Thursday, January 21, 2010

Looking forwards and backwards at the same time

Last night I learned things about my mother I never knew.

For a bat mitzvah project, Iz has to interview her family—she has a list of suggested questions about heritage, childhood experiences, memories that stand out, what life was like. She's been procrastinating over this for weeks but we finally set up an appointment to call my mom with the agreement that Iz would ask questions, I'd type answers (while staying uninvolved in the actual interview), while all on speakerphone together.

I managed to keep my mouth shut until just after the second question. It's amazing how little I know. I know the basic stories, how she met my dad, that she didn't get along with her sister, her regret at not having gone to medical school. Actually, I think I regret that for her. She'd been accepted, but there wasn't enough money for her and my father to both attend. So, of course, she worked as an assistant to a biology professor, paying for my dad's tuition. Back then, being married to a doctor was a social coup. Being a doctor? Not as much for a second generation Jewish girl in the 1950s. My mom is so smart, so intuitive. I've often thought she'd have been a remarkable doctor, if opportunities had been different.

Sorry folks, I digress.

Iz asked basic questions and got some basic answers, but with a little prodding, my mom contributed facts and stories I'm sure she hadn't thought about in years, small glimpses into times we study in school but have no real reference to. She remembered the bombing of Pearl Harbor, how her older brother had come home, very upset, he'd been the first to find out. They didn't have a television. All news was from the radio or newspapers. She remembered the US entering the war and rationing. Teachers, she'd said, favored kids whose parents owned grocery stores or gas stations, hoping extra school support would garner them sugar and gasoline.

After a lengthy explanation of her favorite game, we realized she was describing hopscotch, although she called it potchkey.

People in the Bronx didn't lock their doors, it was that safe a neighborhood.

Parents didn't worry about their kids traveling the city on their own. One of my mom's happiest memories was as a teenager, going into Manhattan with a group of friends for lunch at their favorite Italian restaurant. She remembered the name, the neighborhood. Often, they'd get tickets to see Broadway matinees. She loved musicals. The girls would wear matching jackets, dark green with chartreuse piping, three stripes on the sleeve. They weren't an official club, but lots of bunches of kids did that she said, to identify themselves as part of a group. I never heard any of this before.

Iz and I were both fascinated, hearing about how my mom's parents first met, after my grandfather came over from Russia. His older brother proposed to my grandmother, but she refused, saying she preferred the younger brother. I found out that a glass my grandfather had brought over with him, it had been his father's, small and fancy, with a red rim, had been broken years ago. That my grandfather was a failed business man before he spent much of his adult life as a pattern maker. He died when I was four. All I remember is visiting him in the nursing home.

We talked until people came over and we had to stop, setting up time to talk again today.

Straddling two generations I was struck by how each of us is a universe unto ourselves, but how little of that is shared with anyone else. Entire lifetimes of growth, thoughts, experiences are lost when we don't ask. Don't take time to talk, to reminisce, to remember. I regret not doing this with my grandmother, who died when I was 14. I was too young to understand that once she wasn't here anymore, that was it. I wish I had asked her about coming to this country, about leaving her entire family behind, about not speaking the language. I wish I had asked her about women's rights, about getting the right to vote, about what you did when you had your period. About ending pregnancies before abortion was legal. About childbirth and medicine, about recipes and relationships. About working and supporting a family when most women didn't.

It's so easy to accept basic pleasantries as conversation. As if the weather, aches and pains, conventional updates are enough to fill the gap. And sometimes, that's all there's time and energy for. Quick exchanges to let the other know you're there.

But that's not enough. We need to take time to explore, to find out, to delve deeper.

If we don't, the opportunity will disappear.

Day 4 is grabbing moments before aging takes them away.

1 comment:

MrsWhich said...

Thank you for the reminder. Whenever I see my grandmother, I want to take out a voice recorder and capture her memories, my history. I know she was in an abusive marriage with an alcoholic with whom she was absolutely in love. I know she ended up raising 8 kids by herself in poverty, and they are all upstanding citizens. But what was it LIKE?

And yet, we talk about the present, briefly, and smile at each other across generations. She exudes love to me while I take care of the kids who are grabbing at my leg.

We live over 2 hours away, so I see her maybe twice a year, and each time I swear to myself I will find the time to see her, really talk with her, as I failed to do with my other grandma. Who died of cancer, not old age.

And then, I don't. I know why, but it sucks.