cross purposes

The borders between the United States and Canada used to be a lot more porous, especially up around Vermont and Maine and New Hampshire. My great grandmother, fluent in French and still connected to numerous relatives along the St. Lawrence River, crossed back and forth freely, sending postcards all along the way. The postcards depict, not theaters or opera houses or statues, but bastions of progress and industry: factories, mills, dams. There were other options–I’ve seen them; I’ve waded through boxes and boxes of such postcards from the same towns; by the same publishing companies. But those were the postcards she chose to send.

Her marriage was unhappy, I am told. She was a skilled seamstress with a successful business and had little use or interest in a husband and a child. Her daughter–my grandmother–was lonely, and felt like a prop for the elaborate cloth confections her mother cooked up. She was allowed to wear them about town but never to muss them up; they were intended to be a kind of walking advertisement. She adored her father, who kept to the railroad and looked after those who rode it to the point where he took out newspaper ads when he found lost or forgotten items on the train. I found one such ad accidentally, while trying to fix a poorly-organized website. My great-grandfather is gallantly striving to return a carriage shawl.

My grandmother, with no siblings and absent or preoccupied parents, gravitated toward the Romani caravans that traveled back and forth across the same border her mother used to routinely cross in her youth. She spoke of them from a cloud of dementia in a hospice bed when I was in high school. A boy with blue eyes. I found this and wonder if she felt rebellious, embracing a group her community had a tendency to spurn, or if she was just lonely and didn’t care how people judged her for attempting to remedy that. When the borders clamped down, the peregrinations of the Roma largely stopped, and most of them settled to the north. My grandmother, like her mother before her, married someone rooted to the earth, in calculating how to bring it to heel, whether through rendering its trees into paper or its rocks into glittering gemstones. She, too, moved away from the land she’d wandered as a girl, never to return, although it would not be international law but rather responsibility and family that held her in place. On her bedside table she kept a black-and-white panorama picture of the bay nestling the town where she grew up, speaking always–as you do, with dementia–of wanting to go back.

A generation before the second world war, my husband’s family was Jewish. One man changed the pronunciation, claimed they were French, and left for America, telling his descendents nothing of their heritage. The family who stayed all died in Theresienstadt. My husband’s grandmother–who married into this family–had always speculated about their name, assuming an identity shift somewhere back there, but as a resolute bible-thumper she cares little for the facts of the matter, contenting herself with the thought of the no doubt soon-to-arrive end times, and the reassurance that she and her born-again husband will make the cut. He knows nothing of any such heritage. I only delved into it because I had the resources, and I was bored. My husband’s ancestor, who worked so hard to have his past forgotten, his heritage erased, succeeded. The American dream.

I know what I know about my great-grandmother because my mother worked hard to sort through the dementia that runs in the family, writing down the bits of her grandmother’s past that she could verify in a dusty tome replete with fading photographs and spidery annotations. The third in a line of women who made it far enough into the modern medical age to live until dementia claimed them, my mother knew the score. She knew we would forget. So she wrote it all down, and asked me to digitize it when it became clear that was the way things were going, or ought to go. She wanted to hang onto what we are doomed to lose. Whereas my husband’s family, remarkably sharp and spry well into their old age, has endeavored to forget, successfully so, at least  until the very same digital mechanisms my mother urged me to use to save our history enabled me to access his.

I may be a sci-fi/fantasy fan, but this is not Dune. There is no memory in the blood in the way that we think of “memory” when we say it. In what connects me to my great-grandmother, there are chemical triggers and predispositions only. I don’t look at my husband’s grandfather and see a lucky few who managed to escape statistical slaughter. Nor do I look in the mirror and see the weight of forgotten liftetimes. Those advertisements for phone companies, that show the “connectedness” of internet of things devices arcing off people and things and worlds in waving rainbow ribbons? That is what, sometimes, it seems people in genealogy want you to see when you discover “your” past. These great long tenuous ropes stretching back into almost failures and near deaths. The lucky few.

But I don’t feel lucky. I just am. Maybe that is the most American thing–not to feel lucky when you in fact are, very much so. I don’t know when my husband’s ancestor who moved to America died, but he could conceivably have lived to see WW2 and what it wrought. Do you allow yourself to feel lucky? He could have hated his family, broken off with them deliberately and irrevocably, and yet, he watched the world burn, with them in it. Surely not without pain. Do you feel lucky, then? When you look at your children, perhaps? Or does the pain swallow everything? Do you wish they knew? If they did, would it matter?

He spent so much time trying to forget. My family spent so much time trying to remember. Each group failed, in different ways. Things we thought were buried surfaced, and things you we thought safe forever are gone. Around lunch tables and dinner party gatherings, I dole my mother’s stories out like candy, hoping to remember, hoping to inspire. But I know they dim with time; warp with my tweaks to sound better, to hit the right buttons in my listeners. These memories will not last.

“You set out…you set out to make yourself. To make the world. All the things you must do, and see, and learn, and be, you must go through it all. You leave home, come to the city, travel, miss nothing, experience it all, you make yourself, you fill the world with yourself and your purposes, your ambitions, your desires. Until there’s no room left. No room to turn around.”
“There is, here,” Itale put in. “I told you. I’m as empty as that beer-jug. Air, sunlight, silence, space.”
“That won’t last.”
“It will. It’s we who won’t last.” — Ursula K. LeGuin, Malafrena

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