My grandparents were born in Europe in the late eighteen hundreds, and like many who came to America in the early part of the twentieth century, their stories were tossed overboard to the seas over which they sailed in ships laden with immigrants. People driven to leave the countries of their birth often choose to keep secret the conditions that harrowed them till they took the chance that might lead to a better life. Beginner’s luck had much to do with how their new lives played out but blind luck on this side of the pond offered much better chances than the old countries with their royal, clannish, and violent systems of social injustice.
As a second generation American child firstborn on both my mother’s and father’s sides of our family, all my grandparents and two of my great-grandparents were alive at my birth. A fortunate child. I’d love to say they vouchsafed their stories to me but that would be a stretch. Of the six, two spoke English well, one passably, the other three spoke it poorly though they probably understood a fair to commendable amount. An uncommon language wasn’t the only barrier. They were all used to keeping secrets, believing themselves and their children safer from the armies and conditions that drove them to New York’s harbor if their stories remained hidden. A rare open mouth ready to disclose a fact got hushed by an aunt flapping her arms or a spouse’s cough or a second thought that silence still was best. Their memories were their safest vaults.
By the time I was three, a grandmother had died; by seven, the last of the greats had also passed. Shortly after I turned eleven our family moved from the most eastern seaboard of the country to the most western port. The tropical paradisean melting pot of Hawaii had beckoned my parents. Though paradise lay submerged in the ocean around the islands more than hula-ed on its shores, we never returned to New Jersey’s frozen winters and humid summers. Melting pot, no way, but placid weather is its own tourism, so after a few years when we gave up Hawaii’s false promises, we moved to California. The dreams here were more honest in the garish blaze of neon lights, the weather still benign compared to Jersey’s blizzards. Yeah, even with earthquakes threatening to calf our most western cliffs into the Pacific and fires ravaging every place else in the state, it’s true. The weather here is better.
What I know of the truth and circumstances of the lives of the older generations came to me in snippets overheard at family dinners, in an occasional whisper tucked into my ear with orders never to repeat, or in the gossip we cousins shared with each other in backyards and playrooms. Some tales were told in Yiddish, a language I knew only by swear words, vulgarities, and curses, insufficient fluency to comprehend substance. Struggling with anger or frustration, my mother imbued me with the most tidbits of family lore, verbal explosions of the conditions that informed and inflamed her. By the time I was in my thirties, with my own young family and my own personal history, I’d learned all I ever would about the people who’d made me lucky enough to born in Philadelphia, land of brotherly love even if it wasn’t. Still, a much better option than the lives of every distant family member who remained in Europe but didn’t survive its hatred and torches. However harsh the weather in any part of the world, nothing imposes devastation like madmen with power and guns.
Ashes and secrets, the nexus of my generation, the kernel of my family, the lodestone of my DNA. All things Family Rosen and Bonin curled in a tight volute. My father and most of his generation have gone to grave, and the few who are left can no longer remember. They had a story to tell but only I can tell it, and even then, it’s a porous tale, riven by their fears and my childish lack of attention to the few times anyone wanted to share a bit with me, my lack of insight to know when to memorize better and press for more information. Compelling, even horrifying bits, not enough for history or biography, but sufficient for the genesis of a book.
Here then is the heart of my newest story, The Milkman’s Horse, and heart is a perfect way to describe it. Cloistered behind flesh, bone, and muscle pumps the lifeblood of those who birthed me and my generation. I’ve interrupted my fourth novel to write the fifth, one founded on the tales of my family. I don’t know enough to tell the whole truth and nothing but, so I’m writing a group of short stories linked by rumor, innuendo, gossip, and imagination. At the core of each tale is a singular fact told me by someone, though “fact” is another way of stating I don’t know exactly what I’m writing about.
Usually a pantser, slopping thoughts onto my computer and organizing chapters later, I’ve started this book with an outline of places and events, a list of real people and the characters who will play their parts, and a slim, broken history trooping its way through as a connective lifeline. I’m asking other family members of my generation what they know, gathering facts about how things used to be, researching old maps and history books, collecting hard evidence like birth certificates and census lists, and investigating American life fifty to one hundred years ago.
I’m excited by this new venture, a way of saying thank you to my terrified, courageous family, a means of resurrecting the lives of those who came before, and honoring those still here whose memories have suffered. Now you know why my blog posts have been unevenly posted of late. I’m occupied, friends, and you know what the Do Not Disturb sign means when posted outside my door. I’m writing. For a writer, that’s not a good thing.
That’s a great thing.
Family Image courtesy Laura Grace Weldon, Pixabay.com, public domain