instagram pinterest linkedin facebook twitter goodreads facebook circle twitter circle linkedin circle instagram circle goodreads circle pinterest circle

Blog

Happy Holidays

Dove of Peace by Pablo Picasso, 1949

It pleases me to wish all of you Happy Holidays, not Happy Christmas or Merry Christmas, which I had to endure for the decade I lived in England. I never thought I minded it until I returned to the United States; I thought it was quaint. I especially enjoyed the tradition of hand-delivering holiday cards and being invited in for tea. I've been doing the same in my new neighborhood—hand-delivering cards with thanks for warm welcomes into the community—but , sadly, have not been invited in for tea. I will have to do the inviting, which is fine by me.

 

We may be a dysfunctional nation right now, questioning our values, The Constitution—what it says and doesn't say—but one thing I know for certain: we are diverse, most of us respect and appreciate different traditions, and this respect is written into law. " Happy Holidays," embraces all traditions; I'm grateful we have evolved out of a primarily Christian season. Or, perhaps I should not use the word "grateful." We've worked hard to become a more tolerant nation.

 

Years ago, when our daughter was young and we lit the Chanukah candles and then went out to buy a tree, and played Santa on Christmas morning, a neighbor (from Germany) met us in the elevator as we were struggling with the tree and said, "Isn't your family Jewish? Why would you buy a tree?" Though I would have preferred to explain that our family is secular and intermarried, and that we enjoy all traditions in a non-religious way, and that I, especially, love sacred music and will go to a church on Christmas Eve any time, I could not resist a dig: "How Christian are you? Go to church often?, " or words to that effect. It was mean and un-necessary. This neighbor was a nice guy, we'd talked often, we liked each other. But he was philo-Semitic: aware of a Jew when he was, he imagined, in the presence of a Jew. Had I ever told him I was Jewish? I had not. So I'd been profiled, which is dangerous, to say the least, and often wrong. To imagine someone is one thing or another is an act of the imagination; it distorts reality. I could be Spanish, or Palestinian, or Moroccan, or Greek—originally or ancestrally—or whatever.

 

That was then, a while ago, this is now. All sorts of malignant sensations have been unleashed, including vicious racism, private hatreds expressed brazenly in the public sphere. And it's happened to me again, this time in a doctor's office, not a slur, not a smear, just philo-Semitism. Much more benign but troubling nonetheless.

 

New doctor, time for an annual exam. I got an earful. He'd had his DNA tested and was disappointed and somewhat relieved to learn that he was not one of the "tribe."  "Which tribe?," I asked him sotto voce, as he was whispering this earth-shattering information to me in the examining room. "You know, the Jewish tribe." Again, I could not resist throwing stereotypes and expectations to the wind: "I don't know. I wouldn't know. Part of my family is from North Africa, part of it is Cree."


"CreeK?"

"No, Cree, from Saskatchewan. Native American, First American, as the Canadians call them, as they call us."

 

Was I being ornery or self-protective? Probably a little of both. The poor man looked stunned. Role reversal, I offered to take his blood pressure.  I certainly didn't want him to take mine.

 

 

Be the first to comment

What We Save, What We Toss Away

 Lily Sobotka, a cousin in what was once a large, extended family. She was murdered in Auschwitz. Her image, which I had thought was lost, surfaced in one of the photo albums I had stored and forgotten. 

I'm reading, skimming and sorting a cache of letters, photos and documents I'd forgotten I'd saved. They were stored in my daughter's house in a closet in her studio. "Time to liberate the shelves," she told me, gently. I had thought I was done with boxes for a while, but there they were.


Most of the letters, notes and drafts of articles and books date back to the 80's and 90's before I had started saving work and personal correspondence in folders on my computer and/or in emails in cyberspace. The shift from paper to cloud has been mostly exhilarating though I worry how biographers and historians will retrieve information. I remember—and how frail memory is—that I have reported --in this blog--throwing away two decades of journals when I moved out of the apartment where we raised our daughter. I am not a blockbuster writer and decided it was hubris to think that anyone would want to write my biography. That's how I justified the culling and, truthfully, I have never regretted it. Now the leftover cache caught me unawares. It did not hold any journals; I breathed a sigh.


"I need a glass of water," I said as my daughter plunked eight boxes in front of me. Eight!!! I sorted out a few things with her, loaded the car with what remained and woke this morning with the thought that I could toss it all away without looking at any of it. Or could I? What would I learn about my younger self? What, if anything, might I be able to use in a writing project—an essay, a short story, a book, a poem, a play? What joys might I find, or events that I mis-remembered, or friends who had passed away but remain vivid on the page?


Take it slow, I said to myself. Just a few items at a time.


Most difficult for me—emotionally—are the photo albums and papers belonging to my mother's first cousin, Renate. She and her husband, Arthur, migrated to California after many years of struggle as refugees in New York. They had no children so I was named as guardian when Renate was widowed and developed dementia. But California has strict laws and any relative living out of state has to relinquish custodial care to the state. I paid attention to Renate long distance, visited as often as I could, but not much was left of her estate or her possessions by the time she died. A box arrived and I stashed it away. Saturated with the pain of the Holocaust, I couldn't take any more. Another story, another reckoning. Would I still be sad? Or even more angry?


I opened the photo album. There they were—my mother and Renate—lying stomach down on a beach somewhere in pre-Anschluss Austria, enjoying their youth, innocent of what is to come, doing acrobatics and posing in their sexy swimsuits. Documents continue the story: a visa to Bolivia, a boyfriend in the US Army, a twisted smile in a passport photo.


As for the copies of my letters and early drafts of articles and books, some is illuminating, some is familiar, some feels as though it was written by a stranger. How odd that the stranger is me.


Time collapsed, time unstoppable. How do writers let go and move on when the past is often the subject of our work? Do we need the memorabilia to remind us of what that subject is? Or is it enough to integrate the past into our consciousness and work from there? These are the questions I am asking myself this morning as I fill another recycle bin with shredded paper.

Be the first to comment