Writer Ross Kenneth Urken grew up immersed in stories, both fictional and real. His parents, Irvin and Cindy, frequently read to him. In religious school at the Jewish Center in Princeton, where his grandparents Paul and Eunice Urken were founding members, he heard the stories of Sholem Aleichem and Isaac Bashevis Singer.
In real life, colorful characters walked daily through the doors of his family’s hardware store, Urken Supply Company, in downtown Princeton. (His grandparents originally opened it as a glassware shop in 1937.)
“I got exposed to so many characters around town and always wondered about their stories and what influenced them to act in particular ways,” he told NJJN in a telephone interview. “It was really that curiosity that drove me to want to be able to talk to people, tell their stories, and learn what makes them tick.”
It was in adulthood that he began to wrestle with the significance of another storyteller from his childhood: his beloved nanny, Dezna Sanderson, who died in 2010.
In his new book published this month, “Another Mother” (Ian Randle Publishers), Urken, a Princeton native who now lives in Manhattan, combines memories of his nanny with personal memoir and interviews he conducted with Sanderson’s eight children. Urken will be speaking about his book on Oct. 30 at Labyrinth Books in Princeton.
What opened his eyes to Sanderson’s powerful influence on his life was upon hearing about an Israeli man who rolled his Rs in the style of the South American nanny who raised him. It got Urken thinking about his own “peculiar way of enunciating and a peculiar rhythm.” He realized it had everything to do with his own nanny, who was from Jamaica and had “a lilt in her voice” that was not “the caricature of a Caribbean accent, but … had a subtle Caribbean nuance.”
That led to his exploration of how “other mothers” — like Sanderson or beloved aunts, grandparents, teachers, and coaches — “can influence our
The “central tension” in the narrative, said Urken, is “how we become who we are.” While genetics give us certain propensities, Urken said that other influences, including from hired caregivers, abound.
“If you do have someone who really was another mother, the third leg of the parental tripod, you become predisposed to a lot of that person’s quirks and idiosyncrasies,” he said.
Urken said that in his tumultuous family, Sanderson “maintained order and calm. I think it was her Jamaican zen in contrast to our … Semitic tendencies toward anxiety.” Urken characterized her as “an outsider-insider on ground level sort of coaching a family along.”
Despite the longevity of Sanderson’s presence in his life — she joined the family when Urken was 18 months old and stayed for 11 years — he knew little about her eight children until her death. When he began interviewing them, he learned that they knew way more about his family than the Urkens knew about them. Although the exchange of information had been asymmetrical, he said, “I think the love and interest in each other was mutual.”
“I have all these stories about their mother that they want to hear and they have all these stories about my other mother that I want to hear, and it has become a beautiful way for family to connect in a way that transcends bloodlines,” he said.
Urken said he has always had a strong Jewish identity. “I’m not a Yom Kippur Jew, but I’m not going to services every week,” he said, adding that he and his Catholic wife “do Friday night at home whenever possible.”
Living with Sanderson, a Seventh Day Adventist, Urken couldn’t help but notice the overlaps with his own Judaism: Both religions celebrate the Sabbath on Friday night and Saturday, and they have similar strictures on slaughtering animals for meat.
Later, as he researched her life, he found other Jewish-Jamaican ties such as similarities between Jews in Ethiopia and the Rastafari religion, which can be found throughout Jamaica. He also became friends with descendants of a “Jewmaican” pirate, Moses Cohen Henriques, a crony of Captain Henry Morgan.
“I always felt I had this bifurcated identity, Jewish on one side, Jamaican on other,” he said, “and it delighted me to find this synthesis of Jewmaicans on the
To nourish his narrative craft while a student at Princeton University, Urken chose to major in comparative literature, studying Russian, Spanish, and French texts in their original languages.
“I was always writing and always creating, but I wanted to get the foundation of texts and see how a lot of masters were able to maintain that narrative drive,” Urken said.
As a writer, Urken described himself as “deliberate,” agonizing over each sentence, “trying to find le mot juste,” the perfect word. When working on a piece, he said, phrases come to him in the shower or while having a cup of coffee, and he always has a notebook at hand.
“When I know I have a piece to do, I find my mind is active unconsciously. It knows I need to be thinking about interesting ways to bring the story to life.”
If you go
Who: Writer Ross Kenneth Urken
What: Book talk on “Another Mother”
Where: Labyrinth Books, Princeton
When: 6 p.m., Wednesday, Oct. 30