May 4, 2010
Mystery Mother of Long Ago
(Page 2 - Previous Page)
Then a second, much shorter list — still today with only a dozen people on it — began to form, all of them matches the lab said were even closer genetic family. And, lo and behold, everyone here was Jewish. Men and women named Kuznets and Feinberg, Friedman and Haskvitz, with roots in places like Ukraine, Russia, Austria, even several from towns a stone’s throw from my grandmother’s in Romania. Like pieces of a family puzzle reassembling itself after generations, from a point in the chain of life not as far away as the distant cousins of what we’ll call the Big List, we few on what I’ll call the Short List share a mother much nearer in time. More than likely a Jewish woman.
This is the woman I now began to try to imagine.
Who was she? What did she look like? What was her life like? Where did she live? How did she live?
If I met her, what would I ask her? What would I tell her?
Try as I might, though, there was no true picture in my head.
Many years ago, when my grandmother was already 90-something, I was rummaging through her sideboard drawers and came across a stash of photographs tucked in with her linens.
Among them was a sepia photo of a very old woman, dressed in peasantlike clothes, a scarf around her head, three children at her side. This photo sits on my desk as I write. On the back, in pencil, I have scribbled my grandmother’s cryptic remarks from that day: “Grandma Rose Nadler’s grandma, died age 95.” Her name may have been Frommeh, if I read my scrawls correctly. And the photo was taken in Romania, by a photographer from Bucharest, though not in a studio, as the stone-pocked dirt road at the old woman’s feet suggests.
The stash of Old World photographs, to my shock and amazement, also included well-dressed men and women in fine clothes, even a fur coat, standing in what clearly was a beautiful city, not a poor shtetl. And, although the peasant-looking woman is of the life I imagined myself to have come from, the other photographs, which so surprised me, set me off on a search.
What is the name of this city? I asked my grandmother, who identified my late grandfather’s mother and father, brothers and sisters in these photographs of well-dressed people. The city was named Kovno, she said. A city in Lithuania, now called Kaunas, which I had never heard of. Once the Iron Curtain fell, I made my way there, even making a film called “My Grandfather’s House” as I searched to put back the pieces of lost memory. I sat with my daughter on a bench in the Jewish Quarter around the corner from my grandfather Sam’s childhood house, on a cobblestone street my great-grandmother Chaya must have walked many a day.
Today, I sometimes imagine myself sitting down next to her on that bench and saying to her, “I am your child. I wear your name. The 16-year-old boy you sent off to America and never saw again was my grandfather.” In my smattering of Yiddish I would tell her, “Ich bin dayn zun Shulem’s tuchter’s tuchter.” I imagine she would hug me and weep, and we would be beloved to each other as we shared stories: She would tell me about the son she knew only as a young man; I would tell her about his later life as my grandfather. I can see this scene in my mind’s eye because I have Chaya’s photographs.
But this woman from my mother’s mother’s side, who is Common Female Ancestor to my long-lost fellow Short List cousins — when I think of her, at first, all I can imagine is the sepia, peasant-looking, very old woman with the scarf around her head. My grandmother’s grandmother, whose first name may be Frommeh and whose last name I do not know. Rather than approaching her to sit together on a bench, instead I imagine myself standing at the edge of a shtetl, observing from the sidelines the mystery mother of long ago, only looking on as she goes about her day, watching her feed the chickens in the yard of her rickety wooden house, lighting her stove, looking like my grandmother’s grandmother, the old lady in the picture.
Then, of course, I could be wrong, very wrong. Perhaps she was young. A young mother. Maybe not more than a teenager. In a new vision, I see her teaching her little daughter how to cook and sew. I imagine them being close, but again, who knows, perhaps I romanticize. Mother and daughter, did they get along? Then I think, perhaps she never knew her daughter at all. Never grew old. For all I know, perhaps she had her baby girl and died in childbirth. Perhaps. Perhaps. Who knows?