Haunting the House of History

Monday Morning Musings:

“We need to haunt the house of history and listen anew to the ancestors’ wisdom.”

–Maya Angelou

He was 59 years old, 5 ft., 6 inches tall, with grey mixed hair and grey eyes. But there is probably no one left alive who remembers this great grandfather of mine, the father of my mother’s mother. My mother only remembers that he was Orthodox with a long beard and that he worked at a fish store or counter. His naturalization papers say he was a butcher in 1921. Born in Russia, he arrived in the Philadelphia on a ship from Bremen, Germany, in 1913, demonstrating that life’s journeys often take a circuitous path. His wife and children—minus the two eldest who were stuck in England—arrived in 1914. They left their homeland shortly before it was ripped apart by revolution, and much of the world was swept into a war. By the time of the 1920 census, after WWI, the household consisted of my great grandparents, their eight children, and four cousins, including the artist Abraham Hankins. They spoke Yiddish, and they owned a radio.

I’ve never understood the worship of ancestors or the feeling of superiority some people have because their ancestors “came over on the Mayflower” or because they are descended from some notable person of the past. I mean, it’s interesting and it’s cool, but it doesn’t make you a better person. After all, if you go back far enough, we all came from Lucy or someone like her. Laudable figures of the past can have descendants who do horrible things—just as horrible parents can have wonderful children. Our surroundings and our genes may affect us (“Oh, that’s where my grey eyes came from,” said my daughter), and influence us, but they do not rule us. Yet discovering information about these people who lived in the past is fascinating. I don’t know if these ancestors of mine were good people or not, but just like immigrants today, they faced difficult, even life-threatening conditions in their homelands. They bravely boarded ships—taking a leap of faith that their lives would be better in America. It was a journey of both body and mind, a voyage to a new world, leaving old ways and old ties behind. Perhaps it is enough to know this about them.

My mother’s mother was here with her family. My mother’s father left his parents and sisters behind in Russia, and he never saw them again. My mother remembers when her father received a letter telling him that his father had died. That was the only time she ever saw him cry.

My older daughter was with us for a couple of days this past week, visiting from Boston. It was windy and raining outside, the almost nor’easter, but we were snug inside the house. (OK. I’ll be honest– it was cold in the house because I didn’t turn on the heat.) Sitting across from one another at the kitchen table, armed with our computers, and fortified with apple-chocolate scones (based on these from Smitten Kitchen),

Roasted Apple and Chocolate Scone

Roasted Apple and Chocolate Scone

my Mandelbrot (aka “Mommy Cookies” discussed in other posts), coffee, and tea—because mental journeys require sustenance, too–we used the technology of the present to tackle the mysteries of the past. Wrestling with online documents, trying to read odd spelling and handwriting, and knitting together broken timelines, we created and expanded our family trees. She worked on my husband’s family, and I worked on my parent’s. We labored companionably, occasionally punctuating the silence with “listen to this” or giggling over an odd phrase. A woman who was divorced early in the twentieth century fascinates us. We’re both slightly obsessed by another of my husband’s ancestors, a 15-year-old factory girl who was murdered—shot—by a jealous suitor.

This daughter then went on to spend an evening with her sister and a dinner with my mom. It was definitely a weekend of family, present and past.

Present and past, love and family, are themes in Coming Home, the movie my husband and I saw yesterday. It opens during the Cultural Revolution in China. Lu Yanshi (Chen Daoming), a former professor, has escaped from the re-education camp he’s been sent to. His wife, Feng Wanyu (Gong Li), called “Teacher Yu,” attempts to meet him at a crowded train station, but their teenage daughter, Dandan, hoping to gain a prize role in a propaganda ballet, has alerted the authorities. The scene at the train station is tense and exciting, but it only sets up the movie for what happens later. When the Cultural Revolution ends, Lu is sent home. Yu, however, does not recognize him. She was traumatized, physically and emotionally at the train station. She loves her husband, but her love of him is rooted in her image of him in the past. He, in the present, attempts to reactivate her memories, to bring the past love to the present moment. It is touching and incredibly sad. The movie also can be seen as a commentary on politics—that nations often forget the painful events of the past, even though its citizens may be traumatized. Yet, both people and nations have to find a way to accept and move on.

After the movie, my husband and I went out for Chinese food. I craved steamed dumplings and tea, both featured in the movie. This was the “fortune” in my cookie.


I don’t believe that a piece of paper in a cookie can predict my future, but it seemed a fitting note to end a week that had been spent haunting the house of history, catching a glimmer of the ghosts of the past, and storing them for the future.

“What the next generation will value most is not what we owned, but the evidence of who we were and the tales of how we lived. In the end, it’s the family stories that are worth the storage.”

–Ellen Goodman

20 thoughts on “Haunting the House of History

  1. Once again, your musings hit the spot! This fall I am taking a memoir-writing course entitled “All in the Family: Uncovering Your Family History . . . .” and am looking for some good genealogy links. The ones the instructor gave appear to ask for more information than they supply. Hmmmm

    How delightful that you make your ancestry searches all in the family too, mother and daughter side by side. I knew I would also see food today and enjoyed the coupling of apples and chocolate, so sensible. I could eat one of those scones right now along with some coffee by my desk. Like you, I always read cookie fortune papers too, but what strikes me here is the synchronicity, not the veracity of the saying.

    I just finished two memoirs by Dani Shapiro, Devotion and Slow Motion. Like you she has a Jewish lineage, possibly Russian origins too. I do remember her references to ritual and the many Hebrew sayings sprinkled liberally throughout the text. She’s also written the novel Family History, which I’ve just cracked open.

    Haunting the house of history is a perfect phrase for Hallowe’en month. The quote is new to me, and I never would have guessed Maya Angelou is the author. Great post!

  2. Hi Marian. Thank you for your interesting and astute comments. We were just working from ancestry.com–nothing particularly original there. For my husband’s family though, we had some papers–family trees, memories put down on paper, newspaper clippings, and such. My daughter scanned them and uploaded them to a Google Drive so family members good access them.

    I will have to look for Dani Shapiro’s work. Good luck with your memoir-writing course. I may be milking you for advice at some point–once I finish my current projects.

    The scones were easy to make, and I got them all ready the day before, so I could just pop them in the oven in the morning. I think if you didn’t want to go to the trouble of chopping and roasting fruit, they would also be delicious with dried cranberries and chocolate.

    It took some work, but I tracked down the source of Maya Angelou’s quote. I usually try to do that, since there’s so much misinformation out there. It’s from an Op-ed in the NY Times. http://query.nytimes.com/gst/fullpage.html?res=9D0CE1DE173FF936A1575BC0A967958260

  3. How lovely that your daughter was there with as you took a trip into the past. Having someone you love to laugh and giggle with as you go back in time to where your families originated from coupled with roasted apple and chocolate scones..perfect. 🙂

  4. Merril! This post is just my cup of tea (and dumplings)! I love family history, but not the dry collection of dates. The stories are what does it. And I’m so happy that my ancestors were “nothings” because what I know of them is so much more interesting. I love the history of average people more than the history of the muckedymucks. Thanks for a really fun read!

    • You’re welcome, Luanne. I’m glad you enjoyed the post. I’m also drawn to the human stories in history, and the “ordinary people,” who often turn out to be not so ordinary after all. 😉

  5. Tea, steamed dumplings, scones, family, and family history are the ingredients for a wonderful rainy weekend, in my opinion. I’ve been thinking about looking into some of my family history just for the stories of it (or the stories I would probably make up in my mind as I wondered why someone died so young or married so many times). My mother’s side is pretty well traced, at least to the 1600’s or so, but I know little to nothing about my father’s family.

  6. O I’m glad I came by Merril even tho late! History is peopled with their stories and this is what is interesting. The circumstances of the time date and place are also fascinating and most times the dynamics from the past are similar in our ongoing lives with their struggles. True, many of us live lives of material comfort but we must never forget what came before, even if we don’t have direct access to our ancestral stories. Thank you for this slice of life and apple dumplings and have a great weekend!

  7. Merril … To be able to share family histories – both joyous and sad – is a time of real bonding. How heartbreaking that your mother’s father never had the chance to see his parents in Russia before his father’s death.

    Some of my family’s story has been archived thru our family bible. Other parts are just oral family histories. I do wish that I knew more. My cousins sent me a bunch of photos of our family – my grandmother, my great-grandmother, aunts, uncles, my Mom and those who were ‘family’ to us. The photos stir so many great memories of being together. 😉

    The movie, “Coming Home,” does sound incredibly sad. I can only hope that kharma paid back Dandan’s betrayal of her parents.

    • Judy, my grandfather never saw his sisters again either. It’s very sad.
      Family photos are so wonderful to look at–and certainly stir up stories. The family bible also sounds like a great record.
      I won’t give anything away with “Coming Home,” but it wasn’t really like that with Dandan. She was a still a kid who had been hearing her whole life that her father was an enemy of the state.

      • I understand the brainwashing. It’s still horrible that any one – government or individual – would try to turn their child against their own parent. I had a minor dose of that when I was younger by a very controlling relative. I let her know I didn’t approve of what she said and that if she continued we would stop being friends. She never repeated that.

      • I’m glad you were able to let the controlling relative know–and that she didn’t continue. I can’t imagine what it must be like to grow up in a totalitarian society.

  8. What a lovely post. We have a program here on SBS where they trace a celebrity’s family tree and usually they uncover some incredible adventures. Tonight’s one tracked down two generations of single-parenting and found her great grandmother was an “imbecile”. That must have been a shock. There were all sorts of twists and turns and it was riveting. Better than a novel!
    Sounds like you had a lovely time with your daughter too. My daughter and I went shopping after her appointment today and went to this soap and beauty shop called “Lush” where the stuff looks so good you could eat it. Here’s a link. I bought her two bath bombs to congratulate her progress xx Rowena

  9. Thanks, Rowena! We have shows here, too,that trace the ancestry of celebrities. I like “Finding your Roots” with Henry Louis Gates. It is fascinating.

    My older daughter and I did have a lovely time. I’m glad you had a good time with yours, too. We have “Lush” here, too, but I’ve never shopped there.

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