Pamela Sargent’s 1972 short story, “Gather Blue Roses” comments on the shared sufferings of a people as made personal through the psionic empathy shared between mother and children as well as siblings. The narrator is Esther Greenbaum, and her brother Simon, growing into their empathic powers to feel and make manifest in their own bodies, the pain and suffering of others. They are the children of Samuel and Anna Greenbaum. Anna is a holocaust survivor with her Nazi supplied identification number tattooed above her breasts. This physical mark is left on her body near the point where she would have given milk to her suckling children. The mark of suffering is imposed on the giving of life to that of her children, and it symbolizes a transference of her gift/curse to her children.
However, Esther’s lack of empathy for her mother as exemplified by some of her thoughts concerning her mother’s WWII imprisonment is interesting. In a way, she blames her mother for the wrongs done to her that she must imagine, but not openly speak or ask about of her mother. Esther thinks to herself:
By the time I reached my adolescence, I had heard all the horror stories about the death camps and the ovens…the women used, despite the Reich’s edicts, by the soldiers and the guards. I then regarded my mother with ambivalence, saying to myself, I would have died first, I would have found some way rather than suffering such dishonor, wondering what had happened to her and what secret sins she had on her conscience, and what she had done to survive” (250).
As a young woman, Esther should realize that had her mother died, “rather than [suffer] such dishonor,” she would not have been born. Her empathic powers that she’s growing into, just as she’s growing into adulthood, reveal the inability of one far removed from the trauma of war to consider life and living in a pragmatic way. In a way, Esther’s ability will enforce a conscientiousness and emotional awareness that is lacking in most people. She will feel things as only the “other” can.
At the end of the story, Esther’s mother says, “it will be worse with her, I think, than it was for me” (254). This ironic twist of the holocaust survivor saying that her daughter’s life will be worse than her own is striking. Is Sargent saying that those who come after the war will be unable to cope with the horrors of the past, or will we be unable to avoid making similar mistakes unless the emotional and physical impact are carried over and inculcated in the next generation? Also, is it possible to pass on this shared suffering to those who were not actually there?
I read “Gather Blue Roses” in The Norton Book of Science Fiction, but you may read it online here.
I would like to note that Sargent is also well known for her anthologies. There are three collections that she edited in the 1970s that I’d like to have a chance to read in the near future: Women of Wonder (1975), More Women of Wonder (1976), and The New Women of Wonder (1978).