Thursday, December 19, 2013

Family Stories

Elizabeth Zelvin

As more and more people write their letters as emails or texts and store their photographs in the Cloud or send them to Facebook, the easy disposability of these communication and storage methods makes it more and more likely that records of our family history may not survive for future generations, at least in an accessible form. My own life so far has spanned the development of home photography from a few grainy black & white pictures to brilliant color displays of portraits or candid shots snapped every few minutes and videos taken on an iPhone or iPad and uploaded to YouTube for wide dissemination. My granddaughters have been smiling for the camera since infancy and are well accustomed to performing in eight-second bytes to a favorite song for a music video. When the older one posed in mini-bridal dress for her First Communion photo a year or so ago, I wondered if she experienced it as fundamentally different from dressing up as a Disney Cinderella in blue ball gown and glass slippers at the age of three.

I treasure the few photos I have of my grandparents and the single tattered portraits of their parents that they carried with them to the New World in the early years of the twentieth century. In those days, goodbye was goodbye: not only no Skype or email, but no phone or airmail to carry letters. Crossing the Atlantic to America was a one-time voyage for them and for my parents, both young children at the time. So my mom and dad grew up without grandparents and with only limited access to their family history.

I knew only two of my own grandparents, my mother's mother and my father's father. Here's what I remember or was told about their lives.

Gran came from a large family in a town called Pápa in Hungary. I know only two of her siblings' names: her favorite sister Paola and her brother Arnold, my Cousin Lisa's father, lost in the Holocaust. As a young woman, she worked as a governess and gave piano lessons. Her name was Helen, and they called her "la bella Helena," beautiful Helen. My grandfather saw her going back and forth past his window and fell in love, she said, with her erect carriage. In her nineties, she was still proud of her posture, which was not stooped like that of most old ladies. She was widowed young and gave piano lessons to earn a living for herself and her daughters. It was only a few years ago that I learned from a second cousin that his branch of the family considered her the world's worst piano teacher, though they all loyally went to her for lessons.

Grandpa came from a town called Ekaterinaslav (Dnieprpetrovsk during the Soviet regime). He went to school only till the age of nine, when he had to quit and work to help support the family. By trade, he was a tinsmith. He came to America to avoid both pogroms and the Czar's draft, which would have meant involuntary enlistment for thirty years. He had two brothers, both of whom also came to America, so their descendants, too, survived. Smoking was a habit he picked up in his early youth. He was a natural floater who would go into the ocean, raise his entire upper body out of the water, and float—wearing glasses, reading a newspaper, and smoking a cigar.


Sheila Connolly said...

I may have as many photos from the Irish side of my family (both grandparents emigrated in 1911) than my Yankee side, which goes back forever. As you said, when you left Ireland, it was usually forever, so those photos mattered. As for the other side, I think they simply weren't tech-minded (my mother used to tell a story about her father getting his fingers stuck in the beater of an electric mixer), so never took pictures. Treasure your pictures, share them, and take good care of them!

jrlindermuth said...

Modern family dynamics are already posing a challenge for future generations. In my other life as a genealogist I deal with many people who don't even know the names of grandparents, let alone have photos or stories.

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

John, the title poem of my first poetry book, I Am the Daughter, starts:

I am the daughter of the son of the daughter
of a woman whose name no one remembers

There's a verse for each great-grandmother.

I wish my granddaughters had more of a sense of who my mother was (a remarkable person, who came to America in 1906 and went to law school in 1921), but they're too busy with the present and the future to pay attention. Maybe when they're older. :)