This is six years

 

Classic Photo 257

Two weeks ago at 3:45 in the morning, Mr. B’s phone rang. I heard it in my sleep. This the call, I thought mechanically, automatically. We’d been waiting for it, but not wanting it, for the past month. It was his mom, and it meant that his grandmother had succumbed to the heart problems that had been plaguing her for the past thirty years and reduced the warmth of her life to a series of emotionless medical statistics in cardiac intensive care units across Philadelphia for the past month.

I held Mr. B’s hand in the darkness as he fumbled for the phone, and in those three seconds between when the phone rang and when he answered it with someone else’s voice, I felt like he and I I had turned forty years old and the weight of the world descended on us in the early morning gloom. The baby kicked her quiet early-morning kicks, breaking up the silence of our small space. Mr. B got up. He was going to drive with his family to his grandfather to spend time with him before the funeral, four, five people trying to fill the space one person had created through over fifty years of marriage. He didn’t say a word, putting on his shirt methodically. I went downstairs to make him bagels and oatmeal and tea, anything hot, as if that would solve everything, wondering what I would do if he died, how I would fill the him-shaped space in my life. It was still 4:03 am.

Three hours before his grandmother’s funeral, my mom called me. “We’re going to the hospital,” she said. “Your grandfather called himself an ambulance because he was having strong chest pains.” My grandfather had open-heart surgery the following week. Before his triple bypass, all of my family was uneasy. We are not quick to turn to superstition, but when we do, we turn hard. The night before his surgery, I lay quietly in bed, just me, my beluga-sized pregnancy pillow, and whatever room Mr. B still had to sleep on, and I waited for the world to shatter.

I imagined my grandfather in his hospital room with just machines for company, beeping coldly. I imagined that the night before his surgery would be the last time I would see him alive. I imagined him all alone, over 80, in the operating room, under anesthesia, and my heart crumpled into a ball, sending out weak, helpless waves of empathy that couldn’t reach him. I tried to go to sleep on my own but the world weighed heavily on me, mortality lurking at the corners of the peaceful room in the suburbs. I listened to Mr. B. He was breathing the even, slow breath of dreamers, his lanky shoulder blade rising and falling, rising and falling, steady like a wave, and I closed my eyes, confident that everything was still alright.

When I made my wedding vows, these are not the moments I was thinking of. I wasn’t thinking that we would have to go to countless hospital rooms, to funerals, to dimly-lit restaurants where friends were crying because their own worlds were ending. I wasn’t thinking we would sleep on urine-stained mattresses in Jerusalem or that we would sleep separately for months in different cities.

When I made my vows, I just was afraid I was lying when I said I loved Mr. B, and I was terrified he would find out. Because, I thought, love is big and grand and patient and kind and all of that, and every second of every day that I didn’t feel that exact feeling, it meant that I didn’t love Mr. B and this whole thing was just a huge fraud.

But that’s not what love is. Love is not a big, grand man with a trumpet following you around with confetti and champagne. Love is small and quiet and takes time. Love is not the creation of something that’s not there out of nothing. It means creating a space in the other person for yourself, to the point where, if the other person is gone, you are not yourself anymore. Love wedges itself into the cracks of your personality until you’re not sure where yours ends and the other person’s begins. Love is not something that happens to you, or at least something that happened to me.

We built it together. We build it each time I make soup, even though I hate cooking, or each time he peels my pomegranates for me, even though peeling a pomegranate is one of the most pain-in-the-ass activities ever. We build it when we fight but don’t call each other names, or do call each other names but then apologize. We build it when we do things together, and it keeps us when we are separate.

Love means going on a business trip and thinking, “This is a great city, but why isn’t he here, enjoying the view with me? He would have loved this little store that sells tea.” It means waking up every day and thanking God he is still there, alive, breathing, mine.

When Mr. B’s other grandmother died three months into our marriage, I was heartbroken for him and for the woman she had been. When his grandmother died two weeks ago, I became heartbroken for his grandfather, because, after six years, I have finally begun to understand what it is to build love with someone, to carve space inside yourself for someone else, and then to have them leave. I saw ourselves, fifty years later, floating ghosts, soul-less, the love we had built into the other person, draining out, leaving a bottomless world void of meaning.

As he sat in the kitchen at 4:05, ashen, unshaven, drinking his tea, I looked at him, but I didn’t say anything. I could tell he felt the same way. I could tell he was thinking about the ghosts.  I moved to the toaster and quietly cut his bagel in half, turning the setting up to 5, the way he liked it.

Don’t trust Pinterest pregnancies

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Before I was pregnant, I had a lot of great ideas about how I’d do pregnancy.

First, I would surprise Mr. B with a positive pregnancy test and something cute and clever I’d seen on Pinterest, like maybe a bunch of balloons with the test tied to them, or a t-shirt with “Best Dad” on it, and his eyes would light up and we would toast to our success and then casually go about our business.

In reality, what happened was that by the time we decided we wanted kids, we were desperately yearning for them. Wanting to have kids is not something other people can impose on you by constantly nagging you about when you’re going to have kids. It’s not something that happens overnight. But when it does and you’re ready for it, it is the most pressing, urgent feeling in the world.

For me, what happened was that everything that used to be interesting to me became boring. We booked tickets to Hong Kong and I thought, great, another vacation, just the two of us, alone together. Sitting in coffee shops reading alone slipped from fun indulgence to mindless luxury. Watching other peoples’ children grow up on Facebook became painful. Despite the fact that I had a successful career, was in school and active in the tech community, my life seemed dull, uneventful, like I was growing older for no apparent reason, without a purpose. It was like being in a Woody Allen movie.

We were really intensely ready and trying to read any and all signs that might mean the start of something new. I stared at the two faint pink lines on the pregnancy test, squinting. Was this really a positive test? It seemed so normal and innocuous on the counter. I called Mr. B in. “Hey, I think this is positive,” I said, as if hoping he could interpret it better than me.

He walked in eating a banana, carefully avoiding all of my sample specimens laid out on the counter. “I don’t know,” he said, “maybe you should take another test.” I took another test. Same faint pink double-line. But no certainty. I started Googling. Well, not so much Googling as opening an anonymous browser, starting up a VPN proxy, and using DuckDuckGo, because, privacy. “It says we should buy an electronic test,” I said. What kind of mother was I, buying pharmacy brand? Mr. B went to get cash from the ATM, in case the test came up on our credit card statement, and bought three.

It said pregnant.

“Congratulations?” I said to Mr. B.

Even though our bathroom at this point looked like the beginnings of a meth lab, I still didn’t believe it. How can a simple pharmacy test determine the rest of your life?

I waited with Mr. B and the doctor’s office, feeling completely unpregnant.

A kind woman asked me the last date of my cycle and told me I was due in January. “Congratulations,” she said, handing me a Toys R Us catalog. “Wait, you’re not going to test me?” I said, incredulous. “You did take a pregnancy test at home, right?’ “yeah, but isn’t there something more official you can do?” I asked her. She looked at me like I was insane. “We can take the same test here, but it will charge to your insurance.” “And there’s nothing else?” “No, congratulations again,” she said, shooing me out of the office.

“What a scam,” I told Mr. B. “We can’t tell my parents yet, then. I’m still pretty sure I’m not pregnant.”

Two weeks later, while we were taking a morning walk, I threw up on the sidewalk. “That’s definitely pregnancy,” Mr. B said. “Or cancer,” I said, wiping the prenatal vitamin spitup off my chin.

I didn’t believe I was pregnant until I heard the heartbeat at my first official appointment. Then I squinted my eyes hard to stop the tech from seeing me cry with relief and awe.

The second thing I thought I would do is write a cute post on my blog that many bloggers do, starting with a coy allusion to “BIG CHANGES” and then maybe a picture of Mr. B and me and our shoes and another tiny pair, like they always do on all the lifestyle blogs. But for the first 17 weeks, I was too exhausted to even read the news. I was throwing up every other day, figuring out a new job, driving to class three times a week, and then slithering onto my couch and trying to gestate quietly without the room spinning. I never realized I could get this used to throwing up.

“How are you feeling,” everyone asked, and I tried to come up with a viable metaphor, but there is none. For me, the first trimester was like being hungover every day. Starting with the possibility of throwing up, followed by faint waves of nausea where you have to be prepared to dart to the bathroom at any time. One week, I could only eat chicken nuggets. Another week, it was Lifeway Kefir. A third week, only a specific cereal brand. Every day was like walking through quicksand: enormous and unimaginable.

Mr. B handmade me water with lemon juice mixed in for three months because I couldn’t drink regular water. He drove to the store on almost a daily basis because I couldn’t get off the couch. And if I didn’t eat, even though I wanted to, bad things happened. When I showed up at my parents’, not having eaten for three hours, and my mom didn’t have food I could eat, I broke down and cried. When Mr. B tried to dash out to the grocery store, I sat down at his foot and held his leg and cried, because I was worried he wouldn’t get a chance to eat first.

Every time I sat down to blog, I became drained, exhausted, and stupid. There was nothing interesting going on in my life, and nothing public worth sharing without giving it all away. Everything I’d written before seemed dumb and every analogy or allusion I could possibly write seemed trite, already written about pregnancy before.

And, there was no way I could write a cute post with a baby announcement, because of the third thing I’d thought about pregnancy, which is that I was constantly terrified. I thought I would do when I was pregnant is be happy that I was pregnant, and just become really nice and mellow. And there are some moments where I am. But mostly, I am anxious. Not terrified, but anxious. Anxious that the baby is developing fine. Anxious that the baby getting enough nutrition. Anxious that I am not in situations where I could expose the baby to harm.

Only chill American moms who aren’t anxious can write posts with cute baby clothes and baby plans looking out to 9 months ahead. Russian Jewish moms who are genetically imprinted to remember pogroms, cholera, the Mongols, Eastern European family heath histories and other tiny tragedies of every day life cannot be this blasé about babies.

In addition to the fears I knew from my own every day life, I was terrified of things I had read on the forums. “Don’t read the forums,” Mr. B said, but the forums were mostly helpful. Just sometimes, people would announce that they had had a loss at 7 weeks, 12 weeks, 13 weeks, and just when I thought I was safe, I saw their messages. I constantly checked myself between checkups for signs that my baby was ok, that it was growing and healthy. Every time I threw up, I breathed a sigh of relief afterwards because it meant everything was fine.

When I stopped throwing up and before I started feeling baby movements, I tried to read big fantasy books to keep my mind busy. Blogging about a process that was so fraught with terrifying potential avenues, that was so new and fragile, seemed like tempting fate, and it still does, but I’m getting to the point where I can’t not write, because writing is also my life.

When I did want to write, I was worried about privacy. I saw hundreds of naked babies on Instagram and Facebook, and didn’t want that to be me. Where do those baby pictures go when Instagram dies and Facebook becomes dismantled? Where does my privacy end and where does my child’s begin? I don’t know, and as someone who likes to document her life, it makes me worried. But I also didn’t want to not share, because it felt like was living life with a gag across my mouth. I’m trying to toe the middle line. (Maybe I’ll repost pictures of those Instagram babies as a compromise.)

So anyway, surprise blog post ending, I’m pregnant, and there is no certainty to anything about being pregnant like there was in every other part of my life, and it’s scary. But I am certain (knock on wood, tie the red bracelet, spit over your shoulder) that we are having a healthy, happy daughter in January and I could not be looking forward this part of my life more.

P.S. Don’t believe the sunshiney-happy-belly-rubbing pregnancies people tell you about in social media. Social media, especially Pinterest, was invented by Americans.

 

Hallmark holidays are not my forte

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As you may know if you’ve been reading my blog for any amount of time by now, I’m not normal. I mean, not normal in the regular sense, but also in the sense that I don’t enjoy the things that most women enjoy: manicures, massages, and understanding how to wear clothes.  I also suck at cooking.

As I was growing up, my nonability to know how to turn on a stove was an evergreen source of disappointment for my mom, who enjoys  dressing up, wearing makeup, and doing all of the stuff women are supposed to know how to do so they don’t call their mom sobbing two weeks after living in an apartment on their own because they’re not sure how to boil water for eggs.

My mom was always proud of me for my academic accomplishments and the fact that I wrote my own sequel to Star Wars when I was 12, but she held out in her heart of hearts that one day,  I would turn girly. She dressed me in dresses, but despite her best attempts, all of the ribbons would be dirty after twenty minutes, not because I was playing outside, but because I’d either picked up an ink pen, or gotten some glue on it, or ate something that dripped.  She carefully put ribbons in my hair, all of which would be lost after a couple hours. For my fourth birthday, I got a doll, but  my neighbor got  a huge red interesting fire truck. I cried when he left with it.   I was a terrible lady.

As I grew older, I strayed even further away from what was considered the realm of normal for ladies. I tried to wear ChapStick in 7th grade but had to give that up because it smelled too good and I’d tried to eat it.

These days, I’m a little better about convincing society that I am, in fact, female, but I don’t always succeed. For example, My mom is still always game for talking about the latest shoes she bought, how her new purse looks, and what she’ll be making for dinner. I want to talk about  pogroms.

This year, I figured I would finally repay her for all the tzuris I inflicted during my youth by doing that thing daughters are supposed to do for their moms on Mother’s Day. I signed her up for a spa day/massage.

If you recall my previous post about getting a massage, you may remember that it included the sentence “Finally, after an hour, the torture was over.” So obviously this time around I was very excited to get a massage again. I hid the terror from my mom. 

“Mom, guess what,” I said over Skype one day.

“You’re having a baby?!” she said.

“No, I said. Not at the present moment.”

No response on the other end. Then, a sad emoji.

“Even better,” I said.

“There’s nothing better than that,” she said.

“We’re going for a massage,” I said.

“!!!” she wrote.

“Yes, that’s right,” I said, feeling like a hero.

“How much did you pay,” she demanded.

“Doesn’t matter,”I said.

“Yes it does. I won’t be able to relax. Let me pay you for it. It’s expensive, isn’t it?”

“It doesn’t matter,” I said. “Aren’t you excited?”

“Kind of,” she said. Another pause. “Do I have to be naked?”

“Kind of,” I said.

A long pause. Then typing again.

“I’m worried,” she wrote.

“It’ll be fun !!! And relaxing !!!!” I said. Never trust someone who uses seven exclamation points.

The appointed day came, and we drove to the massage place. “Happy Mother’s Day,” I warbled enthusiastically. My mom had a look like she was going to the Hunger Games as a contestant. “It’ll be fine,” I said. “Just tell them which areas to focus on and relax.”

We came in, undressed, changed. Robed, we walked into The Butterfly Room,  where other women were waiting for their massages. Some reading fashion magazines.  Some were eating crackers and cheese. Some were quietly sipping fizzy water. All of them looked like they had been getting massages for years.

My mom fidgeted nervously with her gown and put her hands in her lap. I examined my toes. When was the last time I’d gotten a pedicure? Had it been a month ago? The big toe paint was chipping-had anyone noticed? It seemed like it was too dark to notice, but if they had, they were probably judging me. What does it say about a woman when she has a chipped toe pedicure? Does it say that she just got a new job and is taking a full courseload? Yes, that’s what it says. No, you idiot, it says she’s lazy and might have graduated from licking ChapStick but hasn’t gone too far.

As I was stuck in these thoughts, my mom’s mind was obviously on the torture ahead of her.  On occasion, a shadow would dart past the lounge, come in, and take a woman to her massage.My mom’s head turned each time.

“Have some crackers,” I told my mom, as casually as I could to lighten the mood. We were having so much fun!

I tried to calm her down by engaging in our favorite pasttime: gossip.  “Did you hear what A is doing?” I said quietly.

“No,” my mom said with a gleam in her eye, temporarily forgetting that she was about to be flayed.

The other women looked at us and quietly went back to their magazines.

“Well, she did x and y and Z said that she shouldn’t be doing it…can you believe that,” I said.

“No,” my mom said with glee and outrage in a tone that was more fitting for a colosseum-style execution than the Butterfly Room. “I bet A doesn’t feel great about that!”

Then she remembered where she was. “How long do we have to wait,” she whispered in Russian. All the distinctly non-Russian women looked at us like we were escapees from the looney bin.

“A couple more minutes,” I said. We were having such a great experience!

A male voice echoed down the hall, past the lounge. My mom stiffened. “You said there wouldn’t be male masseuses.” I lied, but hoped it was a true lie. “We won’t have a guy,” I said.

Two distinctly Russian women came in. “Vicki?” one called. The other called my mom’s name. “Are we going separately?” My mom said in Russian. “Don’t leave me alone with these monsters,” her tone said. “I thought we were going together?”

“No, maybe we can work something out, ” I said in Russian. I had neglected to request a together massage, because I didn’t know you could do such things.

The Russian women switched to Russian. “Are you Russian?” they asked us. “Yes,” I whispered with relief.  Ah, their expressions said. These are our people. “We can get you a couples’ massage room,” one said. “Yes, yes, please,” I said, and my mom nodded.  After a minute, we were escorted into parallel rooms, the door left open between them.

“Strip down and get under the blanket,” the women said, and left. This was all old hat to me. “I have to take my robe off?” my mom said.  “yes, but they’ll be careful about it,” I said, lying down. There was some shuffling, and then silence.

After a minute in the darkness, my mom’s muffled voice said from under the blanket, said, “I feel weird. This is weird.”

“Shhh,” I said. “Enjoy the experience.  Enjoy the quiet.”

“I’m worried,” she said, and then the women came in.

The massage was great, as a good massage is. Very relaxing. Lots of oil. Lots of pressure points. The whole time, though, I was thinking, hoping that my mom was enjoying the experience. I was hoping that when it was over, I would ask her how it was, and it would be a Hallmark card moment. “It’s everything I ever dreamed spending time with my daughter would be,” my mom would say, and then some sappy music from the 80s would filter through the speakers as we hugged and reaffirmed our bonding experience.

Instead, when it was over, we shuffled to the dressing room.

“I wonder how much those Russian women get paid,” she said.

“Probably a lot,” I said. “But probably more if they do it outside this place, because one of them just slipped me her business card and told me to call her if I ever wanted an in-home massage.”

We shared a laugh about sketchy Russian businesses.

“How was it,” I asked, hoping against hope, that she would have loved it.

“It was weird,” she said. “Really weird. I’m just not used to people doing things for me like that.”

“So you liked it,” I said hopefully, hoping I had made it a good Mother’s Day for her. Wilson Philips would start at any moment now. A woman’s voice would come in a voiceover, “Vicki, making sure her mother gets a Mother’s Day treat. The best daughter and gifter of female bonding experiences in the world.”

“It was weird,” she said. “But I’m spending my Mother’s Day with my daughter, and that’s the biggest gift. ” (I added that last part in my mind because Russian moms will never talk like they’re in a life-affirming sitcom.)

And that’s when I understood several things. First, I will never understand how to be a woman. Second, I now understand where my fear of massages comes from. And third, next Mother’s Day me and my mom are going somewhere where we can just talk about how sketchy Russian businesses are , how much they charge for an hour’s worth of services, and how we can’t believe A did X to Z yesterday.

Use cases

 

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I read a lot of tech news to keep up with work. One of the things people in tech who want to sound hip always talk about is “use cases.” What’s the use case of the 10-inch tablet-phone?”  People who want to make important business calls from the bathroom while reading the news.   “What’s the use case of the iPhone 5c?” People who want a phone that’s cheap and colorful and makes a good paperweight.  “What’s the use case of  Twitter?” People trying to be funny but just coming across as jerks.

Companies do use cases to figure out which technologies work best for what kinds of purposes, but I am betting you a million dollars companies will never be able to figure out my parents.

Since I force-gifted my mom an iPad for her birthday last year (“It’s too expensive! I don’t need it! Why are you giving me this thing! It’s too complicated! Oh wait…do you have WiFi in your house? I need to sync my iPad…just a minute, I think I forgot my iPad and I can’t leave the house without it”), she has been becoming progressively more technical.

She’s been reading Kindle books (that I buy and force-gift her through the Kindle lending library,) listening to Russian radio through TuneIn, and generally doing crazy things like using Yelp.

On the other hand, If there’s anyone the NSA won’t be able to find, it’s my dad, because, although he is extremely smart and has repaired non-working televisions from start to finish, he is too lazy to internet. “Google me up some information,” he’ll tell my mom from the couch.He has checked his email probably once in the last six months (“too much work to log in. Just tell me over the phone.”)

“Google it yourself,” she’ll say, not looking up from Flipboard, and he’ll sigh and wonder why he married her.   Even though he’s lazy, he still needs all the latest information about Mashina Vremeni, so he’ll get up and find the laptop.

Things have been progressing in this manner for a couple of months, with the iPad really fueling some new use cases for them. For example, last week, my mom called me on Skype from vacation in Costa Rica to tell me that A) This was the most awesome hotel she’s ever been in and B) I needed to call my grandfather.

My dad, while refusing to learn how to use the iPad has, on the other hand, been lovingly accessorizing it, like a pet. “This is a good case,” he said, lovingly showing me the leather stand-up folio he purchased. “It will protect it. I also got Bluetooth speakers.”

“But what are you going to use them for, Dad? Have you used the iPad at all? Downloaded any guitar apps like I told you to?”

“No, and I don’t intend to. But I want to see if I can connect to HDMI.”

One of my dad’s burgeoning fantasies has been to hook up the iPad to TV  so they can watch movies off their WiFi.

I’ve never heard of the iPad-movie use case before, and this problem gets more interesting with the fact that, although I bought them an iPad with 3G capability, they refuse to pay the monthly fee for it, partly because it seems expensive to them, and partly out of principle, because paying for things is for suckers and Americans.

Between the laziness, the payment workarounds,  and the technology splurges, things finally came to a head a couple weeks ago, when they decided to get smart phones.

“We’re getting smartphones,” my mom told me via Skype.

“We’ll see,” I said. I have been hopeful that they’ll convert to 21st century for the past five years so I can finally send my dad texts in Russian and email my mom stupid articles people are posting online so we can judge them in real-time.  That’s MY use case for my parents.

But they’d been talking hazily about smartphones since 2011. The only thing stopping them, really, is that you have to pay for them.

“We’re really going to do it. Even I’ve decided it’s time,” my mom said. “Maybe the iPhone? Or the LG?”

“Really,” I perked up. She was talking specific models. This was serious.

“Yeah, we need a phone that’s compatible,” my dad yelled in the background of the chat.

“Compatible with what,” I asked.

“The iPad,” he said.

“Why would it need to be compatible with the iPad?”

“I want to hook up the phone to the iPad and watch movies on it for free.”

“Let me get this straight. You won’t get 3G access on the iPad, but you’re willing to get a cell phone, connect it somehow to the iPad, and pay for the streaming data anyway, because you think it’s more free than just paying for the iPad?”

“Yes.”

Companies, take note to design your use cases around my parents. And Verizon or AT&T, watch out. You have two new super users coming on board. (Maybe.)

The river of our past is drying up

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Mr. B and I have been sick for the past three thousand years, so we decided to take it easy last weekend and watch some movies. One of these was HaDira, The Flat, an Israeli documentary shot by Arnon Goldfinger, as he and his family clean out his grandmother’s apartment after her death.

Arnon finds out that his grandparents traveled with a high-ranking Nazi official and his wife to Palestine in 1936 to report on it for an important Nazi newspaper.  Arnon’s grandparents made aliyah to Israel, but continued to correspond with the von Mildsteins even during and after the war. Arnon’s grandmother kept all these papers and documents going back to the 1910s, which makes for a beautiful movie. Arnon goes to Germany to talk to his own relatives and to the descendants of the von Mildsteins to figure out what happened. How did his parents’ private beliefs as Zionists complement the fact that they were friends with high-ranking Nazi officials?

It’s a really interesting film on a number of levels.

First, there is Arnon’s mother, the first post-Holocaust generation, who wasn’t told anything, and didn’t want to talk about it. “I’m not interested,” she says when Arnon presents her with photographs, newspaper clippings, and jewelry. “I don’t want to know,” she says, when Arnon shows her letters that their relatives had written from internment camps in Riga, Latvia, although her voice breaks as she reads the German.

Then, there is the rest of Arnon’s family, who are just interested in looting the apartment for keepsakes from the 30s. None of the rest of his family, even the ones in their 40s and 50s, know anything about his grandparents or great-grandparents, or about the layers of precious historical material in the apartment, the main reason Goldfinger decided to make the movie.

As his mother and aunt are throwing away hundreds of letters and breaking down furniture, Arnon is trying to find out why his grandparents corresponded with Nazis through the things they kept. He not only digs through the chaos to find notes that were actually relevant, but also talks to elderly German Jews in Israel, flies to Germany to talk to Von Mildstein’s relatives, and meets with his third cousin to get notes she made while she visited with his grandma (because she missed “hearing German.”)

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The whole situation is chaos. There are family trees drawn on paper, hundreds of scraps of information. You feel panicked, as if, at any moment, the memories holding their family together will fly away, eroded by the sands of time.

But the panic is not at Goldfinger’s family; with the documentary, he’s covered. The panic is because your family is going through the same thing.

I think most families, except for the most meticulous scrapbookers and archivists, are bad at passing down history. History lives with the old people of the family, and often, we are too busy or embarrassed to ask them what’s going on, and we have even less patience to write it down.

My family is no exception. On my father’s side, we have some documentation in Russia, but hundreds of pictures from even before the revolution where we don’t know anyone. “Our family was maybe Cossacks, maybe officers. We’re not sure.” The family archivist was Aunt Masha, and no one thought to write down her encyclopedic memory.

My aunt, my father’s sister, still keeps everything and knows more than most people in our family, but it’s all yellowing in Soviet-era drawers.  When I was 18 and went to Russia, I met Aunt Masha, who served as a radio service woman in the Baltics during World War II, helping shoot down Nazi planes, and I absorbed as much of my family as I could into my skin.  There was a video that was made.  Pictures were taken. But so much slipped through the cracks. Who were my people on my dad’s side? My family memory only stretches back as far as my grandfather, who died before I ever knew him.

The questions that I’m sure Aaron wanted to ask his grandmother echoed in my head. Why did you join the Soviet army as a woman? How did you feel? How did you feel when you first fell in love? What was being a mother like? 

My mother’s side is a family of writers. My grandfather is a writer, my great-aunt is a writer, and the gene has fortunately passed on to me.  So we have more information there. We have family trees. We have written accounts from my grandfather. When I was eight, our class homework was to do a videotape with a  family relative and ask questions. I still have the tape I made with my grandfather, and every time I go to his apartment, I try to record at least a little bit of video on my phone.

But all of these bits of memory are swirling around in different spaces. Our Soviet photos are aging, yellowing in cellophane albums.  Our home videos from when I was small are still on tape. My pictures are in Google’s forked hooves, but who knows when their servers will turn off?

Again, the most important questions go unanswered. When I was just beginning to research my novel, I asked my grandfather, how did you know not to believe in communism? What was it that made you change your mind? How did you know it was propaganda. And he said that it was when he read about the Cuban missile crisis for the first time, and the Soviet press reported that there were only several missiles and that it was the Americans’ fault and that it was no big deal, but several weeks later reported what a major situation it was. The cognitive dissonance of that report broke something in his brain, and he began to be suspicious ever since.  I asked him how he felt when Stalin died, and he said he was glad he had a day off (he was serving in the Red Army at the time).  I would have never found that out if it hadn’t been for my book. How many other questions am I not asking while I am still fortunate to have him?

We’re in the age of great technology, the capacity to grab as much of present and history as our disk space will allow, to map-reduce all of it into bits and bytes of relationships,  but still, we are scribbling down important family details that tell us who we are as people on scrap paper and hoping we’ll get to it later, and we’re not data-mining the most important resource of all: the thoughts and feelings of our family members.

Sure, we hear the opinions of our families. Our beliefs are formed by what our parents tell us. But we are too scared and too shy to ask them: what were your hopes and dreams? What were your disappointments?  Why did you decide to bring me into this world?  If only our parents blogged, right?

Scarier than any of this is that our families are growing ever-smaller and ever-more insular, so even the knowledge we do have is disappearing between links in the chain.    We are having less kids, and those children are having less relatives. Mr. B and I are only children; our children will not have any aunts and uncles. We have one cousin each. Whole swaths of relatives don’t talk to each other because of something that happened once 20 years ago.  Of course, this is all anecdotal.

But I connected deeply with The Flat, particularly the part where Aaron’s mother states that she simply doesn’t want to know, is not afraid to ask the questions, but doesn’t even care, because this phenomenon has happened to me recently.

In the 1930s, several members of my mother’s family decided they wanted to make aliyah to what was then still Palestine, through a Russian-Jewish organization. They saw where the Soviet Union was headed, and they didn’t want any part of it. These were people of my great-grandfather’s generation. Somehow, my family managed to stay in contact with them, even through the lean Iron Curtain years. My mother recalls how they sent her and my aunt dresses from Israel as presents. These dresses were considered so exotic and so well-made that they went through my whole family: my aunt, my mother, and two other cousins wore these dresses for years before they were finally retired to household rags.

This immigration impacted my grandfather so much that he decided, in the 1970s, when no one dared breathe a word about Israel, to write a novelized account of it. That book was the first (but not last, unfortunately for you, dear reader) thing our family self-published. It’s written on thick heavy-grade Soviet paper, typed up. It is in my parents’ house right now.

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Our family kept in touch with these relatives, even through the 1990s, through the immigration, through everything, and the completely-Israeli children of these relatives,  now also in their 70s, made their way to America a couple months ago (the husband is an agronomist, and he lived as a shaliach, an Israeli government representative, in America in the 1970s), and paid all of our family in Philadelphia a visit.

We gathered together, in the house of a relative’s of my mother: people of my parents’ generation, people of my generation (me and Mr. B), and people the same age as these relatives, in their 70s, to get together, share stories about who knew whom, and keep family ties alive.

When Mr. B and I arrived for the gathering, there were already a group of the older Russian relatives standing and talking in Russian exclusively to each other, and several people my parents’ age warmly greeting the Israeli couple and trying to keep up the conversation in English. They were also hosting the Israelis for the week.

“Shalom lachem, bruchim habayim l’artzot abrit,” I said when I entered, “Hi, welcome to the states,” and their faces relaxed. “You speak Hebrew,” they said in perfect English.

At dinner, none of the much-older relatives even spoke to the Israelis while I sat and sopped up every piece of information I could. Whose brother had been in the Sinai Campaign. How many grandchildren they had, what those grandchildren did in the Israeli army, who had been an agronomist.

This is not new.  It’s not realistic to expect people who immigrated in their 40s and 50s to speak English, and it’s not realistic to expect people in America to speak Hebrew. In the documentary Goldfinger notes that his grandmother never ever learned Hebrew, because she always felt German. The older generations will always feel strongly Jewish, but never express it in any other way except to shout loudly at the dinner table that they love Israel. But they didn’t even make an effort, and that’s what makes me sad. Whole branches of families are lost when continents shift, and no one cares to reach across the divide.

For me, I couldn’t stop being amazed that I was tied to these people, that I had anything to do with them, even on a tiny, molecular level, these people who had lived through the founding of Israel, these people who were so completely different, all because someone in the Soviet Union had decided to take their life in their hands. For me it was nothing less than amazing.

After dinner, they brought out a carefully-written a family tree. The archivist in my family, who also has put amazing care and time into documenting our family, also produced a family tree, and they started vigorously comparing, who came from what, when, and where. It was amazing to me to see that other people cared just as much as me about legacy and grabbing the pieces of information as they floated through the whirlwind of time. I saw my parents on the family tree, and the branch for me, and the branch tying me to Mr. B, with our birth years neatly inscribed under our names with a dash, and I became very emotional. Here were our lives, packed down to their barest essentials. What would we leave as a legacy on paper?

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I didn’t have a lot of time to reflect, however, because the Israelis then got down to business: the pictures they’d talked about at dinner. I saw a blonde girl in an Israeli olive-green uniform, smiling. That could have been me, I thought. I’m an entire world away from her, and yet, we somehow have something in common.  Who was this girl, and why?

The younger generations don’t care, either, but for different reasons. We speak perfect English and not-so-bad Hebrew sometimes, but we are Facebooking and Amazon-buying and overworking our way through the shallow stream of  life without dipping our toes into the rich, loamy soil at the bottom of the river of history. We don’t stop to ask why and how.  I hope what I just wrote is a generalization and I’m wrong.  I’d like to be proven wrong, because it’s important.

But, I’m biased. And I’m terrible at documenting our family. I can’t even remember my grandmother’s maiden name on my dad’s side sometimes. And sometimes it terrifies me, that I will open my mouth up to tell my kids something important and far-reaching, and out will fly mothballs. But, I’m writing a novel about history, and I step into history every day. It feels like I’m stepping into a wide, flowing river that connects me with humanity, but also a bit like I’m getting swept away. And when I encounter bits of my family history that I can incorporate, it feels like I have a raft to hold on to in the current.

It has always been this way. The world changes in new ways, families change and grow, bend and flex. The older generations complain about the younger ones, the younger ones lose the thread. But the world is spinning so quickly that we no longer know where we come from. We float through the world, rootless, doing things the way we see fit, without any traditions or values as anchors, never rejoining any bodies of water greater than ourselves.

But sometimes, we get a glimpse of what our family is and was, and what they fought for and what they struggled with, and we feel strengthened, that we are not alone in the world, that we have at least some template to follow, that we are the future the past of our family has hoped for. And this knowledge, these small grains of information, are what keep us moving through our small lives with purpose, from the beginning year, through the dash, to the end.