seen. Watching, I thought I felt what he did, and wanted to bounce with him, make our own ceremony, and release whatever I knew we carried—but my father would not name his burden, hiding it in this culture not ours, so I feared a nameless thing. I ran from the living room to the kitchen to the dining room to his dancing body, and threw a punch at his arm to call him back and keep him from imagining himself somewhere I would never find him.
DNA gave me his strong hands, my mother’s slender feet, and Jewish blood, the last of which my father denied via Catholic holy water, baptism, and my mother’s mostly Irish Catholic family, though they too had Jews hiding behind changed names. Before the results of a DNA test, my deliberate shift from Christmas to Yom Kippur, Easter to Passover, and long before this writing, my father made clear we were not Jewish.
People hide in plain sight sometimes. People hide us, too, and we let them. Like when I slept over my father’s rug.
In sleep, we shed dead skin, produce oil, dream, soothe psychic complications, recuperate bones and muscles, repair wounds, grow hair and nails, and if we’re young, we get longer and wider and rounder. My body did this work for one night over a rug belonging to a culture not mine and over a symbol I knew meant evil the way I knew the McDonalds “M” meant French fries. Despite the swastika’s global appearance dating as far back as 15,000 years ago and its universal meaning of good luck, German nationalists managed to usurp and change its meaning in the early twentieth century. By 1920, Hitler “understood instinctually that there had to be a symbol as powerful as the hammer and sickle,” wrote Steven Heller in The Swastika: Symbol Beyond Redemption?, a book I was assigned to copyedit for re-release in my first job at a small publishing house after college. I gifted the book to my father that Christmas, knowing his “love for the aesthetics” of the swastika, as he used to explain.
That last night at my parents’ home, my dead skin fell onto the rug and my dreams mixed with all it brought into the room. In waking hours, I insisted my dreams were not tied to my father’s. I attempted to believe that because this rendering of the swastika on the floor didn’t speak German or even English, but a Native language neither I nor my father knew, that it was safe.
Best case scenario, the rug was my father’s attempt to reclaim the symbol. If made by brown hands and laid at the center of his oldest daughter’s former bedroom, it no longer meant he was dirty or that he should never have been born. It became his to name, or so I believe his story goes. Except that he spoke German, watched World War II on the History Channel every other weekend, and hid a rifle in his closet.
His story about the rug was a delusion.
To rest with a swastika in the room, keep attention on the white of the rug around it. The white walls, the white sheets. Deny, suspend reality, and corroborate that the family isn't Jewish, that loyalty is paramount, that the love within these walls is unconditional. To sleep over a swastika, erase its meanings, believe it clean as his dry skin from all the Ivory soap, pray, like in the Twelve-Step meetings, nevermind the prescriptions in the master bedroom drawers, the silenced obsession with all these lies.
Here’s something: The earliest appearance of the swastika was as a symbol of fertility carved into a mammoth tusk discovered in present-day Ukraine—the same territory that claims the towns where my father’s Jewish ancestors were born.
In India, the symbol is still hung over door frames for good luck, but on my old bedroom floor in Los Angeles, it was a weapon. No blood I shed on the white would change it to a circle nor erase my father’s disgust for our blood and our bones.
My father didn’t want us to survive as we are, but as something else. Something we’ll never be.
Getting out of bed that morning, I was careful not to place my bare feet on the swastika for fear that it would break our home open. As a girl, the Southern California earthquakes, fires, droughts; the smoke-billowing during the ‘92 uprising, police beatings, car races out our windows in the dark morning hours, and car chases every sun-bleached afternoon on the news; the violent fights, slamming phones, and pills hidden in purses and bathrooms: these had me waiting for the day our walls would fall. The fear carried through to adulthood when I imagined touching my flesh to the red of that tainted symbol could release the rage of generations, not just of our family, but of those who made the rug and sold it or lost it to white men who knew nothing of them, those who lost the land where our house stood, those from our past who followed us, called for us to hear them.
I woke to the swastika before my mother rolled it up on Thanksgiving morning, sat on the edge of the bed, and considered pressing my toes to it—the symbol of peace, good tidings, abundance, murder, hatred. I considered our house falling, attic roof to basement floor, from the weight of my body on it, our pressure point. I imagined all I could set loose in the destruction.
Katie Lee Ellison has been a Hugo House Fellow, a fellow at the Yiddish Book Center, and a 2020 Tin House Summer Workshop attendee. She’s been working for a very long time on a memoir tentatively titled Everything We Wanted, pieces of which are published in Shenandoah, Crab Creek Review, Arcadia, and elsewhere. She holds a BA in English Lit from Wellesley College and an MFA from the University of Idaho.
Originally published in Moss: Volume Six.