For half of my life (based on the 120-year life expectancy wished to me since I remember myself) family memories felt ingrained into my DNA—my and my children’s security blanket and armor-plate.
The day my mother died, it stunned me that Emily, my older daughter, did not recognize the keepsakes and the cracked murky photos buried in her grandmother’s closets.
“How would I know?” she asked. She was as amazed that I had expected genes to transport memories as I was that they hadn’t.
That simple question jarred me into the realization that many invaluable threads of our security blanket and chunks of our armor would be lost on my watch unless I fortify them through stories, pictures, documents, historical markers.
“Why don’t you label these mementos,” Emily suggested. “We’ll keep them forever if we know the significance.”
Thus, on the day that vaulted me to the top of my branch, I set out to save the slivers of my family story not blotted out by the merciless twentieth century and, alas, by the silence of so many and by my lack of curiosity.
It was gratifying to label the photographed faces and record the keepsake ownership. For some, it served as their gravesites, the only reminder of them. But, how could I label the bond, the betweenness, the firm hand on my back, trusty shoulders on my sides, my back never pressed to the wall? I could not. So, a tedious and absorbing research followed. I worked with a Kiev archivist; traveled to my Ukrainian ancestral towns; acquired a slew of cousins; wrung tales and memories from recesses of their and my brain; foraged for old photographs; and dissected the history that enveloped my roots.
I discovered that the past is not defined as calendar time preceding one’s birth or anything else. The time, I discovered, does not go anywhere, let alone fly; past and present are merely figures of speech, and we do not begin or end, we are all together even if we don’t always recognize each other or open our eyes.
In the process I discovered that my grandmother was right: no apple ever falls from its tree. I discovered my blue blood origins—all the branches of my tree came from the shtetls of Eastern Europe, the source of intellect, learning, wisdom, and proud tradition disguised as poverty and fragility.
We watch Fiddler on the Roof and refuse to believe that we sophisticates have anything in common with that rigid, amusing culture populated by caricatures. After all, we live far away; need sub-titles when Yiddish songs are performed; attend the synagogue on high holidays, if that; receive secular education; achieve secular recognition, fame, Nobel prizes.
Sooner or later, however, our eyes meet the eyes of that dismissed, much satirized world that has waited patiently all along for us to notice it, to recognize shtetl children in ourselves, the genetic and cultural beneficiaries of a civilization whose contribution to humanity, through immigration, and to the fall of the Russian Empire, through the revolutionary movement, was and continues to be as significant as it was and continues to be underestimated.
And I discovered that there is History and there is history. The former – researched, taught, focused on the world – creates, and often rewrites our collective story organized by date and cataclysm. The latter – private and timid – consists of memories, both told and unspoken, of families and individuals. Winston Churchill said that the farther backward you could look the farther forward you could see. I choose to believe that he had meant not simply History’s chronological distance but also history’s non-linear expanse. It’s the latter that tells you who you are, lets you trace the reasons for the choices you make at each fork in your road.