Saturday, December 26, 2015

The Guise of Failure

Icarus by Matisse

Proverbs 15:31 The ear that hearkeneth to the reproof of life abideth among the wise

I started out my career with lots of success. I didn't know I couldn't do certain things and so I did them. Naivety has its benefits. I was flying high discovering my own power, reveling in it.

Then I moved and took a new job and like Icarus, came tumbling down to earth, wings crumpled beneath me. When I explained my job upset to my father he replied, "It was about time you landed on your ass, you were getting entirely too smug." Now this was quintessentially my father, so much so that I included it in my eulogy at his funeral. I am aware that to many it might sound harsh, but in an odd way it gave me comfort. There was an acceptance in it of the role of failure, a source of learning and part of the natural rhythm of life.

I've been thinking about it lately because I am charged with co-leading a session of the Jewish Artist's Lab on our theme of wisdom. It is a broad expanse, any aspect of wisdom we choose.  It occurred to me that failure plays an important role in finding wisdom and so we've chosen it as our topic. My co-lead offered the phrase "the bankruptcy of pre-conceived notions" which I quite like. I think it captures the essence of what we hope to communicate.

The inquiry begins with the question of how we define both success and failure. The two seem interrelated with each the mirror image of the other. Both involve objectives that we either meet or fail to meet. When we meet them we get kudos and self confidence, but the more interesting question is what happens if we don't meet them, if we fail. Many of us live in fear of failure and yet anyone who creates knows that risk of failure is part of the process of creation. Even in my one-time profession of banking we used to say we weren't taking enough risk if we never had a bad loan. How do we know our limits if we don't test them? Perhaps Icarus is indeed an apt metaphor in his efforts to approach the sun.

When we do fail, we get to choose how we respond. Have you ever tripped on the street and fallen? Some of us quickly jump to our feet and move on, uneasy with perceived vulnerability. Others look for the banana peel on which to affix blame. Some look around to assess how large the audience to their embarrassing moment. There are a variety of responses to those indelible moments we'd prefer to forget. Most involve discomfort that grows with the size and significance of the audience. I know I had much less fear of failure when I had less to lose.

If failure represents an unsuccessful effort to meet an objective, we have a few factors to consider. Was it the wrong objective for us at this time? The "for us at this time" is an important part of this statement. Sometimes we're just not ready. Oops, we forgot to add the heat resistance to our wings. Sometimes it is a fine objective, for somebody else. Perhaps the objective is perfectly appropriate, but our means were not. We need to consider another approach. Maybe our pre-conceived notions are indeed bankrupt and we need to release them and start anew, acknowledge those outworn methods or objectives and take a fresh look. If we go through these considerations we often discover that failure is the Petri dish of change. We make changes out of discomfort. When we are comfortable most of us settle in for the ride. Chart your "failures" and you will likely see that they led you into new directions that shaped your future. The same is true of artistic "failures" that often prove interesting and can take us off in new and serendipitous directions.

There is yet another side to failure, one my father touched on in his statement. Humility.  If all we know is success, our compassion for others is often sadly lacking.  It is by playing out all sides of life's equations that we begin to understand that the world is not black and white, not simplistically composed of winners and losers as some politicians might have you believe. Instead it offers us challenges and opportunities that refine us as people to the extent we are willing to fully embrace them.  Sometimes those opportunities come in the guise of failure. 

Monday, December 21, 2015

Photos From the Past

I was contacted recently by Nancy Geise who has written a book Auschwitz #34207 on Joe Rubinstein. Joe is a survivor of Radom, the same Polish town as my grandfather. Word traveled across the Jewish genealogy network when a friend on the East Coast heard her speak and passed on my name to her as a resource.

When we connected she shared a hope with me. She wanted to give a gift to the subject of her book, photos of his family. Now photos are something we all wish for as we try to recreate the sense of our family. Is there a family resemblance? Do we see kindness in their eyes? Wit? Who were these people with whom we are joined by history and biology? In this case it was more than a curious researcher generations later. Joe is 95 and last saw his family in 1942. We were aware that this was something that could create joy, but also sadness.

Many researchers have photos that survived, sent across the ocean to family pre-war. I have a close friend who is a survivor whose family hid photos in their shoes and many of those photos survived the camps folded in quarters. But for many of us there are but a few ways to surface photos post-war.

One of the avenues that I discovered was through identity papers. In 1941 the Nazis began an effort to identify Jews as their first step to murder. The identity papers included a photo stapled to information about their address and parents. Now many of the photos have gotten detached from the original identity paper, but some still remain. The papers from Radom, Poland are housed in the archives which seemed somewhat incongruous as they typically only hold vital records prior to the last 100 years. These records; however, have apparently been deemed archival.

The process to order records is initially a bit intimidating as it involves an international wire and possible language challenges. Additionally these are not records that you will find on the JRI-Poland site as they have not been indexed. I first became aware that identity papers existed at the archives through another Radom researcher. As I had no pictures of my family members, I too was quite excited to explore this avenue and met with some success in my own family.

In order to assist Nancy I first tried to identify who was alive in 1941 and hence likely to have a record. Here JRI-Poland was useful as they had the Book of Residents on-line. That provided a starting point. From a number of sources, I was aware that several family members were no longer alive in 1941 so removed them from my request. Ultimately I had a list of names with some basic identifying information such as parent's names or a birth date.

My request to the archives was written in English. I explained that I was trying to obtain the identity papers from 1941 that were created by the Germans for the names on my list. Often the person at the other end does not speak English so there are times that there are miscommunications. This proved to be one of them as it was a bit more complex to explain than simply requesting indexed records by number. After two tries I met with success. They then emailed me back in Polish with the cost to secure the records in both zlotys and the dollar equivalent as well as the wire instructions. Thanks to Google Translate, it is fairly simple to decipher this information. I then took it to my financial institution and sent a wire. As this was a fairly small request they soon sent me an email with the scans attached. If it were a larger order, I would ask for a CD with the data.

Using Photoshop, I enlarged the photos and sent them on along with the identity paper. Voila, Joe had a photo of his mother and his two brothers seventy five years after he last saw them. Nancy reported that Joe said "This is the greatest, greatest gift of my life." Sometimes research is a lot more than dry records.

Friday, December 18, 2015

A Better Front-End

I started this blog about seven years ago with a focus on family history. At the time I had begun my travels to Eastern Europe where I was visiting ancestral towns. Since that time I (and the blog) have meandered a bit, around Eastern Europe, into my artwork and interview projects and most recently into my immediate family. Family history, both past and in the making, remains at the core. There is a bit of a natural ebb and flow to interests and while my interest in family history has remained constant, the energy I devoted to exploring my own has ebbed as my efforts have been engaged by others.

Over the past year, my energies have been reawakened a bit in family history as I've become drawn into a local effort to create the Minnesota Jewish Genealogical Society (MNJGS). For many years I've felt a bit like an outlier here in the Upper Midwest. I would go to international Jewish genealogy conferences and seldom find another Minnesotan. At the last conference, Walter Elias attended and brought some fresh enthusiasm to this effort. He soon contacted me and I began to work with him to engage others in the area with interest in Jewish genealogy. As a result, I've been much more involved in this arena and have done a number of talks on Jewish genealogy and related subjects throughout the year. Recently I built a website for the MNJGS that you can find at As part of that some of my blogs on family history have been posted on that site, but I am remiss in not also sharing them here.

A recent talk that I gave to the MNJGS was on the site which while a boon to Jewish genealogy is also useful for those who are researching non-Jewish genealogy. It is an immense site so I chose to focus on how I've used it successfully to crack my own genealogical puzzles.

Steve Morse has a number of claims to fame. In his career he was the architect of the 8086 Intel chip. He brought his computer expertise and inquiring mind to his exploration of genealogy and quickly saw that the search engine for many genealogical sites could be improved. He does not create databases, but rather has found better ways to mine existing databases.His site has grown over time and it now addresses the following topics:


Census (US, NY, Britain, Canada)

Soundex Codes

Vital Records (B-M-D, Naturalization)

Calendars and Maps

Transliterating in Foreign Alphabets


Genetic Genealogy

One of the early sites he addressed was Ellis Island. The early version of the Ellis Island site allowed limited inputs on which one could search. Morse observed that they had many outputs which meant that those items were associated with the record. He went to work building a better front-end search engine that allowed more complex searches on those variables. Since his initial efforts Ellis Island has increased the number of search variables, but there are still things one can do on Morse’s site that you cannot on Ellis Island.

Immigration Records: Searching the Town

Example: My family story was that my grandmother traveled with her younger brother to the US. Now family stories typically contain a grain of truth, but like a game of telephone they often garble the details. My grandmother was reportedly shot at crossing the border and ended up in a hospital in France. I finally found her immigration record coming from Boulogne sur Mer to Rotterdam and on to New York. Her brother was nowhere on the manifest. I had searched many avenues for his record to no avail.

Based on my grandmother’s data I hypothesized that I was searching for a Kishlansky who came in 1921, born in Hotin from the Rotterdam port to New York. I went into Ellis Island and input this information. I found that I had to input a surname so used all of their options for sounds like, close match and alternate spelling with no success. When I received nothing I gradually began to remove constraints with still no success.

Then I turned to and tried the same inputs on the Ellis Island Gold Form. Still no success. But there is one more trick to explore. I removed the name thinking it could be misspelled or badly transcribed. This time I got about 300 entries and as I went through them one by one I saw Elia Rishlansky with his wife Golda. When I clicked on the name there was a nicely typed manifest, not one that you would expect to be misread, but the top of the K didn’t appear leaving the transcriber to conjecture it was an R rather than a K. Had they looked further they would have seen that his nearest relative in Europe was his father Abram Kishlansky and he was going to his brother Frank Kishlansky. The date of his manifest was one week after that of my grandmother. Presumably they started out together, but in an age without easy communication perhaps they didn’t connect after her hospital stay.

Immigration Records: Missing Manifests

Ever search in vain for a manifest where you knew the ship and the date and it just doesn't exist? Well, my story was a search for the uncle of my grandmother. I knew he had lived a few years in London before coming to America. I also knew the ship he came on and the dates he left and arrived as they were noted on his naturalization record I had found at the National Archives office in New York. Even with that information, his manifest remained hidden.Finally I made use of the stevemorse site beginning with the Ship Listing Database. I input the information from the naturalization record, the name of the ship and a band around the arrival date. I then got listings on several voyages of that ship. I selected the one that most closely corresponded to those dates and recorded the roll and frame numbers that came up. Then I shifted to another site on stevemorse – Missing Manifests. These manifests exist, but for whatever reason weren’t indexed or linked such that we can access them easily. I input the roll and frame numbers and then started to move through the pages one by one. Soon I made the discovery I was searching for. There his name was on the manifest coming from London to New York. It was difficult to read the initial letter which may be the reason it was not linked. To get a copy of the manifest, I entered another name on the page and pulled it up in Ancestry.

Vital Records: Finding my Grandparents Marriage Record

Steve Morse offers a number of resources to track down vital records. Many of them make use of, a site not exclusively focused upon Italians, but rather New Yorkers. As most of us had some family that originated in New York this often proves useful. Italian Gen is constantly adding records. For many years I searched in vain for my grandparents’ marriage record contemplating if they were ever actually married. I knew their oldest child was born in 1918 and my grandfather arrived in New York in 1913 so I was focusing my search in that window. One day I decided to try just one more time. Success! I went into the Grooms’ Index and input my grandfather’s last name and first initial. I clicked through the brides until I came to my grandmother’s name. With the index number and the family history library microfilm number I was then able to locate the actual marriage record through the Family History Library.

Transliterating to and from Russian or Hebrew

Transliterating is valuable in a number of circumstances. When I travel to Eastern Europe to do research in archives I often transcribe the given names and surnames that I am looking for into cursive Russian so my eye knows what to look for. When I plan to wander around cemeteries I transcribe the names to Hebrew text. Even from the comfort of my home I often find Polish records (written in Russian) that are on-line, but in a folder with other records. Before I post them on Viewmate for translation I want to be sure that they are the correct record. To this end I type out the name that is in the JRI-Poland index. Then I use Morse’s English to Russian tool to get it into Russian text. Note that you will get many entries. I just select the first. Then I do the additional step of converting Russian Print to Cursive which often looks quite different than the typed text. I then compare the text to what shows up in the record to determine if it matches. I don’t worry about endings that may vary.

Tombstone Dates

One of the puzzles that I was interested in solving was aimed at uncovering the story within the data. I had found my great-great grandfather’s tombstone. I knew he died in 1904, the same year as my great-grandfather came to America. I assumed my great-grandfather waited until his father had passed away before boarding the ship, but wanted to confirm that. To this end I first pulled up the tombstone on the Jewish Online Worldwide Burial Registry (JOWBR). I knew it was there because I had given JOWBR the records for the town. My great-great grandfather didn’t have a last name on his tombstone so I entered his given name, Pesach Mordechai, and the town of Dunilovitchi. It brought up the Hebrew date, but written in English so I used the Jewish Calendar Conversion tool. Sure enough my great –grandfather came to the US shortly after his father passed away. Note that if the date was taken from the tombstone and was in Hebrew letters, I would have used the Tombstone Dates tool which has Hebrew inputs.In each of these cases, I was able to crack the code by using

These are just a few ways in which you can make use of his tools. Now put his site to work on your mysteries.

(If you'd like to work through the examples download the handout next to my talk on 12/13/15)


Friday, December 11, 2015

Things, Just Things

I pulled on my winter coat yesterday and reached into my pockets taking inventory by shape. Hmm, that round form must be the ear muffs I misplaced last year. Then I felt the fur of leather gloves and a shock of recognition ran through me. A month earlier I had been cleaning out the home of my late mother, filling bags with winter gear for Goodwill. In the midst of well-worn hats and scarves were the gloves from Italy. Now these were not just any gloves.  I remembered when they were new as I stroked the velvety leather in the Florence marketplace, soft white fur lined their interior. Market stalls surrounded a statue of a boar, his nose shiny from being rubbed by so many hoping to return. A rub of his nose is said to make that occur.  They were easy purchases, luxurious without taking up much room. We discovered the same size fit us both. These gloves were now well worn, bearing the imprint of my mother's hand. I slipped my hand within them seeking my mother's embrace. Hand in hand. I pulled the gloves off and slipped them into my pockets. And forgot about them until now.

Things that carry the residue of a much loved person. As if I could conjure her whole from this clasp of hand. I've been thinking a lot about things that carry my mother's imprint. Seeing the world through her eyes. When Hanukkah began this year I decided not to light our more modern menorah. I opened every cupboard searching for the one my mother had given me. A mirror image of her own. Frantically I opened cabinets, fearful I had misplaced this trace of my mother.  When I lit the candles I used a matchbook from a wedding she had attended with me. I had loaned her an eyebrow pencil in the restroom. Such odd things we remember and what an odd chain of associations.  Mom-Menorah-matchbook-wedding-eyebrow pencil-candle.  Now as I said the prayer over the candles I thought of her and sought her presence, wrapping her around me.

I've brought back little tokens of my mother's house. Many things that I had given her. Our taste was similar so she was easy to shop for, already part of me. She used to put glass plates in her window and colorful pieces of glass for the light to shine through. They now grace my kitchen window and I think of her when they glow with light. This fall the tree outside that window was a beautiful red orange. I looked at that with my mother's eyes, remembering how she would gather colorful leaves and use them in her collages. I took a picture and sent it to my sister. "Mom would have loved this."

On one of my visits in my mother's last year she drew me into her bedroom and pulled out her jewelry.  She didn't have much of value, but she wanted to make sure that I knew of two pieces in particular, one an engraved locket my father had given her when she was 17 with a photo of her on one side and him on the other, the other an engraved ID bracelet she had given him in return over seventy years ago.  I polished the tarnished silver and at Thanksgiving I gave them to my nieces, the next generation.

When I opened the locket, I inhaled deeply.  A familiar scent wafted out, that last trace deeply imbued in this cherished memento.

Things, just things, but laden with meaning.  Holding a spirit within them.

Friday, November 20, 2015

The Roundness of Things - Part 2

continued from The Roundness of Things - Part 1

I used to read my blog posts to my mother. Now I seem to write them about her.  I think of this as the year of the parents; a time where I process who they were and their role in shaping who I am.  The year is certainly dominated by their absence, and in that absence they are still very present.

I previously wrote about the discovery of my late mother's folder titled Notes on Books Read.  This is a slice of one band of time, from the late 90s to the early 2000s.  I've attempted to organize them by topics.  A bit of curating is required as I can't include them all.

One quote that I especially liked came from Wally Lamb's book -I Know This Much is True. Among the things he knows to be true is "that the evidence of God exists in the roundness of things." Now that works well with the metaphor of apples I hope to use in my "wisdom" painting for the lab.

My mother's notes addressed the themes she struggled with in her life. I can hear her voice in them offering counsel. She was often fearful of the world, learned to face it and taught her children to do likewise. When I ran across her certificate from a long ago swimming class she took when I was a child, I couldn't bring myself to pitch it. I knew it represented her facing her fears and how important that was to her.

From Lost in Translation by Nicole Mones she addresses living with fear. I got so frightened sometimes: she admitted. "I know. Fear is only fear though and somehow you live without it. "No," he corrected her. "You live with it."

And you face those fears...From the poet Lucile Clifton "Any dog will keep chasing you if he knows you are afraid. The only remedy is to turn around and face the dog."

And from the anthology What We Know So Far: Wisdom Among Women by Beth Benatovich she quotes a further step in understanding the other side of fear (
from Forged in Fire by Ai Ja Lee). "To be scared is normal, to be not scared is stupid. But fear makes you lose the moment. If we go with the fear, instead of against it, crossing that line into action we find an exhilarating new world."
She comes back to Wally Lamb who says "But what are our stories if not mirrors we hold up to our fears."
You live with fear, you face it and you move through it into action and to exhilaration. Ultimately your fears become stories, echoes that you share with others, a wisdom offering.

My mother was not a traditionally religious person, but she was certainly a spiritual and intellectually curious person. She used the study of religion to gain insights. I was surprised at how many Jewish sources were reflected in her notes, sources that I've only recently encountered through the lab, but apparently she discovered them long ago.

From the Pirkei Avot - Ethics of the Fathers she notes a sense of responsibility in life.  "You are not required to complete the task, yet you are not free to withdraw from it." (Avon 2:21)

Her excerpts indicate an orientation towards action and speaking up when necessary, but acting with thought.

From the Talmud she notes: Silence easily becomes acquiescence.

"What is more important asks the Talmud? What is essential? Thought or action? Study comes first, because study incites action."

And a belief that we need to live in this world, indeed to make it shine.

From the eloquent Abraham Joshua Heschel she includes this "The faith of the Jew is not a way out of this world, but a way of being within and above this world; not to reject, but to surpass civilization."

And back to novels, but with a similar concept, from The Source by James Michener. "Life isn’t meant to be easy. It’s meant to be life. And no religion defends so tenaciously the ordinary dignity of living. Judaism stressed neither an after-life or after punishment, nor heaven. What was worthy and good was here, on this day in Zefat. We seek God so earnestly, Elias reflected, not to find him, but to discover ourselves."

Knowing her own propensity to worry she records - "God doesn’t need to punish us. He just grants us a long enough life to punish ourselves." (The Poisonwood Bible- Barbara Kingsolver)

Given that we are in this world, how do we choose to live our life?

"We endure what we have to in order to make the beautiful design of our lives. The world is a mirror. You reflect good into it and it reflects good back at you.The mind is a powerful tool. It can create your destiny for good or for evil, so we might as well train it to help us, not harm us."   (Forged in Fire- Ai Ja Lee)

She adds Robert Frost's offering.  "The only way out is through"

And in the same vein, "Just remember that life is made up of changes.  We can't run away from it." (The Language of Threads by Gail Tsukiyama)  

"A brave man bows to circumstances as grass does before the wind "- (Lost in Translation by Nicole Mones)

Are you sensing a theme here?  

She liked Lamb's words about connection to the past, both our personal past and the past that preceded us. She used to reflect on her connections to the past, wondering whether her practice of recording excerpts from books was hereditary as her father used to do that as well.

"It is all connected. Life is not a series of isolated ponds and puddles. Life is this river. It flows from the past to the present on its way to the future. ... Only in the most literal sense are we born on the day we leave our mother’s womb. In the larger sense we are born of the past, connected to its fluidity, but genetically and experientially."

And lest we forget that we are not the center of the universe...
"First came simple things. Spending my last waking moments each night considering what I’d done that day and why; breathing a thank-you to God every morning for the new day; reminding myself constantly and often to little avail, that I was not the center of the universe. And I tried, though this was most difficult, to listen to what my soul had to say." -(Turbulent Souls; A Catholic Son’s Return to His Jewish Family - Stephen J. Dubner)


"Don’t try to make life a mathematics problem with yourself in the center and everything coming out equal. When you are good, bad things can still happen. And if you are bad, you can still be lucky." (The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver)


My mother was born a teacher and eventually became one. When I read this quote from Evensong by Gail Godwin, I knew her reference was her experience teaching, a vocation that was a calling for her.

"Something’s your vocation if it keeps making more of you."

My mother thought about wisdom and sought it from many voices.

"Only by the fusion of science and the humanities can we hope to reach the wisdom appropriate to our day and generation.. The ultimate end of education is knowledge embedded in wisdom." (Rabi: Scientist and Citizen by John Rigden)

And as we near the end of life...

Eli Wiesel - "In short, I try not to die before I die."

"There was a timelessness here, a sense that death was no more than a progression of life."  (Lake News by Barrbara Delinksy)

"Dazed, Ben sought some view of death that made leaving the world endurable. No matter how often he’d turned it over, no matter the years he’d passed with it, there was still no answer to the final riddle, or an answer lay beyond his reach. Always his search had led him nowhere, and the next day he was one day older, with no greater wisdom as a shield against death, no revelation to pit against its strength. And this was how a person aged. Suffering in astonishment the progress of the days." (East of the Mountains-David Guterson)

In her notes I found Psalm 90 on the fragility and temporal nature of life which ends with this quote: "So teach us to number our days that we may attain a heart of wisdom".  

My mother clearly succeeded in that.

Monday, November 16, 2015

The Roundness of Things - Part 1

Pirkei Avot, Ethics of the Fathers,  Who is wise? The one who learns from every person…(Talmud - Avot 4:1)

My mother was always the wisest person I knew. She was a searcher with a curiosity about the world, open to wisdom from many quarters. A teacher by predisposition and later by training, she carried her wisdom in a kind and gentle heart. She passed away this summer and I felt the world shift. As I went through my parents' old home with that thankless task of disposing of belongings, I realized I was looking for something, something of the essence of my mother. I found that something in a file titled Notes on Books Read. 

In it she had excerpts from books on a wide range of subjects; science, finance, the Talmud and of course novels. She knew wisdom came from multiple disciplines and her curiosity took her into many of them. If something spoke to her she wrote it down and her excerpts related to finding meaning in life, facing fears and making good use of our time in this world. We had often talked about books and as I perused this file I felt as if I was having one more of our many conversations. 

I participate in the Jewish Artists' Lab whose topic this year is conveniently that of wisdom or more precisely Echoes: Voices of Wisdom. (I write a separate blog for this group which focuses on our discussions) This topic seemed especially apt as I leafed through the file. We do an exhibition after a year of studying our theme so I usually spend months contemplating and discarding ideas on our topic. Now I wondered how I could make use of the contents of this file artistically. How does one paint wisdom? I needed a metaphor on which to build.

My answer came when I contemplated a phrase I once coined to express my personal philosophy. "Take your piece of the world and make it shine" - making a difference where you are in the lives you touch. I shared this with my mother and it resonated with her; she quickly adopted it as her mantra. I suppose it spoke to me because I spent so much of my life observing her live it. She posted it over her desk, taking ownership of it. I now carry that statement in her handwriting in my wallet. It is indeed an echo amplified. From me to her and back again with deeper meaning.

When I thought of something shining, I thought of an apple. What better symbol for a teacher? Perhaps her face should be vaguely reflected in its polished image. An echo of sorts. I began to research the symbolism of apples. Do they tie to wisdom? What about that apple from the tree of knowledge that Eve bit into? Interestingly when I went to the original passage I found the observation that the tree was desired to make one wise. The apple tree is used as a metaphor for the maturation process, growing into readiness, an appropriate aspect of wisdom.

Words must of necessity also be incorporated into this artwork, words selected from her folder of readings. I've been asked what she read and thought I'd share some of her excerpts within this blog, especially some that I hope to include in this yet to be defined creation.  This is how paintings begin, with fragments of ideas that if successful, knit together into a broader concept.

To allow me to do justice to it, I will share the words in my next entry. What better way to evoke my mother than through the words she selected as having personal meaning to her and in turn to me. 

Monday, November 2, 2015

Greetings From Beyond

Today is my birthday and the first one in my lifetime with no parent left to offer birthday greetings. I have a painting in my memory series which suddenly seems very relevant. It is a portrait of my parents called Greetings from Beyond. I wrote of the story some years ago, but never shared the artwork. To recap...

Four years ago my husband and I went out to dinner to celebrate my birthday. When we returned, my phone was blinking. A message. I played it back and there were my parents singing "Happy Birthday" to me. My mom led and my father's gruff voice picked up the melody. "Ba da bom bom" my dad added at the end. Then silence. "What should I do now?" my mom asks. My dad replies, "Hang it up". It still makes me chuckle when I hear that, such a typical exchange.

Both of my parents had lost memory. My dad had been losing memory for years, my mother's memory loss was just becoming apparent. For years my mother helped my dad, together since they were 16 and 17, she had always been the keeper of their memories.

Then my mother's memory began to deteriorate too.
I was amazed that they were able to call me and sing. That seemed like a complex task beyond their abilities. My mother had stopped making long distance calls. My father bought phone cards with lengthy codes to input. The whole process intimidated my mother even when her memory was intact. Now it presented an insurmountable obstacle. My father would never have remembered a birthday without my mother's prompting. Together they were able to accomplish something that they could not individually.

Exactly three months later my father passed away. The message was preserved by my phone answering system and I saved it on my computer. When my next birthday rolled around, I started the day with that bittersweet recording. The following year I was at my mother's on my birthday. We were going to Israel, a trip she had always wanted to do. Anxious to begin our trip, I woke up at 5am, I heard my mother awake as well. I went into her bedroom. "Are you up?" I asked quietly. Together we perched on the side of her bed. I reminded her that it was my birthday. "Oh, Happy Birthday!" she offered enthusiastically. She no longer remembered birthdays.

I played the recording of her and my father singing together. Enough time had passed that it was now more sweet than bitter. "I play this each birthday" I said. "It's my birthday ritual. Someday when I'm your age, I'll be listening to you and dad singing Happy Birthday to me."

It dawned on me then that it was a milestone birthday for me, one of those decade markers that reminds one of aging. I turned to the mirror and took a picture of us in her bedroom, a "reflective" moment my husband termed it. I wanted to capture the full surroundings, cluttered bedroom and all. It was one of those strange moments where I was in the moment, but also looking at it from a distant point. I was thinking of myself at my mother's age looking back at my relative youth from a far more distant age, much like I view pictures of me in my thirties now.

She passed away this year and on this birthday I once again played the recording four years after I first received it, both parents now gone, but singing to me once again.

When I decided to paint this I thought of the components, my parents, the old wall phone they had when I was growing up and a curved row of birthday cakes denoting birthdays through time. Always with my parents raising their voices in song. Candles cast the glow of memory. Flickering them into the present, my birthday present.

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

My Parents' Lives Flash Before My Eyes

You know the way they say your life flashes before your eyes when faced with threat?  Well I don't know about that, but it certainly flashes before your children's eyes after you pass on and they tackle the traces left behind.  And it presents itself in 3-D, not merely from the perspective of your child, but through the eyes of all who touched your life and wrote of it.  I am our family's historian and as such am perhaps best focused on the task of going through files.

I just returned from a week disposing of my parents' belongings. Now this is not a simple undertaking and as I live some distance away my visits are marathons compressed between two all day drives totaling 1000 miles. My parents kept things and lived in the same home for almost 60 years. In addition my father liked copying things; if one was good, two was better and he often failed to stop at two. And copying extended beyond paper to videotapes numbering into several thousand. (Many thanks to my sister who has taken on the task of their disposal!)

It is intense decision making - keep, pitch, shred, scan. And a constant need to keep moving, not allowing myself to get  bogged down in either uncertainty or memory. There is also a physical and emotional component. When I go there I first spend a day driving alone. Then I sleep in my childhood bed in a home where I can still visualize my late mother in all her familiar "haunts". My sister comes in for one day of my stay, but for most of the week I am isolated with my parents' belongings, communing with their presence through objects and text.

I am finding there is a secret society of those who have been charged with such tasks, the woman at the Social Security office, the woman at the bank all offer their sympathies having been entrusted with similar responsibilities for their parents. And it is indeed a matter of being entrusted. I feel a responsibility to honor my parents' history, to keep what was of value to them and to preserve family history for my nieces. But in the middle of that I also need to dispose of things and not fall prey to the same malady of gathering an excess of things myself. 

There is a psychology to what fills our homes. My family shares a desire to hold onto information. Books were precious objects in my home with an almost talismanic quality, representing a well educated and informed person. I remind myself that much of my reading is now electronic and try to restrict myself to keeping only art and reference books from my parents' collection.

On my last trip I disposed of clothes. Trip after trip to Goodwill. Then with my sister's help we moved on to technology. When I counted pieces kept and recycled, they numbered over 100 and we are still finding things we missed. And then there are the files that gradually filled my father's study, closets and basement. So far I've hauled away 330 pounds of shredding and countless bags of recycling. That means I went through all of it, an exercise in contemplating two lives.

These are some of the things I've observed:

My parents were once young! Yes, I found love letters when they were still teenagers. Sweet and silly and slightly embarrassing for their adult children. My very well spoken father seemed to like the word "swell" when he was 18 in the 1940s.  As in "we had a 'swell' time.

My father embraced the Internet. As a gregarious person who loved information, it fed many of his needs. He reconnected with people from all phases of his life. As a product of a generation accustomed to paper, he printed them out so I could now read his cyber conversations. He also printed out every email I ever sent them, my own personal record.

My mother kept the roster of every class she taught, every name lovingly preserved. I couldn't bring myself to throw it out, leaving that task for my sister.

My father was a paternalistic guy, offering support and guidance to friends and family. He assisted many with financial management and not only did I have years and years of his records to shred, but also those of relatives and friends.

My parents read widely and kept articles on things that also interested me. My father had articles on personal finance, estate planning and history, especially Jewish history. My mother focused on the arts, health and family history. I fought the urge to read their clippings and notes lest I not complete the overwhelming task before me. 

My mother went to college as an adult and while she ultimately taught grade school, she had many courses in history and literature. She loved school and loved learning. She even attended a mini medical school program and had the degrees and certificates carefully filed away.

I was most struck by how hard my parents worked at maintaining relationships, offering support to family and friends and writing long letters and emails. They wrote to cousins of their generation and mine, to old friends and then the children of friends. And they kept the obituaries of long-time friends in a file, a place of memory that I struggled to discard. They represented memories they held close, just as they cherished the friendships.

The writing I was most tickled by in my father's files was when he wrote to companies to express his dissatisfaction with a product. He certainly expressed his pique, but always with a bit of humor. If they in turn responded with humor he was delighted. His personality clearly came through in these missives.

My mother wrote notes on books she read and kept a file on excerpts that spoke to her, offering wisdom to live by. I felt as if I was having a conversation with her when I read through her file titled Notes on Books Read. Our conversations often focused on books and philosophies of living. Throughout her files I often found a phrase I had once coined and shared with her. She quickly claimed it and made her own. "Take a Piece of the World and Make It Shine". In fact I just gave it words, but the philosophy was the one I witnessed in her daily. I carry a piece of paper in my wallet that once hung over her desk. On it are those words recorded in her hand.

I was fortunate to be with my mother in the end. It was hard, but important and gave me a fuller perspective on death. As onerous as this task of disposition is, it too is also an opportunity to fully process all that my parents were. To see them fully and honor them in all their many dimensions.