Widening the Lens

I feel like a voyeur, but I can’t help myself. As I continue to sift through my aunt’s things, I am captivated by letters from my grandparents (my father’s parents). I hold certain impressions of them based on childhood memories and stories I heard throughout the years. The letters confirm some of those ideas, but also shed new light and offer a different perspective.

March 7, 1975

Dearest Clair,

So how be you ketzel? Do not forget M.D. appointment and Uncle Sam. Uncle Sam is by far the best Uncle anyone ever had. We are as we were, thank the good Lord. I am now in my glory that my “friends” have gone home…..

There is so much to unpack in this brief beginning. First, the date. March of 1975, I was finishing my junior year of high school. Grandma, the writer of this letter, was 69 and would be dead 9 months later. The letter gave no hint of her failing health, she may still have been without symptoms. About four months after this, she would be diagnosed with liver cancer and things went downhill fast from there. She died December 19, 1975.

She wrote from Florida to her ‘dearest’ daughter living in New York City. Clair was the baby of the family. I doubt there were letters written to my dad that began Dearest Barry. That isn’t to say she didn’t love my dad, but I don’t think they shared the warmth revealed in these letters. Again and again, in notes from both of her parents, Clair is addressed with terms of endearment. There are many possible explanations for the absence of evidence of that affection for my dad. To the best of my knowledge, Dad didn’t save letters. Dad also had terrible handwriting, more like chicken scratching, so he may not have kept up correspondence with his parents. But, there is something more. My memory was that there wasn’t much warmth between Dad and his parents. I’ve written about their complicated relationship before. If these letters to Clair are indicative of their bond, there was a great deal of it between Clair and her parents.

Photo of Grandma and Grandpa taken by Clair around the time of this letter.

I guess it should not be surprising. Siblings can have different relationships with their parents. I can think of examples of that in our extended family. One child sees their dad as heroic while another seems him as seriously flawed. One child may feel secure in the love of a parent, another may not. Growing up I saw things through the lens of my father’s perception. Reading these letters widens the view. It doesn’t change his reality but adds to the picture I have of his family.

Which brings me to the word ‘ketzel.’ I had to smile when I read that. Dad called me that all the time when I was a child.  Ketzel means kitten in Yiddish. I didn’t know that growing up, but I recognized by the tone of his voice that it was a loving term. Ketzel is not a word I heard much if at all over the years since Dad died. Reading this letter in her Greenwich Village apartment brought my dad to me. I also didn’t know that it was a familial term – I only knew my dad used it but it makes sense that it would have been inherited along with their DNA.

Reading this letter, and the others, brought back other voices. It is nice to ‘hear’ Grandma’s voice.

Her voice comes through loud and clear. “So how be you, ketzel?” The phrasing of that is so Grandma. She was born in America, but her speech patterns had the inflections and syntax of the shtetl – at least that’s what I think it is. To me it is identifiably Jewish. Grandma was funny. She was quick with a quip, but she also had an amusing way of putting things – just like the opening of this missive.

“Do not forget M.D. appointment…” A Jewish mother reminding her daughter to take care from afar. Judging by the mounds of paper I sorted through in Aunt Clair’s apartment, she heeded her mother’s advice. She followed up on several medical conditions. Today we can access test results and other information from patient portals. Clair was ahead of her time. She kept copious records of various tests and lab reports, on paper and CDs.  

“Do not forget… Uncle Sam. Uncle Sam is the best uncle anyone ever had.” She is reminding Clair to file her taxes – which I’ll say more about momentarily. But, what a great line! Though Grandma was American born and wasn’t as close to the immigrant experience as her husband, she had a deep appreciation for her country. For whatever reason, Aunt Clair was reluctant to file her taxes. It might have been straight up procrastination, or maybe something else was at play, but Clair struggled with this her entire adult life. Taking care of details, like filing paperwork, was the bane of her existence. Filing her taxes late (or not at all some years) may have been an expression of her rebellious nature. While Clair believed in government, a subject she and I discussed many times over the years, she wanted it to be run fairly and competently. It often fell short of the mark in her estimation, and it is possible she was showing her disapproval. Her mother, in this letter, was prodding her to take care of business – but unlike the medical appointment, she didn’t listen.

Another interesting tidbit from this letter – “We are as we were, thank the good Lord.” Again, interesting syntax, not your typical ‘we’re fine.’ Grandma was thanking God that her friends had gone home. The rest of the letter goes into the details of their friends’ visit that went sour, recounted with Grandma’s trademark blunt humor. I am a bit surprised that Grandma references God, given their lack of faith, but I don’t think it represents serious reverence for a higher power, more likely just a turn of phrase.

As I read these letters I get drawn into that world, adding to the picture I already have of my dad’s family. The letters offer a glimpse into a relationship I had no access to before. It feels odd to be peeking over their shoulders, but it doesn’t feel wrong. I have an enriched understanding and by disclosing it on this blog my family can share in it too.

This effort has brought up so much rich material, there is more to explore. I hope you will find it as interesting and thought-provoking as I have.

Photographs and Memories

Photographs and memories –  a Jim Croce song that was popular in the mid-1970s – could be the soundtrack for this past weekend. The song’s lyrics don’t exactly fit, that song is about a lost love, but the sentiment of being left with photographs of times gone by is right on point.

Once again, I spent hours sorting through family photographs. This time from my mother’s place in Florida. Two years ago, we cleaned out my in-laws’ home to prepare to sell it. I took boxes of photographs to sort out  – I wrote about that experience here.

This past weekend, I received a new set of boxes filled with photos, memorabilia, my mother’s paintings and other decorative items. These items made up her home in Boynton Beach, a home in the process of being sold. A great deal of the work of sorting was already done by my brother and sister-in-law, Mark and Pam, who spent a week going through Mom’s stuff – making multiple trips to Goodwill, wearing out a path to the trash dumpsters across the street, shipping boxes of books and photos, and finally packing their SUV to the brim with the rest to drive north.

Even with all the donations and distribution of many items, we are still left with the question: What to do I do with all of the photographs. I find it very difficult to throw them away. I know they can be digitized and, in fact, I have done some of that. But what should we transfer? How should we organize it? If we take the time and effort to convert photos, will anyone look at them? What is the point of photos?

I like to pull out albums from time to time. I go back through a vacation remembering the sights and funny anecdotes, or on the birthday of one of my children, I’ll take out an album from when they were an infant and walk down memory lane.

Walking down memory lane has its pitfalls. In some ways it was easier to do this task with the Bakst family photos – less baggage for me. The pictures I was going through this past weekend ran the gamut from when my mom was a little girl in the 1930s to family weddings through the decades to our more recent trip to Israel.

I find myself looking at the pictures as if they will provide answers. Who was Nana (my maternal grandmother)? She has been gone fifty years. She was such a central figure in my childhood and in my understanding of family. I see pictures of her with Zada, my grandfather, and try to intuit their relationship. It is fruitless. The pictures don’t bring her back. If I linger too long, I just get sad.

I came across photos of our time in Illinois where we spent three summers while my dad went to school at the university to get his master’s in economics. We were great friends with another family, the Emrichs from Delaware. I see our smiling faces, there were seven of us kids, as we sit in the grass at the side of the community pool that we went to every day – weather permitting. I can hear Sweet Caroline and In the Year 2525 playing over the loudspeakers as we splashed each other. I look at myself and wonder: why did I think I was so fat and ugly – even then, at 7 years old? Now I see a cute little girl. I’ve wasted so much time dwelling in that negative place.

Us standing in front of graduate student housing at the University of Illinois. Our cousins came to visit. I am front left.

So many people in the pictures are gone. Finding images of my dad holding his grandchildren as newborns, when they are now in their thirties, some even approaching 40!, knowing he has been gone for 16 years brings warm memories and the ache of missing him.

It reminds me how much he reveled in being a grandfather. He had six that he doted on.

The realization that Gary and I are on the precipice of being the oldest generation is mind-blowing. There are so few elders left and those that are still with us face serious health threats. I am grateful that they are here. The shape and nature of our family has changed and continues to evolve. It is the cycle of life, and I cannot control it, try as I might.

I think it is time to put the photos aside and look forward. It is fine to take a trip down memory lane, but I can’t live there. I need to focus on my family as it is today. I want to shed the negative self-image and create a healthier one; one that I can walk in more comfortably for the rest of my life. That is a more fruitful assignment. Good luck to me.  

A Daunting Task

The task was daunting. Four large cartons full of loose photographs sat on the floor of our study waiting to be reviewed and organized. Sorting them would be a difficult job – the contents of those boxes represented two long and eventful lives, spanning more than 70 years. When we were emptying out my father-in-law and mother-in-law’s house in Liberty, as part of their move to a new, smaller apartment closer to their children, we couldn’t take the time to decide what to do with each photo album and all the loose pictures we found. We set aside some of the framed photos on the wall to bring to the new place and put the rest in cartons. I volunteered to take the load to my house with the idea that at some point I would go through them to see what we had and organize them. Once I unloaded the car and put the boxes in our study — two years ago — it was easier to let them sit than to begin the project.

Then my father-in-law died – a month ago now. In the immediate aftermath, I opened a few of the boxes and grabbed some photos for my husband and his siblings to reminisce over when they did their Zoom shiva sessions. Questions about family history were raised. It felt like it was time to fully open the cartons and see what the contents could tell us.

Fortunately, last Thursday, while chatting with my daughter, Leah, I mentioned this project and she offered to help. On the spur of the moment she suggested coming home, she lives in the Boston area, the very next day and spending the weekend. The project was starting to feel a bit less daunting.

I went to Staples to get photograph containers. The material we would be sorting came in all different sizes. I bought various sized plastic bins. I had no idea how many we would need. I started with five. It turned out not to be enough.

Leah arrived and we got right to work. First, we strategized. We would leave whole photo albums intact. We thought we would start with a sort into three broad categories: photos from before and during World War II, the years in Cuba, and then the ‘modern’ era in America.

We dove in and found out that those categories weren’t going to cut it. There were a number of things that didn’t fit. For example, my mother-in-law saved thank you cards that included photographs from various weddings. That became a separate category. There were also various documents and letters among the photos. We set those aside in another pile. As we pored over the pictures, another issue emerged: we didn’t recognize the people and we couldn’t tell where or when the photo was taken.

I should note that it was not our job to decide if any of it should be thrown away. That decision would remain for Gary and his siblings once they knew what they had. Our plan is once it is safe to meet in person, the siblings will get together and look through the catalogue and decide what to do with it.

On Saturday, Leah and I spent about five or six hours sorting, learning as we went. We got better at recognizing faces. We started picking up on clues: clothes, background scenery like palm trees and wallpaper, the numbers at the bottom of the prints sometimes helped group items or names of photolabs. Gary used his phone and took some photos and texted them to the family to get their input. Slowly but surely, we made progress. At the end of the day on Saturday, when we decided to break for dinner, we had succeeded in emptying all but one box. We were left with many piles on our dining room table and a final box to go through on Sunday.

The table early on Saturday

Saturday evening I was surprised to find myself exhausted and parched. Something about the sustained concentration and the dust from handling old papers, left Leah and I mentally tired and very thirsty. It was a relief to relax and water myself!

The table when we began Sunday morning

We resumed our efforts after breakfast on Sunday. The last box contained whole photo albums, two of which we were hoping to find: Gary and his brother’s respective bar mitzvah albums. We were delighted to find them all intact and no loose photos to categorize.

We set about combining our existing piles and further refined our categories. It was painstaking because there were so many different ways one could organize things. We could have done it entirely chronologically, another option was to do it by people or family, and still another possibility was to group things by events. There was no right way to do it. We made our best guess at what would make sense and used a combination of those categories. We finished our task late in the afternoon.

Once Covid is over, we’ll invite the family to a photo-review party. That should be fun. Then the siblings can decide if they want to divide them up or digitize them or dispose of some of it.

So, what did the contents of those cartons tell us? I was struck by the many pictures of my mother-in-law smiling. It isn’t that Paula doesn’t smile, but when I think of her I see her in my mind’s eye with a serious countenance, especially in this last decade as Alzheimer’s robbed her of so much of her spark. It was good to reminded of her lighter side and to see her full of life.

The photos also show Paula and David living a life connected to others. Many pictures of family and friend gatherings over decades – the same core of people crowding around a table for a meal over the course of many years. One thing about living such a long life, many of the people in the photos are now gone. It is bittersweet but comforting to reflect on the richness of those lives.

Looking at the pictures over the years, it was also interesting and sometimes amusing to take in the fashions. The Bakst family went to celebrations in style!

Bakst Family 1969

I also realize how wonderful it is when there is a note on the back of a photo or in the margin of an album that gives the names of the people (especially babies!), the date and maybe the place. This might be less of a thing with digitized pictures since some of that information is embedded, but it was so helpful in this project. Interestingly many of the notes on the back of these photos were in another language – Yiddish, Hebrew, Spanish and something we couldn’t recognize. We put a post-it on all of those so we could come back to them and ask for assistance with translation.

I couldn’t help but think about my own collection of photographs. When the pandemic began one of my early projects was to go through a couple of drawers of loose photos and organize them and I completed that to some extent.  I still have a large plastic bin in the basement that needs to be organized.

I have generally been good about creating photo albums. Whenever we come back from a trip, I make up an album soon after, even though the pictures are on my phone. I am not satisfied with scrolling through files of photos. I prefer to look at them in print, along with saved ticket stubs, maps and small memorabilia – almost like a scrapbook, but not going that far. I enjoy looking through our adventures from time to time. But, what will become of them when Gary and I are gone? I think about the many albums sitting in my mother’s place in Florida. She too documented her travels in albums, and she was lucky enough to travel extensively with my dad and even continued to after he died. I guess there is no avoiding having to make painful choices when the time comes.

The vast majority of pictures we sorted through over the weekend were of people, very few were of landscapes or other sites. It makes me think about the purpose of taking the pictures in the first place. These days, with cameras in phones, we have so many photos and videos. What will we do with them? Maybe they serve their purpose in the taking; in solidifying an image in our minds so that we can remember it better in the future. I’m curious how young adults feel about the photos on their phones – do they curate them or organize them? Do they look back at them?

Having undertaken this effort, I have a lot of questions. One random one: Why do we keep whole sheets of school profile pictures? You know the ones – the page of wallet-size pictures, followed by the same photo in a variety of sizes. I admit it is hard to throw away perfectly good pictures of our adorable children, but…..

I imagine that some of the material we found has historical value. Would a museum or research institute want it? The family may want to consider donating those items so that they are preserved properly.

We believe this is David’s membership card in a Zionist organization

Photography, no doubt, is also an art form. When Gary and I travel, or when we hike, I like to take some images of scenes that I think are particularly beautiful or interesting. I doubt anyone else would find them compelling.

I admit my brain is tired this Monday morning. But, I do feel a sense of accomplishment and hopefully it will be something the rest of the family will find enlightening when they can peruse the collection – once we emerge from this plague.

The table on Monday morning – I still need some boxes for the remaining items

David

Three generations: Daniel, David and Gary (not in the picture is the fourth generation, his great-granddaughter, who David is holding)

Regular readers of this blog and family members know that David Bakst has appeared many times in my stories and essays. My father-in-law had an extraordinary life. If you haven’t read his story, you can find the beginning of it herehttps://stories-i-tell-myself.com/2018/07/09/part-of-the-story/. Most recently I recounted that he led us in the blessings over the Chanukah candles and bread via FaceTime at Leah’s wedding. It was so appropriate that he did that. He loved to sing and daven (pray), he cherished his family and his Jewish identity was a source of comfort and pride. In leading us in those rituals, he fulfilled all three.

He died yesterday. He was 98 years old. On the one hand it wasn’t shocking, he had been in failing health in the last few months, but, at the same time, he seemed indestructible. It is impossible to count the number of times he cheated death in his long life. He was a Holocaust survivor after all. He was hospitalized any number of times over the last few years but rallied each time so we expected that he would do it again. He had such a strong will; he was an inspiration to all who knew him.

Gary, my husband and one of his two sons, would say that his father was the most optimistic Holocaust survivor he ever met (and he has met many survivors). David emerged from the ordeal and trauma of his war years with a fierce determination to live, to take joy, to continue his family name. Despite a lot of evidence to the contrary since he had witnessed the worst in human nature, he liked people; he was open to them. This is particularly unusual for someone who had his life experience. He wasn’t a fool, but he didn’t shut down. He radiated warmth, enjoyed a good discussion and engaged with the world. To the very end, when diminished eyesight and compromised hearing robbed him of reading the newspapers and watching CNN, he would ask Gary to fill him in on events in the world. As a devoted Zionist, he was always particularly interested in Israel; he followed U.S. politics closely, too.

David wasn’t perfect. He was impatient and he could be demanding. He was a product of his time and place, but his essential good nature led him to evolve. He respected the women in his life. The same cannot be said of many men from his generation. His care for and devotion to his wife on her long Alzheimer’s journey was so touching, we were in awe of his tenderness.

David left his children, grandchildren and great-grandchild a wonderful legacy. He persevered in the face of difficulties I can’t fathom. He reclaimed his humanity after being subjected to unspeakable horrors. His death is a terrible loss for the family, but he leaves us essential life lessons, as well as poignant and treasured memories. May his memory be a blessing.

David and Paula in the displaced persons camp circa 1947

The Family Game

When I was growing up and my family gathered for holidays or special occasions we often played ‘the family game.’ After we finished eating, and there was always copious amounts of food, and after the table was cleared and the leftovers were stored, we adjourned to the living room. Paper and pencils were distributed to each person – all were expected to participate, young and old. We would toss out potential questions like: If you had only one book on a deserted island, what would it be? If you could have dinner with one person, living or dead, who would you choose? What is your pet peeve? Etc, etc. We would agree on the question. Each person would write down their answer, fold the paper and drop it in a bowl. A reader would be designated. That person would go through each answer and we’d speculate on who might have written it. After we had gone through all of answers once, we would go back through a second time, voting on the likely candidate.

Sometimes people answered to get a laugh, but mostly they offered sincere responses. The process resulted in lots of jokes, lots of insights and some surprises. We learned about each other. My father would play a couple of rounds and then, if we were at home or if we were all gathered at a hotel for a bar/bat mitzvah, he would call it a night and go off to sleep. After another few rounds, others would retire for the evening, myself included. That would leave the hard-core night owls to stay up until who knows when. My mom, Aunt Simma, Uncle Terry and Aunt Barbara, my cousin Laurie, and my brother Mark could be counted on to far outlast me.

I wasn’t yet a teenager when we started the family game. I don’t know who came up with the idea. (I think a version of this has been packaged as a real game recently, but we were playing it 50 years ago!) As people married into the family, they joined in. It was part of the initiation.

A couple of rounds from those years stay with me. I remember one in particular. We must’ve been getting desperate because the question was pretty convoluted. It was: What characteristic does the person on your left have that they haven’t fulfilled yet? What potential could they realize if they want to? Hmmm – that was pretty deep. I don’t remember who I had to answer for. Looking back at it now, I think it’s pretty cool that children were expected to answer that about an adult.  I well remember what Aunt Simma said about me. She said I could be cheerful.

I don’t know exactly how old I was at the time – I’m going to guess I was around 14 or 15. I found it to be a very interesting observation. It meant that she recognized that I wasn’t happy. In a strange way, I found it validating. I didn’t know I was being seen or that my sadness was noticed. Other than being the object of a lot of teasing by my brother and my uncle, I didn’t feel like I received a lot of attention. Her answer suggested that I was noticed, even if it was for having the potential to be cheerful.

It also made me feel hopeful. Maybe I could be happy? If Aunt Simma saw that potential, maybe I could grow into a cheerful person.

Now, at age 61, I can’t say I fulfilled that potential, but as a general rule, I’m not sad (and there is better living through chemistry to thank too). I think I bring positive energy to my friends and family.

I remember one other round of the family game that made an impression. We were playing at Livingston Manor, the home my parents retired to in the Catskills. The question asked us to name our pet peeve. My father and I said exactly the same thing: stupid people.

Neither of us were referring to people who had actual diminished mental capacity. We shared an impatience with people who don’t pay attention to what they are doing or don’t bother thinking before they act or are just oblivious to those around them. Especially when driving or providing customer service. By the time we played that round of the family game, my father had mellowed considerably but he still was impatient. I never had his temper, but I shared his frustration. I was amused that not only had we named the same pet peeve, but we labeled it using the same terms.  I knew my dad and I shared a way of looking at the world and this confirmed it.

Along those lines, once when Gary and I were visiting Aunt Simma in Florida many years ago, she asked me an interesting question – this was not part of the family game.

This picture is from the time we visited Aunt Simma in Florida that I write about below. Leah is about 7 months old.

She observed that my father stated things as if they were a given, when others might have a different view and she wondered if I didn’t find that difficult to deal with as a child growing up? I thought for a moment and said, “Honestly, no. Probably because 99% of the time I agreed with him.” Her eyebrows shot up in surprise, “Interesting,” she said. I smiled. And it was true. My life would have been much more difficult if I clashed with my dad, he was intense, opinionated and smart. When on rare occasion I did disagree with him,- it wasn’t pretty. Fortunately, though, I mostly saw things as he did. I will always be my father’s daughter.

I am grateful for memories of our family game. Maybe once Covid isn’t the danger it is now we can gather and play it.

I would be delighted to hear others’ memories of the game – the good, the bad, the ugly (if there was any of that).  Feel free to chime in.

Full Circle

It’s funny how things come full circle. I find myself returning to the beginning with this blog. I named it “Stories I Tell Myself,” because I wanted to explore the narrative of my life. I began writing almost five years ago with the belief that we all tell a story about ourselves; we curate or shape our memories to fit that tale. We look for recurrent themes – incidents that reinforce our preconceived ideas that we are lucky (or unlucky), or lazy or hard-headed or mischievous. Those identities were likely assigned to us when we were very young. Much of it communicated by stories our parents told us about what kind of baby/child we were.

I wanted to look at the stories I’ve been telling myself, in part to see if I could break free of them. I wanted to change the narrative; I wanted to change the running commentary in my head. When I thought about my childhood, I felt sad. Not dramatically sad the way it is for some who have endured unspeakable trauma. Rather mine is tinged with melancholy: I was a little girl with her face pressed against the window imagining everyone she saw was happier, more carefree, more popular.

Over these five years, the exploration has led to some tangents. I spent time examining how Gary and I melded our distinct Jewish-American histories into our own family. After writing many blog posts on that topic, I worked on a book to weave that story together. I have mostly put that aside but will likely come back to it. I explored my experience with race relations, which is another thread of my life experience. I posted a number of essays around that theme. I continue to delve into this because I think there is something to share about race and ethnicity based on growing up in Canarsie (Brooklyn) in that time (the late ‘60s-early ‘70s), but then I was diverted by the coronavirus (not literally, I have been fortunate to avoid falling ill). But I felt overwhelmed by the stress of the pandemic and needed to write about my experience of it and this political moment. In sum, in the last four and a half years I have been all over the place.

And now, I think I have returned to the beginning. After examining these different threads, I realize that some of the story I told myself is true, but some of it isn’t. I think that is a positive discovery on two levels: the process of examination has been healthy and rewarding; and understanding that my interpretation of events was just that – my interpretation – is liberating.

I didn’t have any earth-shaking revelations. I didn’t uncover some long-buried family lie, or some truth I hid from myself. I found small variations in how things happened, different perspectives on behaviors and that resulted in a shift. I come away with more compassion for myself.

An important aspect of the process has been sharing the stories and getting feedback. I’ve shared pieces I’ve written in different settings – on the blog, of course, but also in workshops and several writing groups. The feedback has shed new light on these stories.

One comment that I heard more than once when I shared pieces that recounted experiences with my Nana and Zada (my maternal grandparents) was how warm and loving my family was, how lucky I was to have that. I thought, when I wrote those stories, that the overriding theme was my loneliness and anxiety. That was there, too, but objective readers picked up on something else. Something that was there, but I had not given enough weight. Getting that feedback has shifted how those memories sit in my gut. I have not changed the past, but I have begun to change how I feel about it. I think that will be the story of my book.

A Seminal Event

Note: My mother has continued to write stories of her youth. This one was shared previously on my brother’s Facebook page. I wanted to share it, too, since it is such an important part of our family story.  In fact, I had written about it before here. After my Mom’s essay, there is a postscript with some facts and figures about the storm and then a portion of my previous post. My Mom’s description adds details to my understanding of how that momentous, traumatic experience, the New England Hurricane of 1938, felt to her and the lesson she took from it. 

Change by Feige Brody

There is always change, whether it is the change of seasons, change of jobs or change of homes. The first momentous change in my life, which I can recall, was in September 1938 when I was not yet 5 years old. We lived on the second floor of a two- story building in New London, CT. I was playing outside when a black cloud covered the sun and changed my day to night.

When the winds and rain began no one knew that it would be unlike any other storm, but would be the most powerful and destructive hurricane in New England’s recorded history. As my mother called me up the stairs, I recall her attempting to remove things from the clothesline when it snapped, and all the white sheets went flapping into the black sky.
Mother and I hurried inside where my two -year old baby sister, Simma, was crying in her crib. Mother closed all the windows and I played with Simma singing “Rain Rain go away.” Suddenly a burst of wind shattered our windows. Glass and rain poured into our apartment. Mother plopped us onto the center of my parents’ bed. She had to keep us off the floor while she attempted to clean the debris.
To our immense relief our soaking father soon arrived and the first thing he said was “Christopher Columbus saved my life.”
Dad then proceeded to tell us that he had been delivering breads and cakes when the storm intensified. His car was stuck in a flooded street and the car started to fill with water so he scrambled out. Holding onto the walls of the buildings he started making his way home. A gust of wind however sent him air borne and blew him into the statute of Christopher Columbus which was right in the middle of the road. Dad held on for dear life; eventually, he and Christopher Columbus parted, and Dad resumed his precarious journey back to us.
Our apartment was illuminated only by the outside flames of a burning New London. We could hear fire engines and sirens. The water in our apartment began to rise; Mother knew we were going to have to abandon our home and she started packing diapers and a few other items.
Fortunately, a coast guard boat soon arrived, in what used to be our back yard, and we climbed through the broken window in the kitchen and into the boat. I remember putting my hand in the swirling water and splashing. It was fun and exciting for an almost five- year old girl. But the fun subsided soon. When we were deposited on relatively dry land there was utter darkness. Electric wires were whipping in the wind and we were drenched and walking on wet ground. I had to jump to avoid the live wires which were sparkling and sizzling all around us. I was frightened for the first time. No one was able to hold my hand because Mom was carrying Simma and Dad was carrying our few belongings.
I learned that life could turn around in a second. We lost everything in that hurricane. Our life was changed in every way.
My father, a voracious reader, quoted Voltaire, and told me “All is for the best in the best of all possible worlds.” 80 plus years later, I do not believe “all is for the best,” but, I do believe that this is the best and only world we have, so we should make the best of it. And this has been my philosophy of life through changes in jobs, changes in homes, and changes in the seasons of our lives.

Post Script: Some facts pertaining to the hurricane on the 21st of September 1938:
1. There was no warning system- in 1938 forecasting in US lagged behind Europe
2. No insurance
3. This was prior to the naming of hurricanes
4. 682 people died
5. In 1938 dollars: 306 million in losses (which is 4.7 billion dollars in 2017)
6. It was a Category 5 Hurricane with wind 160 mph
7. 2 billion trees destroyed
8. 20,000 electrical poles toppled
9. 26,000 automobiles destroyed
10. Damaged or destroyed 570 homes including mine

Here is a link to footage from the National Weather Service that shows the fury and aftermath of that epic storm: link

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This is an excerpt from the blog post I wrote, which is a profile of mom’s Dad, who I called Zada. He was the essence of resilience.

An essential part of family lore involved the hurricane of 1938. Nana and Zada, as well as my mother and her sister (almost five and two years old respectively), were living in New London, Connecticut. Zada was working at his father’s bakery when a fierce hurricane of historic proportion came ashore without warning. Nana and the two girls had to be rescued by a Coast Guard boat that plucked them from their second floor apartment, saving them from the floodwaters that had already engulfed the first floor.

Zada, 34 years old at the time, left work and tried to make his way home during the storm. The wind was whipping at over 100 miles per hour and the rain was relentless. The Thames River had overflowed with a record tidal surge (a record that stands to this day) and was streaming through the streets. Zada clung to a statue of Christopher Columbus to avoid being swept away. Zada maintained that the statue saved his life.

Eventually he was reunited with his family, but they had lost everything to the storm. The bakery was destroyed, as was their home.

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A view of the destruction in New London (NY Daily News)

There were a number of family legacies of that historic storm. Zada started celebrating his birthday along with Christopher Columbus on October 12th . As a child I thought it was his actual birthday. Since Zada came to this country from Russia as a baby, his birth records were in dispute. While Christopher Columbus may be in disgrace today, we are still grateful for the monument to him in New London. In fact over the years I have gone to visit it several times.

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Me paying homage in 2011

History

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Image from JB Shreve and the End of History

What is history? The first time I realized that the word could be broken up as ‘his’ ‘story,’ it was a revelation. Most of what we learned in school was the story of men, of particular men, those in power. One could argue that telling the story of the powerful is appropriate – after all they made the rules, they shaped the future. At least more so than ‘ordinary’ people. If we are studying the founding of America, learning about Washington and Jefferson is imperative. But, of course, that doesn’t tell the full story. Telling the full story is complicated.

So many things go into defining history. First, who is writing or telling the story? Who chooses what is included in the curriculum? Until relatively recently, historians were mostly male and mostly white. While in theory facts are facts (although in TrumpWorld perhaps we have moved into a ‘post-factual’ period), we know that making connections and analyzing information are colored by the biases and assumptions we bring to it. Our understanding is broadened and deepened when a range of perspectives are brought to bear on a topic.

It becomes a matter of balance – history can’t solely be the domain of the privileged. But, we don’t have unlimited time, even if we take into account that we send children to school for 12 years, time is short. Choices are made. It is hard to pack in all the history we want our citizens to know and provide them with a global perspective, too. When I was in elementary school in New York City in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, we were taught American history by highlighting the contributions of every different group that made up our country (maybe not every different group). We learned about Crispus Attucks, Haym Salomon, Baron Von Steuben,  Tadeus Kościuszko, Marquis de Lafayette – I came away proud that so many different people, representing different ethnicities and backgrounds, contributed. We learned about Washington, Jefferson, Franklin, etc., too. The message I took home was that the Revolution was a noble cause, with many contributors.

Looking back, I recognize that there were gaping holes and many things were romanticized. When the values that inspired the American Revolution were taught, the fact that women, Native Americans and Blacks were deliberately left out of the vision of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness was not given much attention – more of a passing mention. It wasn’t until 11th grade that I learned about our treatment of indigenous people – the deliberate spreading of smallpox via blankets, for example. My children spent a great deal of time in elementary school learning about the native people of New York State – changes in curriculum were made. I don’t know if they learned about the different contributors to the Revolution, as I did. I’m not suggesting there is necessarily a trade-off, I don’t know.

In talking with friends, even friends who were in school with me, not everyone remembers learning the same stuff I recall. I was interested so I paid attention. How does that factor into all of this? Sometimes when I hear criticisms of our education because some subjects weren’t included, I think to myself, but I remember learning about that. Which brings me back to my first point – what is history and who is telling it? Perhaps we can dig up the approved curriculum for 4th grade social studies in New York City in 1968, but that may or may not be what was taught in a given classroom. And, my friend may have been absent the day we learned about Crispus Attucks.

In my limited experience doing research for this blog, I have found it challenging to settle on a ‘truth’ about events. Some are small events, like when Cutie the cat leapt out of the car window. My family agrees that it happened, but not how or why. In a more serious example, when I researched the murder of my paternal grandfather’s family in Poland by the Nazis, the specifics were hard to get a handle on. The fact of their death was indisputable, but where and how many were killed, was hard to establish. It opened my eyes to the difficulty of uncovering history and how it gets reported.

Another question is: who or what is being written about? What resources were available to reconstruct events? Could my blog constitute ‘history?’ Many of my essays are memoir, recounting experiences from 50 or more years ago, or incidents from last week. Diaries and letters are great but need context and corroboration. I don’t imagine that Donald Trump keeps a diary or writes letters, but if he did, he would hardly be a reliable source. What will history have to say about him?

You may be wondering, where am I going with this? I think these questions are central to what we are going through as a country today. We are coming to grips with a fuller picture of our history. We are raising questions about the lessons we were taught. Some feel threatened by that questioning.

We are also addressing the role of monuments and museums in the telling of that history. We are recognizing that our understanding of history evolves and then what do we do with those monuments and museums? Some might argue that our history is being rewritten and resent it because it feels like sand is shifting beneath our feet.  But it is always being rewritten – there continues to be scholarship about the fall of the Roman Empire. It is right that it is rewritten and rewritten again. No doubt it can be unsettling, but it is necessary for our growth.

This doesn’t mean that I don’t believe in history, or that we should cast aside all that we learned. But, I do think, like with most things, we need to read critically, ask questions and be open to new interpretations.

I come back to a quote from Maya Angelou, “Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.” I think that applies to where we are now. I think we all need to be on a quest in our lives to know better, so we can do better.

Small Comfort

March 13th, in addition to marking my son’s 31st birthday, was the 15th anniversary of my father’s death. I am pleased to report that memories of Dad’s strength, intelligence and ever-present support have replaced the images that haunted me in the years immediately after his death. My thoughts of him then were of an ill, diminished person, and that was as painful as the loss itself. I am happy now to be able to call upon memories of my healthy father, but the pain of that time is still part of me. The other day I was struck by one poignant memory and wrote a prose-poem.

 

Small Comfort

 

I bring the Styrofoam cup to my lips

Breathe in the steam and scent of coffee

Take a small sip to test the temperature

The liquid warming as it travels through my system

Soothing my throat

Reaching the pit of my stomach

Grounding and calming me.

 

Sitting next to Dad

Who is shivering in a hospital bed

In the emergency room

Taken by ambulance early that morning

My strong, broad-shouldered Dad

My hero

Brought low by chronic lymphocytic leukemia

Or maybe it’s the treatment

Is it worse than the disease?

 

Doctors and nurses minister to him

Trying to figure out what’s happening

 

“You think I’ll be able to get my chemo today?”

He asks hopefully

Ever focused on moving forward,

Working toward remission or cure

Or at least more time with us

“No, Pop. Not today. Don’t worry about that now.”

 

I am grateful for the coffee

Warming my hands

Clearing my bleary brain

Settling my nerves

Small comfort

 

I post this now in the midst of the craziness and uncertainty – with a hot cup of coffee offering small comfort, but at least it is some comfort. Thinking of friends and family and wishing everyone strength and hope in this challenging time.

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Dad and me in happier, healthier times