Thursday, August 5, 2010

Family Reunion

Sometimes, as with the demonstration in behalf of the mosque being built in Brooklyn -- and I have to add an update on that soon because the ADL has really pissed me off -- things in my own life become front and center. Going back a couple o years to describe my live as a hapless videographer in a disaster zone which I've been attempting to do -- even that recedes into the settled past. And anyway, Mama Sue has not surfaced. She's back in Texas maybe, still comforting an ex-, whose wife recently died. And I can only wonder...has she reunited with Anthony? Is she dumping Lou? She's the subject of my film, the sole focus of my strange task, and it seems I should try to find out. Then, too, the lines dividing filmmaker and subject have tangled, and we have become (in a way) friends. But it's also possible she's dumping me. Maybe my camera and my eternal questions are one more part of the Katrina aftermath, and when she said at one point "I am remaking me" she hinted that she was going to decide that that included ultimately throwing over her chronicler (me).

But the last week I've been -- whew! -- engaged in a family reunion. A friend wrote in an email, 'Hope your reunion wasn't too stressful, as family gatherings can sometimes be (or maybe always are!).'

The night we were supposed to be watching a slide presentation of our geneaology, which stretches back only three generations before mine (born in the 50's) child of the WWII generation, and grandchild of immigrants from the shtetls), I was curled up under the covers, unable to face the crowd. Cousins gently knocked on the door and offered reasons to ignore the slights and join them down in the hotel dining room. If for no other reason than it would please our Aunt Sylvia -- our elder, at nearly 98. And our younger cousin, who has been washing and cleaning old photos by the hundreds, and wading bravely into geneaological software, was camped out at the side of the road in New Hampshire, similarly unable to face it all.

This was Day One of the family reunion. We, young geneaologist and myself, had been cajoling others to not forsake us, and to attend the presentation of photographs, videos and an extended diagram of our family tree, but as camped-out younger cousin noted, "not everyone is interested in our family history." So we had to plead, and by the end when younger cousin, our slaving over chemical trays cousin herself grew lightheaded, couldn't drive any farther and e-mailing from a library begged for our forgiveness, there I was, weeping. But what is a family reunion without weeping and the *star* freaking out on the roadside?

And then Aunt Evelyn cracked me up, when all was forgiven and we'd washed our faces and came to the table, threw the family geneaology up on the computer screen -- when she said with her trademark startling honesty -- it -- geneaology -- is "boring." And to be honest, it's not that interesting. The chart with little circles for female relatives and squares for males (or maybe it's the other way around) And names in tiny print stretching sideways so far, you have to scroll the page left or right to take them in, the page lurching haphazardly towards one wing or another. Who cares?! That I have second cousins in Akron, or that so and so married and has three children?

Until I learned that my grandmother's brother, Charlie, had scarlet fever at age 4, and became deaf and wound up in a Catholic (or Protestant) boarding school for the deaf (all this was in Montreal, back in the 20's) where he flourished, marrying Pansy, also deaf, and mute as well. We murmured when we learned that they remained Protestants, or Catholics -- out of gratitude we all assumed. Back then, people stared solemnly into the camera, as though they were sitting for an oil portrait, but not my great grandmother, Channa (changed to Anna by immigration). Her smile was crooked, wide, rich. From the gut. What/Who gave her that supremely contented smile? With her big floppy hat, and sun dresses in every shot, we all agreed she could have been part of the impressionist movement of painters. Widowed three times (though first husband is only a rumor. Who was he we murmured) she stood, like a pioneer woman, looking square into the camera, her daughter, granddaughter and occasionally great grand daughter in the shot with her. Young cousin geneaologist remarked repeatedly -- "the four matriarchs!" David Zvi, whose name matches that of a name on a list found in an on-line note, that of a tinker in the tiny shtetl, Pode Illoie, in Rumania, where we had the Rumanian spelling of our name -- Hahamovici -- moved to then-Palestine, and started a family line one of whom marrired into a line that changed their name to Gur. Gur? Like the name of the Hebrews you read about in the Bible?! Was that their idea? Were they Biblically-oriented immigrants? Why did they take on the name Gur? The Hahamys, the offspring of that fleeing resident of Pode Illoie struck out for a life in Palestine, while my grandparents, after a new tax on the Jews of Pode Illoie, scrambled for enough money for steerage to Canada. Pa (as my grandfather was called) sought to bring his sister Fagie over, and with his brother Louis received permission, even though she was not going to be a farmer, which as one document our geneaologist uncovered, was the sole skill sought after by Canadian Immigration. But if she were free of diseases, if she were literate, and if she would promise to work in their coffee and tea business...then she could come. And she did. Our Uncle Dave, who had remained silent whenever asked about his experiences in WWII, a "just war," he said, revealed his memories. When Uncle Dave, a self described Socialist, knew he was dying, he finally spoke about it, answering a dozen questions posed to him by our family historian. It was nearing 1 a.m. and a few of us read his words over each others' shoulders. He had ridden onto the beaches of Normandy two weeks after D-Day. (young cousin, the interlocutor) Q: 'What were you feeling then?' He replied, 'What was I -- a Jewish kid from Montreal -- doing here?' 'He must have other thoughts and feelings' I said aloud. 'That was a cover up for something more.' 'No, that was it!' the historian replied. 'That says it all.' We read, we pored over the pictures, discussed, argued and glanced at the spindly, many armed tree.

The past. It throws as much mystery at you as it provides information. But it's the mystery of it that gives you a kind of thrill. And there's a feeling of arriving at corroboration. History is real, it's true! Finding my place in the common history of the world has a sort of wonder in it and somehow -- it's strange how intense the feeling is -- it fills me with joy. And I feel literally connected. Those long skinny lines, taking left and right turns and dropping down and down like the thread of a spider, until there I am, a circle below a circle and a square. A square (or a circle) next to me, labelled Al. Some day maybe there'll be a descendant of my wing sitting on the floor around a coffee table with a bunch of cousins and someone will throw out a detail about their distant cousin, a generation or two above them on the "family tree." And that as yet unborn being will muse, "I think she was a filmmaker" Someone else as yet unborn: "Oh yeah?"

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