It all comes down to this…If I can’t forgive, how can I ever be forgiven? My sins aren’t any cleaner than anyone else’s simply because they are mine.
God chose my mother to be the one to bear me. She met His expectations. For my whole life, I have questioned why and for my whole life, I have focused on the wrong answers. Not because the right answers were not in front of me; but because I chose to blind myself to them.
During my journey of self healing, I forgave many who did unspeakable wrongs to me. But forgiving my mother seemed impossible. Not because what she did (or did not do) was worse than what others did, but because she did not meet my expectations thereby making the pain worse. If I am being truly honest, that is an incredibly unfair standard.
When you allow yourself to love, you choose to overlook shortcomings and focus on the good. That is what is at the heart of forgiveness. That is my choice today.
So many of the things I love best about me are rooted in her. I have been too hurt and angry to acknowledge that. But not acknowledging the truth is only perpetuating a lie. While the lies might’ve been necessary for survival, they are unnecessary if you want to live.
So here are some of the things I am grateful to my mother for…
My Life. She was 19 when she gave birth to me. 19. I forget how young that is when it comes to my mother. She was a child getting through the tumultuousness of adolescence compounded by dysfunction, newly married to a mentally ill and often violent man. And then motherhood. Barely knowing who you are yourself then being responsible for an entirely new human being. How frightening that must’ve been. But here I am anyway. If not for fighting through the fear, I would not be.
Style. My mother was a groovy 70s chick. She looked like a mod Liza Minelli. I used to love going into her closet, finding her patchwork denim bellbottoms, fringed suede bags and platform clogs. I dreamed of looking just as groovy one day.
Feminism. My mother embraced the sexual revolution. Gloria Steinem was among her heroes. As a young woman who had been victimized more than many by the subservience to men, forced into silence, it’s no wonder she so fervently joined the movement to speak out. She subscribed to Ms. Magazine and bought me my most favorite record that was put out by Ms.’s publisher: Free to Be You and Me. I played that record on my victrola until I wore the needle out. There were songs, vignettes and stories of acceptance. That album was crucial in how I saw myself and the world.
Writing. The thing that is most essentially me undeniably came from her. My mother is truly gifted with the written word. Although I never had a lot of opportunity to read her writings, I was always left in awe of the way she was able to articulate her unique point of view.
A mother’s love is unconditional. That’s a two way street. As we mature into adulthood, the child inside lets go of the impossible notion of our mothers being superhuman and embrace their humanity. It is a priceless gift for both mother and child. And today it is a gift i am finally ready to give and receive.
My father died of a bullet wound to the head when he was 31 years old. It had nothing to do with his military service but everything to do with the personal war he waged during his entire brief existence on this earth.
When I was seven years old, I was told of my father’s tragic death by his mother. Grandma Dottie was less of a stranger to me at that point than my father was but she was still not someone I knew well. I remember thinking that I was sad because she looked so sad while telling me this news. At seven, I had only just started to have a concept of what death actually was. It was also just about when I started to understand my unconventional family dynamics; that the man who was raising me, the man I called “Daddy” was instead my grandfather and the last time I saw my biological father I was just two years old so no direct memories existed. This news Grandma Dottie brought me ensured that we would never have the opportunity form new memories.
After my father’s death, I started to see Grandma Dottie more frequently. We rarely spoke about him, even when I asked. She told me that he was mischievous, getting into a good degree of trouble. He loved cars and their speed. He frequented the old drag strips of Long Island with cars he worked on and owned…and some that he “borrowed.” He liked to take things apart and rebuild them. His dream was to be a pilot, fast and far away from everything that held him down. He enlisted in the US Air Force as soon as he was able. He was almost legally blind but the Vietnam War was raging on at the time so they welcomed any volunteers they could get. He never did become a pilot. In fact, he was discharged early. (The reason for his discharge was one of the greatest mysteries of my father that haunted me. I only found out for sure what the circumstances of his release were a few months ago.) Talking about him made Grandma Dottie sad. Even as a child I was in tune with that so eventually, I stopped asking her questions.
But my questions never stopped. As I got older, more and more kept coming. Terrible things were all my mother had to say about him, on the rare occasions that she said anything about him…but she rarely said anything to me at all about anything. Despite all that, I always had a burning desire to find out more about him. There was no Internet then. I had no idea where to even begin searching. All I did was lament over it for years with whomever would listen.
When I was 31, a private investigator was hired to find me. Grandma Dottie, with whom I became estranged decades before, and her ex-husband, Peter F. Dajnowski, Sr., my paternal grandfather, had both died. They had a horrific marriage that ended in an even more horrific divorce before I was even born so the irony of the timing of their deaths was not lost on me. Their estates needed to be settled so next of kin needed to be located. Settling an estate for regular people is not the grandiose moment the movies portray it to be. For me, it was just an overweight, balding man who smelled like cheetos and cigarettes coming to my house asking me several questions about things I didn’t have answers for. Each of us had a lot of the same questions and I asked him to share those answers with me once he obtained them. He said he couldn’t do that but the people who hired him to find me might be able to help.
Just as the private investigator said, the attorney that hired him to find me reached out to me. It turns out that my father’s brother was still alive and communicating with the attorneys. But my father’s untimely death and prior estrangement from me and his other two daughters complicated this process. I got excited. I thought that after all these years, I had the chance to have my questions answered. This was not the case. After hearing my story, the paralegal was sympathetic but said that they couldn’t disclose the personal information for my uncle or half sisters. What I could do was write them letters that they would collect from me then extend to them. This way the ball would be in their court to reach out to me. That’s what I did.
When I didn’t hear from any of these family members for a while, I followed up with the paralegal to see if she sent my letters. She said she did. Sadly, she told me that my father’s brother flat out told her that he was never going to reach out to me. He wanted nothing to do with me. I was just a sad reminder of his big brother. I told her I understood, which I did. When we hung up the phone, I cried anyway.
A few days later, I got a call. It was my father’s brother, Joseph. He told me what the paralegal relayed to me already. He was unapologetic then…surprised me. We made arrangements to meet at a diner in Fresh Meadows. I had only ever seen a few photos of him over the years. I didn’t know if I would recognize him. I knew for sure that he wouldn’t recognize me. Once again, I was filled with excitement at the thought of finally having some answers. AND I would be getting those answers from someone who loved him so I figured my chances of hearing something positive were pretty high. When we found eachother at the diner (wasn’t as hard as I thought it would be), my Uncle Joseph told me that a year or two before he had a stroke. Physically, he made a 100% recovery. Mentally, he did not fare as well. The part of the brain that was effected was where his long term memory is stored. The good news is that he is completely able to form new memories. The bad news is that the majority of his existing memories prior to the stroke were erased. You can’t make this shit up.
Over our meal, we talked and laughed. Uncle Joseph told me that he was glad that he changed his mind about meeting me. He said there were a couple of things he remembered that he wished were among the things erased. He told me about the night my father died. He told me about when my father came home early from the US Air Force. The Incident that brought about his (honorable) discharge is an amusing anecdote involving profanity, an M16, USAF M15s and nudity but the aftermath carries with it the underlying sadness of my father’s brief existence. Because of the damage my uncle sustained with the stroke, I questioned the accuracy of these stories…but at least they were tales told by someone who actually knew and loved him. It was a start.
Fast forward to the power of The Internet. I would periodically Google my father’s name to see if anyone added any information about him anywhere — HS yearbook pictures, his name in conjunction with Islip Speedway, anything. One day, some thing came up. His name and a photo on Cochise Memory Gardens website. It was a photo of my father’s grave marker bearing his name, USAF rank, birth date and date of death. Son-of-a-bitch…my uncle was right. Despite that crazy story about what happened on base, my father was honorably discharged from the US Air Force and laid to rest in a military cemetery.
Fast forward again a few more years to me one day passing American Legion Rusy Bohm Post 411 and taking note of the sign saying that the Ladies Auxiliary has an ongoing membership drive. A friend of mine from the neighborhood was a member of the Ladies Auxiliary so I asked what I had to do to become a member. I had to be the relative (daughter, granddaughter, wife) of a serviceman who was in active duty during an international conflict and that serviceman had to have been discharged honorably. To prove this, I needed to produce a copy of my father’s DD-214s (official discharge paperwork). When I explained my family situation, my friend directed me to a website. As next-of-kin, I am entitled to this paperwork. To my surprise and delight, the website gave me the option of requesting only a copy of my father’s DD-214s or his entire service record. My father’s entire service record. Wow. This is something in my wildest dreams did I ever think I’d be able to see. I checked the box but didn’t get too excited. I was tired of being Charlie Brown to football toting Lucy.
After what seemed like an eternity, a large, scary manila envelope addressed to me appeared in my mailbox. There it was. My father’s DD-214s officially confirming that my father was honorably discharged from the US Air Force along with his entire military service record. Nineteen pieces of paper looked like pure gold to me. I hit the jackpot. I had my father’s old addresses, a copy of his fingerprints and his signature. I had the details of his medical record. I learned that his eyesight was every bit as bad as I was told it was. I learned that the illness that caused The Incident that gained his honorable discharge was something he arrived at Lackland with and something he carried with him until his passing. I learned that his upbringing was every bit as horrific as I heard it was and was a major factor in his illness.
For the first time, I had pieces of the puzzle in my hands. Not all the pieces…but a lot of them. I would never be able to obtain all of them…but now it’s okay. My father liked to take things apart and build things. So do I. He did it with auto parts. I do it with ideas and words. Same thing. We take inventory of what we’ve got and make something better than what we started with…sometimes we need to get creative in order to fill in the blanks and make it work. The demons are as dead as we allow them to be. Each of us spent a lot of time being haunted. Each of us longed to be part of something good. I took my father’s DD-214s, applied for my membership to the Ladies Auxiliary and began to turn a tragic tale into something hopeful.
I get to create your legacy, Dad. My third of it anyway. This is a gift. I get to carry on what you started. I get to honor the flag that people like you helped to preserve and the freedom it symbolizes. I get to do good because of the life you gave me and the choice you made to enlist while others were literally running from the war. Maybe the opportunity to create new memories with you didn’t die on September 16, 1977 when that bullet landed in your brain. Maybe on Monday, I won’t only be marching with the Ladies Auxiliary of Rusy Bohm Post 411 in the Memorial Day Parade…but I will also be marching with you.
In recovery, every day is kind of like Throwback Thursday. In the examination of events that occurred in the past and how you participated in or responded to them, we recover. Until we do that, those events are never quite over and the destruction is kept alive in the behaviors we display.
In May of 2014, I was invited to be the Special Guest Speaker on the Stop Child Abuse Now (SCAN) internet radio show. It’s a podcast that broadcasts live. The shows are archived so you can listen to a vast array of special guests, adult survivors of a variety of child abuse, speaking about their experiences, strength and hope. Prior to my first appearance, I listened to several archived podcasts. I highly recommend doing so to any fellow survivors, victims trying to transition into survivors or any civilians who want to learn more about the lasting effects child abuse has.
While during recovery, I shared my story with others in groups and in this blog, I was scared last year to hear those words leave my mouth and hit the airwaves. Some of those feelings were expected; telling these stories make us extremely vulnerable and one of the common threads we have is that our vulnerability was exploited, to be used as a weapon against us. Some of those feelings were unexpected; what if they hear my story and say I don’t belong? That would be the ultimate rejection, wouldn’t it? I was accepted immediately and welcomed into The Family. That acceptance is something my upbringing has always left me yearning for. Even though I’ve never met anyone in the SCAN Family in person, the kinship is strong. I learned that night, as I have throughout my recovery, the vulnerability of sharing our experience, strength and hope is no longer an instrument of exploitation. In our hands, it gives us strength. It was an emotional experience but indescribably empowering.
A great deal has happened in my life from May 2014 to May 2015. Breakthroughs in my recovery occurred and because of that, I am finally able to truly fix the wreckage. I’m still me. But today, I look at myself differently than I did. My eyes are adjusting so that I see myself more like the people who love me do rather than succumbing to the power of suggestion the sick and damaged people in charge of me had over me. It’s a process. It’s all about progress and not perfection. I am the first person to tell you I am far from perfect, but today I am making steady progress. So to celebrate the anniversary of this catalyst, I was the Special Guest once again on the show. The link to it is below.
Be warned…nothing I say is graphic but it is very personal. You might not want to know quite that much about me. That’s more than fine if that’s the case. And the show is 90 minutes long. I don’t know if I would be able to listen to me talk for 90 minutes (although the panelists and callers do engage in a lot of the exchange so — thankfully — it’s not all me).
Each of us has our own past. Many of us enjoy the weekly opportunity to throw ourselves back into nostalgia. Some of us prefer to throw it all away, as if it never existed. In all cases, the past is done…but it’s only truly over when you move on. That choice is yours. Choose wisely.
There is a well-written blog entry that is making its way around Facebook called “A Letter to the Motherless Daughters on Mother’s Day.” I read it because I consider myself a motherless daughter. The blog struck me on two levels. First the level on which it was intended to; I miss Mama, my maternal grandmother who was my mother in every sense but biology, since she passed away 10 years ago. Jenna, the author of the blog, says, “Remember the sorrow, remember the love, remember everything. Talk to her, she’s always listening.” I do. And I believe that. It is an important reminder, though, and I am glad Jenna took the time out to remind all of us who have had this type of significant loss. On days like this, it is easy to succumb to that profound sadness instead of focusing on the joys of the life they gave us, as all good mothers want their babies to do. What a blessing it was that my Mama loved me, cared for me, believed in me and did her best to protect me when it was not her responsibility to do so. I do not know what would have become of me if she hadn’t. That is something to celebrate today.
Then on the other level…profound loneliness because of the abuse and abandonment of my biological mother. Truth be told, I was hoping that Jenna’s open letter was addressed to people like me…the ones whose mothers defied instinct and harmed their babies rather than nurture them. Each year I would be filled with a sense of dread as I entered the Hallmark store. All the cards spoke to the unconditional mother’s love that’s been expressed through the years or boo-boo kissing or creating enduring memories. Hallmark didn’t have a card celebrating the enduring memories my mother bestowed upon me. I felt like a freak. I felt like a hypocrite when I did buy one, knowing that this is nowhere near the relationship I ever had. I felt like I was the only one who couldn’t get passed the things my mother said and did or didn’t do. I would try to tell people about my dilemma and get responses like “Wow…that’s horrible…but she’s your mom and it’s Mother’s Day.” It’s not their fault. Most people don’t understand…and that is a blessing in and of itself. But for those of us Other Motherless Children, it is indescribably lonely on a daily basis, amplified to a nearly unbearable degree on this day each year. But we are not alone. Sadly, there are a lot of us out there. I wished that Jenna’s blog spoke to that because it’s something that nobody ever writes about. Today, I am writing about it.
There is a particular shame attached to being the kid that even a mother couldn’t love. Through decades of therapy and being blessed with people who love me-for-me, I learned on a rational level that the rejection I experienced had little-to-nothing to do with me and everything to do with my mother and her own baggage and frailties…but the feeling of being unlovable never fully goes away. You just pick up tools and the skills to use them to cope with the pain effectively. It does get better if you let it.
Becoming a mother myself was terrifying. My greatest fear was that no matter what I did, my baby’s fate would be to have a mother like mine. I believed the things she said about me. I believed my defects were the most dominating parts of who I was and that it was all I had to offer. She was wrong about me. I was wrong about me. I am my own person and because of that, I became my own brand of Mommy…who was far from perfect. Let’s be honest here. I am still “me” and I prove daily that I am human…some days more human than others. I am heavily flawed. I have numerous issues. But I am greater than the sum of my parts. I am a survivor. I love my baby girl unconditionally, the way that every mother should. These are the greatest gifts I can give her. The love that my little girl and I share is what I celebrate today.
I believe there are two sides of every coin. Even in the darkest situation, if you look really hard for it, you will find that it brought light to you as well. While light may never outshine the darkness of that particular situation, I’ve gotten comfort from a single candle’s light during a blackout, helping me to manage through it…so long as I made sure it didn’t blow out.
Because of my life’s negative experiences, I possess positive qualities and skills that I don’t believe I would’ve otherwise obtained, at least not to the degree that I achieved them. I am the calm during the storm; I am able to remain rational amid chaos, formulating a focused plan to make it to the other side of it. I am deeply compassionate because I realize that there is usually a reason behind why people are the way they are and behave the way that they behave; hurt people hurt people…often times others, more often themselves. I listen keenly to words spoken and unspoken because I know the pain of being ignored. I can find the humor in anything and use the power of laughter (often peppered with sarcasm) to help myself and others out of the darkness. I have not reached the state of enlightenment in my recovery where I am thankful for receiving the negative experiences of my upbringing. I don’t know if I will ever reach that state. But I have gratitude for the lessons it taught me, the gifts I received because of it and the unique way I can help others get through it all.
So to all the Other Motherless Children out there today…Mom was wrong. However you got here, you have a right to be here. You are deserving of real love. You are not alone. YOU are the candle that shines through the darkness. Break the cycle. I did. You can, too.
So yesterday was the 27th anniversary of my Abuelita’s death. I am no stranger to the reflective energy solemn anniversaries bring with them. I take that energy to weave my thoughts into words as best as I can. My thoughts set out yesterday and had an old photo in mind to illustrate them. Sometimes you find more than what you were initially looking for during your search…sometimes it turns out that you were mistaken about what you were looking for all along.
My Abeulita was born in Caracas, Venezuela in 1895…we think. They didn’t strive for absolute accuracy with birth records in the 19th century. Add to that most births happened at home (by midwife if you were lucky) rather than in hospital, I guess we are fortunate to have records at all. When I was a kid I thought it was so freaky that I lived with somebody who was born in a different century. I likened it to being born on a different planet. In some ways, I guess it was. I get to look forward to being on the other end of that when one day…in the waaaaay distant future…I become the grandma born closer to the middle of the last century than its turn.
She didn’t come here in search of a better life. To hear her tell it, life was pretty damn beautiful in Caracas. They lived on an estate that was lined with lush gardens, plentiful with fruit and flowers. They had a maid and nanny to help care for the home and children. Abuelita was among the last of 12 kids in the family so there was a lot to keep up with, especially without the modern 20th century household amenities. She received some education, although it was not mandatory back then for girls. Her eyes sparkled when she would tell me stories about the place she grew up. How even though it was on the equator, it never got too hot. There in the same day you could go to the beach and go skiing. But that life came to an end when her father died in an accident while away on business in Puerto Rico leaving her mother a widow with five children to tend to. The eldest four of the twelve lived on their own and the other three siblings had long since passed away, each dying before their fifth birthdays. Such things happened in the olden days. Abuelita’s mother, Maria – but everyone knew her as “Tata” – had a sister who married an American businessman. When she heard of the tragedy, she and her husband sponsored Tata and the children to come to America.
I can only imagine the culture shock my Abuelita must have experienced as she left the only life she ever knew on an estate in Caracas to living in a five-story walk-up in Washington Heights. If you are unfamiliar with Washington Heights, it is a section of Manhattan that is north of Harlem but not quite The Bronx…almost, but not quite. Today it is still a Latino community with a large Dominican population. Back in the early decades of the 1900s when Abuelita arrived, there were many Venezuelans, as well as others originally from South America. She never got used to New York. It was never home to her. Caracas was…but sadly, she never saw it again after she left.
She met and married a very dapper Venezuelan immigrant. Unlike Abuelita, he came to America as soon as he was able so he could create a better life. He came from a place in Venezuela called Maracaibo. There, you very much felt like you were on the equator. The land is at sea level so it is incredibly damp. Mattresses had to be made of grass otherwise they would mildew. The only relief from the oppressive heat and humidity was Lago de Maracaibo (Lake Maracaibo). Children there would learn to swim before they could walk. It was rumored that he grew up in a house on stilts, which is a far cry from the lush estate where Abuelita was raised. Also unlike Abuelita, when he came to America, he never looked back.
He and the other men – Abuelita’s brothers and brothers-in-law – decided that once they arrived in America, they were Americans. In order to succeed here, they would assimilate to American culture. They would speak only English…not only while out and about in New York but among eachother and to the children. Abuelita and the other women were resistant to that. They felt it was important to keep the culture of the old country, to speak Spanish at home, especially to the children. Otherwise their past would die. Decades later, I benefited from Abuelita’s way of thinking.
In 1971, our family found itself in Flushing. Glamorous name aside, my original Queens hometown’s notable history includes playing host to not one but TWO World’s Fairs and is home to LaGuardia Airport and Shea Stadium, home of the New York Mets. Yes, I still call it Shea. Always will. Sue me. Flushing is also home to stunning Tudor style homes. That is not the Flushing where I grew up, although I had friends who lived there. My Flushing wasn’t quite Downtown –my daily walks with Mama took us there – but there were welfare apartments all along our block. We lived in the “upper end” of the low-rent district in a large three bedroom, one-and-a-half bathroom apartment on the top floor of a two-family house. Mama insisted on getting a larger apartment after my mother returned fresh from her last beating inflicted by my father when I was six-months-old…that’s another story, which I’ve told before and I am sure to tell again…just not right now.
Our household consisted of Mama (my mother’s mother), Henry (my mother’s father and the pedophile that both raised and abused me…again, another story I’ve told before and will again…just not now), his mother (my great-grandmother, my Abuelita who was widowed for 10 years by then), occasionally my mother (when she wasn’t “on dates”) and me. Mama was a homemaker, as was Abuelita. They shared household and childcare duties with Mama, a woman of her 40s, undertaking the majority of tasks. I’d like to say that it was a seamless blend of the three generations, learning, loving and laughing the days away…but I’d be lying. Harmonious it surely was not. Mama had a gruff, sandpapery, strong disciplinarian way about her. Abuelita was gentle and patient and very nearly deaf. Even though caring for me was a lot more work for her, I think one of the reasons Mama liked having me around was that I offered a distraction to Abuelita, and she for me.
Sometimes I would spend the whole day in Abuelita’s bedroom with her. She spoke to me in Spanish, English, too, but she tried to speak Spanish to me as much as she could. Living with her since I was less than a year old, I learned English and Spanish at the same time. Abuelita thought it was important that I have someone to speak Spanish with otherwise I would forget how. One of the many things that she was right about. Abuelita died when I was 17 and I haven’t consistently spoken Spanish with anyone since.
I used to love hearing her stories. She’d tell them over and over again. I would never tire of them though. She would point to the scar on the top of her head, “Do you know how I got this one?” And I would proudly recite the tale of how the bunch of bananas growing on the tree in her yard chose the exact moment she was passing under it to fall square upon her head. Tata thought that Abuelita was going to die, the gash on her head bled so profusely. But she didn’t. All that happened was that she got a permanent scar and a story to tell. There were a lot of stories like that. Abuelita was clumsy and awkward. It made me feel less awkward somehow.
We would go through her old photos and she would explain to me who these long dead people were. At the time, my little brain couldn’t comprehend that these people in the funny old, black and white or sepia toned photos were real people, let alone my relatives from generations past and worlds away. I just loved hearing the stories. Even more than the stories themselves, I loved listening to her tell them. Her sweet voice with all its inflections. How she would hold my hand during the dramatic parts. The way she’d lovingly look into my eyes during the poignant tales. As young as I was, I knew that these stories were important to my Abuelita and that made me pay very close attention to every word she said, whether it was in Spanish or English. I’m glad I did.
Although she didn’t do it very often, I would always be Abuelita’s helper in the kitchen when she cooked. Abuelita had some old school ideas that didn’t make sense to Mama. For one thing, Abuelita did not believe in refined sugar. She would use honey in and on almost everything. As a kid when all the other kids broke out their PB&Js, I had a PB&Honey. They thought it was weird. I thought it was delicious. To this day, if I am feeling out of sorts, you’ll find me munching on one. I helped her make platanos, arepas, ropa viejo, carne frito and everybody’s favorite…FLAN! She never had a recipe written out for any of her dishes. If we wanted to know how to prepare any of her recipes, we had to follow her around the kitchen and take notes. This made Mama nuts. Especially with the flan. All families have their own recipe for it and technique is crucial otherwise it won’t set up correctly. I am like Captain Ahab chasing Moby Dick trying to piece all the notes and memories together to make Abuelita’s most perfect flan. I can still taste it. My last one is probably as close as I’m ever going to get to it.
But the thing I loved most was when she would trace the features of my face. I would drift into a sort of trance. Abuelita would sing to me in Spanish (always in Spanish). My eyes would close and I’d get the feeling that I was floating and the top of my head would get all tingly. No matter what was going on, it all went away in those moments. I felt loved, wanted and at peace. I think she felt the same. I think we were eachother’s oasis.
Then when I was 8, Abuelita had a massive stroke. It left her entirely paralyzed on her left side. She was confined to a wheelchair. She couldn’t bathe or go to the bathroom herself. For a while, she reverted back to her native language exclusively which was a problem for Mama. Mama only knew a few Spanish words here and there. The communication barrier made a hard situation ever more difficult. I was able to help some but I was in school for much of the day. Eventually her English came back which made communicating a bit easier but after a long while, caring for Abuelita and me alone became too much for Mama to handle. Abuelita left our Barclay Avenue apartment to live in a facility where she could get 24 hour care. Mama got a part time job there so she could keep a watchful eye on Abuelita but she never quite got over the guilt over this decision. I was devastated. After Abuelita left, on so many levels, life for me on Barclay Avenue was never the same.
For the next four years until my mother remarried and we moved to Glen Oaks from Flushing, I visited Abuelita at least twice a week; every Wednesday after school and every Sunday for most of the day. Then after I moved, until I could drive, I took the bus every Sunday to see her. She would tell the same old stories and I still loved to hear them. We didn’t have the old photos but the faces were well committed to memory by then. Peppered throughout our talks, Abuelita tried to prepare me for her eventual passing. “Jesus calls everyone home. And when he calls, you have to go. No matter who you are.” This would lead into a conversation about my soul. Abuelita was a devout Catholic. I was never baptized nor did I ever get any formal religious instruction. By blood, I was half Jewish and half Catholic. By philosophy, I was neither, although, I was exposed to both religions. When I was little I used to watch mass on TV early Sunday mornings with Abuelita. It was too difficult for her to get all the way to St. Michael’s so watching mass on TV was the next best thing. She also told me that she didn’t care what the new Popes had to say; eating meat on any Friday was wrong. I especially enjoyed this practice when it lead to going to Howard Johnson’s – she’d eat the fried clams and give me the HoJo cookie from her orange sherbet – or Athur Treacher’s Fish n Chips. As we both got older, Abuelita became more passionate about my getting baptized. Not only for my soul but so that we would see eachother again. To this day I remain unbaptized. To this day I wonder if my soul is in jeopardy because of it.
We’d end each visit the same way. As best as she could with her arthritic right hand, she’d trace the features of my face while she sang a Spanish song. After I woke from my trance, she’d say over and over with a desperation in her voice, the memory of which still brings a lump to my throat…”No me olivide. No me olvide…” Don’t forget me. There’s no way I ever could.
On the morning of February 16, 1988, my phone rang. I knew what it was before I answered. It was a Tuesday and the Sunday before, Abuelita looked terrible. So terrible in fact, she asked me to go. She didn’t want me to remember her that way. Jesus would be calling soon. “No me olvide.” It wasn’t Jesus calling on the phone. It was Mama. I hung up the phone and cried for a little while. Then I picked up my spiral notebook and wrote.
When I was done, I called my friend Aruna. I had a license and a car so I used to drive her and some other friends to school (or elsewhere). I told her that I’d be getting her for school like regular but I wouldn’t be going in. My Abuelita just died and I need to get a poem to the head of our English Department to submit to the Annual Spring Poetry Festival. I needed her to tell Mr. Mead to remove my prior submission and replace it with this. February 16th was the submission deadline. My composure caught poor Aruna off guard. That happens a lot. After I dropped Aruna and my poem at school, I went to Flushing to pick up Mama and Henry. We went to Gleason’s Funeral Home on Northern Boulevard and planned a beautiful, Catholic funeral. I remember seeing her that last time in her Sunday best, clutching her rosaries, praying that I’ll get to see her and hear the old stories again someday.
A few months later, the winners of the Annual Spring Poetry Festival were announced. I wasn’t one of them. My poem did receive an honorable mention and was going to be read at the Festival’s award ceremony at City College. Mr. Mead, the chairman of the English Department was beyond excited when he gave me the news. Apparently it was the first time any of our High School’s entries received any recognition. The ceremony was kind of a big deal. They usually have actors do the readings. Family is encouraged to come. My mother and stepfather didn’t think it was worthwhile to take the day off, especially since I didn’t actually place. I wasn’t at all surprised but Mr. Mead was stunned when I told him. He decided to make a field trip out of it, having the students in his writing group join us. We had Chinese food at this hole in the wall restaurant in Chinatown. He told the students the story of the last minute entry given to him by Aruna. I told them the story of the birth of the poem from the death of my Abuelita. We went way uptown to City College, which is not too far from Washington Heights. It was beautiful and the auditorium where the readings were taking place resembled a church. I thought that was so fitting. Earle Hyman, best known at that time for playing Bill Cosby’s dad on The Cosby Show read my poem. I still get goosebumps when I think of his strong, expressive voice giving life to my words. Now nobody will forget her.
I am the family secret keeper and the teller of tales. Is this who I always was…or was my role created out of necessity? I wonder if Abuelita always knew this about me? It was so important to her not to be forgotten…who better to pass along the family’s treasure, the family’s stories than “the writer?”
I never did find the photo I was looking for. In it, Abuelita was sitting in her wheelchair with her eyes closed, looking relaxed and content. My 8-year-old self, sporting that damn Dorothy Hamill haircut, was leaning into her, one chubby little hand holding a pot of lip balm and in deep concentration as the forefinger on my other hand glided across her mouth, just as she had done for me so often before. I hope that even though I wasn’t able to scan the original image here, I did a good enough job so that you see it anyway.
I have been fortunate to know personally many people who proudly served in our nation’s military. I give my humble gratitude to them all. If not for these relatives and friends, I wouldn’t be able to sit here and freely share my thoughts with anyone and everyone who cares to read them on this blog. Our freedom is something lifelong civilians like me often take for granted, but our military is willing to die for. That is not something to be taken lightly. Each and every one of the men, women and even canines who served should be honored today and every day.
The person I want to pay particular homage to today is my Grandpa Sam, my maternal grandmother’s father. He died the year I was born. I am glad that I had the opportunity to be held in his arms during my first three months of life. My grandmother told me it gave him great joy. I am sorry that I have no direct memory of him because through the stories I heard from my grandmother about him, he was someone special and someone that I feel I know through these stories.
Samuel Weisneivetsky (Grandpa Sam) was born in Kiev, the capital of the Ukraine, some time around the turn of the 19th to 20th century. Birth records stunk then, especially in Eastern Europe where it was extremely tumultuous. It was a hard life there. You could count on being covered with snow from November to March. But the physical climate was not the source of greatest adversity.
The Weisneivetsky family was Jewish. Jews were not well-liked throughout Europe. The rampant anti-semetism and acts of genocide by far predated the Third Reich and Hitler, which is what facilitated the Third Reich’s rise. But that is a history lesson for another time. For now, we are in Kiev, Ukraine in the late 1800’s to early 1900’s. Jews were relegated to living in ghettos and worshipping God in secret and in fear. There was no Hitler or Nazis or SS. There were Cossacks. They were the military presence in Grandpa Sam’s world. There weren’t concentration camps yet. There were Pogroms — planned riots directed against Jews characterized by killings and destruction of their homes, businesses and temples.
The military in Grandpa Sam’s world growing up were not there to preserve his and his family’s freedoms. The Cossacks came to town and destroyed. The Weisneivetsky family were furriers. They were also Orthodox Jews. One day during one of the Pogroms, Cossacks came into the family shop, robbed it of the furs, took the Weisneivetsky men and cut off their beards, which was a sacrilege. There was nobody to report this to for justice. The military was in charge and they were the ones perpetrating the acts. Similar stories were all over Europe. Grandpa Sam knew that there was a better life than this and heard that it could be found in America.
When Samuel Weisneivetsky arrived at Ellis Island, he became Samuel Weiss. It was easier to spell and pronounce and he thought it was more American. He was anxious to put Kiev behind him and start a brand new life. Immigrant life was difficult. There weren’t many jobs. None for him in the family’s furrier trade. But there were also no Pogroms here so he felt it was a good life doing odd jobs and having a modest apartment in Brooklyn. He was allowed to be a Jew and live anywhere he could afford. There were temples within blocks of churches. He could worship freely without worrying about a price to pay later if anyone saw him. The police were there for the good of all the members of the community. America was exactly what Grandpa Sam hoped it would be. Even though he was dirt poor, he was proud to be part of his new homeland.
Then came World War I. Grandpa Sam enlisted in the army. He would see Europe again but this was no longer his home. He was fighting with his new country for its ideals. America gave him a life he never could have had in Europe. He was free here. It was important that he be part of the preservation of this way of life. His children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren and on will never know the oppression he knew. Grandpa Sam was proud to wear the American Army uniform. The military stood for something so different in America than it did in Kiev. Wearing that uniform also gave him the opportunity to help liberate those who were like him in Europe and who did not have the good fortune to make it to America. He considered it an honor to serve and was proud that he could be an active part of the victory in The Great War.
When Grandpa Sam came home, he had a trade he learned in the Army; lithography. No more odd jobs. As it turned out, Grandpa Sam was a gifted lithographer. This was his profession until the Great Depression. Then the shops closed up. There were no jobs for a skilled laborer such as himself so it was back to doing odd jobs to support his family. These were difficult times indeed. But Grandpa Sam’s love of America never wavered. We were all in this together and the government was working on programs to get everyone back on their feet.
In 1941, the United States entered World War II. The Third Reich had risen and there were rumors too horrible for people to believe about what was happening to the Jews and other minority groups in Europe. Having lived through the Pogroms, Grandpa Sam found these rumors less difficult to believe. He wanted so much to go back and fight with the American Army as he did in World War I. If ever there was a just war, this was it. However, by 1941, Grandpa Sam was in his 40’s. Hardly ideal for a soldier. He resigned himself to supporting the war in other ways. But then a strange thing happened…Grandpa Sam got a draft notice.
The Army had a record of Grandpa Sam’s lithography training. They also realized how skilled he was at it. They needed someone of his skills and experience to print the maps the generals and soldiers would use to guide them through their battles. They had to be perfect. Lives were at stake. Winning these battles and eventually the war put our very freedom at stake.
Grandpa Sam said that it was his proudest moment to put on his uniform once again after being sought out by his country. This time he did not go to Europe. He served on Governor’s Island, jut off of New York City. My grandmother told me about the times she went to visit her daddy there, how much fun it was to shop at the PX and that they even had a movie theater there. She said that during her visits to Governor’s Island was the happiest she had ever seen her father. He stood tall and proud. And even though he was older than anyone else there, he was a soldier, fighting the good fight like everyone else.
Thank you Grandpa Sam for following your heart to a better life, for standing up and fighting for it and showing us that you can help battles to be won without picking up a gun. I am honored that you are part of me and my family.
Today is International Holocaust Remembrance Day. On January 27, 1945, the largest Nazi death camp at Auschwitz-Birkenau was liberated. In 2005, the United Nations General Assembly designated January 27th as the day we remember the six million lives that were cruelly ended because of intolerance and hate gone wild.
On January 27, 1930, my Mama was born on a kitchen table in The Bronx to her parents who fled Jewish persecution in Russia, years before the rise of the Third Reich. She did not practice Judaism but always identified herself as a Jew and proudly shared the culture with me as she raised me. She told me of the horrors of persecution through the ages but she always focused on the fact that we come from a long line of survivors who for thousands of years not only beat all odds by merely existing, but who found joy in life.
In 2005, my Mama left this world. In her coffin I placed in her hand her favorite earthly delights: a pack of Pall Mall red, no filters (which was the culprit behind Mama leaving me so soon), chocolate covered cherries with all liquid centers, Joyva marble halvah and song sheets for all the good old songs she’d sing with her brother. I kept the memories here…in my heart. Since 2005, I remember my Yiddisha Mama.
I find the coincidence of International Holocaust Remembrance Day occurring on her birthday and it being declared the year she died, strange…but very fitting.
Today, remember to be kind to one another. Honor this day.
I had a dream last night about my Uncle Milton. He was sitting in a booth at the Palace Diner in Flushing. He was having a cup of piping hot coffee and wearing his navy peacoat. My Uncle Milton was a Navy Man, just like his big brother, Sydney. Uncle Sydney served in WWII. Uncle Milton was too young but he served in the Korean War. Like all the Weiss men, he was proud to serve his country.
In my dream, he looked exactly as I remembered him, complete with a wooden toothpick in the left side of his mouth. I sat down across from him in the booth. I was surprised to see him. Even while I was dreaming, I remembered that he’s been dead since 1999. I got the feeling he was expecting me, though. My lip began to quiver and a lump came to my throat. “Oh Uncle Milton,” I said. “I’ve missed you so much. Especially lately. The summer before last, something terrible happened…” Uncle Milton reached out and held my hand. His nearly black eyes looked through his glasses straight into mine, which were welling up with tears. “I heard, Judy.” I was scared of what he was going to say next. I was afraid he would be enraged with me like his sister, Pearl, was when she heard. Then he said, “I will make sure to get justice.” I felt warm and safe in my dream then burst into tears, my hand still in his. Then I woke up.
It seemed so real. In typical Weiss-fashion, Uncle Milton was never overtly affectionate. The picture above of the two of us on the sofa (yes, that’s me with a Dorothy Hammil haircut) is about as close to a hug as Uncle Milton and I exchanged and on the occasion that he gave me a kiss on the cheek, it was a very wet one that my little hands were quick to wipe off as soon as he turned his back. But I always felt warm and safe whenever I went to Uncle Milton and Aunt Carol’s house. I loved going there. My grandmother used to take me there quite a lot when I very young. My cousin Melissa (she was Missy to me back then) is about two years older than I am so we would play together. Jeannie is about three years older than Melissa so she didn’t have much use for us kiddies but she was never a mean to us. Lauren was the oldest girl and helped keep an eye on all of us. Then there was Richie. I remember he was always up to something mischievous with Kenny. They always had pets running around and the house looked like people actually lived there, unlike where I lived because my grandmother was an obsessive cleaner. Our furniture was covered in plastic slipcovers so it was never comfortable to sit down. At Uncle Milton’s and Aunt Carol’s, their sofa practically cried out for human contact. Aunt Carol drove a station wagon (Uncle Milton never drove; I’m not sure if he ever even got a driver’s license – oddly, my grandmother didn’t drive either). It was totally ’70s – wood paneling and all. Melissa and I used to play in it sometimes. She’d pretend to drive. I just loved hanging out in the back. It was my dream car.
Don’t get me wrong. I am not so delusionally nostalgic that I remember their house being like “The Brady Bunch.” There was yelling and fighting. About as much as you would expect in a home with four kids. Neither Uncle Milton nor Aunt Carol were perfect. They did a good deal of the yelling and the fighting. But it wasn’t the same as it was where I lived. When my cousins got yelled at, they didn’t seem afraid that their parents didn’t love them anymore or that they’d be angry at them forever or that they were sorry that they had been born. People got angry there, expressed it then got over it. They seemed happy. I was always jealous of my cousins for that. I always hoped that one day Uncle Milton and Aunt Carol would see how sad I was and ask me to come live with them. I thought that they already had four kids running around in there. One more at that point couldn’t have made that much of a difference, right? But that day never came. As I got older, I went to Uncle Milton and Aunt Carol’s house less and less frequently. I really missed them.
I saw Uncle Milton more than I saw the rest of the family. He and my grandmother were siblings. We had some really interesting talks about history, human nature, justice and other topics I never thought to be synonymous with Uncle Milton. He had a good and loving way about him. Family was so important to him, probably because of the way he grew up. He and Uncle Sydney were sent to a boys home because their mother (my Great-grandma Lily) couldn’t care for them. Well, that was the official story. The real story was that the man, Max, Great-grandma Lily lived with (she was estranged from her husband, my Great-grandpa Sam), didn’t want the boys around so she got rid of them. Pearl went to live with another family member who raised her and my grandmother was the one she kept. These circumstances were not ideal to create harmony and a sense of family. The siblings that were cast-off were resentful of my grandmother for being the one that their mother kept while at the same time, my grandmother suffered terrible abuse at the hand of Max while her mother turned a blind-eye. On occasions that Uncle Milton and Uncle Sydney visited, Max was abusive to them as well. I can only speculate because even during our deep talks, Uncle Milton and I never spoke about his upbringing, but I think that this experience galvanized his resolve to have a happy, loving family. He succeeded. I always got the feeling from him that he would kill or die for any member of his family and had a deep desire to try and undo the damage that was done to him and all his siblings.
It was a great wish of his for me to have a close relationship with his children. The birth of my daughter seemed to do that. Melissa became caretaker to my Catalina for her first three years. Catalina still calls her “Aunt Missy” even though they are really third-cousins or something distant like that. I’m so happy that Uncle Milton got to see us celebrate holidays and special occasions together. I would have loved for him to come to my wedding. He would have loved to see Melissa stand up for me as my Matron-of-Honor. But I got married in 2004, five years after Uncle Milton passed away (I don’t do things in conventional order). He would be happy to know that thanks to Facebook, all of us have gotten to know eachother even better and keep tabs on eachother on a daily basis in a way that we likely wouldn’t otherwise.
It will be two years come August 17th that life changed for me and my family. As horrific as it was, one of the shining lights to come of it came from Aunt Carol and Melissa. They share the horror in their ways. But unlike Pearl who met me with anger, Aunt Carol and Melissa gave me compassion, unconditional love and support, the depths of which I had never known from family. It brought me back to how I felt when I was amid the chaos of their home in the ’70s except this time, it was my home, too. When I spoke to Melissa about it (I still haven’t spoken to Jeannie and although I know she knows what happened, I don’t think it will ever be anything we talk about to eachother), she brought up Uncle Milton. It was the first time either one of us was close to being thankful that he wasn’t around because if he was…we would have found out for certain that he was willing to kill or die for family.
Maybe all this is where my dream last night came from. I am haunted as I am coping with what happened. Every new day is a new adventure in my mind, that’s for sure. Maybe somewhere in my subconscious Uncle Milton is there to serve the justice that he and I spoke about, that each of us so desperately needed and wanted but didn’t believe was out there for everyone in this imperfect world.
I love you, Uncle Milton. Whether last night’s dream was a visit from the Great Beyond or an internal manifestation, it was good to talk to you again. It was good to feel your love. I know you are looking out for me and it is very comforting. Don’t worry, I won’t let my little family and yours drift apart again.