This summer, my goal is to write my first book-length poetry manuscript. I've been working on it most days. Except the few when I had to pick up Benny from daycare due to vomit, diarrhea or hitting his head. Or the hours I got sidetracked by reality TV - damn you TV! But I digress...
The project is to translate my grandmother's numerous, incredible life stories into poems. After she died four years ago (just after her 96th birthday) I made a quick list of every story that I did not want to forget. There are 60 items on that list. I tried to begin writing then, but could only eek out two pantoums (a very cool form. check it out here) before I quit. One is about her first memory - watching the Tsar pass through her town. The other about a baby sister who died of a head injury in Russia when a cousin threw her too high and into the ceiling (to this day, I cannot watch people play this game with a baby). She never knew her sister's name or which cousin accidentally killed the baby. Her mother did not want to further hurt that cousin, who must have felt terribly, or for the children to hold anything against him (him?). I admire that lady for her wisdom under such duress.
While growing up, my grandmother's stories were a mixture of the exotic and historic. I was in awe, even as a young child, at how it was possible for our lives to be so drastically different in just two generations.
Examples of what I thought was exotic:
- Speaking Yiddish
- Having a Yiddish name
- Growing up as an Orthodox Jew
- Moving from Russia
- Traveling in a boat; on an ocean
- Kicking a man in China who she thought was going to hurt her brother (who broke the man's drum)
- Living in Japan for a couple of months (After they lost all of their money on the way to America. I wish I knew more about this story.)
- Having 5 brothers and sisters
- Having a cantor for a father
- Having a father who called out Sippa (his wife's Yiddish name) as his first word every time he came home
- Having only one dress and one doll
Examples of what I knew was historic:
- Fleeing the Russian Revolution
- Traveling to America during WWI, through the Pacific Ocean to avoid the war
- Leaving school at 14 years old to work and help support her family
- Being the only working person in her family during the depression
- Her brother freeing Holocaust survivors while drafted during WWII
- Being somewhat of a feminist - a woman who worked outside of the home
- The stories of her own grandmother, Shima, who was the only woman she knew who could read Hebrew. (Shima must have taught herself to read and write, perhaps?) Women used to sit around her while she read (Torah?) to them. Shima also opened a store in America, as an elderly lady, knowing very little English. (I wish I knew more about this woman!)
The book will be called Fagel which was my grandmother's Yiddish name. After Russia, only her closest family called her Fagel. To Americans, she was Fanny as a child and Phyllis as an adult.
A couple of weeks ago, I was rewriting Czar, the pantoum about her first memory. I'd heard this story so many times and not once did it occur to me to wonder which Tsar she was speaking of. I did some quick Wikipedias and realized that this was the Tsar who was taken prisoner and shot in a cellar with his wife, children and servants. And for a long time, people thought one daughter (and son?) survived until DNA proved them all wrong. Yes, I had heard this remarkable story, too! I never thought to wonder, Is this the Tsar of my grandmother's first memory? Indeed, it must have been. She spent her first seven years in a village outside of Mogilev, now Mahilyow in Belarus, where Tsar Nicholas II constantly traveled, because between 1915-1917 it functioned as the headquarters of the Russian Imperial Army. (Thank you, Wikipedia.)
I am almost entirely Russian Jew (1/4 Czech Jew). My children are 7/8's Russian Jew. But, I am sorry to say, I have never had any interest in Russian history or visiting Russia/Belarus. Perhaps because Russian Jewish history is so savage and ferocious, I never felt a connection to that country. Until now. This writing and revelation about the Tsar of my grandmother's first memory, has opened up a serious inquiry. For the first time ever, I'm all about the Russian Revolution. I'm reading Nicholas and Alexandra by Robert Massie to learn the details of this last Tsar and his family. My poetry has taken a turn from being about my grandmother's memories, to her memories in the context of the Russian Revolution, Bloody Sunday, pograms, Russian anti-semitism at the turn of the century, and Russian feminism in the time of Emma Goldman (also reading My Disillusionment in Russia), which is the time of our own Shima.
But now, how will I ever finish this manuscript by the end of the summer? (Especially since I have to teach a few weeks of a summer bridge program. You see, I was unaware that BCPSS pays on a 10 rather than 12-month payroll. Thanks again, BCPSS. More about that at another time.) Sigh.
I have to say, all of this writing and researching just makes me miss my grandmother more. She was the person I admired most as a child; who had the most influence on me; who I just couldn't get enough of; who cried when I was sick.
I guess missing her is an inevitable side effect.
*Michelle and I were never happier than when around this beautiful lady. I love how she must have been twirling my pigtails before this photo was taken. Thanks to my mom who (still) dutifully labels every photo. The back of this one says Hanukah Party 1979*