Wednesday, March 31, 2021

Preserving Their Words

When I do genealogy research, I am interested in both the public and private story. To capture both, I begin with oral history and a newspaper search. Often my newspaper search reveals only the basic framework of a life. I’ve learned that to search for a woman, I need to search under her husband’s name as her given name was by no means a given. If I’m lucky, I may find a marriage announcement or an obituary. On occasion I have found more dramatic stories, bootlegging, prison sentences, love triangles. When I encounter dramatic stories, I often imagine the underlying story behind the public report. 


It is through oral histories that you can capture the private story that I can only conjecture. When I suggest oral history, I am often met by the protestation that there is no one left to interview. I suggest talking to cousins as other people may have gathered those stories through conversation. And I always add, look for letters.

A story in my family is that my grandmother was shot when leaving the Ukraine. Many people left illegally as the papers to cross the border were expensive and difficult to obtain. She was believed to have traveled with her younger brother and his wife. Ultimately she ended up in a hospital in France and indeed left Europe from a French port. The brother and his wife arrived in America one week later.


Years later I took my own advice and tracked down that brother’s granddaughter. She had been close with her grandmother and heard her stories. I had first encountered her brother who ironically was a history professor. He studied royalty, but sent me on to his sister as the one who knew the family history. My newly discovered second-cousin added another thread to the story. They had to swim a river to get out. I imagined bullets flying as they swam. How she got to France is a mystery but she did indeed immigrate from France and according to my mother's report had an indentation on her arm that might have been a bullet wound.

How did I even know this story? My grandfather told me. Well not me directly. He wrote a few pages of his life history and gave it to my mother. Many years later she gave it to me, the third link in the chain. This history is what got me started in genealogy as I tried to document the story he related. It is from this history that I learned the story of my grandmother’s immigration beginning with her brother’s story.

 My grandfather writes of how her brother was a revolutionary and “someone informed on him and he was caught and later pulled through the streets of the town by a very strong cord and used as an example to the people of what would happen to them if they became also revolutionaries. His parents felt that it would be better for him to go to the United States where he would stay out of trouble.  So, he got married and he, his wife and my wife came to the United States of America.  While crossing the border they were shot at. My wife was taken to a hospital in France, where she remained for quite a while.”  High drama indeed!

My grandfather was also a letter writer and my mother moved away from New York when she married, thus the recipient of letters. Even more importantly, she kept them and ultimately shared them with me. When I began to search for my grandparents’ immigration manifests, my efforts were in vain, nothing emerged. One day I was sharing this frustration with my mother when she recalled that my grandfather had changed his name and that she had a letter that reported that. She sent me the letter where he writes it was too hard to spell so he selected a new name for this reinvention of his life. That letter led me back in time to his immigration manifest.

Donate the Knowledge 2007 S.Weinberg

My grandfather wrote another letter that didn’t deal with his history but gave me a flavor for what he valued. My mother had returned to college as an adult and graduated with honors as a teacher. In his letter to her on this occasion, he wrote a phrase that echoed for me.  “It is good to donate the knowledge to somebody else.” My grandfather closed his letter with another telling phrase. “I’m glad you could be your boss.”  A tailor in the NY garment industry, he never felt that he had that control of his life. It was one of the most important things he could wish for his daughter.

Tuesday, March 16, 2021



Burly Tree 2021 S. Weinberg 30" x 30"

I have come to love the process of unfolding. That is a big statement from someone who likes to know where she’s going complete with an estimated time of arrival. I didn’t get to this place easily, but I am beginning to trust that the process will work if I let it. Now that doesn’t mean I get to sit back and watch it unfold. There is some work involved on my part, but I have found that if I do the work and trust the process, I am likely to arrive at an interesting destination, usually one that I lacked the imagination to foresee. It is a lesson embedded in any creative pursuit and quite different from my corporate career where I drove to conclusions. It still feels rather magical to me when it works. It is that sense of magic that intrigues me and I often retrace my steps to figure out how the magic happens. It isn't difficult to trace my journey. I need only read past blogs, but I thought I'd save you the trouble and summarize here.

Broken Bits of Beauty 2021 S. Weinberg

I’ve written this year about my work within the Artist’s Lab exploring Brokenness and Wholeness. The lab discussions give me a starting point, but I don’t leave it at that. When I have no idea where to begin, I just begin with something that relates. In this case I began by constructing a rather whimsical collection of broken bits and then painting them. I had no idea where that would take me, but it served as a meditation of sorts on the theme. 

As I was walking a lot more during Covid, I found myself much more tuned into the natural world around me. When I looked at my photos on my phone they were an amusingly odd mix of nature through the seasons, selfies with my newly silver hair and photos of my toes on the bathroom scale as I studied the pattern of weight loss from all those walks.  It occurs to me that all of these subjects are about process and my documentation of it. As the latter two subjects didn’t seem to lend themselves to artwork, I turned to my nature photos for inspiration.

The Survivor 2021 S. Weinberg 30" x 30"

My part of the work in this process is to operate on multiple channels. I read about related topics, I observed brokenness within our politics, I absorbed what others said about it through poetry and I painted my visual observations. One of my visual observations from my walks was a tree laden with burls, covered with round orbs, layered closely together. It reminded me of a strong man flexing his muscles as they bulged out on all sides. I began to read about burls only to learn that they resulted from brokenness of a sort. Infection or injury creates them and they are from the tissue of buds that don’t fully unfurl. I began to paint the burly tree and named it The Survivor. It looked so ungainly and yet it grew despite its disfigurement.

Inside the Burl 2021 S. Weinberg

Then I looked at an image of what burls look like inside the tree. They reminded me of a maze as they circled and spiraled, hitting dead ends and finding new starts. And of course I painted them. As I painted, it felt much like a meditation. A few weeks later I took a writing class  where the author who taught it had us create a form that looked much like a burl, beginning with a spiral formed of adjacent circles. It was a meditation to get us ready to write and it felt very familiar.

It occurred to me that in last year's Artist Lab I had also painted a tree, nicknamed Methuselah. This 4700 year old tree is one of the oldest trees in the world. I called the painting Tree-time, based on the meaning of dendrochronology which is the science by which we determine the age of a tree and the climate that has surrounded it over time. In that case I was looking at it as a messenger of our climate trends and the warming that we see today. After I painted the tree, I wanted to capture what lay inside that was so critical to the story. To that end, I put the tree rings behind the image.  It occurred to me that I seem to have this inside-outside theme going. For another lab I had done a triptych called Stepping Inside the Chrysalis which opened up to what is inside a chrysalis as a caterpillar undergoes its transformation. In both of these cases, nature offered an apt metaphor to what I was trying to say. 

At this point I had painted the burly tree and I had painted the burls inside of the tree in two separate paintings. As I thought of my prior inside out work, I decided to combine the two and started a fourth painting to do just that as I work those metaphoric possibilities. A burl presents a model of what many of us experience as we have false starts, dead ends, challenges and successes often in a very unpredictable order. In fact, it is all part of the process of life. Brokenness and wholeness are not discrete or static states. Rather they are a connected and winding path, a cycle that perhaps affords us greater awareness of its cyclical nature as we weather its troughs and appreciate those moments when we sense the wind at our back, finding a point of momentary balance.