Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Santa and the Maccabees

The holidays are over and quiet resumes in our small household. We love the hubbub of family, but it also deepens our appreciation of the quiet we so often take for granted.

The holidays also force a different reflection on my part. As a secular Jew married to a non-Jew I say the blessings over the Chanukah candles even as we debate what to get for Xmas presents for kids and grandkids. We don't have a Christmas tree in our home, but we enjoy the festive atmosphere at my stepdaughter's home and the family gatherings that go with it.

One evening one of my stepdaughters asked me to explain about Chanukah to her daughter. I demurred thinking about all those times I was asked to do that in grade school, the only Jewish kid for many years. I wasn't sure I could do it justice, but I also thought of it as a bit player in the whole scheme of Jewish holidays. What can I say...It's a minor holiday promoted so Jewish kids don't feel left out. I think about the question behind the question. How do you explain to a child that there are many different traditions? And for me, the larger question of how do I explain that being Jewish is an important part of who I am even though it doesn't appear to be.

It is a question that faces every secular Jew. Why does this matter? I didn't always realize it did. My former husband wasn't Jewish and I remember Christmas celebrations with his family. An aunt would always propose midnight mass and I would catch my husband's eye with a look of desperation. "Get me out of this!" it screamed. Celebrations are fine, but hold the religion. Somehow we never went. I wonder if they did when I was no longer on the scene.

In our own home my ex had wanted a Christmas tree. It was a part of his tradition, but made me feel as if I were abandoning what little linkage I had to my heritage. We compromised by hanging an ornament on a spindly palm tree in our home. My ex then did a sumi painting of it on rice paper on the cards we sent out that year. Wishing you a warm holiday season. An artistic homage with a twist.

Then of course there were the gnarlier questions. How would we raise those theoretical children that I wasn't even sure I wanted to have? Why Jewish of course. I couldn't conceive of anything else. My then-husband was puzzled. I didn't seem particularly Jewish. Why did it matter so much? I wasn't quite sure myself except that it would have felt like a betrayal of who I was.

So who exactly was I? So often being Jewish in a Christian culture is defined by otherness. I related a story to my stepdaughter of when I grew up. It was a time when everyone decorated their home at Christmas. Everyone but us. As nighttime approached and the lights came on, our house was the only one that remained dark.

My parents struggled with how to raise their Jewish kids so they didn't feel left out. At Christmas they made a mild concession. They let us hang a stocking. I still remember getting little figures of people in my stocking. Then they began to feel a bit guilty and decided they had to stop this before it got baked into a tradition. This was complicated by the fact that we believed in Santa so it wasn't just a matter of them stopping the gift giving. It had to make sense to us. I would love to have listened in on their conversation as to how to tackle this dilemma. Their solution was to go directly to the man. They called Santa at the North Pole to tell him we were Jewish and that he must have stopped at our house in error. My brother and I were not bothered in the least by these ill-gotten gifts and screamed in the background for them not to tell him.

Chest with Star of David pulls- Sorolla Museo

Much of my experience of being Jewish was being outside looking in. I lived in a Christian culture and with friends I decorated Christmas trees and painted Easter eggs. No confusion there, it was their culture, not mine.

I often think of a drawing I did as a child. The assignment must have been to draw Christmas in a time before cultural sensitivity was expected. I drew a Christmas tree. I stood next to it, but behind me was a dresser. Each drawer had a drawer pull shaped like a Star of David. Some part of me was hidden in that chest. I am amused at the way I covertly asserted my heritage, a hidden Jew of sorts. On a recent trip to Madrid, I was startled to see a chest with Stars of David on each drawer and flashed back to my drawing. I wondered what stories filled these drawers.

Every child reacts differently to being an outsider. Some press their nose against the glass and want in. Others come to embrace their otherness. Otherness can be a gift, allowing one to see the world more clearly, creating a space from which to appraise the world at arms-length. That perspective often serves as a creative engine and it allows one to challenge and question. Now imagine a culture in part defined by otherness, an otherness not always visible. I begin to understand why many of the people I have developed friendships with are Jewish. I am drawn to differences, people with a bit of attitude who question and challenge the norms, creative people. It is a constellation of traits found in otherness.

But Judaism is more than otherness. It is a religion, a culture and a heritage. I grew up in a Reform temple and went through the religious school until I was 16. We had a comparative religion class where we attended different churches and learned about their beliefs. I was fascinated and rather appalled at the idea of dogma. Why would you ever believe something because someone told you to? It was a foreign concept to me for questioning was clearly encouraged in my family. In my confirmation class we debated if God existed and if so in what form. The rabbi led the discussion and it felt like the ultimate in questioning. I think it was then that I decided I could be Jewish.

My relationship to Judaism has ebbed and flowed throughout my life. My exploration of family history drew me closer and my reading about the experience of Jews throughout history formed a self-created curriculum of sorts. For several years I've participated in a Jewish artists' lab which has deepened my understanding and built a community of like-minded creative people. My artwork too has explored the Jewish experience.

Yet as many American Jews, I live in both worlds. My current husband is not Jewish, but our values and beliefs are very similar. He is an artist also and perhaps as such has a touch of the otherness I seek. The fundamental aspect of Judaism that spoke to me at 16 still speaks to me. I need to be free to question, to challenge and to explore. I am grateful to be part of a heritage that gives me the room to do so.


Sunday, December 21, 2014

The Lives We Touch

Do you have someone who in the course of your life influenced you in some significant way?
I've been thinking about this because of a note I recently received from a former boss, one of those people who believed in me when I was still learning to believe in myself. I went to work for him when I was around 30. He was about the same age as my parents back then, not too far from the age I am now. It of course seemed much older then.

I had left a career running nonprofits, shifted from social work to finance and as a newly minted MBA begun a career as a commercial lender. I had grown up in a time where many my age considered business slightly suspect and now I was entering that world with some trepidation. I remember feeling as if I were masquerading. There I was surrounded by all these conservative bankers in their grey suits. "This is so not me," I thought. I kept my head down, sure I couldn't let them see the real me lest I jeopardize my job.

At the same time I looked around at coworkers who had gone from business school straight into banking and wondered if I had made a career mistake in creating and running nonprofit organizations in my 20s. As much as I had enjoyed the work, perhaps I'd missed valuable time building my business career and would never catch up. The corporate world didn't take the nonprofit world very seriously. Many thought of it as a retirement career with no appreciation of the challenges it presented. By contrast, working for a corporation felt easy to me compared to those years in nonprofits. All those resources at my fingertips and I didn't have to sweat over making payroll, piece of cake. All I had to do was keep my opinions to myself and try to fit in, that was the challenging part.

And then I went to work for Warren. Warren was a conservative banker. Our politics clearly differed. He had spent his career in banking. I could easily have swept him into the stereotypes I carried in my head about this foreign environment...except for the fact that I got to know him. I have always found that men who had daughters and were married to strong women were more supportive of women in the workplace. They had to be. Just as they wanted a life full of opportunity for their daughter, they saw their daughter in the young women who worked for them. Warren had both a talented daughter and a thoughtful, intelligent wife and fully supported the young women who worked for him.

This was a time when a woman working as a banker on a national level usually found herself to be the only woman in the room. I felt conspicuous and different by gender, politics and values. I used to go into the bank's big conference room to present to credit committee, all men of course. I would sit down in a chair facing the committee, all of them lined up on the other side of the table waiting to pounce with the one question I hadn't contemplated. I would sink in wondering if they had cranked my chair lower, feeling a bit like Lily Tomlin's Edith Ann, a little girl in a big chair. Often I contemplated throwing a phone book on the seat first. Having read that it was important to take up physical space, I would spread my papers out on the table.

It was an intimidating place and not an environment that made a young woman feel particularly welcome. Especially one like me.

I was fortunate to land in the oasis run by Warren. He was in the final leg of his career and was in a senior position, but without illusions about further rises up the corporate ladder. I remember one time Warren joined me in the credit committee to speak on behalf of a loan. "I'll stake my career on it," he'd said. "What's left of it," he'd added with a wry chuckle.

He buffered the people who worked for him from corporate politics and created a safe place where I could be myself. He was an authentic person and in being so, he allowed those around him to be also. He came from an earlier time when people worked for one company their entire life. Tall and lean, I picture him packing up at the end of the day, reaching for his hat and briefcase, part of the ensemble of men of his era. No computers sat on desks until some time later and he never crossed over to that world.
He was a bit of a dad to me, accepting and encouraging. He supported me and gave me opportunities to grow, seeing potential in me that I didn't always recognize myself. And he gave me practical advice that later paid off. Max out the 401k contribution, save your money and invest. And most importantly he advised "You have to manage your own career." When I decided it was time to leave before he retired, he coached me on negotiating for my new job.

Several career steps later, I had caught up on that career growth I was so worried about at 30. Now I was managing other people and dispensing my own advice, especially to young women who I cautioned not to sit around waiting to be recognized for their good work. They could find themselves waiting a long time. While I would share their talents with others, they couldn't count on that happening in the broader workplace. They needed to make sure to let others see their accomplishments and talents and to actively seek out opportunities. Basically it was a female perspective on "you have to manage your own career." I too had the special opportunity to recognize and develop talent and to watch it bloom.

When I left my career in finance, I did my first solo art show. This was now almost 15 years after I last worked for Warren. I sent him an invitation and he came to the show with his daughter. Each wrote a lovely note, obviously a family talent. Warren wrote of watching me blossom, of his pride in me for managing my career and being brave enough to venture into new areas filled with unknowns. In fact I soon found that my skills from running nonprofits in my 20s were quite applicable to the project management I now engaged in as an artist. I knew how to figure things out and I was energized by those very unknowns.

So now I've been reinventing my life for eight years and I got an email from the gallery where I had exhibited at my start. Warren was trying to reach me. Now I'm not hard to find on the Internet, but that wasn't part of his world so he tried the personal approach that is so much a part of who he is. His wife had run across some old letters they had kept, among them the note I had written him almost twenty five years ago when I left. Touched he reached out once again. "What did I say? " I thought. Probably much of what I've written here, but from an earlier perspective. There are people who touch your life without even realizing it. And we in turn touch other lives as well, each on both sides of that equation. Looking back from the age Warren once was, I have a different appreciation for the messages and values that he shared. It is not just about managing your career, but shaping your life.

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Getting Lost

I recently read of an author new to me, Rebecca Solnit, A Field Guide to Getting Lost. She writes of the unknown as our exploration in life and the engine for artists. And as the name of her book implies, she writes of getting lost. The word itself derives from Old Norse and means disbanding armies. We throw away our constraints, our strictures, our discipline of time and destination and let ourselves move into the unknown, perhaps as my mother does each day without choice as her memory flees. Never one to like change, the unknown, she is now thrust into it. My daily phone call is her map of the day.

Ironically it is through this process of losing ourselves and discovering what we don't know that we navigate life. This is particularly relevant to artists.Solnit writes," Certainly for artists of all stripes, the unknown, the idea or the form or the tale that has not yet arrived, is what must be found. It is the job of artists to open doors and invite in prophesies, the unknown, the unfamiliar; it’s where their work comes from, although its arrival signals the beginning of the long disciplined process of making it their own."

As an artist I am seeking to lose myself and as someone who values control, I often struggle against myself. I think about the relationship between what my mother describes as wilderness, the unknown she navigates daily, and my effort to let go of control and lose myself in an unknown that opens doors for expression. Perhaps the difference is that I can enter and leave at will.

My mother loved the unknown after it had become familiar, still carrying its gloss of newness, but no longer threatening. When we traveled together she used to dread the move from familiar to unknown. "Can't we stay here?" she would plaintively ask as we readied ourselves for a train ride to a new city. Soon the new city would be her favorite as her dread got transferred to the next. I was her touchstone, the constant that allowed her to make these changes that opened up worlds for her. I think of that now as I serve as a new sort of guide.

On a recent visit I took her to an apple orchard. She bought a sunflower, a fall ornament that I affixed over a picture frame. Each time she saw it she exclaimed at how much she liked it. Each time I reminded her of our visit, no longer in her memory. Even as she couldn't remember the facts of our visit she remembered how it made her feel. She tells me that she likes when I come in because we go out and do things together. Once I opened up the world to her. She seems to remember the exhilaration of the unknown that we once experienced together even as new facts are quickly shed. Remembering the feeling is enough.

Solnit draws a distinction between losing things and getting lost.

"Lost really has two disparate meanings. Losing things is about the familiar falling away, getting lost is about the unfamiliar appearing. There are objects and people that disappear from your sight or knowledge or possession; you lose a bracelet, a friend, the key. You still know where you are. Everything is familiar except that there is one item less, one missing element. Or you get lost, in which case the world has become larger than your knowledge of it. Either way, there is a loss of control. Imagine yourself streaming through time shedding gloves, umbrellas, wrenches, books, friends, homes, names. This is what the view looks like if you take a rear-facing seat on the train.

Looking forward you constantly acquire moments of arrival, moments of realization, moments of discovery. The wind blows your hair back and you are greeted by what you have never seen before. The material falls away in onrushing experience. It peels off like skin from a molting snake. Of course to forget the past is to lose the sense of loss that is also memory of an absent richness and a set of clues to navigate the present by; the art is not one of forgetting but letting go. And when everything else is gone, you can be rich in loss."

I picture my mother and I on a train. She facing back and me forward, as we share this journey.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Museum Meanders 2

After several large museums we needed a palate cleanser. We headed out to a small museum called the Museo Cerralbo. This museum used to be the home of the Marquise de Cerralbo (1845-1922) who was an inveterate collector of many objects including a wide range of paintings. While the collection included an El Greco, Tintoretto and Zubaran, the salon style did not lend itself to easy viewing of art. It was more interesting as a perspective on how the wealthy of that period lived as the home still reflects the way in which they lived in it. Periodically I would glance out the window at the busy street and feel wrested from a turn of the century world.

An hour later we were on the street by the Parque del Oeste, near the Royal Palace of Madrid. Within the park is the Temple de Debod, an Egyptian temple from 2BC which was a gift from Egypt to Spain. The temple is open and free to visitors and is an unexpected surprise in a Madrid park.

We walked to the end of the park, down steep steps, along a road that bordered the railroad tracks and across a railroad bridge filled with striking graffiti to arrive at the Pantheon de Goya. The chapel of San Antonio de la Florida contains Goya's tomb as well as his artwork. His frescos decorate the cupola and ceiling. Mirrors assist you in viewing the frescos on the ceiling. An identical chapel was built next door to allow this building to be devoted to a Goya Museum.

After leaving the chapel we discovered the Cafe Mingo, the oldest cider house in Madrid.  Since 1888 it has been serving roasted chicken and homemade cider. We were charmed and a bit intimidated, faced with finding vegetarian items for my husband. I was delighted when the "chicken man" consented to my request for a photo.

A short walk took us to the Palace Real and its park and gardens which presented beautiful vistas while a peacock strutted over his domain.

The next day we were ready once again for a foray to a big museum, the Prado.  We had been to the Prado twice before and I don't think we've ever "finished" it, though not for lack of trying.  We did a focused visit with an emphasis on the Spanish artists that one often does not see elsewhere -Velasquez, Goya, Ribera, El Greco and Zuberan with additional visits to Bosch and Rembrandt.  Seven hours later we limped out of the museum.  Bested once again.  Unfortunately they don't allow photos so it is all a pleasant mush in my head.

The following day we decided to go to Toledo. We had been there once before, but many things had been closed. This year is the four hundred year anniversary of El Greco's death and they are showcasing his many works in Toledo where he lived for much of his life.  Toledo is also the home to two of the three remaining synagogues in Spain. We took a train from the nearby Atocha station and then caught a bus up the steep hill to Toledo.  When we exited the bus we were faced with a warren of narrow streets leading downhill.  Street names change frequently so it took some time to get oriented.  Banners announced El Greco sites, many of which are church altarpieces that he painted. We found our way to the El Greco museum which houses his paintings of the apostles and is recreated in the style of his time.

It is located in the former Jewish district so almost next door was the synagogue I was seeking. The Synagogue of El Transito felt mosque-like in its design, ornate and intricate, but there embedded in carvings was Hebrew text, 522 years after the Jews were expelled from Spain.  It was built with the support of the King and his treasurer Samuel Levi.  It later became a church when the Jews were expelled.

Madre by Sorolla
Today was our last day in Madrid and a very satisfying one.  We had two small museums on our list, the Sorolla Museum and the Lazaro Galdiano.  The Sorolla Museum is the former home of Joaquin Sorolla who painted around the turn of the century.  He was quite successful in his own time and is known for his striking use of light.  His home was beautiful and we got a flavor for how he lived as well as enjoying his artwork. I especially loved a painting he did upon the birth of his third child.

San Diego de Alcala by Zubaran
Nearby was the Lazaro Galdiano museum, the former home of Galdiano.  Galdiano was a wealthy publisher and had an amazing art collection that holds extensive Goyas, several paintings by Bosch and my favorite Zubaran.

And on our way to the metro stop, one last museum, an outdoor one of sculpture, the Museo de Escultura al Aire Libre de la Castellana.

So concludes our travels in Portugal and Spain. And that art museum list we keep of those we've visited; we're up to 145.

Friday, November 14, 2014

Museum Meanders 1

Much of our time in Madrid has been devoted to museums. The weather is a big determinant of our activities. Rain is a real threat at this time of year so plans remain flexible. We check the forecast regularly assessing the feasibility of day trips.

In my earlier travels I used to spend time seeking that unique item that would remind me of our travels. My best discovery was a hand carved chess set in Granada with beautiful Spanish faces adorning each piece. On our last trip to Paris we came home with a sculpture of a horse that still gives me great pleasure, but such discoveries are unexpected. Madrid is filled with souvenir shops that are unlikely to divulge such treasures so instead we admire the treasures of its museums.

One thing to be aware of is when museums are free, especially the larger museums that are more costly. Not all of them share this information on their site. We set out Monday morning for the Thyssen-Bornemisza which is free from noon til four on Mondays. As most museums are closed on this day, it is a good use of one's time.

We had been to the Thyssen twice before and it is hands down my favorite museum in Madrid. We arrived shortly before noon and joined a long line that ran out the courtyard and around the block. We were inside the museum within ten minutes and began our visit at the top with the Italian primitives. The collection spans Italian, German, Dutch, Flemish and Spanish work through the 18th century. It includes Renaissance and Baroque art, Impressionism, post-Impressionism and German Expressionism. It also explores European and American artists up through the 20th century from Cubism to European post-war figurative art. It is an amazing art history course spanning seven centuries and has high quality pieces representing each artist.

When we go to museums I take photos of favorite paintings. I have electronic folders of images and labels from many museums. I find that the act of photographing fixes a painting in my memory. Sometimes I focus on a theme such as portraits. I am especially interested in how artists achieved certain effects, particularly ones that I might want to attempt. I am also intrigued by unexpected paintings from artists with which I am familiar. For example I associate Raoul Dufy with brightly colored, sketchy paintings of the French Riviera so was intrigued by a realistic painting titled The Fish Market which dates to 1904/5 right before he became familiar with Matisse and shifted to Fauvism.
On the way to the Thyssen we were intrigued by the building of the CaixaForum Cultural Center with its stunning vertical garden. It exhibits retrospectives of artists from earlier time periods. We discovered that they too were free on Mondays and stopped there later for an exhibition that explored the beginning of Western civilization through objects representing mythology and philosophy. It is well worth a visit for the building alone and the excellent exhibition felt like a bonus.

Every large city seems to have a Bella Arte museum. In Madrid it is known as the Real Academia de Bellas Artes de San Fernando. The museum is associated with the Royal Academy of Fine Arts of which Goya was once a member. The museum is free on Wednesdays. The highlights of this museum are a number of Goya's including two self portraits. There are also five Zubaran monk paintings, always favorites of mine. One floor is devoted to a contemporary exhibition of members of the Academy which we thought was quite exceptional.

The Reine Sophia is close to our hotel so we decided to go over Sunday when they are free 1:30-7:00 PM. They have had an expansion since our last visit with a distinctive red facade and roof. We were disappointed to learn that it was only free for selected exhibitions so returned later in the week for the permanent collection. On past visits I had enjoyed this museum with excellent text in English and a clear flow through periods of contemporary art. That seemed to have disintegrated and we found the flow confusing. As expected Guernica attracted a considerable crowd. There are many artists who are represented who may be well-known in Spain, but with whom I was not familiar. When I searched for one that I admired, I learned that he had little presence outside of Spain. It is interesting to be reminded that our knowledge of art history, especially contemporary history, may vary geographically.

Coming soon...Museum Meanders 2

Friday, November 7, 2014

Fresh Eyes

Our trip is composed of both the new and the familiar. We've been to Madrid on several occasions, but never Portugal. Thus I have the opportunity to view Portugal through fresh eyes, a heightened awareness of the things that fall outside of my daily experience.

Déjà vu

While Portugal is new to me, it still has the echo of similar places. When one has traveled a lot there is often a sense of déjà vu even if one has never been in the specific place before. Our first evening here we walked up a main street lined with restaurants. Tables filled the center of the wide avenue as people thronged about. It had an eerie familiarity that I struggled to place, finally remembering a similar street in Jerusalem, almost picturing the Jerusalem shops layered over this Portuguese street.

Lisbon is a very hilly city, built on seven hills. I did not expect it to conjure up San Francisco, but the downhill vistas with vintage cable cars chugging uphill certainly did exactly that. San Francisco is also built on seven hills. There is even an orange suspension bridge in Lisbon that looks uncannily like the Golden Gate. I was to learn that it was designed by the same architect.

Portuguese Pavement

When we first arrived in Lisbon and exited our metro, I was struck by one of the unique features of Portugal, the mosaic sidewalks in black basalt and white limestone. Each street seems to have a unique pattern and they are truly works of art. In the evening light they glow. Patterns suggest sailing ships, mermaids or simply elegant abstract designs. It is often referred to as Portuguese pavement and was initially installed in the mid 1800s. Squares and plazas are often the location of the more involved patterns. I already find it useful in identifying different locations and spend a lot of time looking down.

Hills, Tiles and Clotheslines

On our first morning in Lisbon we ventured out on our own walking tour. As we walked up several sets of steps and then continued uphill, it dawned on me exactly how hilly Lisbon is. I needed to feel it in my muscles and breathing to fully appreciate it. Our hotel is close to the water where the ground is level, but as we ventured forth it was all uphill. We gradually climbed higher until we finally began to move downhill through neighborhoods of narrow streets. Clothes hung from windows fluttering picturesquely in the wind. We conjectured Monday must be Portuguese laundry day. Many of the buildings had tile facades in a variety of unusual designs, another detail uniquely Portuguese. Artful graffiti covered many buildings, certainly not unique to Lisbon, but notably good graffiti.


Enticing Food


We descended down to the water where the trains, buses and cable cars ran alongside the port. Huge cruise ships anchored not far from graceful sailboats while cranes moved boxes overhead. It is hard to get lost in Lisbon. You need only aim downhill and follow the coastline.

In route we passed the market and were puzzled by the Time Out neon sign. It looked like the magazine logo. We soon learned that this is Time Out's first foodie venture and just opened in May. They have installed 35 food kiosks representing a wide variety of food. Five top chefs have restaurants there. They will be adding exhibition space as they continue to execute their concept. Next to this extensive food court is the fish and produce market.

Today we went to Belem, an area on the outskirts of Lisbon which is known for custard pastries called Pastels de Belem. We brought a few back to our room to enjoy, quite a decadent feast. Aside from that we've been eating a lot of fish, especially cod which is prepared many different ways. My husband, who eats vegetarian plus fish, has not had trouble finding interesting foods from which to choose.

A Travel Oasis

We've been adding new art museums to our museum list. Nothing that has overwhelmed me yet, but some striking pieces scattered about. A room of Zubaran saints and a Hieronymus Bosch in the Museu Antiga, a Rembrandt in the Gulbenkian, a good scan of contemporary art since 1900 at the Berardo. Museums are often the destination around which we plan our day, an oasis when you travel offering clean restrooms, good cafés, wifi and art.

We have one more day left in Portugal and plan to go to Cascais, a small fishing village nearby. The draw for us is a museum of work by Paula Rego, an artist I've become familiar with on-line. Then on to Madrid.



Monday, November 3, 2014

Happy Birthday in Portuguese

This blog started as a bit of a travel journal when I was traveling to Lithuania five years ago. Every so often it returns to its roots when I write of my travels...

I always forget the parts of travel that I don't like. Until that is, when I remember them as they occur once again. I had booked a trip to Lisbon and Madrid for my birthday, an effort to begin my year with an activity that I love. The night before we had gone to my stepdaughter's to drop off our cat, originally her cat on permanent loan, thus a lifetime of free cat sitting. It was Halloween, a date we usually share with them, avoiding buying too much candy for the few trick or treaters that arrive at our home and instead enjoying the costumes of our grandchildren.

It was also the last day to prepare for our trip when the fundamental difference between my husband and I arises and with it the stress level. He first begins to think about what he might bring. Meanwhile I have listed and packed and re-packed, eliminating one thing and adding another many times over as I try to figure out what will fit into a carry-on. Now this was difficult to do because in our household my husband does the laundry. Yes, I know that's a good thing and most of the time he has my deep appreciation. When he saw my rather imperfect folds early in our relationship he quietly took over that duty. It made perfect sense to me. When I was growing up I would take any package that needed to be wrapped to my dad who with engineer precision would fold the paper precisely into a sharply wrapped package. In my world guys know how to fold. Now however, I awaited half of my clothes because my husband wanted them done at the last minute for maximum cleanliness. I tell you this to let you know that our different personalities were already tripping over each other.

We sped to his daughter's with me driving, finishing up a conference call on bluetooth while he held our meowing cat on his lap. Now in our hurry to get out the door while thinking of my travel list, I forgot that I never drive with him in the passenger's seat. There is a reason for this. He is not a good passenger. "What are you doing?" he yelled at one point. I glared at him as his voice transmitted on my call along with the meows of our cat. Later he advised me I should be thinking about getting over to the right lane. I quickly moved over. "Why did you do that?" he asked. "You told me to," I replied. He informed me he just wanted me to think about it so I could shift at the opportune time. I don't work that way. Tell me you need something eventually, I pick it up immediately. Got to cross it off my mental list. It burdens me until I do. Apparently I am a precrastinator according to a recent NYT article. My husband has a reserve list of to dos unaccompanied by a sense of burden. He doesn't understand this trait in me nor do I understand his lack of it.

The next evening we entered the plane with seats in two separate rows. When I booked the flight Delta's system was not working properly so they booked me on Air France, a shared flight, rather than directly on Delta. As I recall I called Air France to book our seats on their leg. The day before our flight I logged into Delta and was aghast when it advised me we had no seats on that flight. A few middle seats remained. I quickly grabbed the last of a bad deal, only then realizing that they probably weren't reflecting what Air France had booked for the flight and no doubt had just overridden them. A panicked phone call later and a lot of begging had landed me two seats, an aisle and a window in different rows. A kind man next to me was now willing to trade his seat. That negotiation completed my husband and I now sat side by side.

When I fly overseas I am always torn between so many activities that seem to counter sleep. In that narrow window between meals, do I want to watch Boyhood, finish reading Gone Girl, or sleep, sleep in an uncomfortably tight space with limbs compacted and the distraction of many glowing screens around me? So I watched Boyhood and finished Gone Girl, arriving in Paris with eyelids drooping from lack of sleep. Somewhere along the flight my husband wished me a happy birthday, but I'm not sure in which time zone or country it had occurred. I was still in that unmoored state where I was zooming through time zones with no allegiance to one.

A four hour wait in Paris, eyes bleary, and we boarded a plane to Lisbon. I noticed one flight attendant testing the size of bags in one row and quietly slid into the other row, my body hiding my slightly larger carry-on. We were determined to do this trip on two carry-ons. I successfully got my bag on and stowed, when I realized this was an old plane. Ashtrays were still embedded in the arms. The seats were the tightest I've ever experienced, as if they had added rows to maximize capacity, far in excess of the limits of the human body. If it was tight for my frame, I couldn't imagine how my husband was faring. I glanced over, his legs were splayed, one knee in each direction.

Finally we touched down and happily, albeit a bit groggily, rolled our two carry-ons from the plane. I hate packing to travel light, but I love the simplicity of the arrival. We got our Euros from the cash machine, found the metro at the airport and loaded up two metro cards. One transfer delivered us up the street from our hotel. I love to find interesting hotels on Trip Advisor and was pleased with my discovery of My Story Hotel. I was even more pleased when we got a call asking if they could check something in the room and they arrived with two slices of a flourless chocolate torte and fruit. The hotel clerk even did a fine rendition of Happy Birthday in Portuguese. Ahh, the night was improving. Now this is where I should be posting a picture of this wonderful dessert, but we devoured it before that thought occurred to us.

We wandered around the surrounding area and walked down to the water, a few blocks from our hotel. The plazas and street were alive with people milling about and the sounds of street musicians. We ate a late dinner and returned to our hotel to catch up on our many hours of lost sleep. I am usually a glass half full person, but even I must confess that there was very little pleasure in the preparation and flying part of our trip. I'm glad to finally get to the fun part. More to come...




Thursday, October 16, 2014

That Which Remains

I call my mother every morning to help her launch her day. She is in her late 80s and her memory is flagging. I answer the same questions many times in the course of our phone call. She retains the answer for a nanosecond and then it is gone. I answer calmly again and again. I am often an impatient person, but I enter another zone when dealing with my mother. Impatience serves no purpose and would only distress her.

Earlier this week I reminded her that I'd be coming to visit her. She squealed with delight. Then she said, "maybe it's good that I forget things because I get to get excited all over again when I remember." Now this is optimism at its finest. There are many jokes like this about Alzheimer's, but I'm here to tell you that they are true.

Before I encountered memory loss close up, I thought of it as an on-off switch. You either had it or you didn't. Now I realize it is far more complex. We tend to think about the extremes, when a loved one no longer knows who we are or retreats into silence. I often have people express concern about my mother, projecting their experience with the disease. People who knew my mother's active curiosity about the world are most dismayed, aware of what has been lost. I want to remind them that there is still much that remains. There are many faces to Alzheimer's and they don't all need to be coupled with distress. Sometimes we get so focused on the loss that we fail to appreciate what is right in front of us.

If I only had my phone calls with my mother, perhaps I would feel the loss more deeply. They have shrunk in content. What was once a rich relationship, filled with confiding and the occasional book review, now revolves around reminders of pills and which aide will arrive when. I have found that our relationship is best conducted face to face. With a stretch of time to talk, different sides emerge.
I come to visit her every few months and stay for a week. It is a different quality of time to have a week. My sister, who lives in the same state, comes in weekly for an overnight visit. It is the highlight of my mother's week, but is filled with hair appointments, grocery shopping, the functional needs of everyday life. I have a longer stretch and it allows for things to bubble up.

I think about what I can bring on my visits that will enrich her life. It is all a bit of an experiment. On one visit we did family history collages together, on another she heard me do a talk on genealogy for a local organization. Sometimes I introduce her to a new food with mixed results. We go to museums, 3-D movies, trolley rides and botanical gardens. She doesn't have much physical energy anymore so I need to tailor what we do to her capacity, but the act of showing up seems to be deeply satisfying to her. I used to take her on rather intense trips to Europe, filled with activity and stimulation. The stimulation from what we do during my visits triggers a residual memory for her. "We have a special relationship", she says. "We understand each other. We always traveled well together."

I was the traveling daughter who exposed her to the world. My sister provided the grandchildren. We speak to different sides of my mother. We each feed different aspects of her memory about herself. I tell her, "you always enjoyed exploring new things. You just needed to be with someone you trusted who would lead the way." That feels right to her. "You know me so well," she replies.

My mother was always a reader, but can no longer retain the thread of a story. I decided to try something different with her on this visit. I've been taking an essay class so have been writing personal essays. I read her some of them, thinking perhaps a short story with some familiar elements that was read to her would be somehow more accessible. She listened intently, absorbed in story. I realize that my touchstone in this terrain is my knowledge about her and the things we shared.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Avocado Memory

You may notice some differences in this blog's layout. Since I cover a variety of topics, I've set it up so you can use the labels at the top to pull blogs by topic. I will be continuing to add to it over time as new topics develop. In addition to topics, I've also provided a link to my art/genealogy website as well as to those blog entries that seem to get the most hits. Hopefully this will make it easier to access the content you find most of interest.

I always feel a bit remiss when time goes by without me writing in my blog. It has become a ritual in my life. Often I use it to remember some detail of my life, a bit of a public journal. I have been taking an essay class and all my writing juice has gone towards the weekly essays that I write which are too long for a blog post.

I have had a few realizations in this class. One is that when one writes essays they are by their nature personal. I suspect I will know my classmates well. There is an intimacy to essay, a sharing of self. As a private person, I sometimes struggle with that and yet that is the power of essay. It allows us to connect with others through the personal which much to our surprise is often universal. I am also aware that some of my best material will never exist in the public realm as it is too raw, too revealing. In some cases I protect another person. To write of them would be a betrayal of their public self, no matter how accurate in the moment of time of which I write. It is still only a moment seen through one person's eyes. Like the blind man and the elephant, I can never capture the totality of another person, just glimpses.

At each class some of us are asked to read our essay. This means our teacher liked our work and felt it captured the approach we were exploring. I must confess to feeling some relief when she approached me before class to ask me to read my work. I thought my essay was strong, but it is easy to be too close to your own material. Even when I read my work to my husband, I really can't get an outside perspective. He knows my stories, my way of thinking so he is not really an arms-length listener. Reading is an opportunity to test your material on a new audience. I've read poetry aloud to an audience, but never an essay of my own construction on a topic that is by its nature personal. Nothing encoded to decipher, just out there, exposed.

This essay was to take the approach of a whorl of reflection, circling, spiraling around a subject. This approach is quite true to my natural process. My mind goes in circles around a topic. I have often described it like a dog circling before settling in. I wrote an essay around memory, the topic of my current explorations. Although I wrote about my mother's experience with loss of memory, I started with the way I remember people through food and how spatial sense is so key to memory. I find I am liking the process of entering a topic, finding a doorway in through some random thread that then leads into meatier content.

Here's a brief excerpt of the lighter part of this essay, the introduction to the topic of memory.

I eat a spinach salad every day. I fill it with all of my favorite foods, toasted pecans, roasted asparagus and fennel, feta cheese and dried cherries and the coup de resistance, four slices of avocado. Every so often I find one that is perfectly ripe. It is then that I think of my friend Carol who introduced me to the avocado.

Carol was the spouse of a co-worker of my then-husband. We were young, in our 20s. They were our couple friends, a construct that seldom worked for me, much too hard to have everyone like each other, but Carol I liked. She had an intelligence about her and a curiosity.

I remember Carol holding out an avocado to me as we stood in her kitchen. "It's a perfect avocado" she said as she cut into its soft, creamy, yellow-green surface. She set the pit aside to join another in a bottle on her window, held in place with toothpicks. It was just beginning to root.

I had lost touch with her soon after we moved to Minnesota 35 years ago. My daily avocado often elicited her memory. Periodically I searched for her, but she had a common name. I assumed she'd split up with her then spouse. We were all too careless for relationships to survive, at least in their original "til death do us part" form. We still believed in second chances so were far too cavalier with life and love.

Once when I got together with my ex-husband for one of our birthday lunches, a tradition we've continued for the 30+ years since we split up, I asked him if he knew where our old friends were. He too had lost touch with them.

As it turned out I was the first to hear from them or at least from Carol. A few weeks ago she contacted me on Facebook. A different married name appended, a different location than those I had searched. We exchanged a series of messages to catch up on our 35 year separation. One of my first comments to her was "I think of you whenever I eat an avocado."

The essay then goes on to address how little we use our capacity for memory and recollections about family members who lost memory. I describe my grandmother who lost her memory early and lived with us for a time when I was a child.

I think a lot about memory these days as I watch my mother's fade. We spend the first part of our life collecting memories only to lose them at the end. My mother lived her life in fear of losing her memory. Her mother lost her's early, beginning in her 60s I think. No one was too sure of her exact age until I began researching family. She lived with us for two years when I was a child. I remember her twisting the buttons on her sweater. She had what I thought of as an old people's smell. She used to sweep our carpet with a broom. "No grandma" we'd say, gently taking the broom from her hands. She only spoke Yiddish. I remember her sitting in the kitchen polishing silver. It gave her comfort and calmed her restless hands.

When she lived with us she used to do the Sabbath blessing. It was the only time it was done in our house. Some years ago I did a painting of her doing that blessing. Memory of blessing, both hers and mine, filtered through my mother. When I worked on it, I sent it back and forth to my mother, trying to capture the image, waiting for my mother's blessing. "Her hands need to be more work-worn" my mother said. I tried yet again. Finally she replied, "Yes, I see her!" When I stood before the painting, I stood to its side, assuming my place at the table of my childhood.

I'm having fun with this. No idea what I do with these as I polish them, but the mere act of writing is richly satisfying, even more so when classmates respond so warmly to what I read.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

The Discomfort of Something New

Recently I told my mother the litany of activities I had this week. Among them was a writing class at the Loft, our local writing center. "What do you need that for?" she asked, "you already write well". Clearly she spoke as a mother.

The class I am taking is on essays and fulfills a promise I made to myself earlier this year to deepen my skills. Years ago I took a writing class and was much too intimidated to read anything I wrote aloud. After five years of blog posts, almost 300 essays, I am hoping I'll be a bit braver.

Now I decided to take a class in essays because that seems to be the format that best fits me; observational, thoughtful in nature and based in reality. I figured I better go with my strengths. Years ago an old boyfriend who was partial to women who were flirty and light said to me that while not flirty and light I was "intelligent and thoughtful". It seemed a bit like a consolation prize at the time. I was never going to be this frothy confection he sought. The boyfriend became history years ago and I have since learned to appreciate who I am.

In the first class the teacher gave us an exercise that reminded me of this exchange. To introduce ourselves we were to say what we were not. We each presented a paragraph or list of traits identifying what we were not. So my version, slightly reworked into a more playful form, goes something like this...

Not Me

I am not passive, wishy-washy,
Nor frothy, flirty, light.
Not lacking in opinions
Nor the words to give them flight.
I'm not a slow reactor,
Not slow to act, to move, to speak
Not murky, unclear, hazy.
Nothing is oblique.
Most certainly I'm not lazy.
Not good at kicking back,
I'm not of one-dimension
That's definitely a fact,
I'm not unfocused, nor blasé,
Bored with life I'll never be,
Those are just a few things
That certainly are not me

It actually is an interesting exercise in defining oneself. In a sense it uses negative space just as one does with artwork, identifying what one isn't to identify what one is.

The class has an intriguing approach. It uses an article by Timothy Bascom that examines six story arcs for essays. Each week we examine a different arc through both reading and then writing an essay that uses that structure. The reading that exemplifies the first style was published in the New Yorker, The Fourth State of Matter by Jo Anne Beard.

Unlike a blog which I try to keep under 1000 words, an essay can be quite a bit longer. That greater length allows an opportunity to interweave different threads. My first attempt of 4000 words allowed me to experiment with a more complex approach.

I'm both slightly intimidated and intrigued by where this class will take me. The others in the class seem much more adept at producing clever responses at a moment's notice whereas I need the time to marinate in thought, letting things bubble up in their own time. And so I shall marinate, not trying to be something I'm not, yet pushing myself beyond comfort. It occurs to me that when we take on new things we need to be in a state of readiness, to feel that growth is possible, but it is the actual discomfort of something new that pushes us forward.

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Deepening Understanding

After dumping a bucket of water on my head for the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge, I was glad to see social media move on to a project that was more in my sphere. Recently I was tagged in the exercise to list the ten books that most influenced me. I soon discovered that this was a difficult task and I had to set some ground rules. After reading a book I have a tendency to file it under liked or disliked and then promptly forget its content. I decided that for something to influence me, I had to retain its thread. That eliminated much of my early reading. I also found myself listing books I had read recently and decided I was unduly influenced by very recent reading and began to evaluate those books through a more critical lens. Sometimes a book has to survive some passage of time to really test its influence.

I could have gone further back to my childhood and added The Good Earth by Pearl S. Buck, and of course Exodus and Pride and Prejudice. Those latter two were romantic stuff to a teenager. There was a time I wanted to join a kibbutz and of course I identified with Elizabeth Bennett and the tension of her developing romance with Mr Darcy. What bookish teenage girl didn't? But while those books influenced the youthful me, I focused on those that surprised the me of today. 

For the past seven years I have recorded the books that I've read. I write a sentence about each book to jog my memory and rate it. I also categorize it as fiction or non-fiction and sometimes by topic. While 40% of my reading is nonfiction, 60% of my list of ten were non-fiction and even those that are fiction are based on historical events. Some of my reading parallels my explorations in artwork and my interview project of elders within the Jewish community. So here's my list:

A Hole in the Heart of the World:Being Jewish in Eastern Europe -Jonathan Kaufman
The Greater Journey- David McCullough
Ester and Ruzya: How my Grandmothers Survived Hitler's War and Stalin's Peace- Masha Gessen
The Great Escape-Kati Marton
The Invisible Bridge-Julie Oringer
Half of a Yellow Sun- Chimamanda Adichie
Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher-Timothy Egan
The Warmth of Other Suns-Isabel Wilkerson
Night in Shanghai -Nicole Mones
Time and Again-Jack Finney

The books that found their way to this list often left me somewhat chagrined, wondering how I could have gotten to this stage of my life and not been fully informed about history and political events that surrounded me. While well informed about the Holocaust, I began to realize that I knew little about the experience of Jews who remained in Eastern Europe after WWII. My education on this deepened with my interviews of immigrants from the former Soviet Union, but two books expanded on what I was learning. A Hole in the Heart of the World and Ester and Ruzya began to fill in the gaps in my knowledge and echoed and validated the stories I heard.

When I travel I try to read topical books. Our 2010 trip to Budapest caused me to discover Kati Marton, born in Hungary to journalist parents who survived the Holocaust, were imprisoned in Budapest after the war and finally were able to bring their family to the US. While one of her books addresses their story, it was her book The Great Escape that affected me most deeply. In it she follows the story of nine Hungarian Jews who fled fascism and anti-semitism to find renown in their fields and create a significant impact on the world. I was struck by the creativity that was fed by the engine of being "the other,” a theme that speaks to me on many levels and recurs in many of the books I've selected.

The Invisible Bridge is set in both Budapest and Paris and spans the pre-war to post-war period and the events of the Holocaust. While fiction, it brings the reader into the experiences it explores and into the psyche of its characters, allowing for a deeper understanding of war-time events because you care deeply about the characters. It explores both the pre and post war period to better allow you to appreciate the lives that were disrupted and often destroyed by that middle chapter that often becomes the sole focus.

When I read The Warmth of Other Suns, I again realized I had an embarrassing hole in my knowledge. I knew little about the Great Migration of American blacks. I found I had some reference points and considered the book as a story of immigration for that was largely an implicit theme even if the immigrant never crossed a national boundary. The Jim Crow laws reminded me of the laws the Nazis put in place for Jews.

Night in Shanghai by Nicole Mones addressed an aspect of Shanghai and the black experience with which I wasn't familiar. Of course I knew about the Jews who escaped to Shanghai during WWII, but I didn't know of black jazz musicians who found a temporary haven from prejudice there, with the exception of the American concession. I was naively shocked to read that America carried race laws to Shanghai, unable to recognize our own bigotry even as we later fought an enemy who created an ideology built on bigotry.

Half of a Yellow Sun is a fictionalized look at the Nigerian-Biafra war. I remember photos of starving Biafran children but had no understanding of the story behind them. I was a teenager at the time and skimmed the surface of this conflict. This book took me deeply into it through strongly developed characters.

The Greater Journey looks at the many American artists and other important figures who lived in Paris in the 1800s. I am always fascinated by the role place can play in cultural ferment by bringing people in contact with each other. Understanding interconnections and influences allows for a greater understanding of the world.

Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher looks at Edward Curtis and his role as both photographer and ethnographer of Indian tribes at a time when their culture was being quite intentionally destroyed. There were several aspects of the book that informed and influenced me, 1) the intentional destruction of Indian culture by the US government, 2) the interrelationships between key figures- who knew that Edward Curtis and Teddy Roosevelt became good friends after Curtis photographed Roosevelt's family?, and 3) the amazing reach of someone with a passion and commitment that supersedes credentialization. Curtis developed an expertise because of his passion and drive, not because of formal education. The world became his classroom and his knowledge of Indian tribes far surpassed that of many of those educated at fine universities.

Lastly I had to include Time and Again, one of the best time travel novels there is. I am fascinated by such subjects because of my interest in history and genealogy. I love thinking about what once existed in a particular location as well as mentally stepping into photographs of long-gone people. This book invited me into New York City at a time long past and collapsed the barriers created by time and perception. We so often think of people from another time as very different from ourselves when in fact I suspect they are far more similar than we expect.

Perhaps that is the take-away of many of these books that remove the false boundaries we erect between ourselves and others. Our boundaries may be that of time, race, religion or geography. Good books collapse those boundaries and let us into another person's experience. Many of these books explore the experience of an outsider whether it be an American in Paris, a person stepping back in time, a Jew in Eastern Europe, a black jazz musician in Shanghai or a black American who immigrates from South to North. Through outsider eyes they offer a fresh perspective, allowing us to view the familiar through an unfamiliar lens.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

The Private Face

I have written about my mother and her growing loss of memory with some hesitation. It took me a long time to put words to this and even longer to share them. My mom is a private person which argued for me keeping this challenge private. My sister is on this journey with me and we have discussed the issue of privacy. Is it better to confront the stigma of Alzheimers by sharing one's story? And what exactly is behind this fear of being public about something that has touched the lives of virtually every one I know.

I think part of it is about our public face and a reluctance to show our loved one at less than their best, to preserve their dignity at all cost. There is also perhaps too much sensitivity to the discomfort of the external world where most are ill-equipped to deal with those who are in this awkward stage of life. Many people begin to retreat from the world when their memory falters. Aware that something is off, they cut back on social encounters. My late father also lost memory, but was not one to retreat from anything. He made his rounds each day to his familiar haunts. Some people were quite gracious as he retold his litany of stories for the umpteenth time, yet I often felt that others expected him to retreat. Perhaps they felt it was a bit unseemly, preferring that he preserve the image of himself at his career pinnacle, like an aging movie star who drops from public view to preserve the myth of eternal beauty. I knew what my father would have said to that and it would not have been polite. Sometimes I thought it on his behalf.

In this world of blogging I write about what I encounter and as an artist I go one step further and paint and talk about those encounters. I use my artwork as a way to better understand my world and to create a dialogue with others. That makes it hard not to address these changes in my mother, the person who has been my hero and role model for much of my life. My sister was the first to shatter that barrier in her blog aptly called Alzheimer's Sucks, But It Is What It Is.

"It is what it is" - a phrase we often repeat to each other. My sister and I share a pretty matter of fact attitude as well as a deep love for our mother. I figure given that, anything we say comes from a place of love and confronts the realities of life. With that assessment I too decided to dive in.
I've been asked to participate in a video that is being done for a caregiver's conference. There I will exhibit this body of artwork which I am planning. They have posed three questions to me to contemplate prior to filming.

1. What is the most challenging part of having a loved one with dementia?
2. What is the most challenging part of care-giving for a loved one with dementia ?
3. What is the most rewarding part of care-giving for a loved one with dementia?

And so I've begun to contemplate this experience. Our relationship with a parent is complex. Often we are still working out issues with them when suddenly things change and they need us in ways we never imagined. I've watched friends with unresolved relationships struggle with a sense of duty towards a parent who frequently made them grit their teeth. My relationship with my mother has always been comparatively easy. We share interests in art and literature. We have some similar threads in our make-up and understand each other. Because of that I have always felt a sense of empathy for her and she for me. That causes me to join her on this journey, to feel for her deeply when she is confused or fearful, to appreciate the parts of her I still see within. And yes, to feel the loss of what we once had even as I don't want to diminish what we still have.

Suddenly this competent thoughtful woman is reliant on me. It is a switching of roles between parent and child as I gradually lose the person I knew. We used to have discussions of books we read. Now she can't retain the thread of the story. We traveled together on many trips to Europe. Our first trip followed my breakup with an old boyfriend with whom I had traveled. In its wake I decided I wanted to build and share memories with someone who would always be a part of my life and I reasoned what better person than my mother. It never occurred to me that she might not be able to retain those memories at some point in the future. So one of the challenges is the inevitable loss, both hers and perhaps selfishly mine.

One of the hardest parts of caregiving is not knowing what comes next. You know it doesn't get better, but there are plateaus. You don't know how long you get before things worsen and you don't know exactly how it will worsen. I don't want my mom to feel fearful, to worry about this loss she lives with daily. She reports to me that she is "farmisht" (Yiddish for mixed up), aware that things are not working quite right. I want her to enjoy her remaining time, to feel connected and supported and productive. And so I call her each morning and fly in often to see her. I do what I can do from many miles away. I don't take anything for granted. That is the rewarding part. It forces me to recognize that life as I've known it is fleeting and I better do everything I can do to appreciate and support her while I can. I won't get a second shot at this so I better show up. At the end of the day it is the relationships that matter.

For me it is not only my relationship with my mother, but also my sister. I am fortunate to have a sister as a partner in this. For much of our lives we followed different paths meeting up annually around the Thanksgiving table. At crisis points we talked more frequently, but for the most part we were both busy with our very different lives. Because she lives closer to my mom she takes on a lot, a weekly visit which enables my mom to live in her home. We divide other responsibilities, I deal with finances, she deals with health. I trust her completely to always do what is best for our mom. Just as I commit to my mother, I also have a commitment to my sister. We're in this together and I do my best to hold up my end of things. In the process I have learned to appreciate my sister on a whole different level. That is one of the many gifts my mother's circumstances have bequeathed me. It occurs to me that someday my mother will become memory, made of that very ethereal substance she finds so hard to retain. My sister will be one of the few people with whom I will share that precious memory.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Into the Wilderness

"I’m confused", my mother reports when I call her in the morning. "Where is everyone? I feel like I’m all alone. Has everyone forgotten about me? It's like I’m in a wilderness".

"I haven't forgotten about you", I reply. "Here I am with your morning call and Sally will be there soon". 

Every morning I coax her through her day. "What day is it?" she asks. Time is a slippery devil, it keeps changing, never standing still. On top of the refrigerator is a large digital display with the day and time in red.
She reads it to me. "Monday, 8:35" I remind her to take her pills and she goes to her pill box. "Is today Monday?" she asks. We again establish that it is Monday and she takes out the Monday pills."There are an awful lot of pills", she says, the same statement she makes every day. "Who is coming today?" she asks again. I remind her that is it Sally. It is a short list, the same person virtually every day except when my sister arrives. I repeat myself many times matter of factly. I have long ago moved past irritation. It is what needs to be done. Each time she asks, it is a new question for her. "I’m so glad you help me to know what’s coming in my day," she says gratefully. "I couldn’t live alone without that".

My mother is losing memory. I try to pinpoint where it began. Five years ago she was fine. My late father's memory loss was more severe and perhaps overshadowed her more gradual diminishment. She has been on a plateau for a long time, not great, but not terrible either. My sister and I had adjusted to this new normal when suddenly the ground beneath us shifted abruptly, the floor of a crazy fun house dropping suddenly, our stomachs lurch with it. We evaluate what we need to do to support this change. We worry about her being afraid, but take comfort in the familiar person still there in the middle of this. The core remains despite these changes.
I am intrigued with her description of her experience, a wilderness. I am surprised that she can identify her confusion, perhaps a stage along the way until she is lost in that wilderness and the confusion that it represents. She is an intelligent person and has the vocabulary to put words to what she experiences. I am beginning to think through a series of paintings that capture this experience and I ponder this wilderness, this new and confusing world that she is entering. What would she take with her, what does she see and hear?

We talk about her cat, a special companion to my mother. When we returned from a trip, I was worried about her reorienting, settling back in. When I heard her speaking to her cat in the night I sighed in relief. Her cat is her companion and gives her comfort, another living, breathing creature. Her cat would accompany her into this wilderness. My mother writes a lot of notes to herself. Not always logical, she writes down times that five minutes later will be obsolete. It is the act of writing that helps fix her reality. Today I reported how long before her companion would arrive, 20 minutes, 15, 10. She writes this down as if to capture time, to make it stand still for her like her oven clock, stuck at ten after eight for countless years. 

I picture a path of yellow post-it notes, a yellow brick road of sorts with her cat leading the way, her shadow behind. A thick and tangled forest in front. The red flash of time through the trees. And my phone call reverberating in waves, an anchor for her as she stands before this forest. Into the Wilderness. I often know the title before anything else. I can picture this wilderness with its echoes of noise and light, her following her cat into the unknown. I add it to my to do list of paintings on the theme of memory.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Validating Instincts

As a genealogist, I have learned to trust my instincts. They often lead me to pursue what might seem like a tenuous link to some, perhaps merely a coincidental confluence of facts, but for some reason they call to me. My challenge is to validate the connection through records to confirm that it is more than a coincidence, to prove or disprove my hypothesis.

In my latest project I was asked to identify the towns of origin for both sides of my client's family. My starting point is what I know which in this case was very little except for grandparents' names. This is a fairly typical beginning point. This client reached out to other family members who offered some rumored ports of arrival, all helpful information if applied wisely. While I use this in my search, I am always careful not to let it blind me to other possibilities. Often family members immigrate separately or in small groups so while I assumed at least one family member followed the route of family folklore, I also explored alternate routes.

As always I began by searching for census records on ancestry.com which tell me at least the approximate year of arrival so I can narrow my focus. With that information, I turned to stevemorse.org which allows me to search for immigration records on many variables. After a number of searches I found some immigration records for each family which revealed the towns of origin. Mystery solved, but wait a minute. One record noted Warsaw as the town of origin. I've learned that many immigrants will note a nearby large city rather than the smaller town in which they live. My grandfather's marriage record notes he was from Warsaw when in fact he came from a town an hour away. I wondered if this might also be true in this case.

I did a search on JRI-Poland.org with the given names of both husband and wife along with the married name. I was searching for Leon and Bella, but first I converted Leon to Leib and Bella to Bayla, the non-Americanized versions that they went by in Poland. Only a few index entries came up and the most promising was a marriage record for a town about 80 miles from Warsaw. The entry had the correct surname and the given names of Szija Leib and Bayla Brandel. Close, but no certainty, still very much in the realm of hunch.

This was just the index and I wanted the actual record. Records can be located in one of three ways. Some records are held at the Family History Library in Utah. The JRI-Poland site will often tell you the film number or you can search the FHL catalog on-line to learn whether they have the film for the year or town in question. You can order a film to review at one of their church libraries or if it is an isolated record for which you know the precise coordinates you may ask them to send it digitally.

If not at the FHL you can contact the appropriate arm of the Polish Archives to order the record, sending them a wire for the cost involved. Needless to say this is the most cumbersome means with potential language barriers to navigate.

The third way is fairly new. The Polish Archives are beginning to digitize records and in this case the index advised me that this specific record was on-line and provided a link. It took a while to navigate the all-Polish site, but with the year and record number I was able to ultimately locate it.

The record was in Russian so I deciphered enough to believe it was still a possibility. I decided to cross-check my translation by posting it on Jewishgen's Viewmate translation site in hopes that a kind and fluent researcher might translate it for me. After a few days I had received my translation.

To verify this record I needed to know one more detail, what was on their tombstones. Jewish tombstones have the Hebrew names of the individual and that of their father, the same information that is in a marriage record. I circled back to my client who sent me photos of the tombstones. Then I began to see how the information matched up.

So what did I find? The record showed Szija Leib's father as Mechil and Bella's father as Izak. Their tombstones showed Menachem and Yitzhak, a pretty close match in the art of tombstone matching. I then looked at the Hebrew tombstone names. Leib's appeared to be Joshua Arieh and Bayla's was Bayla Brina. I knew that Szija is derived from Isaiah which comes from the same root as Joshua. I soon learned from baby naming sites that they all translate to God is salvation or God saves. Similarly Areih and Leib both mean lion. Bayla's name in the marriage record was Bayla Brandel, not far from Bayla Brina.

My hypothesis has strengthened, but still reliant on comparable names, not a perfectly clean match. How else can I prove this out? I decide to return to immigration records, but this time using the town's name from the marriage record I had discovered. Searching with this new piece of information I found the immigration record of Bayla and several of their children. There are two pieces of data on which I focus, nearest relative in Europe and who were they going to. In this case I had a perfect match as she named her destination with her husband's name and town. Even better she gave her mother's name as nearest European relative, a perfect match of both given name, surname and town to the marriage record.

So what's next? With a firm foundation, we can begin to look for related records. On JRI-Poland I find indices for birth records for both Leib and Bayla, a marriage record for Bayla's parents and a death record of a Leib with the correct last name just one year before the younger Szija Leib's birth. Given the time proximity it may well be his grandfather after whom he is named. I need only order the records from the Family History Library and settle in to await further discoveries.

And there we have it, puzzle solved.