Story Time

When you stop to think about it, it is an amazing stroke of fate that any of us is here.  We are each so unique.  The chance of someone just like any of us existing has got to be close to zero, less likely than the chance of winning the Mega Millions (which, by the way, is now up to $253 million here in California).

It is no wonder that, in recent years, there has been an uptick in interest in genealogy.  It is hard not to be curious about exactly where you came from, how you ended up being you.  I hear so many stories of regret that parents and grandparents didn’t write their memoirs, didn’t take time to tell us more of their stories.  As if it were their responsibilities to do so!  Most of us could have learned many of these stories, if only we had taken a genuine interest, had taken the time to ask.

I particularly enjoyed Rachel Mankowitz’s blog today, in which she describes her efforts to start a memoir-writing workshop for interested members of the elderly congregation of her synagogue.  All those incredible stories, just waiting to come out and see the light of day.  For many, this could be the last chance to avoid having those stories lost forever.  But life gets in the way, and things like bridge club and winter flight to warm weather refuge in Florida took precedence.  Unfortunately, Rachel’s class dwindled week to week, until only she and her mother remained.

I don’t know what it is that makes us think that our stories aren’t important, or at least not as important as other things we could be doing.  Each of us has a unique voice, and perhaps we think no one is interested in hearing it because, well, no one bothered to ask before, and now, so late in the game, well, why does it matter?

But it does matter.  Family stories are precious, for what happened to those before us played a part in making us what we are now.  So I hope my niece tells her little daughter stories that her grandmother told her about how her mother was a child in Oklahoma whose family came west to work in California’s agriculture industry.  And stories about sisters’ boyfriends and misleading a guy in the army with another girl’s photo — the crazy, amazing stuff of fate.

As for myself, I know I wouldn’t be here if my grandmother hadn’t, as a young woman, overheard a conversation on a train in central Europe, a story about going to America that convinced her to do the same thing herself.  And that I wouldn’t be here had she stuck with her resolve not to marry my grandfather, a decision made in steerage while violently ill during a tempestuous Atlantic crossing.  (When she arrived at Ellis Island, she found that she had to marry him after all in order to have a sponsor, without which immigration officials would have shipped her right back to Europe.)

I thought about family stories today while on the phone with my mother.  She started telling me about how, when she was first married, my father was in the Air Force in southern New Jersey and hitchhiked home to New York City on the weekends.  During the week, my mother attended college and lived back at home, sleeping on a fold-out bed in the living room of her parents’ one-bedroom apartment.  My parents wanted an apartment in which to spend the weekends together (they played tennis and went to the movies, I’m told), but the only one they could find that was affordable was on the other side of the city, reachable only by several changes of buses and subways.  Fortunately, the college was close to her parents’ apartment.

The newlyweds’ weekend getaway was in an apartment building filled with very poor people of diverse cultures and ages.  My mother regaled me with stories of toddlers running out into the hallway naked and of the elderly couple living right above them (apparently the wife killed the husband, possibly by hitting him over the head with an alarm clock).

You’ve got to love it!  I feel honored to know about how my parents began their lives together in the 1950s.

In a restaurant last night, my wife and I found ourselves seated behind a talkative gentleman.  He was telling stories to the hapless server, who couldn’t find a way to politely tell him that, um, she had work to do?  When the server finally extricated herself from his clutches, the guy began chatting up the elderly couple sitting across the aisle.  He asked the old man whether he was in the war, and when he answered in the affirmative, shook his hand and thanked him for serving our country.  Then he told the old couple that they so reminded him of his parents, at which point the guy became teary-eyed.  He ended up buying them dessert.  We found the whole thing to be a touching scene.

Here was a man who not only was eager to tell his own stories, but appreciated the richness of life related in the stories of others.

Please, go tell your story to someone you love.  Do it today.

Shoes Under the Bed

shoes under bed

My mother called a few nights ago and, as might be expected, we began discussing the upcoming Jewish holidays.

Reading from a newsletter published by her synagogue, my mom remarked that Rosh Hashannah begins on the evening of September 4 this year, the earliest date it can possibly occur.  The last time this happened was in 1897.  “That’s two years before my parents were born!” she exclaimed in amazement.

The newsletter went on to describe how, this year, Thanksgiving Day will coincide with the first day of Hanukkah, a confluence that will not occur again until the eightieth century.  In other words, it will never occur again, she said.  My mother believes that planet Earth will no longer be in existence so many thousands of years from now.

Our conversation took a nostalgic turn when I mentioned my grandfather, whose birthday would have been this week.  Although he died back in 1980, he has been on my mind lately.  I was just telling my wife how Grandpa would have been intrigued by our life out here in the desert, and how he would have jumped at the chance to visit us here.

Grandpa was a real “people person,” who believed that strangers are just friends you haven’t met yet.  After crossing the Atlantic from Poland as a young man, he spent the rest of his life in New York City.  He loved the city, and would hop on the subway and gladly transfer twice to visit someone in the farthest corner of one of the outer boroughs.  He enjoyed travel and experiencing new places, as long as at the end of the adventure he could return to his snug apartment in the Bronx.  In his latter years, he began vacationing in Netanya, a Mediterranean beach resort in Israel.

It occurred to me that Rosh Hashannah, the Jewish New Year, is known in the holiday liturgy as yom ha’zikaron, the Day of Remembrance (not to be confused with Israel’s Memorial Day, which bears the same name in Hebrew and is celebrated in April or May).  Indeed, remembering is one of the primary themes of the day.

Jews traditionally view Rosh Hashannah and Yom Kippur as the days of judgment, the season when the Lord remembers all our deeds of the past year and decrees our fate for the coming year accordingly.  We, too, are admonished to remember what we did and what we failed to accomplish in the year gone by, to admit the error of our ways and to commit to doing better in the following twelve months.  The sound of the shofar is a loud blast designed to shake us out of our reveries and wake us up to the needs of our neighbors waiting right in front of us for the attention from which we have turned away.

But Rosh Hashannah is also an occasion on which we remember loved ones who are no longer here to celebrate with us.  And as I called up childhood memories of walking to synagogue with my grandfather and watching The Jackie Gleason Show and Gunsmoke with him in his living room, my mother revealed that she recently found a letter that he had written to her in 1952.

My mother and father had just married on Christmas Eve and were away for a one-week honeymoon.  They were eighteen years old.  Dad was in the Air Force, working on planes in New Jersey.  But for Mom, this was her first time away from home.

My parents spent a week in a resort hotel at the Jersey shore.  My maternal grandparents were acutely feeling their empty nest, as both their daughters had married and moved out in the same week.  So at the kitchen table, Grandma dictated a letter to her youngest daughter and her new husband, while Grandpa wrote it out in his neat longhand.  “Don’t forget shoes under the bed,” they warned, worrying that my parents’ first visit to a hotel would be marred by losing some of their personal belongings.  “They wanted to make sure that we knew what to do,” my mother explained, “but we did know what to do.”

“Of course you did, Mom,” I responded, wondering how anyone could accidentally leave their shoes behind.  But then I remembered how, in my younger days, when visiting a hotel I would avoid placing clothes in the dresser drawers for fear that, out of sight, I would leave them behind.  And like a message in a bottle, I could feel the love of my grandparents for my mother across a continent and across the span of 61 years.  I am so delighted that, in cleaning out a closet, my mother discovered that she had saved her parents’ letter all this time.

Rosh Hashannah begins on Wednesday evening, and I wish miles and circumstances did not prevent me from sharing the holiday with my parents.  This year, both days of the holiday fall on weekdays, making for two opportunities to hear the sounding of the shofar.  When one of the days of Rosh Hashannah falls on the Sabbath, we do not blow shofar on that day.  In Israel, Rosh Hashannah is only a single day, meaning that if it falls on the Sabbath, there is no shofar heard that year at all.  When this happens, the liturgy changes its description of Rosh Hashannah from “a day of sounding of the shofar” to “a day of recalling the sound of the shofar.”

For me, this year will have to be one of those times of merely recalling the sound of the shofar.  But as I contemplate what the new year may hold, I will count my many blessings, among them that my mother cleaned out a closet and found precious remembrances of our family’s past.