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.

IMG_2827

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