~ Family Resemblance ~

A Calling? An Expectation? Or, A Choice?

I happened upon Rabbi Elana Zaiman while exploring Twitter one day. I was immediately struck by her description, “First woman rabbi in a family spanning 6 generations of rabbis.” Because I’m always interested in familial similarities, I was fascinated with the idea of coming from a family with so many generations of rabbis. I wondered if becoming a rabbi was an inherent desire or the expected thing to do. So, I asked Rabbi Zaiman if she wouldn’t mind answering those questions in a guest blog post, and she graciously agreed. 

Elana's grandfather, Rabbi Solomon Zaiman, Elana's father, Rabbi Joel Zaiman, and  Rabbi Elana Zaiman

Elana’s grandfather, Rabbi Solomon Zaiman, Elana’s father, Rabbi Joel Zaiman, and Rabbi Elana Zaiman

By Elana Zaiman

I am the first woman rabbi from a family spanning at least six generations of rabbis. I’m not sure why so many of my ancestors were rabbis. I imagine it had to do with living in Eastern Europe and continuing on in the family trade, a desire to become a rabbi, an expectation that this was what one was supposed to do, or, perhaps, limited career options. I do know from family lore, that my grandfather had wanted to become a doctor, but his family could not afford to send him to medical school.

Of all these rabbis, I only knew two: my grandfather and my father. And while I got to see my grandfather as an active congregational rabbi before he retired, it was my father whose rabbinical life I witnessed up close. He was an excellent teacher and public speaker with an engaging, powerful, and charismatic personality. He had strong values. He worked hard and valued hard work. Because he was such a public figure, I found myself watching him closely, and watching how others responded to him. I noticed that he was respected and admired not only by his congregation, but by the Rhode Island Jewish community at large. I, too, respected and admired him, so much so that I imitated him.

On Saturday mornings, when I did not go to synagogue, I would become “the rabbi.” I would set my stuffed animals in a circle on the floor of my bedroom, put yarmulkes on their heads, prayer books in front of their faces, and conduct the Saturday morning service, singing songs and announcing pages, perhaps even delivering sermons, though I don’t recall. I do remember walking around the outskirts of the circle, stopping at each stuffed animal, and turning his or her page.

At this stage of my life, however, I did not aspire to become a rabbi. Women were not rabbis. The Conservative movement—the branch of Judaism with which I was affiliated—was not yet ordaining women. Why would they? In many (most) Conservative synagogues women were not allowed to lead the community in prayer, nor were they allowed to read from the Torah. In my father’s synagogue the only honor given to women was pulling the drawstring to open and close the ark.

I also attended an Orthodox Jewish elementary school, where I was taught that the woman’s role was in the home and not in the synagogue. This irked me, because I could pray more quickly and with more fluidity than many of my male classmates, and because I had a real love for prayer and singing, unlike many of my male classmates. I questioned the fairness of the role of women in these settings, and remember once asking my father why women couldn’t be rabbis, but I asked these questions more out of a desire to understand than out of a desire to become a rabbi.

I had other plans. I wanted to become a child psychologist and work with special needs children.

Years passed.

In my senior year of college, when my father forwarded me a letter on The Jewish Theological Seminary’s letterhead announcing their decision to accept women into rabbinical school, I still had no desire to become a rabbi. Let me be clear: My father had not sent me this letter to encourage me to become a rabbi, nor had he sent me this letter because I had expressed an interest in the rabbinate. He sent me this letter to share with me an historic decision. When we spoke about this letter we both agreed that the first women who chose to enter rabbinical school would have a hard time of it, so hard a time, why would any woman want to do it?

It was after working for two years as a Program Director and then Acting Director of Hillel at Tufts University that I began to consider the rabbinate as a career, and only after working for another two years on a Masters in Judaic studies and a Masters in Social Work, that I decided to apply to rabbinical school.

My decision came from my love of Judaism, Hebrew, and liturgy, from my longing to create meaning in my life and in the lives of others. My decision came from a desire to counsel, serve, and inspire others from the heart. No, I wasn’t called to the rabbinate as in I had an epiphany that this was the path I had to follow. It was much less dramatic and much more logical. The rabbinate was a profession I had grown up with and somehow understood. It was a profession I could imagine myself in.

My father tried to dissuade me. In part, because he came from an Orthodox background and was not comfortable with women in the rabbinate, and in part because he anticipated that with the decision being so new, many Conservative congregations would not want to hire women rabbis. He was right. Initially, many congregations were not interested in employing women as rabbis, but by the time I was ordained in 1993, this was less of an issue than he had imagined.

My father was not the only one who was uncomfortable with me becoming a rabbi. It was hard for me too. Having attended an Orthodox Jewish elementary school and attended my father’s traditional Conservative synagogue, I sensed that becoming a rabbi was something tradition did not intend for me—a woman—to do. I had the sense that had my grandfather been alive, he would have had no trouble voicing his disdain at my career choice.

So, when I was accepted into rabbinical school, I spent several years in therapy trying to unlearn the distinctions that had been ingrained into my being, and to convince myself that it was okay for me, a woman, to become a rabbi, to lead a congregation in prayer, to read from the Torah, to officiate at baby namings, bar and bat mitzvahs, weddings, and funerals.

Once I was ordained, it took me time to get comfortable with my new role. Rabbi Zaiman was my father. Rabbi Zaiman was my grandfather. Rabbi Zaiman was not me. For my first few months as a rabbi at Manhattan’s Park Avenue Synagogue, when people sought my attention by saying, “Rabbi Zaiman,” I kept turning around and looking for my father. It took me a while to realize that I was the Rabbi Zaiman to whom they were speaking. When I told this to my father, he chuckled. He said that he had had a similar experience when he had been ordained, that he too, had done a double take when people asked for Rabbi Zaiman.

After three-and-a-half years as a rabbi in this congregation, I met Seth, a Jewish man who lived in Seattle. We dated long distance, married in the synagogue, and then I moved to Seattle where we began our married life. My last weekend at the synagogue was the weekend of our wedding. At that time my father said something like, “How can you leave? What will you do in Seattle? You’re a congregational rabbi. That’s who you are.”

I have only one child, a son, who is now fourteen. Will he decide to become a rabbi and carry on my family tradition? If I were to answer today, I’d say, no. He hopes to become a baseball player or a professional cyclist or a Navy Seal. But who knows? He’s only 14. He has plenty of time to change his mind. Maybe he’ll become an architect, a movie critic, or a history teacher. My only hope is that he finds a profession he loves, that brings him joy, that adds meaning to his life, and that enables him to affect the lives of others for the good.

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We’re All a Part of History

Today we have a guest blog from the lovely Jenny over at JenEric Generation. She’s a new personal historian and is quite the wordsmith. Enjoy! 

Hello, readers of Family Resemblance! My name is Jenny, and I write JenEric Generation–a place for discussing books, writing, and generally avoiding mediocrity in all areas of life. I am thrilled that Rachael invited me to be here today. Rachael inspired me to start my own business as a personal historian (still in the beginning stages), which has left me reflecting on why I love the topic of family history, and history in general.

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For most people, a love of history does not begin in high school. But for me, that is where it started. I believe that every student would love history, if only they were taught by the right person: someone who is passionate about the subject, and can articulate why it is important today.

The why it is important is the hard part. My high school history teacher made the past come alive by painting a picture that connected to the present, in one way or another. History is not just a long story. History is billions of people who have gone before us, living in their own corner of the earth, not constantly aware of the fact that they were part of a bigger picture. And in that sense, they were no different from us. In twenty years, our kids are going to be reading about the economic struggles in the United States in the early 21st Century, and it will most likely be summarized in a few paragraphs in a boring text book.

But you and me–we are part of that history right now, and we know it is more than that. Beyond those few paragraphs in a history text book, are thousands of smaller stories that help us understand human nature a little bit more.

Within the history that is deemed important enough to be included in a textbook, are the stories that paint individual family histories. My first awareness of the importance of family history came through the stories my dad told my siblings and me growing up. The story of my great grandfather, traveling to the United States from Germany. He was seven years old at the time, and his father gave him the family fortune to keep tied around his neck on the journey across the Atlantic. Because being robbed on a ship was common, my great-great-grandfather hoped that no one would suspect a child to be the keeper of all their earthly wealth. It worked.

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[My grandma, as a teenager.]

Later on, he would grow up to have a daughter, my grandma. My memories of her before her mind was overtaken by Alzheimer’s Disease are vague. In fact, aside from the stories my dad and his siblings told, the most I learned about her was at her funeral. I was moved by the stories of everyone who loved her–sharing how they had been touched by her kindness and genuinely sweet spirit. She never raised her voice. She always took her time making lunch on Sunday afternoons. She loved her family well.

I love knowing that I get my full cheeks from my grandma. I want to be always kind, like her. I love knowing that my great grandpa and his family were adventurous, courageous people who dared to start a new life in a foreign country. It makes me feel like I am part of something greater; and gives me permission to come out of my small thoughts and small world, and focus on the bigger picture I belong to.

We’re not alone. The lives we live affect people, and they forge a path for future generations to walk down. In our lives, we don’t have to achieve worldly success or fame to make a difference. Simply making good choices every chance we get, and loving the people in our lives well, makes a difference. We are all making history, whether we realize it or not.

The Advantages of Being a Pack Rat

I never thought I’d change my opinion about the spilling piles of paper, magazines, and other random things my mom kept all around the house. They were annoying; they made the house look messy and if anyone tried to throw something out, my mom would get mad.

Mostly, I didn’t understand the appeal of holding on to ephemera. Ephemera is supposed to be transitory; it’s there and then it’s not. Old advertising, museum brochures, movie tickets, scribbled notes, fortune cookie messages. Ephemera: a polite word for junk.

But when your mom passes away, your perspective shifts. Your sense of normal—which included having your mom in your life until you were at least middle aged—is altered. You reevaluate your expectations and priorities.

Several months ago, my dad and I started going through my mom’s stuff, and I found myself confronting these piles again. This time though, the piles weren’t annoying. They were actually kind of comforting, reminding me of what life used to be like before.

Still, I didn’t expect to find what I found. Mixed in with the long-expired coupons, disintegrating cough drops, and balled up Kleenex, I found things I had never seen before.

I had no idea she kept the front page of the newspaper from the day I was born. Brochures on breastfeeding and eating for two. Graduate school papers, response cards from my parents’ wedding, one of her job’s information packets, home movies from her childhood. Poems, drawings, every letter she ever received from her childhood friends, from the age of 12 when she left Michigan, until the last year of her life. Drawings my brother and I made when we were little, some of our toddler clothes, report cards.

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She had saved her memories. It wasn’t a memoir, like my grandfather wrote, but it was a peek into her world. Because she saved things she liked and wanted to remember, I’ve been able to get to know the younger version of my mom, seen her as a person first, and my mom second. I’ve come to understand her more, appreciate her more. Miss her more.

Apparently my mom had tear gas training. Not sure when that would come in handy.

Apparently my mom had tear gas training. Not sure when that would have come in handy.

Yet I’m still conflicted by these piles. She didn’t just save things she liked, she saved things she couldn’t bring herself to throw away. To get to the things that really meant something, I had to weed through the things that my mom forgot about. It’s a lot easier to miss the good stuff that way.

Delivery record from my birth. I was born about 20 minutes after she got to the hospital.

Delivery record from my birth. I was born 25 minutes after my mom got to the delivery room.

The piles also mean that I have to make the choices she never did. I get to decide what was important to her and what wasn’t. That’s a lot of responsibility to place on another person, especially when that person is still grieving.

Inevitably, this process has gotten me thinking about my own mementos. Because I don’t want the decisions I didn’t make to speak for me—I want to speak for me.

I’m not nearly as inclined to keep things as my mom was, but I still do have some of my old toys, essays, Kid City magazines, and random tchotchkes. And for now, I want to keep most of those things. They represent the person I used to be and trigger childhood memories.

I was in 2nd grade when I made these astute observations in my school journal.

I was in 2nd grade when I made these astute observations in my school journal.

I know I can pare my stuff down further though. I’m pretty sure no matter how many She-Ra books I have, I won’t forget how awesome she is. I doubt I’ll regret getting rid of the doll I never liked and the random ugly trinkets.

So I’ve been culling down my current collection of memorabilia, and taking a more critical look at the things I choose to keep. Now before I indiscriminately toss or keep something, I take a moment to ask myself what I want to remember. Will I want to look back at old cards? Which projects are worth taking up space? Should I get rid of the 1930s hat that I love but rarely wear? In other words, what is important to me?

I think of it as curating my life. As the expert on all things me, I’m the best person for the job.

Tracing Traits in Your Own Family

Since the theme (and name!) of this blog is Family Resemblance, I thought I’d create a printable that helped people start identifying the similarities in their own families. There’s two family activities and eight questions about things like your family’s ability to whistle. It’s been cute-ified by Lisa White of Moxie Pear.

To get the printable, just go to the sidebar, find the subscribe area, type in your email address and hit subscribe! You’ll only get emails from me when I write a new blog post; I promise no sales stuff, newsletters, or other miscellaneous annoying junk email.

(Just one note: you need to use Adobe Reader to download the printable. If you open it in a browser with a PDF viewer, you WON’T be able to save/print your answers. Go here if you’re not sure how to switch from opening a PDF in a PDF viewer to downloading a PDF via Adobe Reader.)

I’m also going to be featuring bloggers’, friends’, and family’s filled-out versions of the printable every so often. Readers are welcome to submit their answers too.

Today I’m featuring fellow personal historian Alisha Morgan of Paper Clipped Memories. She works with families to create everything from celebration books and family cookbooks to family histories and family tree word art. Her final products are not only fabulous, they’re pretty too!

Alisha is a Southern gal with a wicked sense of humor and quite an interesting family, as you’ll see below.

Alisha Morgan Printable

Family History Roundup

friday favorites

I’m getting on the Roundup bandwagon! Every so often, I’ll round up a collection of interesting links on family history, family resemblance, life stories and storytelling. Well, that and the occasional made-me-happy or left-quite-an-impression kind of link.

Alright, I’m just going to jump right in then!

Story spark idea: Using pictures to take a closer look at the turning points in people’s lives. I never thought of doing this! A great idea, especially if you have photos that really highlight the differences in demeanor (in this case, the person went from a tight-lipped Victorian to a free-spirited actress).

Convicts tell their life stories in this photography series, Reflect: Convicts’ Letters to Their Younger Selves.

A thought-provoking reflection on the changing nature of personal identity and the future you.

We’re so used to seeing old pictures in black and white, that’s it’s kind of strange (and wonderful!) to see pictures of Imperial Russia from 1910 in gorgeous, vibrant color.

And just because I think it’s great: the skinny on getting sick, losing weight, and then having people “compliment” you on how great you look.

Three Generations of Love Stories

Three GenerationsMy mom had just gotten home from a trip when she heard the phone ring. She’d been in Los Angeles meeting my dad’s family for the first time, and it was my dad on the phone checking in to make sure she got home safe. In addition, he was also wondering if maybe she’d be interested in marrying him.

She was, actually. Even though he was asking her over the phone mere hours after they’d been in each other’s physical presence. Even though she didn’t get a bended-knee proposal and couldn’t excitedly hug him for a little while, she still wanted to marry him.

He’d been thinking about asking her for a little while, but it was his grandmother who gave him that extra push. After my mom left, my dad’s grandmother said, “I like her. You should marry her.”

Now, he could have had that moment of revelation and then waited to ask her in person. But there’s another reason he asked her over the phone. If my mom said no he could just get off the phone afterward.

And those are some reasons to ask a person to marry you over the phone.

Hey, it was better than not asking, my dad pointed out, and he’s quite right about that. After all, I wouldn’t exist if he hadn’t asked.

So it all worked out, but I would never say yes to a proposal like that. Not that I was ever expecting to receive a proposal like that, because who would propose to someone over the phone anyway? Well, besides my dad, of course.

Apparently, ehem, I would.

It wasn’t my fault though! My soon-to-be fiancé, Joey, and I were on the phone talking about his upcoming visit the following week, when all of a sudden he said he wanted to ask me an important question in person. A question he couldn’t ask me over the phone.

We had already talked about the other big things. We had said we loved each other and wanted to live together, so there was really only one important question left. Basically he had just announced he was going to propose to me in a week.

That is absolutely not how a proposal works! You either propose or you don’t propose. You don’t leave people in proposal purgatory.

Armed with the knowledge that a proposal was in my near future, I had two options: wait until I saw him or ask him to marry me over the phone. In other words, I could be laid-back about it and just wait for a romantic proposal in person (it was going to involve rose petals, I later found out), or I could be impatient, get all worked up, and ask him to marry me over the phone.

Less than a minute later, I had a fiancé that I couldn’t hug or kiss for another week.

My mom always said I should learn to be more patient. Come to think of it, she said the same thing to my dad sometimes.

While the similarities might seem obvious, I didn’t make a connection between the proposals for years. I was too busy focusing on the differences.

For instance, my dad was 23 and my mom was 24 when they got engaged. By that point, they had been dating for about a year. In contrast, I was 19 and Joey was 20. And did I mention that we had only known each other for a month?

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Actually, he said yes

Before I explain, I’d like to point out that Joey and I have been married for over a decade now. So no matter how crazy we may seem in the story below, just remember we’re still together today.

Joey and I met through friends the summer before our junior year of college. A group of us were all meeting at one house and carpooling to Venice Beach in a SUV. Joey wasn’t even supposed to go but when an extra row of seats refused to go in, someone remembered Joey’s mom had a Suburban. At first he wasn’t sure he’d be able to make it because he was supposed to pick up his dad at the airport, but at the last minute his dad decided to take a later flight.

We talked a lot at the beach and the Thai restaurant we went to afterwards. Over the course of the day, he went from being the short skinny guy with the big Suburban, to the kind of annoying argumentative guy, to the guy with the pretty eyes. (Instead of telling him he had pretty eyes, I chickened out and told him he had long eyelashes.)

I'm in the center and Joey's in the bottom right hand corner.

Picture from the day we met

Back at our starting point, Joey offered to drive me home even though my friend had driven me there and my house was completely out of the way. During the ride, he told me stories about his life, and my perception of him changed again. I thought for sure he was going to try to kiss me when we got to my house (at least, that’s what I was hoping he would do), but he didn’t even ask for my phone number. That really confused me.

We got together as a group a couple more times over the next three weeks. Joey and I usually ended up gravitating toward each other, spending most of the time talking alone. The last time we all hung out was the day before my family’s annual summer trip to Mammoth Mountains. After that, I’d be heading off to the Netherlands to study abroad for a semester, and Joey was going back to school in Florida.

We both admitted we liked each other and agreed to write. At one point, I stopped him mid-sentence to kiss him. He was so thrown off by this that he just smiled into the kiss, not kissing me back. (He was actually probably more thrown off by the fact that he had planned to kiss me at my front door. Sometimes he needs a little time to regroup when his plans change.)

We wrote letters, emails and talked on the phone. We’d talk for hours and hours. He said he loved me, I said I loved him, we got engaged. He flew out to visit me and we spent the weekend in Paris.

Taken in a photo booth in a Paris train station

Taken in a photo booth in a Paris train station

He waited until he was back in Florida to tell his parents we were engaged. By that point, we’d known each other about a month and a half and had been a couple for three weeks.

I waited a few more weeks to tell my parents because then I could at least say Joey and I had been together for two months. Sadly, that extra month didn’t make me sound as mature and responsible as I’d hoped. Needless to say, they didn’t take it very well.

From then on, it was an endless stream of wedding planning and people trying to talk me out of getting married. One of the only people who didn’t object was my grandmother. She said she really couldn’t say anything bad about it because she and Grandpa had gotten married pretty quickly too.

She didn’t give me the details, but the old love letters I found years later filled in the blanks. Turns out they had only been together about three months when they got engaged, and eight months when they married. She was 22 and he was 24.

Too bad I didn’t know all that back when everyone was telling me I was crazy. It might have helped my case. (To be fair to all my naysayers, when I realized that my grandparents had only known each other eight months when they got married, my first thought was, “Wow, isn’t that a little fast?”)

We made it down the aisle despite all the hubbub. We got married on August 5, 2002, exactly a year after we met. (Unfortunately for all our guests, we met on a Sunday, so our wedding was on a Monday night. By that point, I was so immune to everyone’s grumblings that I didn’t care if anyone complained.)

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As of February 2014, we’ve been together 12 years and married 11 years. My grandparents were married 55 years and my parents were married a few months shy of 35 years. I’m hoping to follow in their footsteps in that way too. So far so good.

My Grandparents’ Love Story: The Early Years

When I first read my grandfather’s collection of Korean War letters (aka his Korean War memoir), I was surprised they were so lovey-dovey. Don’t get me wrong, my grandparents were loving, but by the time I came on the scene they didn’t really seem that in to nicknames and constant professions of love. Korean War-era Sidney Goldstein, on the other hand, was all about nicknames (he called her Beautiful, she called him Budgie Doodle), love and kisses.

Smiling

Of course, it made sense. My grandparents had only been married three years when my grandfather left for Korea, so they were still in that honeymoon phase. They were just so different from the grandparents I knew.

The grandparents I knew spent most of their time focused on my grandmother’s illness. In the late 1960s, my grandmother was diagnosed with MS. Ten years later she was confined to a motorized scooter and my grandfather, as her husband and a doctor, became her caregiver.

Over the course of his memoir, however, I got to know the young versions of my grandparents and began to see them in the grandparents I knew. The devotion they showed to each other later in life can certainly be traced back to those first years as a couple.

I got an even more comprehensive look at my grandparents’ early romance when I found love letters from when they were dating. Here is the story of those early years leading up to the Korean War:

In the late 1940s, my grandparents were both attending Wayne State University. He was there to become a doctor and she an elementary school teacher.

A school dance was coming up, but they both had reasons not to go. By all accounts, my grandfather hated to dance. My grandmother had a test the following day, so she wasn’t sure she’d be able to make it.

In the end, my grandfather’s roommate convinced him to go (“His roommate was a good influence on him,” my grandmother used to say) and studying took a back seat to dancing. A friend of my grandmother’s introduced them and the rest is history.

I had grown up hearing this version of how they met. It’s cute but there’s nothing about why they liked each other or how they felt; no little details that allowed me to imagine my grandparents as they were then. That’s where my grandfather’s love letters and Korean War memoir came in.

In one of his Korean War letters, my grandfather referred to their initial meeting.

Remember, Ruthie, how we first met at a dance and that line that impressed you most after I learned your first name? Your name reminded me of the Book of Ruth in the bible and the words “Whither thou goest, I shall go. Whither thou lodgest, I shall lodge.”

At first I was really excited to hear him refer to the day they met. Then he started talking about the Book of Ruth and it all went downhill from there. Not only did he use a cheesy pick-up line (and I never thought he’d be one of those guys), he used a cheesy biblical pick-up line. I really wasn’t expecting that.

My grandmother must have liked cheesy because she agreed to go on a date with him. Where they went, what they did—all that’s lost. But this little gem isn’t:

Remember when I tried to kiss you on our first date and you said, “But I hardly know you.”

Now there’s an adorable detail for you! Just that one line tells you so much. First, that my grandfather was pretty smitten, and second, that my grandmother thought it was weird to kiss someone she didn’t know well. Pretty good stuff.

At some point, they must have, ehem, gotten to know each other better because he signed a love letter he wrote during winter break like this:

Your little devil and baby, with all my love and kisses,

Sidney

The little devil part kind of grosses me out (I don’t even want to think about what he did to earn that nickname), but it sure does embody that giddy lovesick phase of a new relationship.

My grandfather's caption was: Kissing on couches is all right especially if it’s right side up and on Passover when we’re full of wine, 4/48.

My grandfather’s caption was: Kissing on couches is all right especially if it’s right side up and on Passover when we’re full of wine.

In another letter, he teased my grandmother with a New Year’s resolution that sounded a lot like marriage plans:

To date, here are my resolutions or prayers: That God will steer me on the right path and make me see the light concerning any big steps that I might undertake…

By February 14, 1948, they were engaged. He wrote this poem in a Valentine’s Day card, changing the “With Love to My Wife” on the front of the card to “With Love to My Prospective (or Bride-Elect) Wife”:

To Ruthie with ever increasing love (The following could have been written in Nov. 1947) [Note: Wait, does this mean they met in Nov. 1947 and were engaged by Feb. 1948?]

One day the brightness seemed brighter

The air was no longer transparent

Everything in the air and on the ground sang

Life (if we could only open our eyes) took on new meaning

Happiness and understanding penetrated the void of 23 years

There was the feeling of belonging and being belonged to

There was the feeling of caring and being cared for

There was the feeling of importance and being proud of someone

Oh! There was just a fine and noble feeling

I looked upward: Thank God it had come

I was in love!!!

Card

Okay, that was pretty cheesy too, but I have to give him points for writing a poem. A really sweet, heartfelt poem, that just so happens to be oozing with cheese.

An important tidbit emerged in there too. I’m pretty sure he was implying that they first met in November of the previous year, which would mean they only knew each other four months when they got engaged. It would also mean that he was signing his letters with love and kisses just one month after meeting. Hmm…no one ever told me they moved that fast. Would have been nice to know when everyone was telling me I was getting married too soon. But that’s a story for another day.

My grandparents married on June 20, 1948 and graduated from school a year or two later. In 1951, my grandfather was in his first year of residency and my grandmother was teaching elementary school. That’s where they were in their lives when the Korean War separated my grandparents, and my grandfather went back to expressing his love for her on the written page.

Wedding Picture

Summer Guest Blogging

This summer, I did some guest blogging for the blogs Home Front Girl and Food. Family. Ephemera. Susan Morrison and Gena Philibert-Ortega’s blogs both focus on history–Susan through her mom Joan’s wartime diary and Gena through food. I love looking at the past through different lenses. There are so many new stories to be found when you look at a familiar subject through another angle.

Susan and I co-wrote a piece on our respective relatives’ thoughts on war-torn Asia. Susan’s mom and my grandfather both describe frightening incidents. Joan references the Nanking Massacre and my grandfather depicts a long, dark night traveling through minefields. Though they’re talking about different wars, places and events, their descriptions are strikingly similar.

For Gena’s blog, I wrote about the food-related passages in  my grandfather’s memoir. I was surprised how much I learned just from his thoughts on food. The passages told me more about his living conditions, cultural identity and religious beliefs. It was a fun writing experiment, and I realized a lot of historical subtext is hidden in what we eat.

And now, time for another picture of my grandfather!

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How My Mom’s Death Changed My Definition of Family

In my head, I’ve always placed my family into one category and my ancestors in another. My family members are my parents, my brother, my aunts and uncles, first cousins and grandparents. They’re the people I grew up with, the people I know too well, the ones who inspire the deepest and longest eye rolls.

My ancestors are the people I want to learn more about. They’re a mystery I want to solve, their lives influencing my own in ways I’ve only recently begun to discover. They’re finished stories with birth dates and death dates, offering lessons that come with the benefit of hindsight.

Then my 60-year-old mom died in July and the lines blurred.

Her death has changed me and the way I look at life. The constants in my life aren’t the same, and a lot of my expectations and assumptions have to be altered.

Every time I want to call my mom and tell her something, I start reaching for the phone. And then I remember.

From now on, my dad will be the one who answers the phone when I call my parents’ home. (My mom always answered the phone first. She’d rather run to the phone than let the answering machine pick up.)

When I’m shopping and I see something she might like, I think about how much she loved chocolate and the color turquoise. And how strange it is to know that I won’t be buying her anything anymore.

I have to revise some of my ideas about the future. I assumed that when I got pregnant and had a baby, my mom would come over and help me for the first week or so. I expected to see my mom grow older and reach the ages of 65, 75, 80. I assumed her mom would pass away before she did.

I also never thought of my mom as an ancestor, but now she has both a birth date and a death date. Future relatives won’t have the chance to get to know her first hand. They’ll be relying on the people who knew her and the things she left behind to get an idea of what she was like. Just like I’ve been doing with my grandparents, great-grandparents, great-great grandparents and cousins, just like future generations will eventually do with me.

Now I realize there were never two categories, that we were always one family. We may be separated by time, geography or language, but we share family pictures and stories and genes. In general, we are all more alike than we are different. We all have a limited amount of time to live, share and pass down our stories.

On the left, my grandmother, Ruth Goldstein, and my mom, Rosalie Stillman. On the right, my mom and me in 2011.

On the left, my grandmother, Ruth Goldstein, and my mom, Rosalie Stillman, in the mid-1970s. On the right, my mom and me in 2011.

Don’t I Know You From Somewhere?

Ft. Custer, Michigan
February 19, 1951        

Dearest Ruthie:

My first day at my new post, Ft. Custer, Michigan, is at an end and I’m tired, tired, tired. The bones, muscles, skin—even brain and little toes—are protesting. I must have walked thousands of miles and wandered into every building ever erected by man. Then missing you crushed my spirit, made me feel lonely despite intense activity.

Where did my unwilling legs propel me? It seems that the army wanted me to “sign in” at five different places just to make sure my twin brother (no such character—one’s enough) doesn’t get in the act. Then there was travel pay, uniform pay, and pay in general. I was urged fairly often to “sign here in duplicate” and I heard the aggrieved and shocked words of the clerk, “What, you don’t have a middle name?” For such derelict an omission I expected at any moment a harsh bureaucratic response.

Anyway, I dashed to the Quartermaster for several officer’s uniforms, a dress hat, and an Eisenhower Jacket, rounding out my dashing wardrobe at the Post Exchange with five sets of First Lieutenant bars.

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Just as I was about to search for stationery and stamps (to write to my beautiful wife, of course), my staff sergeant wanted to show me the dispensary, followed by the colonel wanting to say hello, followed further by the tramping feet of privates wanting to track down a room for me. Everybody wanted to do something and I just wanted to rest!

After all these feverish stirrings, I learned that five hours had gone by, and no kidding, I was so tired that I actually wondered how it would feel to collapse inside a mud hole to fit the occasion.

ODDS AND ENDS AND STUFF –

(1)  The army has acted resoundingly: my official name is now Sidney NMI Goldstein—NMI stands for No Middle Initial.

(2)  Working hours are from 8-12 and 1-5 weekly and 8-12 on Saturday. That means I’ll head for Detroit every weekend, providing I don’t draw OD (Officer of the Day). Wouldn’t that be a delicious treat?

(3)  I’m supposed to be the battalion surgeon in charge of 1,500 men and 1,000 of them will receive typhoid and tetanus immunization shots tomorrow. I dare say another weary day is in the offing.

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(4)  The Colonel and the other officers have also stated I am due to stay here a long time. How do they know? I just got here. “Heh, Sid,” I admonish myself, “don’t be a killjoy. Just believe.”

(5) Since I have rooms in the BOQ (Bachelors Officer’s Quarters), I’m guaranteed a date with a pretty nurse every night. To be more specific, I have a male roommate together with a bed, desk, closet, clothing rack with hangers and a wash bowl. Now, if I can only find a mirror, I might even shave in the morning.

While writing this letter between 6:40 and 7:40 p.m. I heard a familiar chant outside my window – “Hut, two, three, four.” At this late hour some soldiers were actually marching through all this mud. Come to think of it, I better not complain too much.

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Now that my long tale is almost over I’ll say: I miss you and love you very, very much, and multiply that by twelve.

You know that moment when someone walks in the room, and in that microsecond before your brain catches up to your thoughts, you murmur to yourself, “Hey, he’s pretty cute” or “There’s something special about that one,” before realizing that it’s your husband or good friend or some other person you know really well? Usually this happens when you’re not fully paying attention; you look up too quickly and suddenly you’ve transformed a familiar person into a stranger. And because he’s a stranger, you size him up anew—the gait, the shape of the face, the eyes, whether you think he’s attractive (hopefully you do if it’s your spouse). Then just as quickly, you realize who it is, and as the familiarity returns, you’re surprised, amused. Of course it’s your husband, your friend! Who else would it be?

That’s kind of what it’s like when I read my grandfather’s writing. At first I slip into the story like I would with anything I’m reading. In this particular passage, I get caught up in hustle-bustle of the action and the details that make you feel a part of the narrator’s day. I like the way the pacing of the writing moves at a frenzied speed while still allowing for reflection.

But the voice is so familiar, so characteristic of my grandfather and family, that just as quickly I recognize the narrator. Ahh, of course it’s my grandfather, I realize, as his humor and flair for the dramatic pop up. No matter how mundane the event, he sets the scene like a novel. “I must have walked thousands of miles and wandered into every building ever erected by man.” Of course he’s “tired, tired, tired” rather than just plain old tired. It’s not enough to mention his protesting bones, muscles and skins, there’s also his brain and little toes too.

Because I’m his granddaughter, I also know that while he’s poking fun at the inanity of the process (my favorite part is the middle name debacle), he was genuinely aggravated. He hated when something seemingly simple became a hassle, an attitude he passed down to my mom, and to a lesser degree (I hope), me. And he certainly didn’t like being surrounded by commotion. Driving in San Francisco with him was not a pleasant experience for anyone. The combination in itself was probably enough to make him tired, tired, tired.

Then there’s the grandpa I didn’t know; it’s these sentences that are often the most exciting. Had he not thought about me, or at least the potential of a me, I would never have known how sweet and lovey dovey he was with my grandma. This is not to say that they weren’t sweet to each other when I knew them, but they weren’t lovey dovey, at least not in the way you are when you’ve only been married three years.

In some ways, they remind me of me and my husband when we were first married (particularly the nauseating part, my friends like to tell me). But even we never multiplied how much we missed and loved each other by 12. It’s cute and silly even though it makes my grandfather sound like a 13-year-old girl.

I suppose no matter how well you know someone, there’s still room for surprise, unfamiliarity. Though most of the time, when the surprise dies down you realize it’s not quite the aberration it appeared to be. It was always your husband turning the corner, it was always your grandfather with the dramatic turn of phrase and irascible wit. On the other hand, sometimes your grandfather turns out to be a 13-year-old girl. But only in the best possible way.