Resolute in Hope

Monday Morning Musings:

This post was sparked by Jane Dougherty’s Poetry Challenge 11—A poem based on a common saying. It’s probably not what she had in mind.

I also drew inspiration from this Washington Post column by Dana Milbank.

 

You can’t pee on my back and tell me that it’s raining.

The phrase is probably more striking in Yiddish*,

But I don’t speak the language of my ancestors

Though my mother spoke it fluently.

Now she remembers only bits and pieces

Of the language her grandparents spoke.

My uncle, my mother’s younger brother, knew it–

Only that, as a small boy, until teased by others

He forgot his first tongue.

Tongue-tied by American society.

 

In the car, my mom recounts old memories, her past,

Sitting there in the front, with my husband driving,

Roads and time both traveled, both flowing past.

She recalls how she and a school friend

Practiced dancing after school.

They were about twelve years old or so.

Giggling together and gliding about the floor,

1930s music and Depression dreams,

Just two schoolgirls having fun.

Children of immigrants in Philadelphia.

 

The dancing could not last long, sessions ending because

My mom had to make dinner, both her parents worked long

Hours in their candy store.

Her friend had chores to do, too,

Since her mother had run away with her lover,

He had been a boarder in their house–

Everyone had boarders in these immigrant homes–

Relatives, friends, and friends of friends.

We’re treated to gossip about people long since gone

And long ago scandals.

 

My mother said her cousin, the artist Abe Hankins,

Also practiced dancing with her, since he lived with them

For a time. She’s not sure how long.

Glamorous and sophisticated, she thought him,

He had just come from living in France.

He knew the latest styles. I suppose.

Was he studying art there

Before the winds of war blew that world away?

I learn he was wounded fighting in the first world war.

He was singer before he was a painter.

 

“He married his niece, you know,” she offers casually.

My eyebrows shoot up from the back seat.

“Oh. . .I didn’t know,” I say.

His brother’s daughter.

Well, the marriage lasted, I guess.

And his paintings now hang in museums. 

Perhaps her story is not quite true

But mixed with others’ stories in the past.

I wonder if my mother is thinking of someone else.

Family history confused.

 

Reflecting on the past as the year turns over and we look

To the future. Reflections and dreams streaming through

A prism of what we know, bending and forming a rainbow

Colored by memory.

My husband and I have celebrated

The turning of the old year to the new with our dear friends.

For almost forty years, we’ve shared a celebration.

How is that possible?

Will we tell our children of long lost relatives?

Confusing their stories with others we knew?

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We’re Still Young at Heart

 

January, named for the two-faced Janus. Backwards

And forwards we go. Should I make a resolution?

THIS is what I did last year.

THIS is what I will do this year.

Good luck with that, if you choose.

But no, not for me. I’ll just wing my way through

Another year, as I always do.

Making daily lists that I often ignore.

But oh, crossing items off feels so good,

Doesn’t it?

 

Looking back and looking ahead, I suppose I could say I’ll

Learn Yiddish. But I won’t.

I could just as well say I’ll learn Italian, Latin, or Greek.

But I’m certain I will not.

I know enough Yiddish though

To know you don’t say anyone got schlonged.

So please do not pee on my back

And tell me that it’s raining.

I know the difference, I assure you.

Even if I can’t say it in Yiddish.

 

Instead, I will resolve to be the best I can be.

And if I fail–Well, it’s in the striving, isn’t it?

Learning comes from books, movies, and even watching TV.

From good talks with friends, and from listening, too.

The new year begins with old and new.

And I can dream of peace and light and good things to come.

Or as Mr. Carson of Downton Abbey says,

(As we bid the cast farewell this year)

“We must always travel in hope.”

 

* Du kannst nicht auf meinem rucken pishen unt mir sagen class es regen ist.

For New Year’s Resolutions, nothing can beat Woody Guthrie’s New Years Rulin’s. He resolves to brush teeth, to love everybody, and to beat fascism– among other things.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

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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