These are the lives of our times and these are the times of our lives. Remembering is part of life. Transmitting is the next chapter.
I write stories so that our progeny will know the broad details of our lives, the parts that make up the whole, the participants, the places, and the pieces. And yet, even though I try to put together a cogent story, I often forget details that matter, that could one day be debated if, and when, and there’s always the when. Hence our granddaughter, the almost dentist, never knew that my father was a twin. This was not omitted in my tales to you — but it was omitted in my tales to her. Somehow it fell through the cracks.
She is newly engaged to a handsome, red-haired fourth-year medical student. He is one of a pair of fraternal twins, brother to a delightful twin sister who is topped with the same gingery hair. We were all at a barbecue recently when we started talking about twins. I, self-appointed family teller of family lore, told the fiance, Ari, that my father was also a fraternal twin. Our granddaughter perked up her ears to indicate that this was a family fact that she had never heard before. How could that be? This was clearly not new news! After all, it was many more than 100 years ago, in the year 1905, that those twins were born, in a Polish shtetl that my husband and I visited, and where the local movie theater was once our family’s shul. In all those years, the story was so ingrained that it no longer merited telling, I supposed.
I’ve told about the birth on these very pages, but a busy dental student doesn’t always have the time to read her grandmother’s blogs. One day, perhaps, but not this day. The story goes that Zayda, my paternal grandfather, left his family for America, in order to build a better life for them all. He left behind his wife, Rifka, for whom I am named, and their three little children, all under age 5. They were Yankel, Shaindel, and Asna, soon to be New Jerseyans called Jack, Irene, and Edna. And oh yes, I almost forgot again, there were the newly arrived twins, infants Yisrael and Itka. Yisrael became Sam, but to my sister and me he was Dad. Itka became Edith, our aunt, who was as different from our father as could possibly be imagined. She had blonde hair, to his dark black. She was blue-eyed to his gentle brown. She was rowdy, always the life of the party. He was quiet, always looking for a peaceful place to work, and then a comfortable chair to read one of his beloved nonfiction books, borrowed from the Newark Public Library and religiously returned before a fine could be levied. He was a solemn man, usually with a damp cigar affixed to his mouth. She was a lively woman, always fun to be with. They were born five minutes apart. He was older. That’s how it is with fraternal twins. They can be dramatically different, one from the other. And that’s how it was with Sam and Edith.
When our granddaughter was born 25 years ago, Edith was already in olam ha ba. And Dad was over 90 years old, living in Herzliya, Israel, still maintaining his robust lifestyle, with a goal of reaching 100. He didn’t make it, but he came close, living until almost 98. Our granddaughter was 7 when her great-grandfather Sam died. She always lived in Manhattan and saw him only on occasional visits to Herzliya. She, a young child, and he, an old man, hit it off as only great-grandparents can relate to their great-grandchildren. Their relationship was fun and warm and tender and loving. But his being a twin just never came up. And so it was that this fact was never revealed to her. Of course this was not a shattering disclosure. It was a mere indicator of how often important parts of our lives are not shared, of the disconnects in our stories, the dissonance, impossible to fathom sometimes. But now, she knows her grandfather was a twin and her husband-to-be is also a twin. Perhaps, one day, she and Ari will be parents of twins. Stranger things have happened.
Other people flit in and out of my stories. Something reminds me or jars my thinking. I think of my family as characters in a nonfiction book. And when they suddenly appear in my mind, I am compelled to remember and to write, to communicate with those who live today about their forebears who lived back then, back when, a while ago. Otherwise, they will know them only from the pictures that fill our home, hanging in the kitchen, in the living room, in the den. Those pictures need to be infused with life. Even I, who knew all of the players, study the pictures without hearing the voices or seeing the movement. And I cannot get my mind around the fact that most of these dear, usually dear, people that I knew, never knew those who surround me today. How is that possible?
So, how, for example, did my children never know Pop? He was such an integral part of my childhood. His life was so intricately related to mine and to my sister’s. Yet my children don’t know the sound of his voice, the thickness of his accent, the creativity with which he fixed things in our home, which was probably the only house in America that had soup pot lids affixed with empty thread spools. That he sewed and ironed, leaving me, and my sister and mother as well, forever bereft of those often-necessary skills. That he constantly interfered in our lives, always taking our side if it was a battle between parents and children. Sometimes, when I was punished with isolation in my room, without supper, there would be a gentle knock on the door and there would be Pop, standing with a meal on a tray and a $10 bill. He would whisper, in his unique mixture of English and Yiddish, “Here kind (child). (Take ten) Nem tzen dollars.” This man, this person, never knew my own children. I must tell stories about him. I am obligated to continue the chain, as much as I can. But it remains unfathomable that those to whom I am, and were, so close, do not know each other, and never met.
There was Uncle Dave. He was the kindest, most loving person I ever knew. He never got angry. He never stopped smiling. How do I flesh him out, make him seem alive for our children? How do I teach them how much I loved him, and why? He died a few months before our eldest child was born, a grievous loss. He would have made her smile, and then laugh, and he would have rejoiced in doing just that. How he would have loved her! And how she would have loved him back! How do I explain this to her, and to all of them? How can I possibly teach them to know him?
How do I share my own parents with the newer, younger children, and the great-grandchildren, born since they left us? I know that this is the way of the world, that life continues even when some are missing, and that eventually all will be missing. But surely there’s a gap. Surely they should all have known each other. My mother died in Israel at age 85. She knew our two eldest grandsons, in a way that she would never know those who followed them.
It was her time to leave but she left them with a grammar lesson, which they will never forget. At a time when she could no longer teach me how to make her famous meatballs, when she knew and remembered very little, at a time when the phrase “you know” filled the spaces in time, because she no longer knew, at that time she heard a grammatical mistake from one of those boys, and, from the recesses of her mind, she spouted a correction. A correction which was, of course, correct. The boys were stunned. I was not. I knew better. Until the moment when she could no longer speak, her grammar was perfect.
So now I’ve confessed. I blog to make our family known to our family. I want to be the bearer of the stories so that my granddaughter won’t have to feel like she’s pulling teeth to know what I, long in the tooth (i.e. very old), already should have taught her.
You can reach me at email@example.com.
Rosanne Skopp of West Orange is a wife, mother of four, grandmother of 14, and great-grandmother of three. She is a graduate of Rutgers University and a dual citizen of the United States and Israel. She is a lifelong blogger, writing blogs before anyone knew what a blog was!