Tuesday, April 14, 2015

A Willing Accomplice

I returned early in the morning on a flight from the town in which I grew up. I go there frequently to visit my mother, but this was a far more complicated trip than usual. It is the time of the Yom HaShoah, the Day of Remembrance of the Holocaust.

Last year I did a talk in my home town on Jewish genealogy for a Jewish organization. Afterwards I had a casual conversation with the director about the difficulty of finding Holocaust speakers as survivors dwindle. Half facetiously I remarked, "You should get my friend Dora". Now Dora lives in the Twin Cities, is in her 90s and is legally blind so travel to downstate Illinois wasn't exactly feasible. Except...

I had known Dora for only six months when we went to Poland together. Not exactly what most would expect with a new and rather senior friend. Dora is from Radom, Poland as was my grandfather. In 2011 we traveled there together where I exhibited my artwork on the former Jewish community of Radom. Dora exhibited photos from before the war and the time of the ghetto, photos that had been hidden in the shoes of family members during the camps.

Now Dora tells me that I make things happen and I seem to, often much to my own surprise. Partially that is because Dora is a willing accomplice. She says yes when most would say no and in combination we do seem to find ourselves in unexpected places. And so I asked if she might be interested and she said,"Maybe".

Logistics were the obstacle to resolve. The limitation of impaired sight was our biggest challenge, but I love to solve puzzles so I began to assemble these pieces and see how they might fit. Dora has a grandson in Chicago and I fly in to Illinois regularly to visit my mother. Dora just published her father's memoir of his 2 1/2 years in Auschwitz so was speaking more actively about the book. A flight to her grandson who in turn drove her downstate and an early morning flight back with me took care of the logistics. I acted as her eyes in booking flights and coordinating information.  We took advantage of the presence of her grandson to have him interview her at the Yom HaShoah and the result was quite magical. Their humor and enjoyment of each other were apparent and spoke to the involvement of the next generation in carrying the stories forward.

I was invited to share my artwork on the Jewish community of Radom, A Hole in Time, which felt very appropriate when lit by the light of memorial candles, commemorating that lost community in which both Dora and I share roots. In an odd way this work has traveled full circle, from the Minnesota town where I live to the Polish town where my grandfather came from and now back to the Illinois town in which I grew up.

On the plane, still not fully awake we began to plan our next venture, another Yom HaShoah talk next week in my community. This time I will interview Dora as we partner yet once again.

Saturday, April 11, 2015

Layers and Juxtapositions

I am visiting my mother in the town and the house in which I grew up. I find I don't sleep well on my visits. Overactive brain, stimulated by memory. One memory connects to another which in turn leads to another until I feel as if my entire memory is unwinding in one continuous coil.

I drive by a house and remember someone who lived there. Names come rushing into my brain from forty years ago. I Google them in the middle of my sleepless night, curious of what has become of them. Often no traces remain, only the residue of memory. They have moved on just as have I.

I am struck by the countless changes to the town itself. Nothing stays the same. Our memories of place are multi-layered because places carry layers of history. So often I still picture a former building in my memory, juxtaposed with its newer incarnation.

I took my mother to a restaurant and when we entered I had an immediate sense of déjà vu. I knew this place. I asked a waitress if it used to be a restaurant we frequented when I was a child. She confirmed my hunch. The location on a busy street and the shape of the room were the only clues, everything else was different, but I could look over at our usual table and see the family of my childhood, watch my father dip his spoon into the whipped cream from my hot chocolate as I protested, guarding my mug carefully with my hand, albeit a little too late. It had a very Ghost of Christmas past feel to it.

Except for a brief break for college, I lived in this town until my mid 20s, my young adulthood, my early marriage, my first real job. My mother has lived in her home for close to 60 years. I moved away 36 years ago, fearful that I would turn into my parents if I stayed. For many of those years I returned only for a Thanksgiving visit. It is only as my parents began to age that I stepped up my game. When my father passed away I began to come for more extended periods to visit my mom. I began to connect with a few old friends who offered me a needed respite. As I drove around the town I found new haunts and rediscovered old ones, often in a new incarnation. I suppose I was as well.

Past and present juxtapose. Last night I got together with a friend. Years ago she and I together with a small group of women had worked to create a domestic abuse shelter. It grew out of a volunteer gig on a rape crisis line. I used to go to the hospital in the middle of the night to assist women who had been assaulted. My stomach clutched when the phone rang late at night.

Up the street from the restaurant at which I met my friend, was the insurance company that was my first job during the summer between college. I failed two typing tests, but they hired me anyway. The prior secretary filed a pillow under P and took a nap each day on the boss's couch. Why does this trivia take up real estate in my brain?

My friend and I spoke about her visit to her former home and I remembered my first home in this town as a young married woman. I could vividly recall every room, every piece of furniture. We laughed about the spool table in the living room and the orange crate end tables. I thought I was living well.

This morning I was reminiscing with friends over breakfast about a music venue/bar in an old barn that my ex-husband used to play at. We couldn't remember the name and I texted my sister who had once waitressed there. "Second Chance" she replied. I drove by there afterwards and chuckled at its reincarnation, now Second Chance Church.

So often this whole process of memory runs like a TV in the background. We don't pay close attention to its triggers. Because I am working on artwork on the theme of memory, I am hyper attuned. How did I get from here to there? What was the trigger? Where did it take me? I suppose I needed to live long enough to acquire the history to fully appreciate the layers and juxtapositions, the collapsing of time, the sudden jolts of the long forgotten.

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Making Fear an Engine

This weekend I attended a Seder. Not the kind we had at my childhood home where we awkwardly stumbled through this ritual. No, this was a Seder where many read the Hebrew words with confidence and familiarity. They even knew the Hebrew version of "An Only Kid"! There were points where I felt as vermisht (Yiddish for confused) as my non-Jewish husband.

I started to describe it as a "serious" Seder, but it wasn't quite that either. We acted out the story, made up songs and haiku and limericks and laughed a lot in the process. It was a thoughtful Seder. We discussed oppression and freedom and heroes. We came with assignments. One of them was to bring one of our heroes with us. Now this was an imaginary hero, no place setting required, unlike that mystery man Elijah who actually merits a glass of his own.

I discussed this assignment with a friend and told her I didn't like the term "hero". If I were to play a game of word association, I would come up with such words as hero worship and superhero. I've never been one to idolize anyone. If there is one thing I know with certainty it is that close up we all have feet of clay. It also echoed a childhood school assignment to write about a hero where I felt that same inner resistance. I ended up writing about my mother.

Hmm, I tested the idea. Yep, still works. And so as it came my turn to speak, I introduced my mother to the room. Now I anticipated lots of traditional heroes from others, but by the time it came to me we had many imaginary mothers at the table along with some choked back tears from those who no longer had their mothers in the flesh. Some spoke of their mother giving without expectation. While that is also true of mine, the reason she is my hero is her sense of purpose, and especially her sense of purpose in the face of adversity. My mother, not unlike Moses of yore, always had a lot of fears and worries. She learned to push through them and in doing so taught me to do likewise. We have a similar makeup and from her I learned to make fear an engine, to use it for the energy to take a running leap and tackle the unknown. Now everybody's unknown is different, but fear can paralyze or energize and I am grateful I learned the latter. I thank my mother for that lesson.

When I was growing up my mother returned to college. I remember coming home from school with something I wanted to tell her only to recall in disappointment that she had a class. I also remember my follow up thought, how proud I was of her for returning to school. She decided what mattered to her and pursued it wholeheartedly. In doing so she set an example I hope to honor.

Now she is in her 80s and struggling with memory loss. But purpose remains. I've written in these pages of how she creates collage art each day. Life is harder for her, but she still seeks to live it purposefully. For that she will always be my hero.