I read several passages from THE WOMAN IN THE PHOTOGRAPH at the event at Afikomen Judaica Bookstore yesterday, enjoyed a deep exhale, and invited questions and reflections from the audience. Several people responded with anecdotes from their own family discovers–a man who travelled all the way to a small city in Poland to be offered a bowl of borscht (a hot beet soup) that had the unique flavors of the soup his Polish born grandmother fed him when he was a child, or a woman who had found a charming and perfectly preserved dress that her mother had carefully tucked away as a keepsake from an earlier phase of her life. This is one of the joys of sharing my book, this chance to hear about the mysteries and discoveries of other people’s lives and how these revelations have affected them.
Then a man on the aisle asked me if my book was primarily a reconstruction of an old life, or an opening to a new understanding? Bless him. He worded it so much better but I didn’t write down his exact phrase. Yet he had taken this tale of facts, figures, photos, conversations, footsteps on a foreign land and grasped the very core of my intention. No, the aspect that is the recreation of my mother’s life is important to me personally, but the motivation behind this quest is to understand the living legacy we have inherited, not to be frozen in time but to be used to move forward and create new possibilities–almost to carry on the work and learning that traverses lifetimes but rests gently and compassionate in our own hands for a brief and precious lifetime.
I have been assured over and over, that these same holes in the fabric of personal history exist for people of many cultures and diverse background. Here is a quote from a recently published book called American Tapestry by Rachel Swarns. Ms. Swarns has researched the story of the ancestors of Michelle Obama, and found her relatives, both black and white, that include a young slave woman who bore a child to a white owner. In recording this personal lineage, the author gives a broad understanding of the different phases of American history, but she also explores the forces that have interrupted the flow of information, the threads that people are now seeking to recover, understand, bring into the living legacy and heal.
“The reluctance to probe the past, to look back over one’s shoulder, to examine the half-healed sores that festered in grandparents and great-grandparents, reappears over and over again in Mrs. Obama’s family tree. It has made the search for the truth that much harder. But it is also understandable. People often turn away from what is too painful to witness. They almost always want their children to see the world as a better place, to be free of their pain.”
I have learned that pain avoided cannot truly heal. We need to know we have the support and resources both inside and in our community to meet the unveiled information with patience and health. I am grateful for the chance this lifetime to digest and understand some of the wounds, and the gifts, of my family heritage. Thank you to all of you who are speaking, writing, painting, singing and dancing your stories.
On the light side, here a photo of me reading from THE WOMAN IN THE PHOTOGRAPH yesterday.