Monday, May 26, 2014

The Sideway's Glance

At the same time I've been working on my painting based on my friend's Holocaust memories, I have also been playing with  images related to sight, some on canvas and some in a sketchbook. I also began to write poetry about my friend's loss of central vision and the way she needed to use her peripheral vision to see. In the sketchbook I made use of an image of my inner eye and magnifiers that are so important in her ability to perform daily functions. I am often surprised by her sudden unexpected sight. Using her peripheral vision she can often pick up on contrast or movement, always when I least expect it. 

Shrouded in darkness,
Never seeing what lies in front,
The aleph of a face

Closed to you.
You find your light elsewhere,
That of an enlightened mind
Burning brightly.
No mere flicker,
It is an insistent flame.
You are forced to find your sight
in the peripheral,
The sideways glance,
Surprising unsuspecting Sight.
Often surprising me, as well.
You can use those? you ask,
As I grasp the chopsticks.
You can see those?

I reply.

One day I asked her what she sees, trying to think how I would paint it.  How does one paint what one doesn't see?  An odd concept.  Truly negative space.  She told me to squint, squint until I could barely see.

What do you see? I ask.
What does it look like?
Squint until you can barely see.

I close my eyes,
eyelashes flutter.
Graying the world into flickers
Like an old celluloid film.
Can you see my face?
No, I have never seen your face.
I move to your side.
Now, can you see me?
Not clearly,
And yet,
you see me better than most,
who I am,
You recognize
the core of me.

I found myself thinking of the concept of inner light. I recalled her recounting her deep despair over the gradual loss of her sight and her discovery of the Library of Congress books on tape that represented a renewal of her inner light.   

Thirty years ago you knew that
Sight was fleeting,
A gradual loss,
Each year worse
Than the one before.
The year you stopped driving,
A watershed.
An independent woman
In need of others.
You despaired,
Unable to re-imagine
yet one more time,
Chaffing at the losses.
Sight the first but so pervasive.
How does one live when your world changes
in every conceivable way.
Where is the light
when there is only darkness?

I did a profile, then a still life of her magnifier and her magnifying glasses. I first began by filling in with imagery of the things that enrich her life today and then didn't like the imagery so painted over it. Then I began to paint a plant which seemed to work, representing new life. Finally I added the suggestion of me, but greyed out as she sees me. Many times I've sat across from her in her study just like that.

My friend has an amazingly rich life today, reading books on tape, studying the Talmud with her study partner by telephone and talking to groups on the Holocaust. She calls her lack of sight her "handicap", but with a strong will and an interest in the world around her, she has reconstructed a life of deep meaning.  I don't know how I will finish this painting or if it will be one of those unfinished ones that leans lonesomely against my studio wall, but I like her queenly profile.

But after despair came light,
A new vision
Of life without vision.
Your inner light burns brightly,
A tape player
like a cornerstone
On which you build this new edifice.
Reading regained
Through ears, not eyes.
You take it all in,
Stoking your light
Til it roars like a furnace,
Talmud by telephone,
Translation by magnification
Embraced by family
And friends,
to your light.

Monday, May 19, 2014

In the Guise of Darkness

Our deadline is fast approaching for the Artists' Lab exhibition.  Recently I sent off my artist statement which forced me to think about how I frame what I do.  This weekend we are in the middle of Art-a-whirl, a huge open studio event. I put my painting out to test the reaction of others and began to tell the story behind it.

The work that I am putting into the show is both poetry and a painting.  The poetry addresses the theme of light through the experience of a close friend.  As I have been developing artwork around her Holocaust experience it was a natural extension to ask her if she had associations of light and darkness within the Holocaust. But there was another thread, My friend lost her central vision to macular degeneration.  As I've been working on a painting relative to her Holocaust story, I have also been working on one inspired by the subject of sight.  Both threads are joined together by poetry, but as we are restricted by space in the exhibition, I am forced to select one for the show.  I will share the poetry and painting related to sight in a subsequent post. 

Sometimes I develop poetry that expands on a painting.  In this case I reversed the process, beginning with a series of poems.  The poems looked at vision, light and darkness, the way we envision our lives and then re-envision as our world changes, our inner eye and how we find light in the midst of darkness.    

My friend noted that during the Holocaust, darkness often represented safety whereas light meant exposure and danger, quite the reverse of how we often envision the two.  She recalled the smoke from the crematorium and how it spit fire into the night sky, tingeing it red. I pictured this as thick and as heavy as the plague of darkness in Exodus that we had discussed in the lab. 

  By contrast she recalled a different moment when they arrived at a camp.  It was the eve of her 21st birthday when they stepped from a boxcar into a pine forest.  She recalled the midnight blue of the night sky studded with stars and the trees dusted with snow.  That vision of beauty represented hope in a world which offered little.  The painting grew out of the poem below, a blueprint for what emerged.

On the Eve of Your 21st Birthday

Light was often your enemy,
Furnaces spewed fire

In the night
As souls escaped
In final release.
Darkness your friend.
You flattened yourself
against the wall
of the darkened stairwell
Safe from the probing tongues of bayonets.
And sometimes hope emerged
Hidden in the guise of darkness.
On the eve of your twenty-first birthday
You stepped from a boxcar,
A sky of midnight blue,
Stars shining against its darkness,
Evergreens dusted with snow
Bent to bestow their blessing.

One of the things that I incorporated into the painting as well as some of the poetry came from our discussion in the lab.   In the lab we learned of how Rabbi Naftali Horowitz looked to the letter aleph which represents the name of God and noted that it echoes the form of our face. If we disassemble it we see two yuds and a vav, two eyes and a nose, figuratively holding God before us in our own face, a divine light surrounding each of us.  In the painting I use the aleph to represent stars and sparks of souls escaping.

 I am never sure how to describe my medium.  I paint and I write poetry, but I also tell stories.  One of the things that I do feels somewhat unusual.  I interpret imagery as described to me by another person, using their inner eye to translate their experience through the filter of my imagination. It is a bit like a game of telephone and I don't always get it right.  My friend, always a stickler for accuracy, took her magnifier to my iPad where I had enlarged my painting.  She informed me that the flame of the crematorium was more like a candle than the wider arc I had represented.  And so I returned to the painting to have it reflect her recollection.


Sunday, May 11, 2014

A Family by Choice

I wrote about my mother in my last blog entry, the family member I was lucky enough to acquire at birth. When friends struggled with difficult mother-daughter relationships, I always felt like I won the lottery. As I got older we negotiated a different kind of relationship, one of a friendship of peers. On Mother's Day I began to give her cards that said how grateful I was that she was a friend as well as my mother. Because we had such a wonderful relationship, I found myself recreating it with other women of her generation. My husband's mother became a mom to me and many of my friends are my mother's age with daughters my age.

I have a close friend who is of my mother's generation. Not too long ago I gave her a card that spoke of her as part of the family that I select, the group of people who are not related by blood, but by bonds of the heart. I find it interesting that for family members one of the greatest compliments we can give is that we would select them as a friend. With non-family members it is that we would select them as family. We don't get to choose our family and so many people have at least one family member that they could never imagine being linked to were it not for an accident of birth. If we are lucky we have family members we would select as friends and if we are still luckier we have friends who become part of our extended family.

It is sometimes easier not having the bonds of family. You don't bring the baggage that comes with history. You come to it as a fully formed adult and can share your better self, not the self who used to have temper tantrums when you didn't get your way. Similarly you don't carry the history of failing to be the perfect parent you had imagined you'd be. And you don't carry the same burden of expectations, more free to let each other be who they are. The drawback is the same as the benefit. You don't start out with that shared history that can bind family members together when it's not driving them apart, the knowledge of how you've become who you are.

 My elder friend always tells me that you need to develop younger friends as you age and I am realizing that my friendships with my mother's generation are ultimately time limited. Most are in their 80s and 90s. I never chose to have children and my one regret was that I wouldn't be able to recreate the wonderful relationship I had with my mother. I realize now that I have been recreating it in a different way and in both directions.

I have always been grateful that my husband had daughters with whom he built a strong relationship. They are a wonderful fringe benefit of our relationship. When I entered the picture, I had a new role to negotiate. Who was I going to be? Stepmom seems like an odd title, too many echoes of wicked stepmothers from fairy tales. I use it for lack of a better word, but act as friend and hopefully a family member of choice, something you earn over time. I try to be there for the people I care for. I learned that from my mother. She has always given me a consistency of presence that I could depend on and has expressed her love through a willingness to offer whatever I needed, a listening ear, good judgment without judging and a belief in my better self. That is no small thing.

And so I seek to be the best of me. A listener, a problem solver, someone others can depend upon to be there and to offer whatever I can consistently and freely. Hopefully some of the gifts my mother gives me.

And I try to go with my strengths. Many years ago one of my stepdaughters had a problem with some shutters that didn't fit her windows correctly. The store refused to replace them until I wrote one of my carefully crafted letters. Instant action! I was soon dubbed the family's resident writer and editor for anything requiring carefully chosen words. Over the years I've edited school papers, drafted letters and provided career counseling and financial advice. 

With my elder friend who is legally blind I have assumed a different role. In the course of our friendship I often help her to organize files, submit medical bills on-line and read interesting articles to her. I recall my dad delighting in being able to offer his assistance to his kids as well as doing little mitzvahs for friends. It was his way of expressing his love for his family and gratitude for his friends, something that he didn't do as well in words. Perhaps I am not too different.

Recently I had a friend tell me that I never make her feel that she is an imposition on me. I was pleased to hear that, but had not thought about that as a quality of friendship. Obviously it is. We modulate our friendships to adapt to what someone is willing and able to provide and we save our deeper friendships for those who are there when we need them, who show up. On the short list of family by choice there is no such thing as imposition. So I try to be my better self with friends of my mother's generation and with the generation after me, slowly building my family of choice.

Friday, May 9, 2014

Joy in the Everyday

My mother is losing memory. We don't often use that dreaded A word. She lived in fear of it much of her life having watched her mother descend into that abyss. We are not in denial, it's just that even in a somewhat diminished state, she is so much more than a label.

Now in her late 80s it is finally catching up with her. A once voracious reader, she can no longer retain a complex plot in her memory. I used to discuss books with her in our then weekly phone call. And we are not talking light reading. I went to the library with her recently to find a book of short stories that might suit her memory today when on the shelf I saw the book Team of Rivals by Doris Kearns Goodwin. I recalled when my mother had read that 1000 page book and savored it. Now that would be far too complex a book and for just a moment I permitted myself to mourn that loss. For the most part though we deal with the new normal, grateful to have my mother in whatever form.

Her day still starts with her newspaper as she pursues a new pastime, cutting and pasting. We are not talking about the computer variety. Each day she goes through the paper and cuts out articles and images that speak to her. She glues them into a notebook for posterity. She is now on book five. She says to me that everyone needs something to do and what would she do if she didn't cut and paste. My mom used to teach first grade so I suspect this is a familiar activity. I was quite amused when I last visited her when I saw she had created a page of food pictures. Juxtaposed with these pictures of food was a Family Circus cartoon. The father is reading Snow White to his children and they get to the part where she eats the poisoned apple. Dolly, the little girl exclaims, "she did it again, didn't she hear when we read it last time". 

I've heard that even when people lose memory they retain their temperament. My mother has always been a kind and loving person, grateful for the small joys in life. When we were young she would call us to the kitchen window to see a bird or a beautiful sunset. I still see that person. My father used to call her the original innocent because she saw the world through fresh eyes. It is why she was such a good teacher. She could see the world as children do. When I traveled with her, her delight was contagious. I find myself thinking that her temperament has eased this transition. She still lives her life with joy and gratitude.

Now as spring arrives she often delights in flowers. My cousin sent me a note about my mother's sister turning 92. Her memory is gone and she no longer speaks. I mentioned it to my mother and she told me that once she was very close to this sister and would love to speak to her. We discussed sending a card, but as I listened to my mother kvelling over her flowers, I suggested we send flowers instead. My mother loved the idea. If nothing else the flowers would bring my aunt pleasure. The next day my mother had forgotten we had this conversation and when I reminded her she loved the idea all over again. I made a mental note that if she ever gets to my aunt's stage, remember to surround her with flowers. And then another mental note, why wait, as I ordered some flowers for Mother's Day.

Years ago I gave my mother a homemade gift at a time when her memory was quite good and I never thought of it worsening. I purchased a ceramic jar that had the label "memories" carved into it. I then wrote out memories that we shared or that I had of her, some from our trips together, some from my childhood. The act of doing it touched me. It was a litany of what I love in her. The jar sat on a shelf high on the bookcase until I noticed it on a recent visit. I took it down and together we drew out each memory and remembered it together. Some she recalled, others took some assisted remembering. My sister lives closer and goes in weekly. On one of her recent visits she heard a noise in the kitchen and poked her head in. There was my mother laughing at a memory from the memory jar. She then proceeded through each memory.

I sometimes wonder how I would make that transition to an uncooperative brain, hoping against hope that my brain will behave. I am much more driven, less prone to smell the roses. I think about the activities that engage me and realize most would not be sustainable in the face of declining memory. Then I remember De Kooning. As he descended into Alzheimer's he continued to paint. Someone set up his palette each day and turned him loose. I hope if necessary someone will do that for me.

I have always admired my mother. She was and still is my standard for kindness. She never fails to see the good in another person and speak to the best in them. Similarly she has always seen the good in the world around her and delighted in what it has to offer. Just being around her has always encouraged me to be my better self and I realize that she still has lessons to impart. And so as Mother's Day approaches, I honor my mother's ability to find joy in the everyday and to face each day with gratitude. I can only hope to learn to do the same.

Monday, May 5, 2014

Cracking the Code

When I'm not at the studio painting, I am often immersed in genealogy. I've delved deeply into my own family history and now the discoveries are few and far between. I do some genealogy consulting for others as I miss that rather addictive thrill of discovery. I am always fascinated by process, how we get from point A to point B. It sometimes seems like I am pulling a rabbit out of a hat when I present someone with the result, but much of discovery is knowing the route to follow and understanding what data is available and how it connects. Having a basic familiarity with Cyrillic Russian often proves critical in the part of the world I research. A few community ed classes in Russian have given me enough so that I can find family names in records and was able to translate signs when we traveled to Lviv.

When I was a kid, my brother did magic tricks at birthday parties. I used to sneak into his room to examine the way the tricks worked and I remember studying a yellow cabinet into which he would drop a marble. It would disappear behind a wall of mirrors and miraculously reappear. So I am about to tell you a bit of the magic behind discovering family history, but no mirrors are involved.

I was contacted by an individual whose one branch came from a small town in Poland. He knew the names of his grandparents who died in the Holocaust and that two family members had survived. Beyond that the history was unknown.. Now that didn't give me much to go on as privacy laws mean that records from the past 100 years are not available on-line. They can be accessed if you go to Poland and prove your family connection, but as a researcher I was limited in what I could find. I estimated when the grandfather would have been born and thought I might be able to find a birth record older than 100 years. We always begin with what we know and tug on a thread.

Now if you are searching for Jewish records in Poland, the starting place is indisputable. has indexed many of the Polish records so I began with a search on name and town. I came up with one record that matched the name with a birth year of 1891. I soon realized that I was quite fortunate. The Polish archives has begun to digitize records and the actual record was accessible on line from the JRI site.. My elation soon turned to dismay when I was reminded that the record was in Cyrillic Russian, handwritten Cyrillic Russian. Even if you learned your textbook Russian, handwritten languages don't look like the printed text.

I decided to see if I could decipher any of the names as I knew the father's name was often at the top as well as the first name below the record. The mother's name is further down in the body. They also had assisted me by capitalizing the names, but you will notice there are quite a few capitalized words, the name of the town and witnesses are also capitalized so knowing the location in which to look is important. Now despite the fact that I know some Cyrillic, I also drew on for some help. I input Nahum Stern and translated it to printed Russian. Then in a second step I translated it to handwritten Cyrillic. This is one of the options that it gave me.

Then I started looking for something similar. In the third line you will see the father's name and the last name appears to be Shtern, but the first letter is different.

I had been looking for the letter that sounds like "s" and looks like a"c" rather than the "sh" sound, but assumed it could also have been spelled in this fashion. In front of it is a common Jewish name that looked familiar even in Russian, Mordko.

The mother's name usually comes before the child's name so I looked for Nahum. At the end of the 11th line is a word that is capitalized and looks like it begins with Hoxum. In Cyrillic, what appears as an H is pronounced as an N and the x sound is a ch, close enough for Nahum which is often pronounced as Nachum.

In the prior line is a word which starts with a B which is a V in English and often pronounced as a W. I deciphered the first few letters and came up with a name that began with Wolf for the mother's maiden name.

Back to JRI-Poland to do a search on a Mordko Stern which quickly uncovers many records for Mordko Stern and his wife whose last name is Wolfenfeld.

Now I circle back to my client to see if 1891 sounds like the appropriate birth year. He's not sure. My dilemma is whether this record, from which I'm working backwards, belongs to the right family. I need to confirm that this is the right family or I can build a wonderful tree that lacks a solid foundation. I recall the grandfather died in the Holocaust so do a search for testimony on Yad Vashem. Success! A record has been submitted by an uncle who gives the birth year of 1891 and the parents' names which match my record.

Working back from one record to another I quickly realize that I can get back to his fifth great-grandparents, certainly back to the 1700s. There are marriage records for great-grandparents and great-great grandparents, always valuable for the wealth of information they provide, parents names on both sides.

Now the work is by no means done. Now I need to order records from the Family History Library or from the Polish Archives and get translations for them. I will build a tree with what I know and build the details from the records into it. But our process has begun, using sources of JRI-Poland, Yad Vashem, and the Polish Archives. With those resources together with some basic Cyrillic and knowledge of the layout of records, I can crack the code.