Sunday, January 12, 2014

Family Whispers from the Past

My baby brother, Dan, and his family traveled to Israel over the winter break. They spent time with Wachspress relatives living there, some of whom Dan had not seen in over 40 years and some of whom are in the younger generation (so he has never met them). One of our relatives was a military leader during the Six-Day War and he was among those who retook the Temple Mount. Dan sent me a scan of a page out of a history book that relates a story about our cousin, depicting him running to rescue wounded soldiers with his pipe clenched (and smoking) in his teeth.

Upon Dan’s return, he sent a family photo of the group to me and I forwarded it to some of my cousins with whom Dan is not in touch. The web of reconnection has taken off and blossomed and the latest development is that this morning I found a link to my brother’s photos of his Bar-Mitzvah in 1972 in my in-box. So here I sit, with a million things on my plate to accomplish this weekend, and I keep thumbing through these photos with heaps of images of my parents’ contemporaries in their prime. I could spend several hours pulling down pictures of the older generation and sending them to my peers. Not just my cousins, but friends and acquaintances with whom I remain in touch who would get a smile from seeing these photos of their parents and the older generation. Our ancestors.

In September I visited my aunt and uncle in the senior community where they live near Chicago. My uncle (now 90) is a techno-geek and an accomplished photographer. During the week that I visited him, he was in the process of digitizing “home movies” he had taken in the early 1950s. He fetched his laptop and played film footage for me of my grandparents (and my paternal great-grandparents). This was truly like seeing ghosts. In one of the films, my mother and father and my mother’s parents sat around a table outdoors with a number of friends and relatives eating a summer dinner. My grandmother (so like me) loved to entertain and to cook a beautiful meal for friends and family. I saw her on film at the head of the table with my grandfather, at that time much younger than I am now, and before any of her grandchildren were born. I saw her in her prime, stunningly beautiful even in an offhand setting. So happy. My grandfather laughing, sitting beside her. I could have watched that film a million times. My parents, so young, early 20s, my mother younger than any of my children are now, sitting at the table. Just starting out in life. I recognize that house and the yard and the people at the table. A long-ago time. Captured.

My uncle also showed me a home movie of my father’s family at a dinner party, a family gathering after a Bar-Mitzvah. My father’s father died when I was two weeks old. In this film I saw him in motion. I saw him with my grandmother and she was so busy in the kitchen, preparing food. She, too, loved to cook and to entertain. She was a brilliant cook. The images of her in the kitchen, the way she bustled around, well, it could have been me. I have seen film footage of myself doing the same at Thanksgiving-time, moving in the same manner. And to see my paternal grandmother’s parents, themselves immigrants from Eastern Europe, in action, moving, talking. Ghosts captured.

These people, these moments, they stay with us somehow, somewhere. They stay imprinted on the universe somehow. They are in the past but they have left a residue. It is in my DNA. It is in my children’s DNA. It is in the air we breathe, this disintegrating air that is of lesser quality, that is loaded with carbon emissions, that will probably do away with humans eventually. Even when people have dissolved into the distant past so that no one remembers them anymore, no one remembers even the slightest shred of them, there remain traces of them. Just because we cannot see something does not mean it does not exist, did not. Generations of ancestors are imprinted in unknown ways in the landscape of today; humming in my blood, whispering in my spirit.

1972 Photo:  On far right is my great uncle Saul, my Grandma Mildred's brother, and directly behind him is Grandma Mildred her always elegant self. The woman in the middle front is Saul's wife Sylvia. Counterclockwise from her and the woman furthest to the left is Grandma Mildred's sister Hattie.

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