Thursday, March 24, 2005

The Back-Up Child Gives Me Life

Though realistically there are about sixty-five million tiny little details that add up to the reality of my existence, for the sake of today's blog entry, I'd like to reduce it down to just one period of time, one little constellation of details.

I thank the Jews. Not my current temple-going friends, not the strange duo I worked for as a vitamin buyer (whose son was a born-again christian, the husband a professed methamphetamine user and the wife prone to showing people her undergarments in the store), nor the innumerable good people of the Judaic faith around the world.

I thank the Jews who thought to themselves in 1947, "we've had enough of this wandering, we gonna get us some Jewish State, baby, oh yea!" And when they looked down on that glistening jewel called Palestine, they knew a homeland when they saw one. NOW, before you go accusing me of being anti-this or pro-that, the ONLY reason I thank them (though a part of me understands even that which I think is essentially a very bad choice) is that because of that war that founded the State of Israel still in crisis today--my grandparents were living in Jerusalem and on the front line, literally--my father exists. My Oma urged my grandfather that in this terrible time of war, they needed what I like to call a "back-up child." A child they could cling to in desperate love should something terrible befall their sad, first-born, my uncle. Hence, my father. Though my Oma was already 36 with a six year-old son, she was apparently quite urgent in this goal.

My Opa said to me tonight, "having another child was the last thing on my mind." Who can blame him? He was busy standing sentry with a rifle against the Israeli army, which was more like a band of guerilla fighters at that time. Can't be good for the sperm count.

So my father came into life as insurance against his brother's. No wonder they never got along.

Now, as I sit pondering the connections that bind my family together, seeking meaning and trying to rescue the straggling lines of family that stretch off into the oddest places--to South America, to France, to the East Coast--my grandmother's memory is slowly dissected and reassembled in the chambers of her poor, infarcted frontal lobe. She remembers things all out of order, and is continually surprised by details such as the fact that I am my father's daughter (forget trying to tell her how he and I are related to her). Tonight she said, in the same strange broken English she has always spoken, "if you are the daughter of Elon, then you and he and I, we all have something in general." For a brief moment I thought she was acutally remembering how we are related...but this thought passed only briefly through her mind and settled on another far less plausible reality:

"You and me, we were in the same children's home, right?" She asked. I reluctantly shook my head, because to say no to one of her amalgam memories is to try and construct another one that will make sense to her, quite a tall proposition.

"No? But why then do I remember you as a child?"

Oh boy. This one's a whammy. We just keep cleverly coming up with shortcuts around the fact that she can't remember, because otherwise one starts to question the reliability of one's own young memory. "Can't some things just remain a mystery?" I said. I thought she might cry, but she laughed. "Okay, so it's a mystery," she said, as if this was just the right answer. It wasn't good enough for Opa. These discussions make him infuriated in his very subtle way, which is nonetheless kind of scary, like one of those Akido guys who can knock you over without even hitting you.

Tonight, as she seemed to realize for the first time yet again in ten minutes that I was Elon's daughter, my Opa said, "This is not news! It has been so for all of her thirty years," and the hair on his head sort of bounced with fury and his little jaw tightened (he is a tiny man: barely five feet tall). And as I tried to disentangle myself from the labyrinth, he spat, "Can we talk about something else?" This is a big deal for him to say. At first I felt chastised, but then, as she ran marathons of memory around us, pinning a detail from Germany to a detail from New York, splicing Kibbutz memories with my childhood visits to Shelter Island, I could see how exhausted he must be.

Oma and I Go to Summer Camp

Somewhere in the course of conversation, at Opa's prompting that I "tell one of MY memories," ("Which one?" "Any...")I mentioned playing Stratego at summer camp. This provided just the segue in the miasma of her brain that she needed, and from a narrative perspective, I must say she worked it in quite well. We knew each other from summer camp! Yes, and pretty soon she was describing activities we had done together. Why not. Summer camp it was! Me and my 89 year-old grandmother holding hands and skipping down to the mess tent to drink bug-juice.

Then Erik, the doctor of psychology, got talking with her one-on-one, and he told her about a memory he has of he and his younger brother going fishing. "The thing is, my brother, he doesn't remember being on this trip with me," he told her. "But I like to remember it that way."

"Yes, this is it," she said. So he pressed on. "Maybe you and Jordie weren't at camp together; but it's nice to remember it that way..."

She liked that very much. He has such a way with her. My way is to get sad, amused, frustrated, bored, furious...

But damn it, in the end, I'm always grateful, because I'm here to tell you about it thanks to them. (Do tune in for the next part of this series: the salacious saga of the Ohio Protestants on my mother's side, okay? Don't miss the story of how my grandparents learned which fork to use


At 7:57 AM, Blogger Myfanwy Collins said...

This is wonderful, Jordan. Fascinating and wonderful.

At 10:14 AM, Blogger Jordan E. Rosenfeld said...

Thank you my lovely. It's become very important for me to write this stuff down. As it happens, no less...



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