I’m not sure why, but in 2011 I started writing down memories about my mother’s life. It just flowed out of me. Maybe it’s because my mom was fading and I wanted to make sure there was a record of her life. Maybe, too, it’s because she was past caring that her secrets might be told. For sure, it was part of my own need to know where I came from. As an anthropologist, I’ve been studying other people’s identity and attachment to community, but I’ve never felt very grounded in any place or people myself.
From documenting what I knew, I realized how fragmented my stories were. I wasn’t even sure what my grandmother’s maiden name had been; I had no idea who my biological grandfather was.
I was just back from a trip to Poland. Only a few boxes of old papers were left from a massive clean up and renovation of the house. And then I saw this photo:
It was in my grandmother’s papers in an envelope she had labeled in big letters, “DO NOT OPEN.” I recognized my grandmother right away–the beautiful, bold, coquettish woman on the bottom left. She gripped her mother’s hand, wore an elegant short dress and high heels. By contrast, her father’s bushy white beard, cap, and long jacket left no doubt about the family secret. They were Jewish.
Of course I’ve known that ever since my cousin announced it one Christmas, but this photo made it real for me. I looked into those faces and wanted–felt compelled–to know more.