Facing grief, life, cancer with truth, not homilies.
Lost and Found
During the years after my father died, I spent a lot of time with my mother. We’d always been close. Our relationship got more complicated after dad’s death. She’d always had a power figure in her life, one she could love and resent simultaneously. I felt that was because she was so childlike, mostly like a teenager with street smarts and the ability to rebound after tough times, but also in need of a grownup figure because she was unsure of herself. Unfortunately, I unwittingly walked into the power figure role, responding to my dad’s requests that I do the things for her which he’d done, which she should have been able to do for herself. It took me a while to figure out this inappropriate relationship. I should have been able to view her as my mom but ultimately we writhed around in our role reversal with each of us wanting what had been written out of our family script before we understood it was happening.
The best times we had were when we could come together to do something neutral, like working on our family history. She’d inherited my grandmother’s photos. She also had random postcards and letters, written in languages neither of us could read, perhaps Yiddish, or Polish or Hebrew. We started out relying on her excellent memory, poring over the photographs and trying to establish who everyone was, where they might be. This was a complicated process as my maternal grandparents were first cousins. In addition, my grandfather had an earlier teenaged marriage, eventually annulled, but which nonetheless, produced a child.
We managed to identify and label many pictures. While we worked my mom told me stories of how when she was a child, the letters and postcards would come from Europe. My grandmother was illiterate, but my grandfather wrote back to these faceless authors, often enclosing one or two dollars in his letters. Mom would mail them for him. But she said there wasn’t much conversation about her family, just snippets of stories that she recalled. She was left wondering what happened to these relatives she never saw. The only one who appeared in her life was her half-brother, Benny, who my grandfather somehow secured passage for, out of Poland during the 1930’s. By the time she was an older teen, the letters and postcards stopped coming.
I was busy during those times with mom, raising my family, working, leading my life. I made attempts to find translators for the letters and postcards, but always seemed to hit walls which made me set them aside. Intermittently, I looked at the faces of the unidentified people in the photos, searching for family resemblances. I imagine most if not all were lost to the Holocaust in World War II.
My mom is gone now, along with all her siblings. Although my cousins have some stories from her brothers, my uncles, I think that she shared more than they did or rather, more than perhaps they knew. Now my husband is gone, as is my brother and I’ve found myself mulling over how to solidify the known family histories to pass on to the next generations.
Through a random conversation with a visiting scholar from Poland, my son-in-law created a bridge that has finally connected me to a professor in Berlin who says she can translate all of my postcards and letters. They are fragile with age but I’ve digitized them so they won’t be lost. I’m hoping they reveal the identities of the ghosts from the 1930’s, shedding light on those who vanished without any of us really knowing how they connect to our world.
I’ve also had my DNA analyzed and have been contacted by people who are somehow related to me. Talking with them and tracing roots will take a long time. I was amazed to discover that 14% of my genetic code comes from outside Central Europe and that within that percentage are ancestors who arrived in the US in the early 1820’s. Decoding those mysteries will take a long time. I’d always thought that the earliest my relatives arrived in this country was just prior to World War I.
When I look at family photos, I’m keenly aware of how many people have already vanished from my life. Many are dead. Others are estranged. What was once the foundation, the underpinning of my life looks so different now than it did two decades ago. That reality applies to friends as well as blood relatives. What seemed so unassailably real and concrete can disappear, sometimes slowly and sometimes in a flash.
I’m attending my 50th high school reunion next month. There will be people who’ve remained in my life since those old days and others I haven’t seen since I was thirteen years old. During the past 15 months since my husband’s death, I’ve been on a journey, historical, emotional, and intellectual, trying to make sense of what makes a family, what makes a life. So many of those absent people were lost, not just to death but to irrational hatred, misunderstandings and focusing on what divides people instead of what unites them. I’m still looking at those lost but as with almost everything, that exploration has unearthed the found.
My found family is not based in blood. The new family that has grown to fill some of the empty spaces in my life evolved through what are the critical values Michael and I built into the structure of our relationship and the values for our little family of four. Tolerance, friendship, unconditional acceptance, steady support and love. Through our forty five years together as we wrangled with life and faced its challenges, we always came back to rest on these principles. Even when I’m lonely for Michael, the solidity of our intentional ideology lifts me.
And because our children were willing, engaged participants in a mutually agreed upon world view, our home became a refuge for a broader network of young people who were intrigued by our brand of family. All subjects were on the table. Kids were treated with respect and acceptance. Maybe the most important thing that happened in our home was genuine interest in what you felt and what you thought. What I don’t think either Michael or I thought much about, was the idea that as years went by, some of kids in this younger generation were sticking around, growing up and integrating themselves into the fabric of our family. During the months since his death, these friends, once just kids, have provided an amazing network of support for me. I’m still “the mom,” but our conversations are wide-ranging and there is an equal exchange of feelings and ideas. What I find most remarkable is how easy it is for me to express myself and to feel the same acceptance from them that we once offered when they most needed it.
I find this experience to be transformative for me. The shared conversation that’s grown over decades has created an unexpected comfort net for me that can only be described as familial. Now we’re talking about their lives as parents, about their experiences with their families of origin and the balancing of their lives, their work, their aspirations.
Essentially I find that I’ve got new family, people who care about what happens to me and want to give back for whatever we provided for them during the precarious years of their youth. I think Michael would be comforted to know that whatever we shared with each other and our kids has spilled over into this part of my life and provided relief from the empty spaces left by those who are gone. My found family has rallied around me to visit and support me and has made space for me in their lives. The multi-generational nature of this crowd of people suits me. I think that being locked into a single peer group is stultifying on multiple levels. Being around younger people is like breathing fresh air, feeling alive. I’m grateful for the emotional sustenance. Coupled with those family members who are still here, my old friends and my network of this accidental family, I’m finding the strength to continue to cope with the rugged road of grief.
My life with Michael is validated by the knowledge that what we shared still reverberates through this world, beyond our children and grandchildren. I marvel at being the center of the coalescence of figuring out the mysteries of my family’s past and all who were lost, with the recognition of the family I’ve found along my way. Life is full of surprises.